Monday, August 29, 2011

East of Eden

Between this book and The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  This is partly because I like his style of writing, of describing people and places in a way that really lets the reader see inside them. I also appreciate the fact that his books aren't just about the storyline, or about the lessons the characters learn, but the storyline is also used to reveal deeper truths. In this book, Steinbeck uses symbolic characters which are meant to be types, not necessarily actual people who are a mixture of different types. In the end, the story and its deeper meanings hinge on the choices and actions of Cal, who is the everyman. East of Eden is ultimately about choice, the human power to choose one's actions, which means one is able to stand against one's environment, one's genetics and family and one's personal past when necessary. Even Cal, with so much stacked against him, has within himself the power to make the right choice. The reader doesn't learn what Cal and his father ultimately choose until the very end of the novel.

     This story of two brothers is dedicated to Steinbeck's two sons; it is a double-narrative which, in his words, will tell “the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness” — the mutually-dependent pairings out of which creativity is born. Steinbeck considered this book his masterpiece, with his previous works leading up to it. East of Eden is a portrait of the artist as a mature man. He says, "But in this book I am in it and I don’t for a moment pretend not to be”. The book is thus a vehicle for what he is or believes himself to be. To use a term that is common in classifying archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, this book is Steinbeck's soul jar. A soul jar is just what it sounds like: a container or object which holds all or part of a person's soul (or life, or heart); which makes that person immortal. A fairy tale example would be Koschei the Deathless, who kept his soul in a box buried in the ground. Literary examples include Sauron's ring, the picture of Dorian Gray, and Lord Voldemort's horcruxes. (I know; these are all bad guys...don't draw a similar conclusion about my opinion of Steinbeck!) The soul jar appears in film in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, in which Davy Jones keeps his heart in a wooden chest instead of the more common thoracic chest cavity generally used by humans for cardiac storage. Now, all this is not to say that East of Eden contains Steinbeck's soul in some kind of Cali-voodoo way. Rather, through this book, Steinbeck will live forever in that his name and reputation will never die. He put so much of himself into this book that it can be considered a metaphorical soul jar.  Myths and fairy tales, including those mentioned above, remind us that the price of immortality is our humanity. Those who chose to literally live forever slowly ceased to be human. With Steinbeck, the exact opposite has taken place. By embracing, analyzing and internalizing his humanity, he gave birth to East of Eden and his own literary immortality. To quote the Havamal, an Old Norse wisdom poem, "Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self must also die; but a good name never dies, for the one who is able to achieve it."

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