John Steinbeck: East of Eden (Part One)

Several years ago I was atop my issued government bed in Afghanistan reading East of Eden for the first time.

I was reading many other books at the same time, so that is perhaps why I did not notice as often as I should have many of Steinbeck’s observations.

Steinbeck’s title, of course, is biblical. It refers to the fall, to man’s rebellion and the resulting curse from God for his (man’s) rebellion. The upshot? Banishment, judgment, exile. Betrayal, bitterness, war, and on and on brought consequences. Ideas had consequences. As Solomon said (again, in the Bible) nothing is new under the sun.

I prefer different types of narration than Steinbeck uses in Eden but this passage, among many others, remains noteworthy:

I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape (74).

I do not know if you have read the novel. I have, but it is worth rereading. And so my evaluation of the importance of this passage–among many others–may not resonate with you. But I think that Steinbeck used in this novel the models of biblical fallout without heeding their goal.

Steinbeck’s success in this novel comes through his accurate observation of human motivations, of man’s covered ways of coping with pain and betrayal and hurt. But he seldom fails “to own” his own his own sinfulness. He uses others’ sinfulness in an effort to justify his characters’ own sins. The novel laments the cycles of human depravity but does not propose the means of redemption. Rather the implication is that man is doomed to repeat his folly in each generation.

I do not wish to spoil the novel for you if you have not read it. It is worth reading. But I wonder if there was redemption neither the author nor his characters was willing to embrace.

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