Heaven: July Book Club: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
edited April 5 in Limbo
Hi all. The book for July is East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. There is a Wikipedia page about it here, which I've had a quick look at, but not in detail, because I like to read a book without having read too much about it first. There is a Kindle version - here is the UK one - and I'd imagine it to be available in libraries. I see from googling that there is a 1955 movie based on the book too.

I suggested this book because it was mentioned in a discussion thread, and it sounded really interesting to me. I've always wanted to read more John Steinbeck - I've only read Of Mice and Men. Incidentally, it was the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's death in December 2018, and here is an article about him written then, if people are interested in reading about his life - and of course also there is a Wikipedia article about him.

I will post some discussion questions on the 20th.

Comments

  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
    I found this book at the library, and it is a bit longer than I expected - it's around 700 pages. But I have started reading it and it is also very readable, and I'm enjoying it.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've downloaded it to my Kindle so I'm in. Just started it last night.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    I read East of Eden in paperback with a lurid cover when I was a child, precocious and impressionable, and I'm searching around for a copy.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    I've downloaded it to my Kindle so I'm in. Just started it last night.

    Ditto!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    So far it seems an interesting compare/contrast to A Place Called Winter.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
    Sarasa, I was also thinking that.
  • It has been years and years since I first read this. I have downloaded a Penguin modern classics edition to iPad.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I'm reading an ebook version too. I borrowed it from the library, but noticed it seemed a bit short. Turned out to be a reader, simplified version! Is that for students who have been assigned the book, but don't want to read 800 pages? It's more of a summary than a book. Must let the library know they should get a proper copy.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Mili wrote: »
    I'm reading an ebook version too. I borrowed it from the library, but noticed it seemed a bit short. Turned out to be a reader, simplified version! Is that for students who have been assigned the book, but don't want to read 800 pages? It's more of a summary than a book. Must let the library know they should get a proper copy.

    A first-year University student whom I had the misfortune to teach many long years ago turned up to class with the Classics Illustrated version of Gulliver's Travels rather than the novel itself, and was deeply offended when I told her that it wouldn't be of the slightest use.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
    I wonder if this is a less popular book for libraries to stock, because there is only one copy of it throughout all the branches of the public library where I live, and it's a flimsy paperback with some of the pages falling out (not from overuse, by the look of it, but poor binding). Maybe if people live near university libraries, there will be more copies there - I notice a university library near me has two copies, but I don't think members of the public can use that particular library.

    I want to say, if people are feeling discouraged by the number of pages, I'm finding it very readable. I'd only read Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck before, and I'd kind of assumed that was an extra readable book, more for kids, and that his other books would be hard slogs, but it's really not. Also, what has surprised me a lot - and I don't know if others are finding this too - is that there is something quite feminist about his writing. I wasn't expecting that at all.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    The feminist observation is an interesting one @Fineline. I'm finding it the reverse, but I haven't got to the end yet. I must say I am enjoying it, its good to get my teeth into a good long read.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
    I'm halfway through, Sarasa. I know what you mean about finding it the reverse. I was very much expecting to find it the reverse, so perhaps that aspect doesn't stand out to me so much. It is clearly written by a man, and describing a male-dominated society, but to me there are times when the subtext seems to strongly challenge the chauvinistic views of that society in quite unexpected (to me, at least) ways. And the narrator also makes quite a few comments acknowledging the unfairness of society for women, and even questioning his own stereotypes and judgments. It will be interesting to discuss, when we've all read it. I will try to think of interesting discussion questions.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I'm enjoying it enormously and taking my time over it, partly because I'm crazily busy and partly because I think it deserves my full attention. So I doubt if I'll be able to contibute much to the debate when it happens, but I'll certainly follow it with great interest.

    The only Steinbeck I'd read before this is The Short Reign of Pippin IV, which is also wonderful and deserves not to be overshadowed by his more substantial novels.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    The thread will be open for a while @Andras so join in when you're ready. I always look forward to your contributions. I finished it last week. I tend to read things fast and then return to them if I enjoyed them. I think I may well be going back to East of Eden.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I'm about halfway through East of Eden, and enjoying it, but it will be a while before I'm ready to be discussing it.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
    I have finished reading it and am now going to post some discussion questions. I found this a book so interesting, and so full of huge themes and complexities, that it's hard to think of questions that can encompass it, so I will make some quite broad questions, so people can take them in any direction they like, as well as more specific ones. Feel free to answer any or all, or add other questions if there are things you want to discuss that I haven't covered.


    1. What were your overall thoughts about the novel? How did you it leave you feeling when you got to the end?

    2. Which characters did you find yourself most drawn to? Were there characters you had mixed feelings about, or about whom your feelings changed throughout the book?

    3. What did you think of the characters' discussion about the story of Cain and Abel? And how did you think it related to the brothers in the novel, both Adam and Charles, and Cal and Aron?

    4. What were your thoughts on how the novel portrayed good and evil?

    5. What did you think about the way Cathy Ames is portrayed? Is she intended to be a purely evil character, or are doubts cast about this? Were you totally repulsed by her or did you ever sympathise with her?

    6. What are your thoughts in general about how the female characters are portrayed? Apparently Steinbeck has been criticised for having unrealistic female characters - either too good or too evil. Do you agree?

    7. What did you think was the significance of the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest) in the novel, and what is Adam meaning when he says it at the end of the novel?

    8. What did you think was Lee's role in the novel? What did you think of his sometimes speaking in pidgin, despite being fluent in English and very well read, and the reasoning he gave for this?

    9. Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask seem (to me) to be portrayed as having opposite characters in some ways - Samuel very open, full of ideas, wanting to try lots of different things (sometimes to the frustration of his children) and Adam more rigid, focusing on one thing, also very rigidly honest. Did you get this impression, and did you feel one way was being portrayed as better than the other in any way, or simply two different ways of being?

    10. Had you read any other Steinbeck books before this? If so, do you see similarities in theme?
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Lots of great questions that I'm musing over st the moment. My internet connection is down so I'll post my thoughts when it's back up and I can use my laptop.
  • MiliMili Shipmate

    I have just answered a few questions. It's hard to give simple answers in a complicated book with so many characters.

    1. What were your overall thoughts about the novel? How did you it leave you feeling when you got to the end?

    I enjoyed the book and found it quite readable apart from the jarring racism and focus on the male characters much more deeply than the female characters. I didn't find myself as emotionally affected by the character's situations as much as the previous book, and I'm finding it hard to pinpoint why. Perhaps because Cathy Ames is a bit too horror movie villain at times and none of the Trask family were particularly relatable. The sad stories in the Hamilton family, particularly those of Tom and Dessi were more upsetting. Unfortunately in real life while reading the book, one of my uncles had a suicide attempt, my parent's friend took his life after treatment began for bowel cancer and two friends marriages broke down so those stories were all a bit too relatable.

    On reflection sometimes the events in the book seemed to Hollywood, but on the other hand there are people like Cathy Ames in the world and tragedies, murder and abuse happen all the time though we'd like to think they wouldn't affect our lives or won't again after experiencing such things.


    5. What did you think about the way Cathy Ames is portrayed? Is she intended to be a purely evil character, or are doubts cast about this? Were you totally repulsed by her or did you ever sympathise with her?

    I read that Cathy Ames is supposed to personify evil, however she didn't seem much worse than some of the male characters such as Adam's father or Cathy Ames' pimp. They could get away with beating women and children and still be seen as having redeeming qualities because Adam's dad loved him deep down and the pimp treated his wife and children better than other women and children.

    She would definitely be diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder today (though so would a number of male characters) and it was interesting that Steinbeck questions whether she was responsible for her behaviour due to being born without empathy. I felt it got a bit ridiculous when her character and rejection of her sons was given as the cause she couldn't breast feed. Attitudes like that have hurt a lot of women who struggled with breast feeding even to this day - that they are somehow less maternal, womanly or loving and that their physical problem somehow reflects negatively on their character.

    6. What are your thoughts in general about how the female characters are portrayed? Apparently Steinbeck has been criticised for having unrealistic female characters - either too good or too evil. Do you agree?

    The good characters seemed reasonably rounded, but their inner lives were not explored as deeply as the male characters which I found annoying. It was as if each man was an individual while the women seemed shallower and more stereotyped female roles.

    Cathy Ames was the only 'evil' female character and there are women like her in the world.

    7. What did you think was the significance of the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest) in the novel, and what is Adam meaning when he says it at the end of the novel?


    I had trouble understanding the theology behind this part and why Lee's research about its meaning was so significant to Samuel Hamilton and Lee. I think the point went over my head!




  • Confession time. I enjoyed East of Eden far less than other Steinbeck novels I've read.

    I was expecting to like it as a relative recommended it highly. I found the Cathy Ames portrayal unconvincing and far from the novel having a feminist feel I felt it was highly misogynist.

    Some commentators have suggested that Steinbeck was out to get his own back on women after an acrimonious divorce but I think that's a bit simplistic. Like other Steinbeck novels, I found it easy to read, but unlike others I've read, hard to admire.

    Some critics say it's his best but I'm not convinced although it's certainly epic and a striking achievement.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Still no internet so still using my phone so will answer other points later but I've been wondering what difference there would have been if Lee had been a female character. In many ways he seemed the best drawn character in the book.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host, 8th Day Host
    Sarasa, I thought about that too - about if Lee had been female. There seemed to me to be a contrast set up between him and Cathy - he takes Cathy's role, as it were, doing the things a woman would normally do. But also Adam speaks to him man-to-man, with respect and equality, taking seriously his views on life, taking his advice. And he makes it quite clear that he can leave if he wants to. To me this set up a glaring contrasting parallel with how Adam treated Cathy. Obviously Lee's position is different from that of a wife, but I found it quite chilling that when Cathy said she was unhappy and wanted to leave, Adam completely dismissed it, didn't take it seriously, didn't listen at all, and then when he realised later she was serious, tried to stop it by force.

    Regardless of what kind of person Cathy is, she is not treated with respect or as an equal by Adam. She's just seen as a pretty little thing that he possesses, and he doesn't try to get to know her at all - to me, the way she is serves to highlight how inappropriate and inadequate his way of treating her is. She wants to feel free to do her own thing - that seems to be a big part of her motivation, and to begin with I felt it was portrayed in quite a sympathetic way. I also wondered how different her life and portrayal would be if she were male. Because of course this was a society where males did way more freedom than women to do their own thing. To me her apparent evil in refusing to accept the way she was treated served to really highlight this inequality in society.

    There also seemed to me to a bit of a question to begin with about whether she was really pure evil or whether that is just how men viewed her. The narrator, Olive's son (whose name seemed to be John Steinbeck - did anyone else notice that? It is mentioned a couple of time), is simply describing how he interprets her. Though is he the narrator the whole time? As he wouldn't be in all the situations he describes. But at the beginning he makes his presence known, talks about himself, and when he talks about Cathy, he is trying to make sense of her, and he also says he might be wrong - there's that chapter where he begins it by saying he's said she was a monster, but he doesn't really know if that is right.

    Interesting what Gamma says about it being written after an acrimonious divorce. I didn't know that, but it makes sense. I can see it being an exploration of the complexity of his feelings though, through Adam, and perhaps explains what I saw as fluctuations in the way both Adam and Cathy are portrayed. There is sometimes more sympathy in the Adam is presented, almost sentimental, and other times he seems to be being portrayed in a harsher, more judging way. And I felt the same with Cathy - that there were glimpses into her to begin with that seemed sympathetic. But then she descended into the female stereotypes of evil,even with disability becoming part of her evil and repulsiveness - her crooked arthritic fingers and pain seemed to me to be intended to symbolise her crooked soul and show her as ugly. She reminded me more of a Dickensian character, how she turned out.

    I thought she had a lot of potential to be a much more interesting character than she was though, from the first half of the book - but also I suppose it showed what few options were available to women too. There are parts where the narrator talks about how men have all these different options, but women don't. A woman can be a wife or a whore. That's why Dessie is so unusual, and I was quite fascinated by the depiction of her dress shop being not just a shop but a women's world, a rare place where women could come and fart and scratch and roar with laughter, and just be themselves. This is why I was seeing feminist elements in the book, although it is very much a man's world depicted, and from a male character's perspective, because there were these mentions of how limited the options for women were, and Cathy did seem to be kind of symbolically showing what happens if a woman simply doesn't want to or can't fit expectations. And I liked the bit about how men were frightened of Dessie's place, because they heard the laughter and weren't part of it, and suspected it was about them - it drew attention to the fact that this was a society where men were motivated by fear to have power over women, to not want them to do to their own thing.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Yipee now have the internet back. There are so many things in this book to talk about it is difficult to know where to start. I've read other Steinbeck's and like @Gamma Gamaliel I thought this wasn't his best. I think he was trying too hard to make this a story with 'meaning' so rather than let the characters be themselves he was shoehorning them into roles to make his point. What the point was, I wasn't exactly clear, a retelling of the Cain and Abel story perhaps.
    As I've said before I liked the character of Lee the best and his motives seemed credible. I totally understood the way he was happy to present himself as a pigeon English talking servant while enjoying his private life as a well read person with ambitions to open a book shop.
    Cathy just didn't work. Yes I'm sure there are psychopathic women out there that murder their parents etc. etc., but Cathy didn't actually seem to get very far. Surely someone with her brains would have started out as a teacher and worked her way up from there. I think there are problems with all the female characters in the book. Lisa Hamilton sounds like she has far more going on than we are ever told, she is just seen from the outside as a stern homemaker. Dessie was an interesting character, but didn't get much of a look in and though I enjoyed the scenes with Abra and Lee her relationship with Cal and Aron (and I wish he hadn't been allowed to drop the extra A) just didn't convince me.
    Some of the best writing was in the descriptions of place, the start fot he book made me think I was in for a real treat. I did enjoy it, and I'm sure I'll re-read it sometime, but it was a bit of a glorious failure.
    I'll come back with more points later I'm sure.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I'll have a go at some of the questions now and come back with some of the others.
    1. What were your overall thoughts about the novel? How did you it leave you feeling when you got to the end?

    Somewhat relieved – it’s a long book – that I’d finished it in time to answer the questions! No, more seriously; I had mixed feelings – it was a good read, I enjoyed the descriptive material and many of the vignettes of life in early 20th century California. But I also felt the book had flaws – somewhat heavy-handed moralising, a lot of characters behaving badly or unwisely while the potentially more interesting characters were rather under-drawn. Sarasa’s view – a ‘glorious failure’ – has much to commend it

    2. Which characters did you find yourself most drawn to? Were there characters you had mixed feelings about, or about whom your feelings changed throughout the book?
    8. What did you think was Lee's role in the novel? What did you think of his sometimes speaking in pidgin, despite being fluent in English and very well read, and the reasoning he gave for this?

    I found Samuel Harrison and Lee the most interesting and likeable characters – wise, a least over some things, self-aware, well-meaning. Samuel of course had his blind spots over practicalities, and one can see why his children found him exasperating. The tragic end of several of his children hits him hard. I felt that Lisa was potentially a much more interesting character- and the relationship between them – than was fully developed. She is stern and rigid but strong – and appears to be loved by her children.

    Lee I found fascinating. Yes I understood the reasons for his change of register/language; but the necessity for it does underline the racism of the society – something this book doesn’t push, but it is very much a book of its time in that regard. I agree that he has something of a maternal role, certainly towards the twins – are there elements of Orientalism here? He has the money and the ambition to open his bookshop, then finds he’s lonely and returns. If the book is about family relationships, then there is a wide definition of family here (and perhaps in the brothel too). Steinbeck attempts to recreate the myth of Cain and Abel, using the two sets of Trask brothers – Adam and Charles, Caleb and Aron – but the story is as much about fathers and sons and the effects of the lack of love in that relationship as about sibling relationships, but I guess the Biblical story is too.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Well, I finished it over the weekend and have been taking a little time to digest it.

    The questions are useful, so thanks for them; but what struck me most was the lack of balance in the story. If it's really a retelling of Cain and Abel, then why doesn't it get going until about the last 15% of the book? No wonder that the film concentrated on that part, though of course it basically reinvented Adam Trask as well.

    It's a powerful book, and I've enjoyed reading it, but it's poorly organised. Folk seem to fade in and out: Liza seems to be an important character, but her death passes almost unnoticed; Dessie is well-drawn, but I felt that the true cause of her death was that the author didn't know what else to do with her (a frequent cause of fictional demise!)

    Cathy? If she's the serpent in this Garden of Eden, then she's over-done, I think; evil needs to be attractive - as Milton's Satan shows - and Steinbeck goes out of his way to let his readers know that she has no redeeming features at all.

    But if Cathy is too bad to be true, then Lee is the other way round. Doesn't he have any faults at all?

    Timshel? Doesn't make for a satisfying end, I'm afraid.

    Advice often given to aspiring writers is Kill your darlings; in other words, if you think something you've written is magnificent, you're probably better off excising it. I think the book would have been better if it had been a great deal shorter, and a lot less sententious. I still enjoyed it - but The Great American Novel? No way!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    It very much feels like three or four novels shoehorned together. The story of the Harrison Family's trials surviving on a no good farm in the Salinas valley could of been a great one, the two boys being raised not knowing their mother was a madam in a local town could have been OK, but the woman scheming her way to fortune (?) not so much.
    There was a lot made of Charles and Cathy having marks on their foreheads. I assume this is the Mark of Cain, but I haven't much idea what that actually means, and Steinbeck seems to have forgotten it himself by about half way through
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Absolutely, Sarasa. The focus shifts too often, with too many good ideas - like the Mark of Cain, if that's what it's meant to be - discarded or forgotten along the way.

    If only a brave editor had told Steinbeck to wield the scissors pretty freely it would have been a far better book, and a much shorter one. It's no accident that that's exactly what the film does, though that has its own glaring faults I think.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've not seent he film, I might give it a go.
    I thought the Harrison strand, and Charles and Adam farming in Connecticut was interesting in the light of the Patrick Gale we read last month. It was obvious that Steinbeck knew a lot more about the hardships of staking a claim to some land and trying to make a living from it than Gale did.
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