Sunday, August 22, 2010

Classic of the Month: East of Eden

This is certainly the longest Classic of the Month I've ever done here, but don't worry, it's by one of the greats. The book, not the review.

When I started Classic of the Month, it was to see which classics deserve to be read, which ones are timeless and beautiful in their own way. Some books are classics because of the writing itself, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, while others are there because of their ability to do something new, like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. East of Eden by John Steinbeck deserves to be a classic because it tells a classic, familiar story in a new way that will speak to just about everybody.

East of Eden is a beautiful book, one Steinbeck called "the first book." The reason is obvious from the title: if you really want to know the plot, read the first few chapters of Genesis and imagine Steinbeck were writing them. It sounds like a simple exercise, but Steinbeck turns this project into a cyclical epic of both massive scope and intimate characters. The Trasks are all interesting characters, and the Hamiltons, whose story entwines with theirs, are the sort of the people you wish you knew.

This is where Steinbeck succeeds: he creates some of the most vivid and memorable characters of the 20th century. There is Adam Trask, whose life presents the main focus of the novel; Samuel Hamilton, the old man who helps guide him; Cal and Aron, the twins who reenact the story of Cain and Abel; Cathy Ames, perhaps the most vile and horrendous character in all literature; and Lee, the Chinaman who aspires to break free of the stereotypes that have plagued his kind and who knows the true meaning of the word timshel.

Coming away from this book, I felt as if I knew these people, and I didn't want them to leave. The beginning of East of Eden takes some time to crack into, and the book as a whole is a major time commitment, but it is worth every minute. The book spans all aspects of life, the good and the bad, and all the darkest corners of the human psyche. It shows the power to choose to do the right thing, though the way is far from easy. And in simple, conversational prose, Steinbeck weaves a tale that is timeless and true.

In a way, East of Eden is a good companion piece to The Grapes of Wrath. They show different time periods and characters, sure, but they make nice novels to compare and contrast. The Grapes of Wrath is a gritty novel about people trying to overcome what the world throws at them, while East of Eden is about people in a desperate struggle to overcome themselves. Both struggles are timeless, and both should be read by everyone. I cannot say this enough: read Steinbeck if you haven't already.

My rating: 10/10. A true classic.


Okie said...

For some reason, this book has come into my mind a few times in the past week. I've honestly never read it but I always meant to. I remember really enjoying (to the ridicule of classmates) Grapes of Wrath back in High of these days I really want to get around to reading this one.

Thanks for a great review to spur me closer to reading this book. :)

The Writer said...

Glad I can help. :)

East of Eden really is a fantastic book, and I think you'll enjoy it. It's very different from Grapes of Wrath, but very nicely accomplished and on an even larger scale.