Tuesday, April 15, 2008

East Of Eden


What a story! I've been typing book reviews for a couple of hours now and my mind is a bit shot, but I finished this last night and afterwards, I lay back on my pillow extremely satisfied just thinking about it. It's so rare that I read something that delights me from beginning to end. While there were a few turns on the journey that confused me and seemed to take the book in a different direction, his connecting all the characters, the stories and to do it with profound meaning is nothing short of brilliant. Now add the facts that he weaved in a little of his own personal history, and one of the oldest, and best known stories of the Bible and Steinbeck's brilliance is only amplified.

I'm always surprised when I love a classic. Perhaps because there are a lot that I haven't liked, or merely tolerated, but this was a joy to read. The characters are so multi-dimensional and interesting that their stories and development become almost personal. Adam, Samuel, Lee, Abra, Cal, Aron, Kate/Cathy and even Liza were real for me. Their homes were real. Their towns were real. Best of all, the consequences to their actions were real.

How do you summarize East of Eden? It's a story about good and evil. But most of all, it's a story about choice. For me, the central part of the book was the realization made by Lee, Adam and Samuel when they were dissecting the story of Cain and Able and their offerings. In one translation, the Lord rebukes Cain's offering by saying, "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him."

It was while reading a different translation that Lee, a Chinese servant, noticed a difference. In it, rather than saying "thou shalt rule over him" it said "do thou rule over him" They noticed that it wasn't a promise, it was an order. Such a difference got Lee wondering what original word different translations came from.

After years of studying with Chinese philosophers and a rabbi, the consensus was that the original Hebrew word, Timshel, actually means "Thou mayest". Therefore, the bible does not order that man triumph over sin or promises that it will. It says that the way is open. For if thou mayest...that mayest not.

Brilliant! Because that's what I think! Agency is so important to Heavenly Father that he allowed 1/3 of His children to leave him permanently. Of course we have a choice over sin.

Steinbeck leaves the story briefly in Chapter 34 when he writes a short essay about the one story that exists. He says,

Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil....A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?

In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influences and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story.

All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

This is what his book is about it. Man's struggle over good and evil. In a completely human story, Steinbeck captured THE story with his characters and storylines. This is a book I happily recommend to anyone and will buy for my all-time greatest books library.

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