John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a classic novel that explores human psychology, fate and choice.
Steinbeck’s central insight is spoken by Lee, an American man of Chinese descent who speaks broken English early in the novel because that’s what whites in late 19th century California expect of him. Samuel, an Irish immigrant whose name evokes his prophetic insights, sees Lee as a man rather than a Chinaman (the nomenclature of the day), and Lee’s true self emerges.
In Chapter 22, as the characters discuss the biblical story from which the novel’s title is derived, Lee explains why we identify more with Cain than Abel:
Much of the novel concerns a man named Adam who married a psychopath calling herself Cathy. Adam finds Cathy badly beaten, unbeknownst to him by a man infatuated with Cathy, and whom Cathy exploited before the man finally saw her for who she really is. The beating left Cathy with a scar on her forehead, like the mark of Cain.
Adam is also infatuated and blinded by her, and she agrees to marry Adam because she needs him to get her away from Connecticut. Adam plans to move to California. But Cathy despises Adam because of his goodness, and before moving to California she sleeps with Adam’s brother (who also has a scar on his forehead).
Cathy leaves Adam after the twin boys are born – shooting him in the shoulder when he pleads with her to stay. Cathy then goes off to run a whorehouse and changes her name to Kate. To spare them from feeling rejected, Adam tells the boys their mother is dead.
When one of the boys is 16 he learns the truth. He goes to meet his mother because he is afraid he has inherited her evil disposition. But he realizes he hasn’t – he has a choice. The boy’s name is Caleb, named after the first Jew to reach the Promised Land.
In the scene where the characters discuss Cain and Abel, Lee says that at first he was confused by different Bible translations. In the King James version God tells Cain that if Cain does well “thou shalt rule over him” (with him referring to sin, not Abel). But other translations say, “Do thou rule over it”. But the first translation is a promise while the second is a command. So what’s the proper understanding?
Lee researched the original Hebrew and found that the word timshel is best translated “thou mayest”.
Lee tells Adam:
(Steinbeck meant man in a gender neutral sense.)
The point is not only that revenge is a choice, and we can choose differently. A deeper point is that when a person feels like a victim they are often indiscriminate when choosing the object of their revenge. Anyone convenient will do. In the biblical story, Cain felt rejected by God but took his revenge on Abel.
In East of Eden, Caleb shields his brother Aron from the truth that their mother is a whore because Aron wants to become a priest untouched by any impurity. Their father loves Aron more than Caleb because Aron is so angelic, and when Caleb finally gives up hope of ever winning his father’s love he takes his revenge not on his father, who has rejected him by not loving him, but on Aron, who is convenient. Caleb brings Aron to their mother’s whorehouse and shows Aron who she really is. Aron, horrified, runs away and joins the Army.
The United States has just entered World War I, and Aron comes home in a body bag.
We’ve all experienced feeling like a victim, and thus feeling entitled to revenge. But revenge is rarely satisfying, and so the quest for justice can turn into war of destruction against this or that group.
Ultimately, East of Eden is about breaking the cycle.
Aron’s girlfriend Abra also feels the pain of rejection because her father really wanted a boy and constantly reminds her of that. She thinks Aron ran away and joined the Army because he was still a child. But Abra becomes an adult because she understands that she can choose to forgo revenge (chapter 52):
This is not passive acceptance, nor is she blaming herself for being the victim of her father’s rejection. Instead, she accepts that the story of her past is what it is, and that she is the author of the story of her future.
As the novel closes, the shock of Aron’s death causes Adam to have a stroke. As he lays in bed dying, Caleb asks for forgiveness. Breaking the cycle of revenge, Adam says, “Timshel!”