Book reviews

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (Penguin Books, 2002; originally published 1952)

Whores, emasculated men, and Protestant views on sexuality.

Forget the “iconic” film version of Steinbeck’s novel with weepy-eyed James Dean in the lead role.  Read all 601 pages to see how screwed up American life was a hundred years ago.

What can a novel written in 1952—68 years or about three generations ago—teach contemporary readers anything, especially since the narrative depicts an even older time, spanning the last decades of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth centuries?

Nothing, except that…

The riveting attempted self-abortion episode in chapter 13 beautifully illustrates how some mothers were so hostile to their husbands that they would do anything to kill the unborn children whom they carried.  Attempting to abort twins with a knitting needle?  What a horrible way not only to reject unborn life, but also to endanger one’s own life.

Adam Trask’s wife is not so much a typical liberated woman as she is a typical bitch character.  As a daughter, Cathy arranges the murder of her parents.  As a wife, Kate shoots Adam, leaves him, abandons her newborn twin sons, kills the owner of a local whorehouse, and then assumes ownership of that whorehouse—all actions to accomplish her desire of being “free” (however distorted her idea of freedom was).  She commits suicide at novel’s end.

How is that a happy, liberated life?  Is that what women’s liberation wanted for women a hundred years ago?  Is that what women—and men—want from the anti-life (pro-abortion) feminist movement now?

Even though the fighting (between male characters and the fighting between Adam and Cathy as husband and “wife”), the shootings, and the murders are vibrantly depicted, some parts of the novel are tedious, which may account for the need to take a Joe Biden nap nap every few chapters.  Charles’ anger against Adam is an overreaction.  Cal’s extreme anger against his father’s affection towards his younger brother seems unjustified.  The Chinese servant Lee spouts too much wisdom to Adam and his sons.  The sexual purity of Aron need not be attributed to sexual hang-ups but to his devout and mature understanding of his male sexual power.  The narrator becomes preachy, as in the ridiculous claim that categorizes religion as something “which limits or destroys the individual” (chapter 13, p. 131).

Perhaps these flaws show how Steinbeck’s novel is a condemnation of the Protestant ethic which distorted what should have been joyous things in American life: marriage, sex within marriage, children, and wealth.  If only the characters adopted Catholic Christianity!

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