East of Eden is an epic novel of the oldest topic in the history of mankind, or “the only story we have” according to Steinbeck: good vs. evil. Set in early 1900s US, we follow the life of family threads for generations. It’s the era of settlement. People migrate, look for a place to stay, and cultivate the land. New towns and cities are built. Everybody tries to fit into a role: blacksmith, businessman, farmer, student, soldier, sheriff, seamstress, pimp, whore.
East of Eden has biblical undertone, with the story of Cain and Abel resonates throughout the book. The two major conflicts between brothers are the focus, along with conflict between Adam and his … not Eve, but Cathy. For me Cathy is easily the most interesting character in the book. It is made clear from the very beginning that there is something lacking in her. That she seems to be born with no conscience, doing one evil deed after another with no guilt nor regret, except when it endangers her situation. The other very interesting character is Lee, the Chinese-descent man who lives with Adam, first as his servant, later as his trusted friend. Clearly it was a time where racism was rampant, so even though Lee is all American born, everybody sees him as an outsider. To fit into the mold people expect him to be, he talks pidgin–broken English with heavy fake Chinese accent.
I would say East of Eden is a character centric novel, which I really enjoyed as I like my novel to have strong believable characters, while plot could be secondary. I do have a slight nagging feeling that the book is possibly enjoyed more by men than women. There is a myriad of major male characters, with only one major female character, who is the epitome of evil. I could be wrong. If you have read it, what do you think?
Steinbeck’s prose is straightforward and beautifully descriptive. I enjoyed the 600-page tome very much, though at times I wished it could be a little tighter. Will surely read more of his books in the future!
“You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” ~ p4
“When a child first catches adults out–when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just–his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.” ~ p19
“I’ll have you know that a soldier is the most holy of all humans because he is the most tested–most tested of all. I’ll try to tell you. Look now–in all of history men have been taught that killing of men is an evil thing not to be countenanced. Any man who kills must be destroyed because this is a great sin, maybe the worst sin we know. And then we take a soldier and put murder in his hands and we say to him, ‘Use it well, use it wisely.’ We put no checks on him. Go out and kill as many of a certain kind or classification of your brothers as you can. Ad we will reward you for it because it is a violation of your early training.” ~ p24
“I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar–if he is financially fortunate.” ~ p73
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.” ~ p131
“”Do you have Chinese ghosts?” Samuel asked
“Millions,” said Lee. “We have more ghosts than anything else. I guess nothing in China ever dies. It’s very crowded.”” ~ p261
“It was not laziness if he was a rich man. Only the poor were lazy. Just as only the poor were ignorant. A rich man who didn’t know anything was spoiled or independent.” ~ p339
East of Eden The Movie (1955)
The movie covers only the second part of the novel with Cal (Adam’s son) as the main character. Here’s what is off: Cal in the book is the unlikeable kid with the dark face while Aron is one with angelic face who everybody likes. Well, Cal in the movie is soooooo good-looking. Seriously, it is unlike me to gush over a movie star, but my gosh I could not take my eyes off him. WHO IS HE? WHO IS THIS PRETTY YOUNG MAN? I looked him up and apparently he’s James Dean! Whose name I had heard of before of course, but I never quite knew what he looked like or what movies he was in. Apparently East of Eden was one of only the three movies in which James Dean played a major part, and he died on a tragic car crash at the age of 24! What a loss! (It’s also so weird that I feel so much loss over someone who died more than 55 years ago because I just found out about him yesterday!) James Dean was nominated for Oscar for Best Actor in 2 different movies posthumously (East of Eden was one of them). It was the first official posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards history. Imagine what he could achieve had he stayed alive!
Apart from James Dean’s nomination for Best Actor, East of Eden was also nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Jo Van Fleet won Best Actress in Supporting Role for her Kate role. It’s really a decent movie, just that again it’s a bit off in its portrayal of Cal and Aron. I felt so much for Cal (SO HURT AND PERFECT-LOOKING) and Aron was this insensitive prick who is really quite annoying (also not so good-looking). So uum.. yes I had stopped being objective and all, what with James Dean stealing my heart completely.
Another big change was the inexistent of Lee the Chinese man. What a shame. I would’ve loved to see how they would handle it. Most of his roles in the story is taken by Abra (Aron’s girlfriend). The love story here is also more emphasized than the book.
Would I recommend the movie? Yes yes yes. Two words. James. Dean.
Look at that gorgeous face
ps: Some birds said that a new East of Eden movie is in the making. It’s a huge book so I’m curious to whether they’d take the same portion of the book to screen as the 1955 version. And who’s going to play Cal? (assuming his story is in) Who wants to be compared to James Dean?! Wouldn’t want to be him.