East of Eden by John Steinbeck

east of eden

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!

4.5 stars
1952, 600pp

john steinbeck Memorable Quotes

“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

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Guardian’s 1000 novels everyone must read | Nobel Laureates in Literature

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East of Eden The Movie (1955)

East of Eden the movieThe 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.

Rating: 8/10

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.

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24 thoughts on “East of Eden by John Steinbeck”

  1. I haven’t read this book in ages, so I remember very little about it, but I do know that I loved it! I read it during one summer when I was a teenager, and I remember just sitting on the couch reading it for hours on end, unable to resist finding out what would happen next. I love it when a book sucks you in like that, and I did like the biblical allusions in this one too. Must re-read it!

    1. Steph, how good that you read this as a teenager. Steinbeck seems to be one of those classic authors whose books are very readable and have that universal appeal. Wish I found him when I was a teenager!

  2. I given up reading this not because I hate it, but just not the right time for now. Interesting to know James Dean play in the movie. Kudos for you reading the book and watching the movie!

    1. Jo, sorry our read-along plan didn’t quite work for this book. Hope for better luck next time. I’m open for discussion anytime when you do decide to read it. Funny thing though, though I liked the book I feel like I don’t have much to talk about it (hence my pretty short review).

  3. My last few Steinbeck reads have been some of his shorter works: Travels with Charley and Cannery Row, but I’d like to read East of Eden someday, even if it is humongous. You mentioned that the book is male-dominated, and I’m curious about that. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is the first book where I can recall being very aware of the lack of a female presence, and though I can’t put my finger on why, that was one of the reasons I really liked the book.

    1. charley, East of Eden was my first Steinbeck and I intend to read Of Mice and Men (thin) and Grapes of Wrath (as thick as EoE) some time in the future.

      I’m not a fan of Cormac McCarthy to be honest, though I have only read The Road. I’ve watched No Country for Old Men and liked it, but I don’t think I’m going to read the book. Both books seem to be male dominated, though it’s not the reason why I didn’t quite like The Road. Kinda wondering now whether all McCarthy’s and Steinbeck’s books are male dominated.

  4. I loved East of Eden, which really surprised me. I wasn’t expecting it to be so good. And Cathy to be so bad!

    And a useless bit of trivia…James Dean died about 45 minutes from where I live. On a creepy highway in a remote part of our county. I think of him every time I have to drive that stretch of road.

    1. Oh yes, Cathy was surprisingly bad considering the time it was written! I actually had a tiny bit of soft spot for Cathy as she wanted so bad to be independent. I also got a bit annoyed with Adam when he didn’t see her as she was and didn’t listen to what she said. Man!

      Wow that is a bit freaky about James Dean! What a coincidence that he died so close to where you live. Wish I had interesting trivia like that around where I live.

  5. This is my favorite Steinbeck novel. I liked it so much, in part because it didn’t make me as sad as his book Of Mice and Men. I was fascinated in his characters, as you were, and I especially liked his examination of good and evil.

    1. Bellezza, I heard how sad Of Mice and Men is! I have it on my shelf so I’m eager to read it. I like emotionally charged book :)

      1. This is a surprise – I am a huge Steinbeck fan – my favourites are the shorter novels – Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row. I just finished The Pearl which was also very good.

        1. Oh you know who else is? Brendan! I’m going to read Of Mice and Men for my next Steinbeck, which is considerably shorter than East of Eden. Phew.

  6. You know this is my cup of tea, a post about a book and its movie adaptation. I’ve heard about the new version coming out, and was planning to read the book first. Thanks for this synopsis and analysis. According to “Variety”, Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech will be directing the new adaptation with screenplay by Atonement screenwriter. That’s a great combination, if they do a job as well as their Oscar calibre previous work. Funny thing is, both of them are of British background. Here’s the link to the article, which I’m afraid is a bit dated. They might have scrapped the plan now, you never know. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117998495?refCatId=13

    1. Arti, thanks for the link. I loved The King’s Speech and Atonement so this could be good. The article was out in 2009 though. Hope the project is still going!
      Every time I read/finish a book I can’t help looking if a movie has been made based on the book, and watching it if there’s any. Been finding some really great movies that way too.

  7. I’ve read Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, both of which I think you will love by the way you describe EofE. I will have to look out for a copy of this as I really do love Steinbeck’s writing.

  8. This is a classic that I still want to read, but it’s not on the top of the pile. Its title reminds me of the anime Eden of the East (Higurashi no Eden), which is about a few chosen ones who have to save the world. Only one can become the “king” of the world and the rest of them must die. They get an unlimited budget to control world events. Very interesting (but perhaps only interesting if you like anime ;))
    Hmm, not seen the movie either, but with James Dean in it, maybe I should! Do you recommend reading the book or watching the movie first?

    1. Chinoiseries, I’m glad I finished East of Eden as it is one of the really huge classics. And I have a very beautiful copy too, which is probably why it made it to the top of the pile :).

      I never heard of the anime Eden of the East lol. I wonder if they took the title from Steinbeck’s book (like Paradise Lost and Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom). I like anime but lately I only watch very selected few that come highly recommended, like Death Note (big fan).

      I would usually recommend reading the book first and then watch the movie. But if you’re curious about the film with James Dean, I don’t see why you can’t watch first! :) There are still lots in the book to look forward to when you have a chance to read it as the movie only takes a rather small part of the book.

    2. Chinoiseries, I’m glad I finished East of Eden as it is one of the really huge classics. And I have a very beautiful copy too, which is probably why it made it to the top of the pile :).

      I never heard of the anime Eden of the East lol. I wonder if they took the title from Steinbeck’s book (like Paradise Lost and Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom). I like anime but lately I only watch very selected few that come highly recommended, like Death Note (big fan).

      I would usually recommend reading the book first and then watch the movie. But if you’re curious about the film with James Dean, I don’t see why you can’t watch first!

  9. You finished it and I haven’t even started! I’m glad you gave it 8 stars. Makes me look forward to it even more. I do want to read it soon, just that after the extremely thick Don Quixote I don’t want to feel burdened by a “big” book as of yet. But I hope to start cracking before the year ends.

    1. Claire, I gave the book 4.5 stars out of 5, and the film 8 stars out of 10 (weird how I rate). I’m pretty sure you will like East of Eden.

      I understand about thick book. I think I’m a bit worn out after I finished East of Eden, because it’s so thick. My next book was Jane Eyre, which is almost as thick, and I suddenly got into this reading slump, so I have put it aside for a while now (even though I really liked it so far!). Well, hope my reading gets better soon!

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