This novel was one I was required to read for school, but despite my apprehension when I saw how big it was, it actually turned out to be a great story that was captivating and an incredibly interesting read. The novel follows two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, specifically Adam Trask throughout his life. It is set mostly in Salinas Valley, California, where the Hamiltons live.
Adam’s early life is told through a series of flashbacks, where we see the impact of his father’s military career and his half-brother Charles’ jealousy. Adam was always his father’s favorite, and Charles, wanting nothing more than their father’s love, abuses Adam. Adam spends his young adult years wandering after a short time in the military before coming home, and when he does come home, he finds that his father has died and left him and Charles a significant sum of money.
At the same time, a girl named Cathy Ames is introduced, and from the beginning, she seems morally corrupted at her core. She is able to manipulate her parents into what she wants, she manipulates her teachers, her peers, and somehow is able to heap blame for evil actions onto everyone but herself. As she ages, she only becomes more vicious, killing her parents in a fire and using people as stepping stones to get where she wants. This inevitably goes wrong; a man beats her almost to death when he realizes she’s using him, and she is left on Adam and Charles’ doorstep. Adam falls in love with her, blind to her faults, and they move to Salinas Valley, where they meet Samuel Hamilton, intertwining the two families. They have two children, and the rest of the novel follows the children’s lives.
East of Eden is one of those novels that doesn’t really have a climactic point; it’s more of a biographical story, following the complex lives of a few select people. One thing that I learned when analyzing this book in school was that Steinbeck intended this to be his own version of the story of Cain and Abel, and each pair in the novel reflects this: Charles and Adam, Cathy and Adam, Adam’s children Cal and Aron. However, the age-old story evolves into something greater here. While Charles and Adam were an accurate reflection of the original story, Cal and Aron are able to change it; Cal is supposedly “destined” to be the evil brother, but he realizes his wrongdoings and fights hard to correct them and correct himself.
The novel is a story of self-improvement and the way that the characters evolved really struck me as I read. East of Eden isn’t just a story highlighting a snapshot of someone’s life; I was in awe of what a masterpiece it is, portraying the best and worst of human life, teaching valuable lessons while keeping the story engaging.