There exist in nature archetypal stories, product of life which repeats itself over and over again in an endless closed loop. Eventually these stories, so profoundly part of the human experience, become trapped so completely in our psyche that they keep appearing, now a self-fulfilling prophecy. The battles of good against evil, which play out in all our apocalyptic literature. Forbidden passion; heroic sacrifice; competition for a father’s love. It should not surprise us that so many of these stories touch on religion and faith; and that they would be at the center of such a quintessentially American story as is “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. The novel is a deeply religious one, filled with the wisdom of a life lived close to the good book, as life always has been in America. A faith that somehow has not saved us from ourselves – until it does, which happens sometimes, but this story isn’t about that. It is a story of excess. We do take things to excess, we Americans do – don’t we? We glory in bigger, faster, farther, harder. More depraved, more debased; yes that too.
America – opportunity and adversity, pioneering spirit and defeat. Nobility and debauchery. War, violence and failure and rebirth. Dramatic extremes which make us powerful and unpredictable – dangerous even in that unstable way of a chemical solution of loose molecules always on the verge of igniting. These are the things which we have in our DNA; which we understand as our birthright in a land that gives so freely and takes away so cruelly, of such tremendous opportunity that also so often disappoints.
“All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed – selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful – we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic (…) We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.”
“East of Eden” is a story about that. It is an epic tale, written by perhaps our greatest storyteller as is Steinbeck. It is an account that spans three generations, filled with riches and opportunity; of political power and economic success – of catastrophe, failed and undeserved love, and of the natural tension of family. The experts call this story a modern “Cain and Abel”; of two brothers competing for a father’s attention and one who is rejected, a rejection which leads to a death. It seemed to me more Esau and Jacob perhaps; not a story of right and wrong, but instead of worthy and unworthy, the hardest distinction of all.
What is this story really about? I would say it’s a story about forgiveness, and atonement – also deeply American ideas. Our Republic of Second Chances, I once wrote. Forgiveness of a father for his children; of children to their father. Forgiveness of a man to his cruel wife, and a wife who atones for that wickedness through the only act she believes would make things right. It is a sad, hard, cruel story about human nature and its evil; yet one which somehow leaves the reader thoughtful and even somehow encouraged. Read this book, this story of us – you will be better for it.