John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has been banned before. I’m not surprised. It deals with attempted fratricide, prostitution, and murder. One character, Cathy, is described as a monster. But as I read it and recognized the obvious references and echoes of Genesis, I was overcome and enlightened. Combining the plot with the incredibly well written descriptions of the characters, the Salinas valley (California), and five decades, this is a novel I want to reread.
I am reminded of Mosiah 3:19.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
When Adam and Eve left Eden, they, for the first time, had wickedness within them. They were able to give in to temptation. But they had the choice to choose the good. In Genesis, Cain chose evil and was sent “East of Eden” (see 4:1-16). Nevertheless, Cain had the choice to choose whether he would follow good or evil throughout his life: he was not condemned straight away.
In this novel, what makes Cathy and others evil is that they don’t “choose” the good. They don’t put off the “natural man.” And that makes all of the difference. On the other hand, other characters in the novel seem to completely miss the “natural man” and are thus overwhelmingly “good.” Ultimately, though, Steinbeck’s point is that we all must choose what we will do: the crux of agency is that we are free to choose. Everyone is!
I don’t know how many reading this review will want to read the novel. Some of the situations and characters are downright evil. But I think a key to reading literature is finding how it relates to your own life; part of what I gain by reading East of Eden is a better appreciation of what it means to have agency.
(Previously published February 29, 2008 on a personal blog.)