East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Thoughts on a Reread)

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My interest in rereading East of Eden by John Steinbeck was purely personal: reading it the first time was what prompted me to start a book blog in the first place. I enjoyed my reread, mostly because Steinbeck’s writing is so incredible. The themes of good versus evil in human nature still felt universal to me, although I wasn’t as perfectly satisfied on this reread as I was the first time I visited it. East of Eden is a book I’d like to keep rereading at various points in my life.

My History (AKA Why This Book?)

When my son was a newborn, I noticed my husband was reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This was pre-book blogging days for me, and I was always searching for a recommended book to read. I did not yet have all my lists, and I honestly don’t know how I chose my next book to read. In retrospect, my book selection process appears to have been rather random. Now, I can’t imagine not knowing what my next book will be. At any rate, because I was intrigued by the passages my husband mentioned to me, I also picked East of Eden, not knowing much about the novel, and not even counting pages as I read it. (Now, I tend to look at how many pages a book is before I even begin!)

I finished East of Eden in February 2008, and I wanted to get feedback. What did others like about it? What was the main theme? How could I put into words just why this book was good? Certainly, fratricide and prostitution are not my normal reading fare, so there must be something special in it that captured my attention. I really loved the novel.

I wrote some brief posts on my personal webpage trying to capture just why I loved the writing, and why the themes of good and evil were so universal. And I got little response. My limited number of personal blog readers either hadn’t read it, or it had been so long since they read it that they didn’t remember it, or they didn’t care to read it. I was writing about my passion for a book for the wrong audience.

I began searching for other blogger reviews and discussions about this book. I began searching for lists of “if you liked this book, you’ll like that book.” I began planning my reading. I found the Pulitzer Project website and began reading the blogs listed on that site. And suddenly, I had a huge list of books to read, and a plethora of other readers who read what I wanted to hear about.

I’ve since copied those two posts to this site. They aren’t typical “reviews” and I did a poor job of capturing the novel for a general audience. But East of Eden prompted me to get thinking about the books I read, to write up my thoughts, and otherwise to read for my general enlightenment, and not just for entertainment.

Thoughts on My Second Read

My first read, I was impressed mainly with the writing, the overall themes of good versus evil. I stretched out my first read over a few months, when my son was an infant. I still noticed those same things on this read, stopping and gasping at the beauty of Steinbeck’s description of the poppies, for example:

And mixed with these [lupins] were splashes of California poppies. These too are of a burning color – not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be the color of the poppies. (page 4)

As with my first read, I loved the discussion of choice and the word timshel as it relates to the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. This is a book about choice and human nature, and I love how it all comes full circle with one of the final words being “Timshel!”

On this second read, which I likewise tried to stretch out over many weeks, I was more drawn in to the characters, and I felt that the novel kept dropping characters I was most interested in. I was drawn toward Charles on this read (who I remember disliking a lot on my first read) and then of course, he was dropped and the story followed Adam. Then I found myself really drawn into Adam and Samuel and Lee’s relationship, and Samuel and Adam dropped out of focus while Lee and the twins (specifically Cal) took center stage. Who was this novel really about?

I think that is part of the wonderfully complexity to East of Eden. It has Biblical tones to it – after all, a central point is a conversation about Cain and Abel, and the title reflects on the fact that Adam and Eve were sent “East of Eden” after being cast out of God’s presense. Life is complicated, and the choices we face reflect on the past generation. Yet, we have our own choices here and now.

Just as with my first read, I don’t feel I can properly capture why I enjoy East of Eden. Although I finished reading it two weeks ago, I’ve put off writing this post, simply because even on a second read, I don’t feel I got all of it. I do have to say that I much preferred the first half of the novel to the second, and I think that is how it felt on my first read because the details in the second were not as clear to me. Adam and Charles’ relationship intrigued me much more than Cal and Aron’s, for some reason, and I sincerely missed Samuel Hamilton’s wisdom.

I picked up East of Eden again as a part of the Classic Reads Book Club, but I didn’t follow the reading schedule and haven’t joined in much of the discussion due to my busy life right now. I had intended to write thoughtful posts in the midst of my reread, but that didn’t happen. Would it be more clear now had I written all along? I don’t know. I just know that there is so much wisdom in this novel that I will have to revisit it for a third time in a few more years. This is going to be a touchstone novel for me, I think.

What do you think of East of Eden? Go to the Classic Reads Book Club and share your thoughts on their discussion questions if you want.

What is (are) your touchstone novel(s)? A touchstone novel is one that you’ll keep coming back to because of some depth you hope to get on the next read, or maybe because you read it at some important moment in your life that stuck with you. My other touchstone novel is Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Reviewed on March 26, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • East of Eden is definitely my touchstone novel too. I read it first in college, and I’d guess this most recent read was probably at least the 5th time I’ve read it. You’re right about how hard it is to capture the essence of this book, though, I almost don’t have anything coherent to say about it except when looking at small pieces (and ‘timshel,’ of course) because it is so big and so universal and the writing is so amazing.
    .-= Jen – Devourer of Books´s last post on blog ..Shadow of the King – Book Review =-.

  • You picked my favorite passage from the whole novel to pull! Man, that line about the poppies. It just makes my heart sing, his language.

    I actually remember the twins’ storyline better than that of the previous generation, although I don’t know if that means I liked it better or not. I liked the way, though, that Steinbeck’s portrayals of the “good” and “evil” twins was actually much more complex than that, and he almost seems to be arguing that a person who has it in their nature to be cruel, but who chooses instead to be caring, is MORE to be honored than someone to whom goodness & caring come naturally. Like there is somehow more depth to the person who has to struggle for it. (I question whether there’s anyone who doesn’t have to struggle for it, actually.)

    Anyway, I love this novel too. Thanks for the write-up!
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..The Night of the Iguana =-.

    • Emily, yeah, I don’t think there are any perfect people out there, so I’d agree we all have to struggle to be good and caring. And on this second read, I noticed a lot more of the depth to the characters. I think after my first read I thought there were just the good and the bad. I think even Cathy was choosing to be bad in the novel too! Although she obviously began with a lot more disposition to NOT be caring and kind….

  • *ahem* The only book I’ve gone back to multiple times is The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh. I absolutely love reading them alone and to my young nieces and nephew.

    I’ve only read East of Eden once — I don’t think it made much of an impression on me though.
    .-= Suzanne´s last post on blog ..What to read, what to read =-.

  • I have many books that are touchstones for me. I think my ideal library is one full of touchstones. I’m slowly getting there. A few of my touchstones are : East of Eden, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? by Peter Hedges, Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver, and a few short stories.
    .-= Vasilly´s last post on blog ..What inspires you to keep blogging? =-.

  • I have books that I can say that I loved but unfortunately I have not been in the habit of re-visting them. I am working to remedy that now. I have re-read Little Women and am now re-reading Gone With The Wind and Kindred by Octavia Butler. Recently I re-read Words By Heart by Ouida Sebestyn. It’s a YA novel about a black family trying to settle in the depression are midwest and it is gorgeous. It is really a book and adult can enjoy with a teenaged main character. I just re-read that earlier this year and might re-read it again before I attempt a review. I can’t recommend that enough.
    .-= Nicole´s last post on blog ..Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review =-.

    • Nicole, I really love rereading favorites. It’s just such a memorable experience because, like I mention with this one, it just reminds me so much of my first reading and yet I see it in a different light! I haven’t read Gone with the Wind yet, I’m glad to hear that is a rereadable favorite!!

  • You will not be surprised to hear that Possession is one of my touchstone books. I go back about once every 4 years and reread, but no more often than that. Every time, I get something else out of it. I have a feeling that The Grapes of Wrath, which I liked better than East of Eden, will also become a touchstone book. I first read it two years ago and am already itching to reread.
    .-= Amanda´s last post on blog ..Short Stories – March =-.

  • I read East of Eden at least 15 years ago (before my children were born). I remember being drawn to Caleb’s struggle, Adam’s goodness and Lee’s wisdom. I tried to re-read it three or four years ago, but didn’t get very far. Three books I’ve read more than twice: Christy by Catherine Marshall (a wonderful story of a young teacher who learns about life and love as a teacher of poor, mountain children. Unfortunately the TV series that came out about 10 years ago and was supposedly based on this book was poorly done. I always worry that potential readers will be turned off of the book because of that series). Jane Eyre–I love this multi-layered, fascinating book with it’s complex central characters. The Chosen by Chaim Potok–a rich portrayal of ultra orthodox Judaism and an unlikely yet touching friendship. This book has so much feeling in it. Last year I read the Starbridge series of books by Susan Howatch. I can see myself going back to those in the future.

    • Susanna, I loved my recent reread of Jane Eyre too! I read it first at age 13 and I didn’t find it very romantic, but I loved it on reread and could better understand and relate to it as an adult. I agree, complex characters indeed! I haven’t read the others, thanks for the suggestion.

  • I have a particular bookshelf at my apartment that’s made up of my touchstone books. The Chronicles of Narnia are the first books I remember, and they never lose that feeling of magic for me. Jane Eyre, The Color Purple, Angels in America, I Capture the Castle. My touchstone books are books that, when I read them for the first time, made my world seem bigger.

    (That is actually a fairly good description of why I read.)
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse =-.

  • I will have to read East of Eden again because I don’t think I appreciated it the first time I read it. I think I found it too dark and depressing from what I remember. I do, however, love Grapes of Wrath. It’s a masterpiece! I am in awe at every page. It has its darkness too. I wonder if I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I read East of Eden.
    My most frequent reread is probably Jane Eyre. It inspires me to be determined and strong. Anna Karenina is another one. A lot of the things that Levin obsesses about I obsess about too, so I feel like I have companion of sorts.

    • Shelley, I think East of Eden just caught me at the right time! With your vote for Grapes of Wrath, I’ve decided i REALLY need to read it too! And Jane Eyre. Sigh. So romantic to me on reread. AK didn’t really stand out for me, but I did like it too.

  • Oh how I loved this book. It was recommended to me by an english teacher at a book sale, who said she and her son, also a teacher considered it their favorite. I wish I had her name so we could talk about how wonderful a book it truly is. Part of what spoke to me was the way Steinbeck described the land, how the environment was such a character. And the characters! Such tragedy, such love, such betrayal! I loved the epic story, the universal themes, the biblical overtones. This book made me smile, made me cry, and I tell everyone who hasn’t read it that they should, and soon. It made me read about the writing of it, and there is so much written about the writing of this book, as Steinbeck kept detailed journals along the way. But you probably already knew that.
    I know exactly what you were feeling, though, the inadequacy in describing the experience of reading this book, and the wish for others to talk with about it. I intend to reread it again, and soon, and I wonder how I’ll feel, knowing how the events will unfold.
    Thanks for such a thoughtful and honest review of one of my favorite books.

      • Hi Rebecca,

        I read East of Eden this summer and devoured it. I have never felt so entranced by a novel. It really reignited my love of reading again, and I found I was very depressed when it was over. Might you have any suggestions for another book I might enjoy? Someone recommended 100 Years of Solitude, and I am 1/3 of the way into Grapes of Wrath. I find that in Grapes, there is very little insight into each of the character’s motives, feelings, and a somewhat limited perspective of who they are. I just am not connecting with the novel in the same was as I did to EoE because the characters do not register as being very deep to me. Another thing that made reading EoE spectacular for me was that I went to college in Santa Cruz and drove through the Salinas Valley numerous times between college and home. I feel that really aided my ability to visualize his beautiful descriptions of the land.

        I appreciate any suggestions you could provide!

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