Who would I recommend this book to?
People who are interested in a fictional story, and feel torn between an evil thing that they want to do and a good thing that they know they should do. Look at each character in the book as a representation of yourself and ask yourself who do you want to be? What choice would each character make in your situation?
Why read this book?
To learn the importance of choice in your destiny. You can read these words but understanding the message is so much more powerful in the form of this allegorical story.
How do you learn this message?
You'll be taken through three generations of two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. Each character in the story is a reflection of some character in the biblical story of genesis. This makes the story an allegory. Which I believe works very well to impart a message about your freedom to choose who you are. You can pay attention to just the actions of the characters or you can pay attention to the subtle reflections of the story of genesis that are buried in the subtext.
What is the key lesson from this book?
In the bible Adam and Eve are the first people, created by God and banished from the garden of Eden by god for consuming the apple of knowledge. They have two children, Cane and Able. God loves Able but scorns Cane. Out of jealousy Cane kills Able. In retribution for his sin God banishes Cane. Cane feels that he is too weak to bear the punishment. So God marks him and banishes him to walk the land east of Eden and his descendants will go on to populate the earth. He is to live with his sin. According to the bible we are all descendants of Cane.
This story is the crux of the theme behind East of Eden. This allegorical story takes place in from the 19-20th century of America, as it follows the Trask and Hamilton families. Each character in the book has traits that reflect the characters in the story of genesis. The theme of the novel revolves around God's question to Cane after his gift is scorned.
"But on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. 6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” [Genesis - 1]
Of this pivotal detail, Adam's servant, Lee, devotes many years of his life to studying. He finds discrepancies between the translation of God's message to Cane and shares this with Adam and Samuel Hamilton.
"The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.” [East of Eden - 2]
Lee poses this question to his wise elders over two years they study the original Hebrew. They arrive on the pivotal word "Thimshel" which they translate to "thou mayest." Steinbeck has Lee explain the significance.
"Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph." [East of Eden - 2]
God doesn't promise that Cane will rule over sin and he doesn't order it. Instead, God gives Cane free will to choose, he asks Cane, "Will you rule over Sin? It is up to you."
Throughout East of Eden there are several symbolic characters for both Cane and Able, Adam and Aron for example are both angelic and innocent, where as Cathy and Caleb, are both verdictive and evil. Throughout the novel the Cane characters consistently struggle with and choose Sin. For example with the most evil character in the book, Cathy, who is both a figure Eve - the originator of sin - and Cane - the committer of that sin - when she shoots Adam for trying to keep her, only to join and later kill the owner of a local a whore house to turn it into a sexual dungeon.
In the final act of the book Cal, indirectly kills his brother Aron by revealing to him that their mother, Cathy, is this scornful whore and their father lied about it. Because of Aron's innocence he enrolls in the army to escape the truth only to get killed in World War 1. Upon receiving the news Adam, Caleb and Aron's father, suffers a stroke. Cal kills his brother feels the guilt of his evil, saying to his father, symbolically both for Able and God, I cannot accept your punishment. Lee pleads with the paralyzed Adam to give Cal his blessing, so he may live without his sin. With the last of his strength Adam lifts his hand and whispers Timshel - he is free to choose his own moral destiny.
Quotes I Loved
- "And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected."
- “Don’t you see? . . . The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”
- "I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?"
- “People like you to be something, preferably what they are.”
- “..it's awful not to be loved. It's the worst thing in the world...It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel.”
- “If you’re being honest—why not say you are enjoying this beating you’re giving yourself? That would be the truth. Why not be just what you are and do just what you do?” Cal sat in shock from this thought. Enjoying?—of course. By whipping himself he protected himself against whipping by someone else.”
What have I learned from East of Eden?
- The story of good vs evil is the oldest in history and one that you will undoability face in your life. If you feel that you're burdened by tradition remember Timshel, thou mayest, you have the free will to choose and only in your choice can you overcome sin. Both Adam and Caleb learned that and chose to be good and do the right thing.
- People undergo suffering for what they love. If Charles didn't love Adam he wouldn't have told him to suffer. If Adam didn't love Cathy he wouldn't have suffered for his entire life to serve her and be so destroyed when she left. If Cal didn't love Aron he wouldn't have even thought to make him angry. Love and hate are two sides of a coin forged with an alloy of suffering. The difference is the choice, Timshel, one is voluntary the other is involuntary.
- Criticizing yourself protects you from the criticism of others.
- Everything you like and hate in the world is something that you love or hate in yourself.
What would I like to explore after reading this book?
- Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill - mainly because of the relation to choice and faith. The central premise of that book is about forming an image in your mind and a plan to achieve it and then reminding yourself of that plan over and over again until it has materialized. I feel that East of Eden presents Timshel as faith and in it's allegorical nature helps to prove how that desire comes true through choice rather than some mystical force.
- The Rebel by Albert Camus - It talks about how rebels define their values in the world, would like to ponder that more through the lens of Timshel.