Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

You see, there's a responsibility in being a person. It's more than just taking up space where air would be.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
We have two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons. Cyrus is the father of Adam and Charles, and he's married to Alice. Alice is the mother of Charles - Adam's mother died. Alice is sweet, but sick, and dies fairly soon after the novel begins. Charles and Adam have a tenuous relationship growing up on a farm in Connecticut, and Charles almost kills Adam once after they both give their father a birthday present and Cyrus seems to reject Charles' present. Cyrus was in the army briefly, but he becomes a war hero and gets moved to Washington to consult after he fabricates an extreme knowledge of all things war-related. Adam is sent off to fight in the war with the Indians (sorry, really don't know what war they're referring to, or if it has an official title) though he is sweet and tender and doesn't want to fight. He is eventually discharged from the army, but doesn't know what to do with himself, and he ends up re-enlisting, and then he ends up getting arrested for being a vagrant after he refuses to go home. Charles continues to work the farm, Adam eventually returns home, and their father dies. Adam and Charles discover a girl who has been beaten within an inch of her life at their doorstep, and despite what everyone will say (and perhaps think) they take her in. (We know that she's a crazy girl who burned her parents' house down (while they were in it) and then became a whore and then got good with the pimp and then cheated him and broke his heart and then he tried to kill her, but they don't know any of this). Adam falls in love with her (of course) and moves with her out to California. Cathy (the woman) gets pregnant, tries unsuccessfully to abort it (did I mention she slept with Charles before she left?) and then gives birth to twins. She is creepy and clearly very unhappy, and she up and leaves after the twins are born. (Well, to be precise, she shoots her husband, Adam, and then goes into the city to become a whore again.) Adam is both nearly dead and heartbroken, but he manages to survive with the help of Lee, his Chinese servant, and Sam Hamilton, his neighbor. The twin boys are named Caleb and Aron, and Adam ignores them for about 10 years before he finally comes back to life. Everyone in town eventually figures out that Cathy is the new whore in town, Kate, and Kate eventually murders the existing madam, Faye, and takes over the whorehouse. Caleb (Cal) and Aron grow up and have a similar relationship to Adam and Charles. Oh, and Adam is rich because Charles dies and leaves him lots of money from the farm, and he also got money from his father's death. Adam eventually finds out that Cathy is whoring in town, and he confronts her but he's over her. Caleb has some trouble finding his place as he grows up, but he eventually figures out how to be a good son, and falls in love with his father (and his brother's girlfriend, Abra). Aron decides to go to college and go into the ministry, but returns from college unhappy and confused. Cal tries to win his father's love (after Adam loses a large portion of his income through an experiment with ice trucks to transport fruit) by making 15,000 dollars through selling beans and futures, but his father sees the money as stolen, and Cal is heartbroken. In his sorrow, he takes his brother Aron to see their mother (Cal knew she was in town, but Aron thought she was dead) and, heartbroken by this discovery, Aron joins the army and disappears. Cal feels guilty, but doesn't tell his father, Adam suffers some kind of mini-stroke, and eventually they get a telegram that Aron has died. Adam has another stroke, and in the last scene of the book, Lee asks Adam to forgive Caleb for sending his brother to war.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, this book was incredible, and though I was a little overwhelmed by the Cain and Abel metaphors that happened TWICE in the book, it has hands down some of the most exquisite figurative and descriptive language that I have EVER read.

In case you didn't catch this from the plot summary (I didn't catch it until almost the last minute with the second round) there are two Cain and Abel metaphors in the story, Charles and Adam, and Caleb and Aron. (Get it? C & A, C & A?) Each story includes a moment where the C brother (Charles/Caleb) "kills" or almost kills his A brother (Adam/Aron). And to top it off, the second set of boys have a father named Adam.

For those of you not familiar with the Cain and Abel story, here's the version from the Bible:

"And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? 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.

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden."

The book also deals heavily with the translation of the lines about sin - Lee, the Chinese servant and philosopher ends up studying the lines and translating the Hebrew to mean not "Thou Shalt" conquer over sin, nor "Thou will" conquer over sin, but "Thou mayest" conquer over sin, meaning that man has the opportunity to prove himself and his worthiness, even after he "kills" his brother. I like this idea that we aren't just pre-destined to fix our mistakes, but that we have the opportunity to prove ourselves after we've made them. I thought the metaphors were more interlaced and less hit-you-over-the-head earlier in the book, but I was a bit disappointed that they became so overt at the end.

Some of my favorite parts:

- The language and lyricism of Steinbeck. Case in point: "Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him." What lovely turns of phrase.

- The relationship between Lee and Adam and Lee and Sam Hamilton is fascinating. (By the way, I apologize to the Hamiltons, who I've pretty much left out of the plot summary. They aren't unimportant, but Sam is really the most important, and his large family (wife Liza, kids Olive, Una, Mollie, Lizzie, Dessie, Tom, Will, George, and Joe) are characters, but not really major players in the story. Aside from the fact that John Steinbeck is the son of Olive Hamilton. ahem.) Lee pretends to speak only Pidgin English in the beginning of the novel, and when Sam Hamilton finds out he can speak perfect English, Lee tells him that he prefers Pidgin because that's what people expect him to sound like, and they're confused when he speaks normally. He slips in and out of Pidgin for the rest of the novel, but each moment is interestingly depicted when he slips back into Pidgin.

- When Adam is completely lost after his wife shoots him, Sam comes over and visits, and he says this to Adam:

"Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true."
"Why should I?" Adam asked.
Samuel was looking at the twins. "You're going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow."
Adam did not answer, and Samuel stood up. "I'll be back," he said. "I'll be back again and again. Go through the motions, Adam."

I thought this was an extremely poignant conversation. I think we've all had moments where we just need to go through the motions, and Sam really keeps Adam connected to the world during his moment (that happens to last 10 years).

I also like it because it reminds me of one of my favorite lines from "Sleepless in Seattle", when Tom Hanks is on the radio show talking about life after the passing of his wife:

Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: People who truly loved once are far more likely to love again. Sam, do you think there's someone out there you could love as much as your wife?
Sam Baldwin: Well, Dr. Marcia Fieldstone, that's hard to imagine.
Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: What are you going to do?
Sam Baldwin: Well, I'm gonna get out of bed every morning... breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won't have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out... and, then after a while, I won't have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while."

- There's a fascinating comparison of churches to whorehouses. Steinbeck writes, "While the churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time, the sister evangelism, with release and joy for the body, crept in silently and grayly, with its head bowed and its face covered. You may have seen the spangled palaces of sin and fancy dancing in the false West of the movies, and maybe some of them existed - but not in Salinas Valley. The brothels were quiet, orderly, and circumspect. Indeed, if after hearing the ecstatic shrieks of climactic conversion against the thumping beat of the melodeon you had stood under the window of a whorehouse and listened to the low decorous voices, you would have been likely to confuse the identities of the two ministries."

Steinbeck really has a way with words, and his comparisons and metaphors and similes are just unparalleled.

- This is for anyone at work who happens to be reading this, but I was thrilled to find an example of SAY-SEE-DO teaching in the book. When the twins and their father get their first car, a Ford, they're taught how to use it by a man who tells them the step, points out the car part, and then the whole group is asked to respond chorally the name of the part. They continue to start the car using this choral memory response throughout the book. It's been around for ever!

- Tom Hamilton blames himself for the death of his sister, Dessie, who dies of a stomach illness (unfortunately many of the Hamiltons die throughout the course of the book). It's a very sad moment, but I loved the conversation Tom has with himself, and the way Steinbeck describes it. Tom is also talking to his father (who has passed away at this point).

"Tom ignored his father. He said, "I'm busy greeting my friends," and he nodded to Discourtesy and Ugliness, and Unfilial Conduct and Unkempt Fingernails. Then he started with Vanity again. The Gray one shouldered up in front. It was too late to stall with baby sins. This Gray One was Murder."

Last, but not least, I'll share this quote that I liked, as I think, in particular, my mother will appreciate it, as it relates to her thesis work:

"We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is."

Off to England, Pip, and Magwitch!

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