Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Redeeming Cain

28. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This American fable based on the story of Cain and Abel has often been touted as one of the best, if not the best, Steinbeck novel. I would have to concur. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley in California as a symbolic backdrop to the story. In the opening scene, he introduces two sets of mountains, the western range kind and inviting, the eastern range cold and forbidding.

Steinbeck encouraged me to look at Cain and Abel in a different way. As he and his characters note, it is one of the most difficult to comprehend stories in the Bible, probably along with the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. It goes against our notion of what we want God to be. Why did God reject Cain's offering? Although we must condemn Cain for his own action, since he has free will, the Ultimate Father figure seems to have unnecessarily provoked murder by showing favoritism. Then again, the Torah is all about the favoritism of the chosen people. So perhaps the story is not so surprising after all. I digress.

The book is a weaving together and development of characters, who then interact as they must. Most of the characters belong to two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Cal and Aron are the sons of Adam Trask, but before that Adam and Charles are the sons of Cyrus Trask. Both sets of brothers are Cain and Abel types, but the novel and plot comes to focus on Cal and Aron.

I liked all of the characters more than I thought I would when they were introduced. The Hamiltons, especially the father Sam, are more interesting, and offset the initial bleakness of Adam and his sons. My favorite character though is Adam's Chinese cook Lee, through whom can be learned the practices of, and prejudices against, Chinese at that place and time. Lee, though, is interesting as a scholar and as a man who is lonely and finds his solace in other people's children.

What of the mother of Cal and Aron? Cathy is introduced as a monster, a natural devil. Yet, even in her evil ways, there is something frighteningly human about her. The fear in her personality reminded me of The Enemy Within from the original Star Trek series. The one weakness of evil is fear.

Now from the feminist point of view, why present the mother as the devil? Are we really still ripping on Eve in the twentieth century? (Yes, but..) I feel like the evil character could just as easily have been the father. Yes, Cathy uses femininity (whoring) to accomplish evil, but I'm sure he could've shown men's violence, and men's sexual violence, easily. It must be partly symbolic of Eve, but another female character, Abra, redeems this conundrum. Abra is the female equivalent of Cal, a fair mixture of good and evil. Because Aron is so good, he is no more fully human than Cathy. Especially when he is crying and upset, Aron fights back. He is not afraid.

There is much more to the story than an adaptation of a few verses from Genesis. There are the inventions of the Hamiltons, and plenty of philosophy, wars, and business dealings. But Steinbeck cleverly acknowledges the conflict between good and evil, within and without, that really, all lives and all stories concern.

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