“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck

east-of-eden1Wikipedia says that this is often described as Steinbeck’s most ambitious novel and that the author considered it to be his greatest work. Set in the Salinas Valley, California, East of Eden brings to life the interwoven stories of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, focussing primarily on the period between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of World War I. The Hamilton family is said to be based on the real-life family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather and a young John Steinbeck appears briefly in the novel as a minor character.

The book explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction and especially of guilt and freedom. It ties these themes together with references to the biblical Book of Genesis  and especially the story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck makes allusions to this story through the naming of various characters: the first letters of the names of the main characters start with C, A, or both (Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy Ames and Abra). Wikipedia also sets out a number of other biblical parallels within the novel.

We read this in April 2014 and 6 people attended the meeting. Readers made favourable comments about the writing style, pace and ambition of the book. There were few criticisms but there was debate about the value of including detail of the Hamilton family, whose story was considered to be far less interesting than that of the Trasks. Some of us thought that the Hamiltons could have been omitted, whilst others argued that they helped to place the story in time and context. We also noted that some of the minor Hamilton characters also provided some of the book’s funnier stories, counterbalancing the more dramatic nature of the Trask’s history. We were undecided about the supposed links to Steinbeck’s own familyand generally felt that this didn’t add anything to the overall story.

Overall, the book was enjoyed greatly by all and so gained a very high average score of 8.7 (from 7 votes, including one by email).

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1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed East of Eden and going to reread Grapes of Wrath.

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