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Amber Paulen

John Steinbeck

East of Eden vs. The Grapes of Wrath

15 January 2007


I fell in love with The Grapes of Wrath as only one can do with a book never read. This novel involved me so deeply that every time I closed the pages I felt a jolt when finding myself in a familiar setting. There are not many books that can do this for me, especially, as the older I get the more books I read and the more book I read the more the plots seem to make Jell-o salad in my mind. I’m not saying East of Eden was not equally stunning, but this was a re-reading, I already knew by my boon of memory what to expect.

East of Eden is epic. The total of the story involves two families, the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s, and the cycles they revolve in. East of Eden is certainly what one could call a Genesis- esque plot; the conversation, plop in the middle of the book, which takes place between Samuel Hamilton, Adam Trask and Lee, encases East of Eden both backwards and forwards. The eternal Cain and Abel story is the fulcrum of this conversation; how God said unto Cain after slaying his brother Abel different things, depending on different Biblical translations. What Lee found—after meticulous study and questioning of sages—in the original version of the fable is that God’s response was the Hebrew word: Timshel, thou mayest.

‘Thou mayest’ 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.

In the great question of good or evil, Steinbeck, through the above mentioned conversation, convinces his readers that each character of East of Eden still has a choice of the path they take. Though Cathy seems innately deplorable and her son Aron is the pinnacle of good and innocence.

To contrast the characters of East of Eden with those of The Grapes of Wrath there is a larger sense of what Steinbeck had in mind when he sat down to write each book. The Grapes of Wrath does not delineate each character (who really does that?) by their own ‘smaller’ drama, but places them all in a much larger ‘drama’ and bestows unto them inability to change it, no matter how hard they try. There is not much space to concern oneself in the bare-bones struggle of good and evil, whether evil of oneself or evil of the greater-forces, when it is a struggle just to eat.

It is exactly this struggle which makes The Grapes of Wrath so enduring for me. What the Joads’ experience in their migration to California, in their search for work and for a home once they arrive, is nothing short of heart-wrenching. The family encounters loss again and again. Their farm, founded by their grandfather is taken away by big-business, the grandfather dies shortly into the journey, the grandmother dies once California is breached, there is never enough to eat, the car falls apart and then the finale, a flood to wash away families and belongings. The ultimate image Steinbeck imprints is the daughter breast feeding a man who is taken care of by his son. The daughter gives the only thing she has to give. This book pushes the limits of man’s endurability; limits of suffering and hope despite overwhelming odds.

There is still so much relevance in this book for our time. The laws of corporations will never hesitate to destroy the lives of the poor and the middle class. Perhaps the destruction they fabricate is not as point-blank and visible, but it is there. Small farms are over-ruled by Monsanto and its chemicals, the food we eat poisons us through its high-frucotse corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils, immigrants to this country are not treated with the respect they deserve. The list is inexhaustible. Big-business in the U.S.A. has always had the upper-hand and is not going to release its money-making grip anytime soon.

When I shut both these covers and placed each on the shelf in their turn, I let coalesce through me a simple awe. John Steinbeck’s depiction of The States and those who live there is spell-binding. His portrayals in The Grapes of Wrath drip with uncanny accuracy—the migrant’s dialect must have taken much practice to perfect. The Salinas valley in East of Eden glows with vibrant imagery; from Samuel Hamilton’s dusty farm to Adam Trask’s abandoned Eden and the town of Salinas itself, I know there is still more to be gleaned. All things are embedded into both book, all words and all pages. Both novels lend easily to a continuous reading. . . even if the story must shed some of its original stunning spark!

Oakland CA
January 2007

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