The Great American Novel: East of Eden

by Kevin Hopkins ’22

Source: Wildflowers Ranch

Published Mar. 26th, 2021

In the pantheon of great works of American literature, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden stands as the quintessential American epic and arguably Steinbeck’s chef-d’oeuvre. The author, famous for writing Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, sought to capture the essence of the Salinas Valley from the 1860s to the 1910s for his young children while chronicling the adventures of his family as they traveled from the Eastern Seaboard to the golden coast of California. 

The story begins with a description of the Hamiltons, a large Irish family living in the untamed Salinas Valley as farmers, and the Trasks, a small family living in settled Connecticut. The reader becomes familiar with hardships both families experience in the mid-19th century, such as the Hamiltons’ struggle to operate a successful farm in the infertile valley.

The story continues as Steinbeck chronicles the goings-on of each generation. Adam Trask joins the military on his father Cyrus’s orders and eventually travels aimlessly around the United States in the post-Civil War era. After relocating to the Salinas Valley, Adam becomes familiar with the Hamiltons, the other family in this great saga, and Mr. Hamilton guides Adam.

The story progresses as Adam’s wife, Cathy, leaves him, forcing him to raise their children on his own. His twin sons try to make up for their father’s numerous failures in business by operating a wartime business. However, this enrages Adam since he considers this war profiteering.

Steinbeck’s epic wraps up when Adam dies of a stroke after hearing the news of his son Aron’s death in the First World War and his other son Cal’s apology.

Throughout the story, Adam is fascinated by the word “timshel” in the Bible which relates to one’s control over their actions. In the final scene of the novel when Cal apologizes to him, Adam reminds him of the word “timshel” as a final reminder that Cal has agency over his actions. 

To write the book, Steinbeck researched his family’s lineage over the course of a year, digging back to just prior to the Civil War to accurately write the story as a dramatized memoir. While writing the novel, he extensively read and researched the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible to further underscore the relationship between Adam’s sons within the story.

Soon after its first publication, East of Eden was turned into an abridged movie for the silver screen with Steinbeck writing the screenplay for director Elia Kazan.

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