A Salinas Girl Reads East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden: Collected Thoughts, Part Deux

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I‘m about 300 pages through East of Eden. There are some serious shenanigans going on. This book is the strangest combination of soap opera plot points and philosophical musings disguised as fireside chats.

Anyhoo, here are a few more random thoughts to keep you guys in the loop while it’s fresh in my mind. I forgot a couple of points I’d written down during the first part, so you’re getting them here instead.

1. This: “Adam was glad of Charles the way a woman is glad of a fat diamond…” Oh, because he’s a breathtaking work of nature, formed in the pressurized heart of the earth, who also happens to represent the eternal nature of a human form that is, by nature, not eternal but transient? Yeah, that’s what I thought you meant, asshole.

2. The hookers’ work schedule. Six months on, one month off. I mean, dude. Sign me up for that.

3. Also this: “The thighs of women lost their clutch.” Go home, narrator, you’re drunk. This flight of fancy is unsettling since we barely know who the hell you are, weird narrator man. You’ve been pretty grounded as you describe the nutbar things Cathy did as a girl, but this “thighs of women” thing came out of nowhere.

4. The hate for collaboration in artistic endeavors. Check this out: “There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy.” I tend to agree for art, poetry, and maybe for philosophy, too. Of these, I think only music works. Without musical collaboration, we wouldn’t have Pancho and Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, so right there, it’s a win. In any case, I guess we know what John Steinbeck would think of James Patterson.

5. The argument against communism. The narrator is also pretty forthcoming about his distrust of communism. Why? It kills the freedom of the mind. The copyright date on this book is 1952, which means we’re smack-dab in the middle of McCarthyism. Did Steinbeck actually care about expressing an anti-Communist view or was this just a prudent thing to do at the time? Arthur Miller had trouble with this, which I remember from a recent bio of Marilyn Monroe I read.

6. I freaking knew Salinas was cursed. Samuel Hamilton says there’s a strange curse on the Salinas Valley. He describes it as a “blackness” and “a black violence.” The source of the curse? Some old ghost haunting the valley from the dead ocean below its floor. I’m not sure I agree with him on the source. I don’t think dead whales really have it out for us. He also says that when the swamps are drained, Salinas will feed the world. I already liked Samuel, Steinbeck. You didn’t need to try and make him psychic.

7. The tidbits of California history. Dude, how depressing is this little nugget? “The library (in Latin and Spanish) of the San Antonio Mission was thrown into a granary, where the rats ate off the sheepskin bindings.” Shit. That’s not cool. But if you click the link, you’ll see something that is cool. It’s the mission’s Wikipedia page, which talks about a horror movie being filmed there. They submitted a fake title and fake scripts to get filming permissions. Oh, and the movie’s in Esperanto.

8. Olive’s plane ride. Okay, this was slapstick funny. I’m not sure what bearing it has on anything other than to lighten the mood. I get the feeling Steinbeck saw an old woman lose her shit after a plane ride and filed it away somewhere, knowing he’d have to use it. But when nothing really fit, he said screw it, and put it in anyway. I’ll forgive him.

9. Lee. Oh, Lee. We have to talk about this. My first reaction was pretty violent. Pidgin? Really? How stereotypical can you get? But then Steinbeck turns it upside down and we find out Lee’s faking. He only speaks in pidgin around people who expect that’s how he’ll speak. It makes things easier, Lee says. In reality, he’s a freakin’ philosopher. So all is good, right? Not so fast. Part of me thinks it’s just as stereotypical to subvert a stereotype by turning it 180 degrees. Are there only two answers here? Can’t we have something a bit more nuanced? But that might be coming from a very (post)modern place of literary analysis. Were cultural studies and dialogues that advanced in the early 1950s? Or was this, at the time, progressive? I just don’t know. It’s going to bother me a little bit until I find out.

10. The pattern of Cathy only pulling back the devil face when she’s threatened with exposure is getting old. Has anyone tried throwing salt or holy water on her? The Winchesters would know what to do with her.

11. She bit him. She freaking bit him.

12. She shot him. Holy shit. She freaking shot him. This woman is a robot. And by robot, I mean two-dimensional representation of human nature. Is it too much to ask for a more nuanced villain? She’s interesting, sure, but it’s not like reading about a human being. This is starting to bother me. Is there anything that she actually wants? Would anything other than violence make her happy? I hope we get to see this.

Well, that was an eventful hundred and fifty pages! Geez. I need a breather now. And by breather, I mean eggnog and brandy.

If you’re on Twitter, I’ll be tweeting more random thoughts using #JWreadsJS. Hit me up with your reactions and memories of the book. I’m @JenniWiltz.

Have You Read East of Eden?

Chime in! What did you think when you got to any of the parts I mentioned above?

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Jenni

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction trilogy: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mikhailovna of Russia, and Princess Augusta of Brunswick.

Comments

  1. OK, Jenni, here’s the thing- I have read maybe three books in my lifetime that qualify as literature, and did not understand any of them. I was forced to read “Grapes of Wrath” and if Steinbeck got all the way to distrusting Communism by the time he wrote East of Eden, then his conversion took him further than St. Augustine. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that nothing I’ve written to date could withstand this level of scrutiny. And while the points you’re listing here fail to make me one jot more interested in reading Steinbeck, I did on the basis of the obvious wit and merit decide to sign up for your newsletter anyway! I even envy your pop-ups, lady.

  2. Yes!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts again. I had the same set of reactions with Lee, and am left in the same place you are. Like, “selfless wise philosophical Chinese man” has become a trope, but I’m not sure it was then. Lee ends up being fleshed out beyond just a stock character, but the initial set-up had me WTFing all over the place.

    There’s a volume of letters that Steinbeck wrote while writing East of Eden that serves as a kind of corollary. I need to get my hands on this. His views on communism and individuality evolved over his career, and I think he speaks directly to this in the letters. It would also be interesting to hear his views on Cathy and her epic evilness.

    Did you look at the Gabilans any differently when you were home for Christmas?

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