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Thursday, January 01, 2009

East of Eden

Happy reading in 2009.

I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden many years ago. I liked it so much that I read parts of the book again. Many of Steinbeck’s fans feel that his Grapes of Wrath is a better novel. It won him the Pulitzer. East of Eden, published more than a decade later, did not win him any accolades. Steinbeck himself often referred to East of Eden as his defining book. In 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature

Grapes of Wrath was, indeed, a better film. Directed by the legendary John Ford with Henry Fonda enacting the lead character Tom Joad, Grapes of Wrath (1940) belongs to the classic oeuvre of cinema. East of Eden doesn’t, although the movie was directed by another eminent director, Elia Kazan.

Movies apart (and Wikipedia tells me that 17 of Steinbeck’s novels were made into movies), East of Eden depicts the lives of ordinary people who become extraordinary because they choose to chart a different path and not succumb to adversity.

It is a story of three generations and two families. As with all stories of families, it has more than its share of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride; with an added dose of murder, attempted murder, abetment to murder, with a mix of jealousies, sacrifices, anger, love, passion thrown in for good measure.

There are many characters that stay with the reader forever. The one that has remained etched in my mind (and was the reason for my reading the book again) is definitely Cathy.

Seemingly, Cathy is evil personified. Actually she is only human; perhaps too human.  There is a Cathy in every woman, every man. Instead of accepting what life gives her, she struggles to overcome the adversities imposed by life, and does it in an unconventional manner not acceptable to the society then or now. She becomes a murderer and then turns to prostitution.

There are many who feel that Steinbeck was unfair in the portrayal of Cathy as a Devil incarnate (Oprah's Book Club says Steinbeck based the character on his second wife Gwyn Conger). For a strong defense of Cathy read Solomon Wakeling’s views of the subject on webdiary. (Webdiary is an Australian website of opinion.)

And for a fabulous portrait of Cathy check out wblake9 on flickr.

I have always felt that Cathy gives the novel a certain realism. East of Eden often overflows with idealism and this is perhaps because Steinbeck associates the Salinas Valley which forms the backdrop of the novel with his formative years. One tends to be nostalgic and normative about ones formative years and places associated with this phase of one’s life.  

If you haven’t read Steinbeck, try East of Eden. You will definitely enjoy it.

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