It only took me just under a year to finish this book, not for any lack of enjoyment, rather a lack of frame of mind. To read Steinbeck, I have to be in a certain frame of mind, which is unfortunate as I desperately wanted to finish this book. And I did; it just took much longer than I liked.
A long, long time ago, in a city far, far away, I chose this book for my book club read. I made it halfway through and still ran a rather interesting discussion on the book. Obviously aspects of good and evil were brought up, right vs. wrong, and a thorough dissection of human nature. All three members of the R.A.D. book club were English majors and librarian-ish (only one a full-fledged faculty member) and each of us had pretty definite opinions on Steinbeck (and Hemingway for that matter). Personally, I loved East of Eden. Absolutely LOVED. Five stars on Goodreads loved. Which doesn't happen very often, at least not anymore. While I was preparing for the discussion, I came across a review from a fellow Goodreads patron in which she said, "Steinbeck is the zucchini bread of the literary world: not appealing if forced onto you by well-meaning grownups, but every crumb is scrumptious when you give it a chance on your own time."
Nail. *Hit* Head.
I vaguely remember struggling through The Grapes of Wrath in high school but other than the dirt, remember little else. I had several well-meaning English teachers who would force feed novels that were sublime, classic, stretching, and expect a pubescent girl only really interested in boys, I am ashamed to say, to respond with awe. Well, with awe I did not respond. And I went on to study English, for goodness sakes. One teacher in particular (God Bless you Mr. Kittle) was very strict and had uncommonly high expectations, but he also didn't pick "ordinary" books. There was no reading of War and Peace for my AP Lit class (though I'm looking to tackle that in the near-ish future). No sir. No ma'am. We read the likes of Ishmael, Utopia, and watched the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Read current events and were quizzed. Wrote local opinion pieces for the newspaper where our writing was examined under his critical but kind microscope. I learned more in one year than the other three combined, unfortunately. Certainly this has more to do with me than my teachers. I fondly remember those teachers and all that they tried to teach me, but outside the classrooms, high school was a ridiculous place, with ridiculous values, and ridiculous hair. It's all my own fault, my education, or my own perceived lack of it. There is so much of the written word I haven't read and haven't loved because my attentions were focused elsewhere. Even in college (remember my utter lack of Shakespeare education the whole reason I'm looking to study him now), and I'm slowly attempting to fill the holes that are missing.
And that is sort of what Steinbeck is about. Sure I'm trivializing perhaps his greatest work and comparing his masterpiece with my own life story, but isn't that what literature is for? To take our narrow self-written evaluation and compare and contrast it with the lives of others whether through fiction or non. I'm living my story, and occasionally writing about it. Fiction helps me understand certain particulars of my own narrative. Ursula Le Guin has said, "All fiction offers us a world we can't otherwise reach, whether because it's in the past, or in far or imaginary places, or describes experiences we haven't had, or leads us into minds different from our own." Or, I would add, helps us to understand our own humanity in all its kaleidoscopic varieties. Steinbeck shows us the world as it is, in all its baseness and wickedness, while also showing us how the world is, in all its goodness and hope. In order to better understand ourselves, and the world, and others, I would argue that we need literature, good literature, to show lives unlike our own - from the past, present, future, imaginary, realistic, wicked, and good. East of Eden does that and it does so in one word: timshel.
Someday, when I'm brave again (and let's face it have a little more disposable income) I will get a tattoo permanently needled into my body that reads: timshel.
Timshel is the Hebrew word for "thou mayest..." Biblically speaking the Lord says this to Cain before he has slain his brother Abel. The brothers have given their offering to the Lord, the Lord accepts Abel's, but rejects Cain's telling him to "do well" and to be a "rule over it [his desires or sin] (ESV). The KJV reads, "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And uto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him [emphasis mine]." In East of Eden, Lee, the Chinese sage, is explaining this word to Sam Hamilton and Adam Trask. He explains how much study and how many people were involved in the correct interpretation of the Bible. He went to Jewish scholars and Chinese scholars and argued and discussed and wrestled (mentally, I mean) with them to come to this conclusion: “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
This word crops up again and again as many of the characters struggle against and with their own humanity. But for me, the crux of this quote comes much later when Lee is speaking with Cal, who believes that he is inherently sinful and bad and cannot overcome this and questions whether he should even try. Lee says to him (and this is my favorite quote of the WHOLE book): "And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."
God gives us the choice. We can try, thou mayest, or we can not try, thou mayest not. But it is our choice. Agency is the greatest, most precious gift a loving Heavenly Father has given to us. And with that agency comes responsibility. But we're flesh. We sin. So much more than we realize (or care to acknowledge). And Satan is pretty crafty. He too knows our weaknesses and that giving into the flesh is so much sweeter in the moment than holding out for that divine promise. And so he beguiles us. He tempts us. A scene in Wonder Woman illustrates this beautifully.
The magnanimous Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) (also heart eyes emoji) is fighting
And we always have the choice. The option to do good, to be good is always there.
So. Much. To Dissect. And yet, also pretty self-explanatory.
But God gives us strength.