In this month’s edition of the Great Books Audio Series, Dr. Ken Boa discusses John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden. The story follows two generations of the Trask family. Brothers Adam and Charles Trask play out their own version of the Cain and Abel story—and then Adam’s sons play out the same story again.
This was Steinbeck’s way of exploring the classic theme of the struggle between good and evil—a theme of which Steinbeck said, “We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.”
“I think,” Steinbeck continues, “this is the only story we have, and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.”
Now, according to Ken Boa, Steinbeck was not a religious man. In fact, Ken says, he “had a negative view of religion.” We get glimpses of Steinbeck’s view throughout East of Eden, especially in the character of Liza Hamilton, who represents Steinbeck’s own grandmother, a Christian whose hardness and “anti-intellectual stance” helped drive Steinbeck away from faith.
Nevertheless, religious themes such as redemption, forgiveness, and free will were deeply important to him, and they permeate the pages of this book.
The “central concept” of East of Eden, in Ken’s view, is the Hebrew term Timshel. The word Timshel appears in the Old Testament story where God tells Cain that he must rule over the sin that is trying to master him. Steinbeck translates the word as “thou mayest,” and he interprets it to mean that human beings have the ability to choose good over evil.
Adam’s Chinese cook, Lee, a “philosopher in disguise” who has studied Scripture, tells Adam about the term, which will become a crucial concept in Adam’s relationship with his family. In this context, it comes to mean that we aren’t forced to continue a family cycle of violence and cruelty; we can break the cycle by choosing to do good, to love, and to forgive.
East of Eden revolves around this key point, which is why, Ken says, “The novel ends with the possibility of redemption.”
Of course, in Steinbeck’s mind, “redemption” meant something different from what it would mean to a Christian. And this, in Ken’s view, is “where this novel falls short.” It studies only the consequences of goodness, evil, and forgiveness on what we would call the “horizontal” level—human beings’ relationships with each other.
Though he was not a believer, Steinbeck was drawn to the great themes of forgiveness and redemption, as so many of the writers of the great classics were. Because, you see, the great truths that we find in the Bible reflect the longings of every human being. They are universal truths, which is why East of Eden—a modern secular classic—so vividly paints a picture of the need for redemption and the harmony, the shalom, that true forgiveness brings.
And because “the power of those [biblical] stories is transcendent and timeless,” as Ken tells us, East of Eden remains a powerful and timeless work, and belongs in a thinking Christian’s library.