You would think that by now I would be a good judge of which books I would be likely to enjoy or not enjoy, wouldn’t you? Well, apparently not. I’ve bYou would think that by now I would be a good judge of which books I would be likely to enjoy or not enjoy, wouldn’t you? Well, apparently not. I’ve been resisting reading East of Eden for years, convinced that I wouldn’t like it. I’m not sure why I felt that way – maybe because I have memories of reading Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl at school and being unimpressed. Anyway, none of that matters now, because I have finally read East of Eden and loved it!
The novel opens with a description of the Salinas Valley in California. Right from the beginning, I knew I was going to like Steinbeck’s writing in this book.
The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it—how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.
Samuel Hamilton, the grandfather of the narrator (whom we can assume to be Steinbeck himself), is an Irish immigrant who settles in the valley with his wife, Liza, and their nine children towards the end of the 19th century. Over the course of the novel we get to know the various members of the Hamilton family – some better than others – but of much more interest to me was the story of another family: the Trasks.
Originally from New England, Adam Trask was once nearly killed by his jealous half-brother, Charles, who believed that their father loved Adam more. With the Biblical title of the book (inspired by the line from Genesis: "And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden") it’s easy to equate the characters of Charles and Adam with Cain and Abel, especially as they begin with the same letters.
Although the brothers have since been reconciled, when Adam marries he and his new wife, Cathy, move to the Salinas Valley, leaving Charles behind to take care of the family farm. It is here in California that Cathy gives birth to twins Aron and Cal (A and C again) and history seems to be about to repeat itself.
The characters in East of Eden range from the very good – such as Adam and Aron – to the completely evil, like Cathy:
There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.
Between the two extremes, there are characters like Cal, whose natures are more nuanced and ambiguous. The idea at the heart of the novel is that there is the potential for both good and evil in each of us and that it’s up to the individual person to choose what they want to be:
"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.'"
Like Charles before him, Cal desperately wants some love and attention from his father and is envious of his brother Aron, but being a complex human being, we see him struggling against temptation and trying to do what he knows is right, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
My favourite character, though, is definitely Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant: he’s so wise, so loyal, so patient and uncomplaining. Over the course of the novel he becomes much more than just a servant to the Trask family, helping to raise the children, providing valuable insights and offering advice and friendship.
I found East of Eden a surprisingly compelling read; I honestly hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did or to find myself wanting to turn the pages so quickly. I now feel much more enthusiastic about reading more Steinbeck!...more
Stoner was published in 1965 and is considered to be an American classic but I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it until quite recently. It didn'tStoner was published in 1965 and is considered to be an American classic but I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it until quite recently. It didn't really sound like the sort of book I would usually choose to read, but when I saw a copy in the library I thought I would try it. I liked it much more than I'd expected to; it's a quiet, reflective book about a university professor whose life is marked by disappointments and unfulfilled potential, but it's beautifully written and surprisingly gripping at times.
William Stoner is the son of a poor farmer from Missouri. Sent to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture, William discovers that his true passion is for literature and changes his degree course without telling his parents. After graduating, Stoner decides not to return to the family farm and stays on at the university to teach English Literature where he remains for the next forty years. During those forty years he marries, but the marriage is not a happy one, has a daughter whose life also turns out to be quite miserable, and faces problems at work with students and colleagues. When he retires in 1956 and dies soon afterwards, most of those who knew him quickly forget he ever existed.
This is certainly not an exciting, action-packed novel, but that was obvious from the very first page which sums up Stoner's whole life in one paragraph (I haven't spoiled anything above by telling you when he dies) and then continues with:
"An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers."
The story of Stoner's life is a mediocre and uneventful one and yet somehow, despite that, it's fascinating to read. It's proof of the quality of John Williams' writing that he could make me feel so interested in the boring life of a man I didn't even always particularly like. Probably the most dramatic part of the novel, if you can describe any of it as dramatic, is when Stoner tries to fail an incompetent student and finds himself opposed by the student's tutor, who happens to be the head of the English department. I was completely engrossed by this section of the book, where Stoner tries to do what he believes is right despite the attempts of the other professor to make things as difficult as possible for him.
The character I was most intrigued by was Edith, Stoner's wife. Her behaviour is very difficult to understand and I'm not sure what conclusions we are supposed to make about her character. She seems to be suffering from a form of mental illness which is never specified and while it is hinted that she may have been abused by her father, this is never explained in any detail either. She was a mystery to me from beginning to end and I never felt that I (or even Stoner) ever really got to know her at all, which was the one thing that disappointed me about this book.
I know I've probably given the impression that Stoner is a very sad and bleak story, but it's actually not quite as depressing as it sounds and I do recommend reading it, especially if you enjoy novels with an academic setting....more