Having finished reading my second John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden, I am quite happy to include him in my list of favourite authors. Steinbeck seems to me to be someone who saw the world very clearly and on picking up his pen was able to write about it in a way that made it clear to others. He seems to have understood people and the way they work, pointing out things that aught to be obvious but somehow the rest of us missed, or at least could never put into words.
East of Eden begins slowly and for a good many pages (the edition I have has 714 pages) I was unsure of where the story was going. As the book unfolds, however, the characters become more real and the connection to the story from the beginning of Genesis is more apparent. For those who have read the opening chapters of the Bible, as I have, it may seem obvious what will happen to the characters, in particular Aron and Caleb, but Steinbeck is clever enough to keep you from guessing correctly.
The overarching theme of the novel can be summed up in this quote: "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well - or ill?"
Each character battles this inside themselves and comes to different conclusions, and, at different times in the book, I empathised with many of them. There is Cal, who tries to be good, although struggles to do so openly and often ends up getting it wrong, and in return receives both guilt and blessing. While Aron is summed up by another character, Abra, thus: "Aron didn't grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn't stand to have it come out any other way."
Steinbeck also gives Abra this to say, which makes sense to me: "When you're a child you're the centre of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They're only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you're your own size and shape. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It's worse, but it's much better too."
Steinbeck successfully avoids having good characters and bad characters and instead has real characters. This matched with beautiful writing is an excellent formula and one that has kept me thoroughly engaged and given me much to think about. I would encourage everyone to investigate his work and find out what they can learn from it, and for the pleasure of a good read.