The book opens with a moving description of the Salinas Valley, California from the era when it was a frontier of North America being settled by pioneering folk.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to synopsize the whole story arch here so you may want to go finish the book first.
The Philosophy of East of Eden
The classic American novel about the shades of grey of human nature grasping at free will while striving toward the…
The book contrasts two characters, Cathy and Adam who marry and have two sons together.
Cathy — A monstrous woman
The major red pill in this book is that female evil is more insidious and dangerous because of men’s naivete when it comes to women. Society is kind of on the outlook for evil men, we expect them. When it comes to men, we instinctually understand that human nature leans more toward evil than it does toward good. But when it comes to women, men and society, in general, suffer from the “women are wonderful” bias; we assume that women are harmless. Consider the perverse phenomena of men simping for e-girls, in recent years there has been a meteoric rise of the webcam industry where (idiotic!) men send hundreds or thousands of dollars to women on the internet who they have no hope of ever meeting. If you need any proof of men’s astounding naivete, consider that just recently the internet celebrity Bella Thorne made $2 million in a single week, by scamming her male followers into paying $200 for a single photo of herself. Since time immemorial great books have been trying to wake us up to the reality that the fairer sex, like the stronger sex, also tends to lean more toward evil than toward good.
When we look at human evil we must ask the nature vs nurture question; are we born evil or are we taught to be evil? The narrator suggests that Cathy’s evil is inherent:
It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. (p. 72)
But it’s also hinted at that she was abused…
Cathy learned when she was very young that sexuality with all its attendant yearnings and pains, jealousies and taboos, is the most disturbing impulse humans have. (p. 74)
I’d contend that human evil is contagious, evil produces more evil. Particularly, in regard to child abuse, there’s this very morbid audiobook that I don’t really recommend entitled, The Origins of War in Child Abuse, which in exhaustive details breaks down the causality between child abuse and savage warfare. This book establishes the cultural phenomena of the killer mother archetype as a prelude to war; throughout history prior to a bloody, savage conflict there would be a beautiful, yet violent feminine character prominent in the popular culture (Helen of Troy, for example). The book posits that because many mothers (at least historically) abuse their children, the killer mother archetype triggers childhood trauma inspiring lust for war in the men of a nation. Angelina Jolie’s 2001 Lara Croft served as this archetype prior to the Gulf War and the United States’ blood-soaked misadventures in the middle east.
With Cathy, the veneer of civilized human nature is especially thin…
Adam could see the glinting heat in the brown eyes, and as he looked he saw the lips writhe back from the teeth and the blind destructive animal take charge. (p. 358)
Her head jerked up and her sharp teeth fastened on his hand across the back and up into the palm near the little finger. He cried out in pain and tried to pull his hand away, but her jaw was set and her head twisted and turned, mangling his hand the way a terrier worries a sack. A shrill snarling came from her set teeth. He slapped her on the cheek and it had no effect. Automatically he did what he would have done to stop a dog fight. His left hand went to her throat and he cut off her wind. She struggled and tore at his hand before her jaws unclenched and he pulled his hand free. The flesh was torn and bleeding. He stepped back from the bed and looked at the damage her teeth had done. He looked at her with fear. And when he looked, her face was calm again and young and innocent. (p. 191)
Her disdain for people
Kate, as she had always, drove in the smart but senseless knife of her cruelty. (p. 461)
she said. “Do you think I want to be human? Look at those pictures! I’d rather be a dog than a human. But I’m not a dog. I’m smarter than humans. (p. 321)
she developed the most effective method of lying. She stayed close enough to the truth so that one could never be sure. She knew two other methods also — either to interlard her lies with truth or to tell a truth as though it were a lie. If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths. (p. 73)
An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. (p. 262)
Prostitution is a major theme in the book. Cathy is a hooker who eventually graduates to running her own whorehouse…
For Mr. Edwards, as cold-blooded a whoremaster as ever lived, had fallen hopelessly, miserably in love with Catherine Amesbury. (p. 92)
There is great safety for a shy man with a whore. Having been paid for, and in advance, she has become a commodity, and a shy man can be gay with her and even brutal to her. Also, there is none of the horror of the possible turndown which shrivels the guts of timid men. (p. 44)
At the present time the institution of the whorehouse seems to a certain extent to be dying out. Scholars have various reasons to give. Some say that the decay of morality among girls has dealt the whorehouse its deathblow. (p. 90)
I’m amazed at how cheap it was, “A dollar. Pretty nice girls mostly.” (p. 66), inflation-adjusted for 1890, this is about $28 in today’s dollars.
Since there were going to be houses anyway, they had better be run by responsible people. Every so often Kate spotted a wanted man and turned him in. She ran a house which did not get into trouble. Sheriff Quinn and Kate got along together. (p. 557)
Adam — A naive and thoughtless man
Cathy’s evil is enabled by a naive, lazy, and hopelessly “blue pilled” man. We see how thoughtless naivete and intellectual laziness result in calamity. Adam rescues Cathy when her pimp beats her half to death. He then marries her on a whim. All the men in his life warn him about her, but he can’t resist his provider instincts to wife her up, knock her up, and buy her a farm.
Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him. (p. 131)
A lot in East of Eden mirrors the stories we find in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where mankind is corrupted because Adam naively agrees to eat the fruit offered to him by Eve. The philosophical takeaway from the story of Adam and Eve is that evil and calamity happens often not because of malicious intentions but because of naivete, gullibility, and foolishness. God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit, Eve is tricked into eating it by the serpent who appeals to her vanity, and Adam simps to her and eats it just to appease her.
Why is Adam so simple-minded and naive? The book begins with him as a bright and good-hearted youngster, and he transforms into a great fool after serving in the US Army fighting wars against the native American Indians. As modern-day soldiers suffer from crippling PTSD after returning home from war, Adam is a man broken by his participation in war.
Lee — A thinker, not a doer
One of the central characters of the book is Lee, a second-generation Chinese immigrant who works for Adam. Lee is a deeply philosophical, thoughtful, and sentimental man. They discuss free will…
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?”
Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this-this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing-maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because “Thou mayest.’”
I’m fond of saying that I aspire to act like a man of thought and think like a man of action. Lee is a cautionary tale of a man who fails to find that balance between pragmatic action and the world of ideas. This character is oddly feminine but I don’t think he’s secretly gay, I think Steinbeck is portraying a twentieth-century “incel” in Lee. Lee seems content to spend his life as Adam’s servant and is seriously lacking in initiative in the picking-up chicks department.
On human nature
Our failure to think long-term
And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way. (p. 6)
No one who is young is ever going to be old. (p. 90)
Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy — that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all. (p. 54)
In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry. (p. 238)
On the love of justice
There were, and are, some men who become judges whose love for the law and for its intention of promoting justice has the quality of love for a woman. Such a man presided at the examination before plea — a man so pure and good that he canceled out a lot of wickedness with his life. (p. 88)
You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast. (p. 4)
On the rich
He thought of Sam Hamilton. He had knocked on so many doors. He had the most schemes and plans, and no one would give him any money. But of course — he had so much, he was so rich. You couldn’t give him any more. Riches seem to come to the poor in spirit, the poor in interest and joy. To put it straight — the very rich are a poor bunch of bastards. (p. 581)
It is easy to find a logical and virtuous reason for not doing what you don’t want to do. (p. 387)
On male resilience
Men, she knew, had a little stronger wall against self-destruction than the kind of women she knew. (p. 501)
No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous. (pp. 71–72)
But some men are friends with the whole world in their hearts, and there are others that hate themselves and spread their hatred around like butter on hot bread.” (p. 143)
He had built his hatreds little by little — beginning with a mother who neglected him, a father who alternately whipped and slobbered over him. It had been easy to transfer his developing hatred to the teacher who disciplined him and the policeman who chased him and the priest who lectured him. Even before the first magistrate looked down on him, Joe had developed a fine stable of hates toward the whole world he knew. Hate cannot live alone. It must have love as a trigger, a goad, or a stimulant. Joe early developed a gentle protective love for Joe. He comforted and flattered and cherished Joe. (p. 498)
Alcohol makes you more of what you are…
The transition came to Kate almost immediately after the second glass. Her fear evaporated, her fear of anything disappeared. This was what she had been afraid of, and now it was too late. The wine had forced a passage through all the carefully built barriers and defenses and deceptions, and she didn’t care. The thing she had learned to cover and control was lost. Her voice became chill and her mouth was thin. Her wide-set eyes slitted and grew watchful and sardonic. (p. 232)
He could feel the blood stinging his cheeks and running hotly in his arms, as though it were some foreign warm fluid taking over his body. Then the warmth melted through into the cold concealed box where he stored forbidden thoughts, and the thoughts came timidly up to the surface like children who do not know whether they will be received. (p. 311).
In vino veritas.
This book stimulated a nostalgic patriotism in me for an imperfect yet optimistic America. In Salinas Valley the future of America is bright and nearly everyone is hopefully. That America is gone. I once wrote that By 2021 we will know if Western Civilization is Doomed, and it’s not 2021 yet so I can’t tell you if we’re doomed (but 22-year-old Bella Thorne making $2 million in a week is not a good sign). If America is ever made great again, it will be the most historically unprecedented comeback ever.
On civic nationalism and hubris
We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed — selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful — we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic — and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. (p. 568)
When he thought of Chinese beauty the iron predatory faces of the Manchus came to his mind, arrogant and unyielding faces of a people who had authority by unquestioned inheritance. (p. 491)
The decay of morality
For the world was changing, and sweetness was gone, and virtue too. Worry had crept on a corroding world, and what was lost — good manners, ease and beauty? Ladies were not ladies any more, and you couldn’t trust a gentleman’s word. (p. 127)
When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused. (pp. 130–131)
the United States was the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. Every American was a rifleman by birth, and one American was worth ten or twenty foreigners in a fight. (p. 480)
We learned then that war was not a quick heroic charge but a slow, incredibly complicated matter. (p. 570)
There were people who gave everything they had to the war because it was the last war and by winning it we would remove war like a thorn from the flesh of the world and there wouldn’t be any more such horrible nonsense. There is no dignity in death in battle. Mostly that is a splashing about of human meat and fluid, and the result is filthy, (p. 516)
The book hints at a red pill on the world wars, in the west, we have this myth that the world wars were virtuous wars for us to fight. Like every big government program, the world wars were just a big scam. Especially with WW1, there was no good reason for the United States to get involved.
On pioneers vs Intelligensia
When the rough edges are worn off the new land, businessmen and lawyers come in to help with the development — to solve problems of ownership, usually by removing the temptations to themselves. (p. 215)
What does this mean?
Debt was an ugly word and an ugly concept to Olive. A bill unpaid past the fifteenth of the month was a debt. The word had connotations of dirt and slovenliness and dishonor. Olive, who truly believed that her family was the best in the world, quite snobbishly would not permit it to be touched by debt. She planted that terror of debt so deeply in her children that even now, in a changed economic pattern where indebtedness is a part of living, I become restless when a bill is two days overdue. (pp. 149–150)
Olive’s religious convictions are what made her so averse to debt.
“Look, Samuel, I mean to make a garden of my land. Remember my name is Adam. So far I’ve had no Eden, let alone been driven out.” (p. 167)
From the bible “…the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.’ ” (p. 266)
“I think I can,” Lee answered Samuel. “I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. (p. 268)
“He did a thing in anger, Adam, because he thought you had rejected him. The result of his anger is that his brother and your son is dead.” (p. 600)
The language in the book is beautiful!
Mr. Edwards was essentially a simple man, but even a simple man has complexities which are dark and twisted. Catherine was clever, but even a clever woman misses some of the strange corridors in a man. (p. 94)
“All great and precious things are lonely.” (p. 520)
I’ve been using the Supermemo app to grow my vocabulary as I read great books.
The “one story”
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. 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? (p. 411)
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. (p. 413)
The book delves into the question of free will and ancestry, how much free will do we really have to chart our own course in life? Or are we just destined to do the dance in life that our genes have choreographed for us? As I’ve written about elsewhere, genes are to mitochondria what predetermination is to free will, my contention is that unless you do a lot of biohacking of your health and habituate mindfulness, you don’t really practice free will. Like Adam Trask and the original Adam, thoughtlessly naive men certainly surrender their free will.
The book makes the nuanced point that bad blood (ancestry and genetics) does make a difference in our course in life but that we all ultimately have some choice in the matter.
“I don’t very much believe in blood,” said Samuel. “I think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he planted in them after they cleared the womb.” (p. 260)
It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don’t let me catch you doing it! Now — look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it — not your mother.” (p. 445)
The book ends with a word I didn’t recognize, “Timshel!” That Adam coughs out on his deathbed when his troubled son asks for his blessing and encouragement in defying his genes. This Hebrew word translates to “Thou Mayest” — he’s suggesting that his son has the free will to reject his ancestral dark side.
I rated the book 4-stars, it’s a beautifully-written look into American history. Minus one star because I found the book a little slow, the grand arch of the story lacks action or compelling hook-points.