East of Eden | Critical Essay by Louis Owens

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of East of Eden.
This section contains 5,012 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Louis Owens

SOURCE: "The Story of a Writing: Narrative Structure in East of Eden," in Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics, and Intellect, edited by Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch, Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, pp. 60-76.

In the following essay, Owens examines the plot, central themes, and characters of East of Eden. Tempering his earlier unfavorable criticism of the novel, Owens writes, "East of Eden is, I believe, Steinbeck's greatest experiment, and one that succeeds more than some of us have thus far suspected."

When I said, in my recent study of Steinbeck's fiction, that East of Eden fails "unmistakably," it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the fine print of the novel and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it is true.

Most readers of East of Eden will recognize in the above statement a rather unsubtle paraphrase of Steinbeck's own comments within the novel concerning the nature of his creation called Cathy Ames Trask. It is a paraphrase designed to call to mind the manner in which Steinbeck enters into this novel, becoming not merely the omnipresent "I" who remembers the Salinas Valley and its inhabitants, but the laconic narrator who feels free to step back and comment upon and modify his fictional construct when the desire or whim seems to strike him. And with its emphasis upon the text itself, this paraphrase should also call to mind the acutely self-conscious nature of East of Eden.

In 1927, E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, passed judgment upon this idiosyncrasy on the part of the novelist, asking,

… may the writer take the reader into his confidence about his characters?… better not. It is dangerous, it generally leads to a drop in the temperature, to intellectual and emotional laxity…. It is like standing a man to a drink so that he may not criticize your opinions…. To take your reader into your confidence about the universe is a different thing. It is not dangerous for a novelist to draw back from his characters, as Hardy and Conrad do, and to generalize about the conditions under which he thinks life is carried on. It is confidences about the individual people that do harm, and beckon the reader away from the people to an examination of the novelist's mind. [My italics.]

The slow, sprawling, omnivorous quality of East of Eden has long disturbed some readers, as have the obvious drops in temperature, the intellectual and emotional laxity, and the novel's tendency to split into dual narratives that don't seem to come together for every critic in a convincing manner. A question arising from the narrative difficulties posed by this novel, especially in light of Steinbeck's obvious awareness of what he was doing, as is demonstrated in Journal of a Novel, is, why? What is Steinbeck up to in this large novel that would move him to do what Forster and so many readers have found to be so dangerous?

As John Ditsky pointed out in 1977, in his monograph entitled Essays on East of Eden, Steinbeck "knew what he was doing." And Ditsky provides another valuable hint in how to read the novel when he says, in this monograph, "It takes no stretching of the point to conclude that, for Steinbeck, this most planned of his novels is most genuinely his portrait of the artist as a mature man." While Ditsky focuses primarily upon Steinbeck's relationships with his home territory—the Salinas Valley—and sees a kind of cathartic force operating in the novel, it may be that the portrait of the artist in this novel functions on a different, aesthetic level as well. It may well be, in fact, that in East of Eden Steinbeck is quite consciously and intentionally, in Forster's words, beckoning "the reader away from the people [and thus the mimetic convention of the novel] to an examination of the novelist's mind." In fact, what Steinbeck may be beckoning us to in this great, rather unwieldy novel is the study of the creative process itself, with the focus being the mind of John Steinbeck.

It is possible and profitable, I think, to read East of Eden as another of the large number of novels that are, to a significant extent, concerned with their own creation; to read it to a certain degree, that is, as a self-conscious novel. That John Steinbeck would arrive at such a work in the early 1950's should not be surprising, given the eagerness to experiment with form evident throughout his career and his self-expressed doubts concerning the limitations of both the conventional novel and realism itself. It should be remembered that, as early as 1933, Steinbeck was confessing, "I never had much ability for nor faith nor belief in realism." East of Eden is, I believe, Steinbeck's greatest experiment, and one that succeeds more than some of us have thus far suspected. A key to this reading of East of Eden can be found in the opening paragraphs of the novel, in which Steinbeck begins with his usual method of carefully establishing his setting before introducing his characters, but in which he quickly and deftly goes beyond such a mechanical formula to move from geography to symbol:

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.

In this paragraph, Steinbeck illustrates the way in which a kind of psychic topography grows out of an untutored, intuitive response to natural symbols: the setting and rising sun. We find here a delineation of the symbolic landscape that dominates Steinbeck's writing, from early to late, and we find a hint of what Clifford Lewis has termed the split in the American consciousness—the almost Manichaean sense of opposed absolutes: good and evil, life and death. Here, the dualism is introduced which will quickly become the structural center of the novel, and the focus is not merely upon the landscape but upon the consciousness responding to that landscape: the developing consciousness of the artist.

As perhaps every reader has discovered, East of Eden is about man's struggle for full knowledge, for the freedom of will implied in Steinbeck's interpretation of timshel: "thou mayest." He who accepts his fallen state—the Ishmael who embraces full knowledge—has the potential to survive in this world and, perhaps, to grow to greatness. Samuel Hamilton is such a man, and Cal Trask is becoming one—the everyman, Steinbeck's "sorry" man. He (or she) who does not attain this fullness of vision will perish, literally and/or spiritually. Adam, Aaron, Charles, and Cathy represent two sides of the American consciousness at war, and in these doomed characters the twain never meet.

What Steinbeck is suggesting in the opening paragraphs is the way in which this sense of opposed absolutes rises from deep within man, represents something profound and inevitable in human consciousness. The central theme of East of Eden appears to grow naturally and quickly out of a child's—little Johnny Steinbeck's—response to his environment, and out of the effect of that remembered response upon the mind of the mature, creative artist. Steinbeck is demonstrating the way fiction itself is created, how it rises out of the deepest feelings for place, and how what the artist knows—place, family—can become transformed into a fictional structure. In the opening chapter of East of Eden, the so-called American Myth, so powerfully embedded in the American psyche, the myth of the new garden in which the American Adam squares off against evil, seems to emerge out of a convergence of feelings for place, and out of this intuition comes a structure.

From place, the microcosmic Salinas Valley, Steinbeck moves rapidly in the opening pages of the novel to introduce his family, the Hamiltons out of whom the creative source of the novel—John Steinbeck—springs. Steinbeck tells us that "Once, fifty miles down the valley, my father bored a well" and he recounts his wonder at what was found beneath the fertile valley, adding, "And it seemed to me sometimes at night that I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest in it [the valley]." In these lines, Steinbeck lays bare the creative process again, for out of this "real" memory will come Samuel Hamilton's fictional discovery of the fallen star that precedes the Trask twins' birth and symbolizes the merger of "dark violence" and great beauty deep in the valley. Since the long-vanished sea beneath the valley floor, with its rich, dark strata must, like all Steinbeckian seas, bring to mind the unconscious, the fallen star may also suggest a plunge into the unconscious. Whereas the conventional novelistic method is to allow imaginative sources to disappear behind the text, Steinbeck brings his sources into full light in these opening pages, allowing the reader a rare glimpse of the raw materials of fiction.

A few paragraphs after we have been told of his father's well and his own dark thoughts concerning the valley, Steinbeck introduces his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, followed by the introduction of another fact about the valley: the cycles of flood and drought, the latter of which "put a terror on the valley" reminiscent of the violence Samuel intuits when he looks down on the edenic bottom land. Steinbeck declares that "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." In this passage, Steinbeck is simply remembering the way it was, and is, in the valley, and he is simultaneously underscoring the dangerous inability of the valley's inhabitants to hold in mind seemingly contradictory realities. The man who can accept the reality of both the rich years and the terror of the drought will be the "balanced man" of Melville's Moby Dick, the man with a Catskill eagle in his soul. Steinbeck continues in this first chapter to remember in a casual, lyrical tone what the valley was like, offering a list of place names with easy-paced commentary in keeping with the tone and style of this introductory chapter. The list of place names ends casually with "Corral de Tierra for a fence of earth; Paraiso because it was like Heaven." Those who have read The Pastures of Heaven may recall that Pastures of Heaven is Steinbeck's ironic name in that novel for the actual valley called Corral de Tierra, and that the inhabitants of this paradisiacal valley suffer from dangerous delusions. These casually juxtaposed place names underscore in East of Eden the duality of vision already introduced: the same plot of earth may fence in earthly imperfections or may, through another peephole, seem paradise.

Once the dualism at the heart of this novel has been deftly introduced in this opening, reminiscent chapter, Steinbeck brings in the whole Hamilton clan in Chapter Two, beginning with the autobiographical statement: "I must depend upon hearsay, old photographs…." Conveniently, the Hamilton ranch nestles in the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley, the mountains of life described in the opening paragraphs, and, also conveniently, "From their barren hills the Hamiltons could look down to the west and see the richness of the bottom land and the greenness around the Salinas River…." Obviously, Steinbeck is again simply telling us what is—the Hamilton Ranch, now known by another name, really is there in the Gabilan Mountains, a bone-dry ranch of hard-scrabble rounded hills, and from these hills one can look down on the richness of the river valley and across the valley to the dark wall of the Santa Lucias where the sun descends into blackness. Because of their location, however, the Hamiltons become strongly identified with the life force in this novel, the life force associated with the eastern mountains in the opening paragraphs of the book. Samuel Hamilton becomes a force for good, a kind of savior, water-witch, grail knight, and non-teleological visionary all rolled into one, and when he bends to grasp a handful of the dry, seemingly barren earth, Samuel is demonstrating his bond with these hills.

With the introduction of the Hamiltons—that aspect of Steinbeck's autobiography which he, like Ben Franklin, the author of another book about America, would purportedly record for his sons—Steinbeck has introduced the soil from which the artistic consciousness of the novel will grow. What remains is for Steinbeck to create the fictional structure necessary to make this the story of America, and out of this need grows the Trask narrative. And as if the beginnings of the Hamilton narrative have indeed prepared the way for the allegorical Trasks, Chapter Two, the first Hamilton chapter, ends with the introduction of Adam Trask in a single line: "Such a man was Adam Trask."

In conjoining the Trask and Hamilton narratives, Steinbeck was fully aware of the risks he was taking. Critics would complain he predicted, putting the words in the mouth of a hypothetical editor: "The book is out of balance. The reader expects one thing and you give him something else. You have written two books and stuck them together." Steinbeck's well-known answer is, "No, sir. It goes together. I have written about one family and used stories about another family as well as counterpoint, as rest, as contrast in pace and color." The same editor complains: "Right in the middle you throw in a story about your mother and an airplane ride. The reader wants to know where it ties in and, by God, it doesn't tie in at all. That disappoints a reader." Finally, Steinbeck responds coyly to his invented editor, saying, "Yes, sir. I guess you're right. Shall I cut out the story of my mother and the airplane?"

Steinbeck foresaw correctly. Again and again, critics have lamented the structural outrage of this novel, focusing particularly upon the lamentable episode of Olive Hamilton's airplane ride. Typical is my own reaction: "Completely out of place in whatever thematic unity the novel possesses, this episode is reminiscent of the most damaging of Steinbeck's sentimental writing in the war dispatches later published as Once There Was A War."

If Steinbeck knew with such certainty that this would be labeled a structural flaw, why did he do it? And why, since chapters focusing exclusively upon the Hamiltons constitute less than ten percent of the entire novel, did he insist upon including the Hamiltons? The contrast in pace and color offered by the Hamilton narrative is minimal and disappears entirely in the fourth book of the novel. Whatever contrast in pace and color exists in the final book comes only through Steinbeck's authorial intrusion to tell us what he believes, what the collective "we" felt about the war, and how "we" responded to it along with the Trasks. That such a small portion of the novel as the Hamilton narrative could appear to have such an impact is remarkable, and is to be explained largely by the fact that the Hamiltons are the novel's round, human characters, those characters which transcend the role of "symbol people" Steinbeck assigned to the Trasks. Thus the story of Tom and Dessie, a poignant tale of two cases of arrested emotional development coming together in their loneliness, over-balances the Trask drama, steals its thunder.

It may also be that Steinbeck took the risk he did with the Hamiltons out of a desire, in this novel, to keep the reader fully aware of the so-called "real" world out of which fiction grows. "In fact," Steinbeck told Pat Covici in the East of Eden letters, "all of the Hamilton stories are true." The one Hamilton who slips away from the "real," however, is Samuel. In Samuel, the Hamiltons produce their one figure of suspect reality, a larger-than-life patriarch with shining aura, a freer-of-waters and restorer of wasted lands, a flawed man so good that he tips the scale.

The reason for Samuel's growth toward Trask-like symbolhood is precisely Samuel's growing involvement in the Trask narrative in which Steinbeck is operating in the realm of idea, of allegory, with little concern for making his symbol-people believable. What, in an earlier reference to The Red Pony, Steinbeck called the "stream underneath," is all that counts and with the Trasks—the story of the pre-lapsarian Adam and very fallen Eve—the stream flows rapidly above the surface of the story itself. When Samuel becomes involved with Adam Trask, Samuel immediately begins to grow beyond the dimensions of Steinbeck's remembered grandfather to fill a vacuum in the larger story—he grows into the heroic dimensions required to fill the need for a non-teleological visionary, a balanced man. One could say that Samuel is stolen from the Hamilton narrative and transfers his allegiance as a fictional construct to the allegorical realm of Trask. And it seems very likely that Steinbeck wants us to be aware of this theft.

Samuel's transformation from remembered grandfather to fictional creation is highlighted for the reader in Steinbeck's treatment of Samuel's supposed long-lost love back in Ireland. In the beginning pages of the novel, Steinbeck tells us of Samuel's past, saying, "There was a whisper—not even a rumor but rather an unsaid feeling—in my family that it was love drove him out [of Ireland], and not love of the wife he married. But whether it was too successful love or whether he left in pique at unsuccessful love, I do not know" [my italics]. Steinbeck follows this a page later with the declaration, "I think there must have been some other girl printed somewhere in his heart, for he was a man of love and his wife was not a woman to show her feelings." By Chapter Twenty-four, more than three hundred pages later, Steinbeck has allowed that early conjecture and the character called Samuel to grow to the point that Samuel is able to tell Adam of the vision of love that has come to him "night after month after year, right to the very now," adding, "And I think I should have double-bolted my mind and sealed off my heart against her, but I did not. All of these years I've cheated Liza…."

Samuel is the point of contact between "real" and fictional worlds in the novel, the bridge. How much of Samuel is created and how much remembered? Just past midpoint in the novel, Steinbeck breaks in to state, "And Samuel was wise, but I think he knew only one side of Tom." Given his obvious freedom to invent Samuel, why doesn't Steinbeck know everything Samuel knows? Of Uncle Tom, Steinbeck intones, "What I set down about him will be the result of memory plus what I know to be true plus conjecture built on the combination. Who knows whether it will be correct?" And to impress upon us this limited, autobiographical approach to Tom Hamilton, Steinbeck uses the expression, "I remember" or a slight variation of that expression, eleven times in three brief paragraphs as he begins to tell us about Tom. Similarly, of Dessie's tragedy, Steinbeck writes, "I do not know any details of her love affair…. All I know is…."

Steinbeck is obviously deciding when and where to disguise his fiction-making within the hidey-hole of autobiography, a great freedom which his presence in the novel, and the presence of the Hamilton narrative, allows him. However, in the character of Samuel, Steinbeck is, more importantly, demonstrating the way in which fiction grows out of the real. What happens to Samuel is that he is contaminated by the fictional Trask narrative and its demands in a way the other Hamiltons are not. And Steinbeck, by repeatedly entering the novel to remind us of the creative process, attempts to ensure that we see this process taking place. We are allowed behind the curtain of the author's workshop to watch Samuel's transformation.

Just before he introduces Samuel to Adam Trask, Steinbeck begins his chapter with a sermon on the freedom essential to the creative mind: "And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected." Here, Steinbeck may be anticipating the new direction the character of Samuel will take as the author's "free, exploring mind" explores the conflict between good and evil, between self-imposed blindness and the human need to attain full knowledge. Very quickly, Samuel will spin out of his Hamilton orbit and into that of the Trasks and, with this declaration, Steinbeck may well be preparing the reader for this new creative freedom.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck breaks into his narrative to remind us of his authorial presence, addressing his reader directly, as when he writes, "You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900"; or ruminating upon those beliefs he holds most dear; or mimicking the collective voice of the nation; or even analyzing his characters and then coming back to qualify and contradict himself. To introduce Horace Quinn's role in the Trask narrative, for example, Steinbeck enters the story, saying, "We could not imagine anyone else being sheriff," and later, as Cal prepares to take Abra on their important picnic, Steinbeck adds, "We knew—or at least we were confident—that on May Day, when all the Sunday School picnics took place in Alisal, the wild azaleas that grew in the skirts of the streams would be in bloom." By this point, near the end of the novel, autobiography and fictional narrative have merged completely, with the authorial voice joining the authorial constructs as a participant—a character—within the fiction.

A consideration of East of Eden as a self-conscious fiction may also allow us to come to terms with one of the major problems often cited by critics: Cathy Ames Trask. Is Cathy the C.A.T. a genetically misshapen monster who simply is predetermined to be evil because of something she lacks? Or is she more psychologically complex than this as her early and late obsessions with the Wonderland Alice seem to suggest? Why, if timshel must apply to all of us, does it seem not to apply to Cathy or Adam, or even Charles, who is incapable of feeling sorry? If this novel is designed to mark the end of an era—naturalism with its emphasis upon pessimistic determinism—as John Ditsky has persuasively suggested, why does Steinbeck create absolutists such as Adam and Cathy who seem, for most of the novel, incapable of free will?

An answer may be that in the course of this long novel the implied author—the voice creating the characters and plot—changes, grows, and learns, as Steinbeck suggests in the opening line in The Log from the Sea of Cortez when he declares that "The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer." At first Steinbeck states that Cathy is a monster, declaring simply, "I believe there are monsters born in the world…. Later, he qualifies: "It doesn't matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster…." And finally, he writes: "When I said Cathy was a monster it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the small print of her and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it was true." Steinbeck is reminding us that to create is to learn and, furthermore, with his allusion to the "small print" of his character, reminding us that as readers we, too, are involved in the process of fiction-making, that Cathy has existence only on the page.

Very subtly, in his introduction of Cathy, Steinbeck also illustrates for us the way in which a fictional creation takes form. At the beginning of Chapter Eight, the authorial voice declares its belief that not only are "monsters born in the world" but that "Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies or lack of them, which drove her all her life…. She was not like other people." Following the clear statement of the author's conception of his character, we are given a description of that character: "Her nose was delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was heart-shaped. Her mouth was well shaped and well lipped but abnormally small…. Her ears were very little, without lobes, and they pressed so close to her head that even with her hair combed up they made no silhouette. They were thin flaps sealed against her head." Cathy's resemblance to a serpent must be obvious to anyone reading such a description, and to ensure that we don't miss the Satanic suggestion, Steinbeck adds: "Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs." If we pay close attention to the process taking place here, we should become aware that we are being allowed to watch as the character's form rises quite clearly out of the artist's conception of that character. The Cathy we begin to see conforms to the author's idea of Cathy defined for us a few lines earlier. Because at this point in the novel the implied author conceives of Cathy as predetermined to evil, inherently depraved, she takes a snake-like form. Later, Cathy's form will change as the author's conception of her changes.

In East of Eden, Steinbeck first illustrates the way the sense of opposed absolutes at the heart of the American myth grows out of an intuitive response to environment. Then, he demonstrates the way in which this dualism is manifested in everyday life—the flood-drought cycle, the Fence of Earth-Paradise juxtaposition. Next, he introduces the Hamiltons and bares the autobiographical sources of his fiction: his father's well-drilling, for example. At this point, he brings in the Trask narrative, overlaying the autobiographical narrative with the allegorical fiction. He gradually allows Samuel to be drawn into the fiction, leaving the remaining Hamiltons firmly fixed in the realm of autobiography. Samuel becomes, thus, the highly charged point of contact between autobiography and fiction, a role most appropriate to the eloquent artificer and teller of tales at his forge. In this role, Samuel becomes a proto-Daedalus, from whom John Steinbeck, the artificer of this amazing novel, will descend.

And finally Steinbeck, or the implied author called John Steinbeck, enters the novel as not simply the "recording consciousness" of such an earlier work as In Dubious Battle, but as interpreter and creator, one who creates the "reality" of the novel as he records it, learning as he records and changing as he learns. As he comes to know more about the idea called Cathy/Kate, his feelings change. He qualifies and contradicts his earlier self. The disclosure process of conventional novels is altered so that the novel discloses itself to the author as well as reader in the process of its creation. What the reader, what America itself, must learn in the course of this novel is what the author learns: a belief in absolutes, an Ahabian monomania, is dangerously delusive; the pursuit of Eden leads to the destruction of whatever earthly paradise may be possible. The author, too, must learn the necessity for balance, the danger of staring too long into the fire. Steinbeck's method resembles that described by Austin Wright as the creation of a "narrator-controlled world," one in which "the autonomy of the fictional world breaks down the inventive/narrative distinction: in effect, the inventor's manipulations have become the teller's, implicitly seeming to reflect the latter's creative, expressive, or rhetorical needs."

Of this novel, written at the height of his career, Steinbeck declared, "This is my most complicated and at the same time, my most simple sounding book." And he added, "Jesus am I going to catch critical hell for it. My carefully worked out method will be jumped on by the not too careful critic as slipshod. For it is not an easy form to come on quickly nor to understand immediately." Finally, Steinbeck lamented in frustration, "I don't know why writers are never given credit for knowing their craft." Given the general failure of early reviewers to comprehend the carefully worked out methods of such simple-seeming works as The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, Tortilla Flat, and Cannery Row, Steinbeck's frustration is more than understandable.

In 1979, in his book Fabulation and Metafiction, Robert Scholes made this surprising observation concerning John Steinbeck: "For the last decade of his life, one of America's finest writers in the realistic/naturalistic tradition was engaged in a serious artistic struggle through which he sought to come to terms with fabulation." Scholes is speaking here specifically of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, but Scholes goes on to ponder, "What moved Steinbeck toward fabulation? What but the same impulse that was moving younger writers in the same direction—the sense that the positivistic basis for traditional realism had been eroded, and that reality, if it could be caught at all, would require a whole new set of fictional skills."

East of Eden, long viewed as problematic, may well stand as sharp evidence of both Steinbeck's dissatisfaction with the tradition Scholes names and Steinbeck's desire to experiment and, in so doing, expose a kind of metaphysics of fiction-making. Like many of Steinbeck's works, East of Eden may be a much more subtle and complex construction than we are at first prepared to believe, one deserving of more careful scrutiny than we have yet brought to bear.

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