John Steinbeck is perhaps the quintessential California novelist. Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, he went on to create a body of work that is closely connected to the land, people, and history of his home state. As a young man, Steinbeck worked as a hired hand on farms and ranches throughout the Salinas Valley, forming lasting impressions of the land and its people that would influence virtually all of his later work. Meanwhile, his father, a local government official, and his mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged his burgeoning interest in writing. After finishing high school, Steinbeck started at Stanford University in Palo Alto but left before finishing his degree in order to pursue work as a reporter in New York City. He returned to California the following year, supporting his writing endeavors with a steady income from manual labor.
The first three novels Steinbeck published—Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and To a God Unknown (1933)—were critical and commercial failures. He persisted in his writing, however, and attracted more positive notices with Tortilla Flat (1935), a collection of stories about the ethnic working poor in California. Of Mice and Men (1937) brought him increased acclaim, and then The Grapes of Wrath (1939) earned him widespread fame and the Pulitzer Prize. The story of a family of migrant farmers making the difficult journey from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath was hailed as an instant classic and a landmark of socially conscious American fiction.
Steinbeck’s novels are acclaimed for their combination of realistic naturalism and moral optimism—two qualities not commonly found together. Steinbeck portrayed the pain, poverty, and wickedness of the world with unsparing detail while at the same time maintained a belief in the “perfectibility of man.” This optimism pervades Steinbeck’s fiction, leavening even his gloomiest accounts of the Great Depression with a powerful sense of hope.
The sweeping California epic East of Eden (1952) is considered Steinbeck’s most ambitious work and the masterpiece of his later artistic career. Indeed, although The Grapes of Wrath is more famous and widely read, Steinbeck himself regarded East of Eden as his greatest novel. He wrote that he believed he had imbued East of Eden with everything he knew about writing and everything he knew about good and evil in the human condition. Though its story is not autobiographical, East of Eden does delve into the world of Steinbeck’s childhood, incorporating his memories of the Salinas Valley in the early years of the twentieth century, his memories of the war era, and his memories of his relatives, many of whom are secondary characters in the novel. (Samuel Hamilton was indeed Steinbeck’s grandfather, Olive Hamilton was Steinbeck’s mother, and Aron Trask’s gloomy experience at Stanford University is to some degree based on Steinbeck’s own unsatisfying years there.)
East of Eden, which was a bestseller upon its publication, cemented Steinbeck’s position as one of the most read and beloved American writers of his time. The novel was not, however, a great critical success, as a number of reviewers believed that Steinbeck’s epic portrait of the human struggle between good and evil was painted so broadly that it detracted from the detail and believability of his portrayals of individual characters. Despite these mixed critical reviews, Steinbeck continued to write and produced several more works, notably the popular nonfiction piece Travels with Charley (1962). For his contributions to twentieth-century fiction, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died in New York City in 1968 and was buried in his hometown of Salinas.
The story of Adam and Eve and the story of their sons, Cain and Abel, form the foundation of the narrative of East of Eden. The stories, which appear in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are the basis of Steinbeck’s exploration of the conflict between good and evil in human life.
The book of Genesis opens with the story of creation. After creating the world in six days, God declares his intention to make a being in his own image. He then creates humankind. God fashions a man out of dust and names him Adam. Then, God forms a woman out of Adam’s rib, and Adam names her Eve. God places Adam and Eve on Earth in the idyllic garden of Eden. He encourages them to procreate and to enjoy the created world fully but forbids them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which grows in the garden.
One day in the garden, Satan approaches Eve in the form of a crafty serpent. He convinces her to eat the tree’s forbidden fruit, assuring her that she will not suffer if she does so. Eve eats from the tree and then shares the fruit with Adam, and the two immediately are filled with shame and remorse. God discovers Adam and Eve’s disobedience. In punishment, God curses Eve to suffer painful childbirth and to submit to her husband’s authority; he curses Adam to toil and work the ground for food. God then banishes Adam and Eve from Eden.
Sent out into the world, Adam and Eve give birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain becomes a farmer, Abel a shepherd. One day, the two brothers bring sacrifices to God. Cain offers God grain from his fields, while Abel offers the fattest portion of his flocks. For an unknown reason, God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Cain, out of jealousy, murders Abel. When God sees that Abel is missing and asks Cain where Abel is, Cain retorts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God realizes that Abel is dead and punishes Cain by condemning him to exile. When Cain protests that the punishment is too severe and will put his life in danger, God puts a mark on Cain to warn others not to harm or kill him, for if they do so, they will be punished sevenfold. God then banishes Cain from his home to wander in the land of Nod, which lies to the east of Eden.
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