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East of Eden - The Eternal Struggle

John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN was not well received by critics when it debuted in the 1950s, and although passing years have seen several re-evaluations it is still reguarded as secondary to the likes of GRAPES OF WRATH and OF MICE AND MEN. It is true that the novel is flawed: it is a great big rambling thing crammed with obvious allegory, metaphor, and allusion, loosely structured to say the least. And yet, in a odd sort of way, the very rambling, the looseness, the obviousness of the work gives it a tremendous grandeur that Steinbeck's more tightly structured work lacks. The novel is as broad and vulgar and lively and provocative as the America it describes--and it is my favorite of Steinbeck's fiction.

Any one who comes to the novel from the famous film adaptation starring James Dean will be surprized, for the roots of the novel run much deeper than the film, which is based only on perhaps a third of the novel. This is not so much the story of brothers Aaron and Caleb Trask as it is the story of their parents, Adam Trask and Catherine Ames. And in "Cathy" Ames, Steinbeck creates one of the darkest characters in all of 20th Century American Literature, a creature devoid of virtually anything recognizable as human emotion. Fleeing from a past that includes murder, perversion, blackmail, and prostitution, Cathy assumes an angelic demeanor and lures the emotionally needy Adam Trask into love and marriage. And when she no longer requires his protection... she destroys him.

It is the stuff of classic melodrama, but in Steinbeck's hands it becomes more than melodrama; it becomes a novel that alternately reads at leisurely pace and then suddenly reads with the speed of a whirlwind, a tale that forces us to consider the nature of good and evil and the legacies we may leave for later generations. For Adam and Cathy have two sons, and in the wake of their tragedy they will be left to fight out issues of moral choices, right and wrong, and love and hate in the sun-drenched Salinas Valley of California, the "golden west" of the "new world" as it rushes headlong into the modern age. It is a novel epic in history, geography, and morality.

Some will find the novel's constant reference to the story of Cain and Able more than a little obvious; others will find it too...

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