John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Timshel, “Thou mayest.” Man’s Ability to Choose.

In this essay, C.P. will use Steinbeck’s East of Eden and explore its retelling of the story of Cain and Abel in order to analyze techniques which are employed to convey the novel’s theme, which tells all beings alike, that we have the ability to choose our paths- whether good, or evil.

While John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is filled with the author’s famous and vivid descriptions of the Salinas Valley, it is also more crucially, filled with brutality, jealousy and sinfulness- characteristics which all inevitably surface in a normal, and thus flawed human being. Steinbeck displays these traits by embodying them in members of the Trask family- which serve as a modern portrayal of the story of Cain and Abel. The story from the Book of Genesis repeats its plot throughout the family’s generations, as the traits of evil are brought to life by Cain figures and those of goodness by figures similar to Abel. This allusion from Genesis is contrasted by a second one, this, a single phrase from the same story: “timshel.” The contrast between succumbing to evils versus overcoming them with freewill contributes to the meaning of this work- which states that everyone has the choice to overcome their inevitable sins.
The first retelling of the ancient story is through stepbrothers Charles and Adam Trask, their father Cyrus Trask, and his wife and Charles’ mother, Alice Trask. The designation of these characters as Abel or Cain figures can be determined by the first letter of each name. Adam and Alice are appropriately the goodhearted Abel figures while Charles and even Cyrus more closely embody the evils also possessed by Cain. Cyrus, who fabricated his past and disguises himself as an army man, is described as “something of a devil” (Steinbeck 14). Cyrus spends his later life creating lies about his past through stories he tells his sons in which describe his younger self as a Private. The stories become so realistic to Cyrus that “he became convinced that he had been there” (17). Cyrus’ wife Alice dies early in the novel, however, is present long enough to be designated as an Abel figure due to her obedience and stark contrast in personality to Cyrus. Charles, a second and more direct embodiment of Cain is described as having grown up “with his father’s assertiveness” (20). Unlike his brother Adam who “was always an obedient child, (17) Charles is impulsive and brutal- when the two were young boys, Charles violently beat Adam over a game of stick ball.

In a scene directly parallel to the story of Cain and Abel, Charles gives his father an expensive German knife for his birthday just as Cain gave God offerings from his soil. Adam gifts his father a mongrel dog, similar to the gift of a sheep which was offered to God by Abel. Just as God rejected Cain’s gift while accepting Abel’s, Cyrus loves his dog- who now sleeps near his bed, and never uses the knife. Charles feels jealousy towards Adam for years, and just before Adam leaves to serve in the army, Charles brutally beats his brother over his jealousy, and would have murdered Adam with a hatchet if Adam had not hidden from Charles. Although Adam is not killed, this scene is strikingly similar to the instance in which Cain murders Abel due to his jealousy. Both scenes from the Book of Genesis and from East of Eden document instances during which humans allow their inner evils and the sins of their fathers to condemn their otherwise moral selves.

Similarly minded characters are present in the next generation of the Trask family. Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron also embody the personas of Cain and Abel based on their first initials. Unlike Charles however, Cal is aware that although he possesses many evil characteristics, he also contains many good ones. Sometimes he takes control of his evil impulses but often he is influenced by his inner evils which he blames on his mother, another Cain figure, Cathy, who left Adam and the twins very soon after they were born and now runs a brothel in the nearby city of Salinas. Many times Cal’s actions are misunderstood. In the similar “gifting” situation, Cal raises money for Aron to go to college by buying cheap beans from local farmers, and selling them more expensively in WWI Europe. When Cal presents the money to his father, instead of being grateful towards his son, he claims that by raising the money Cal robbed the farmers of their money.

Angered with his father’s displeasure, Cal reacts by telling his innocent brother, who is unaware that their mother is alive, let alone the owner of a brother, that their mother is in the neighboring town and that she shot the boys’ father and left them. This is too much for Aron, who secretly enlists in the army due to his disbelief which stems from his good-naturedness. Cal is guilt stricken, which shows the side of him which is morally sound, but he was unable to choose to overcome his inner evils during a moment in which he knew that he should never tell Aron the truth about their mother. In perhaps the most strikingly similar scene to Cain and Abel, Adam asks Cal where Aron has gone, to which Cal responds: “How do I know?....Am I supposed to look after him?” (564) just as the “brother’s keeper” line can be quoted from Genesis. Both brothers, though perhaps guilt-stricken, have decided to allow their evils to conquer their ability to choose.

Not only is the story of Cain and Abel retold throughout East of Eden, but it is also directly alluded to, and later studied by Lee, the Trask’s hired servant. Intrigued by the outcome of Cain, Lee goes on to inquire great scholars of his culture about the story, and together they philosophize and discuss the story’s different versions. Lee brings his findings back to Adam and neighbor Samuel Hamilton- the man that originally told Lee the ancient story. He goes on to say,

Don’t you see? . . . The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you 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 bck on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’- it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ (303)

This passage goes on to dictate the remainder of the book. The power to choose gives the characters the ability to overcome their sins. Adam goes on to meet his ex-wife Cathy who no longer can control him with her evil ways, simply because he chooses to be unaffected by her sins. And in the emotional last scene of the book, Cal asks Adam, paralyzed with a stroke due to the news of Aron’s death overseas for forgiveness because he feels that Aron’s death was his fault. With all of Adam’s effort, he manages to whisper “Timshel!” (602) and then promptly die. Cal’s life is not to be dictated by the forgiveness of his father. Rather, he has the choice to succumb to the guilt that has sprung from Aron’s death, or to overcome his sin and prosper.

C.P. 2013

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Doc and the Baby Octopi: Most Common Assumptions are not Accurate.

In the following essay, C.P. explains how Steinbeck’s structural arrangement of Cannery Row as a series of vignettes and the symbolic meaning behind “collecting” contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole, which is that first impressions and common assumptions are never correct.

Cannery Row is not arranged like a typical novel. Instead of a stationary plot line, this novel is a series of vignettes which capture chronologically parallel occurrences throughout the lives of different characters. By structuring the book in this way, it feels like Steinbeck is slowly yet realistically introducing the reader to each character. Not much is revealed about characters with each vignette, yet as the book progresses, complex characters are formed with personalities that contradict the original assumptions gained by early descriptions. This jagged plot line positions chapters about the same characters quite distant from each other, as if to collect knowledge about each character as the novel progresses. This idea of collecting knowledge is very similar to a recurring motif in the novel which involves collecting sea specimens in the novel’s setting of the California coast. Both the choppy structure and collection motif contribute to the novel’s meaning as a whole which suggests that first impressions are often false.

One of the first descriptions of the novel is regarding Lee Chong, the owner of Cannery Row’s grocery store. It is written in the first chapter that “The grocery opened at dawn and did not close until the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent or retired for the night.” (Steinbeck 5). The implication of this description is that Lee Chong is money hungry avaricious. His store stays open through ridiculous hours on the chance that Lee may be missing business by closing early. The next chapter, however, suggests that he is “suspended by good,” (14) and explains how he dug up the bones of his deceased grandfather in order to send them back to China to truly rest in peace. Lee Chong’s kindness is even further demonstrated in the novel’s later chapters during which he gives out credit to his store, even allowing people to accumulate large amounts of debt without paying him back due to his inner goodhearted nature and sympathy for his neighbors. The compilation of descriptions as a whole suggests a compassionate Lee Chong- a characteristic vastly different than the original description of Lee as a money-hungry store owner.

Lee is not the only misunderstood character in the novel- in fact, most of Cannery Row’s characters are known for having multiple reputations as is suggested in the book’s opening which describes Cannery Row:

Its inhabitants are, as a man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing. (1)

A prime example of a mistaken “whore” is Dora, the owner of a local brothel and restaurant. Dora is “hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don’t like it very much” (16). Due to the typical way in which licentiousness is frowned upon, Dora’s brothel has the immediate connotation of being distrustful and suspicious. Sympathy may even be felt towards the “married spinsters” by this first description. Learned later in the novel, however, is that Dora is not just a promiscuous brothel owner. When the influenza strikes in Cannery Row, Dora and her girls step up and take care of the families in town who have contracted it. “It was a bad time for her but she did it. The Greek cook made a ten-gallon cauldron of strong soup and kept it full and kept it strong” (98). Dora is generous with her money and sacrifices focus on her business in order to take care of the community which is in need. This is not her first good deed either, Dora donates to every charitable cause that there is to donate to in town, in hopes to make up for her dissipated business. She appears to be the most successful person in Cannery Row, unlike the way in which the narrator originally perceives her.

The collection of vignettes as the parts of a whole character is similar to the way that Doc, a Marine Biologist in Cannery Row, and the main focus of the novel’s twisted plot line collects specimens for his lab. Often, characteristics contradict each other, such as the way Lee Chong is both stingy with prices and generous with credit. The way Doc collects baby octopi mirrors the way in which characteristics contradict each other: “…he dropped it into a jar of sea water with the others and usually the newcomer was so angry that it attacked its fellows” (108). Just as the contrasting personality traits seem to attack each other, so do the baby octopi- which are supposed to be small parts representative of a whole species. Ironically though, the octopi which are part of the same species attack each “newcomer.” This observation goes on to enforce Cannery Row’s meaning. While collecting a large amount of octopi should theoretically allow the species to be more easily observed and studied, each specimen is different and will by nature, attack one another. There is no ideal octopus that is representative of the species as a whole, just as there is no adjective or personality trait that can perfectly describe a person overall. Even though Steinbeck has provided a large amount of vignettes to allow the reader to be introduced thoroughly to each character, the large number may even dilute the overall understanding of each character due to the mutant personality traits that are discovered along the way. The truth is that collecting may do the opposite of its purpose: just because more assumptions about a person are known, does not mean that any of them are true. Steinbeck writes this paradox into his series of vignettes to further prove that we cannot ever truly know a whole which is comprised of an infinite series of parts.

C.P. 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Criticism of Capitalism in the Grapes of Wrath

In the following essay I will describe how the experience of the Joad Family in the Grapes of Wrath illustrates a larger criticism of Capitalism and economic relations in society.

The novel the Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family, rural farmers from Oklahoma attempting to survive the aftermath of both the Great Depression and the dust bowl. Thanks to ecological and economic disaster, they are driven off their land by the banks and force to migrate across the United States to California in search of work, home, and food. Throughout their futile journey in 1930's America the brutality of the Capitalist system is shown in its most deplorable state and this book is highly politically charged against the owning classes in America that were supposedly to blame for the crisis.

In the beginning chapters, the Joad's struggle is described, and Steinbeck's philosophy is first hinted at. Then in Chapter 4, when the representatives of the Bank inform the Joads to skedaddle off the land before the tractor comes around, we receive one of the first more general chapters that doesn't describe the Joads but rather describes the situation in general and the forces at play. The man driving the tractor is considered "Inhuman" and is considered by Steinbeck to be an extension of the machine itself. Detached from the land itself, the bank is seen by the author as a monster eating away at human beings. A Bank of course being literally a fundamental facet of Capitalism, it is symbolically in the novel the very symbol of Capitalism itself. A lifeless monster that drives friends and neighbors to plow down the others house for the sake of individual gain and productivity.

Later on after this, The Joads go to purchase a vehicle to take them to California. They are scammed into buying a beat up old barely working car for a massively marked up price. Yet as shown throughout the novel they have zero choice in the matter. Consistently throughout the novel the Joads are placed in desperate situations where all effort to save themselves is seemingly futile.

Another one of the largest themes in this book is the movement from Individualism to Collectivism. Individualism of course pertaining to Capitalism. In the novel, the Okies are all dispossessed from their land and forced to fight against one another for scraps from the businessmen's table. This individualism is shown to be lifeless by Steinbeck (recalling the man driving the tractor, and the disconnect of the owners from the land and from the "collective soul" that is mentioned by Casy) and as the novel progresses - despite the fact that the Joad family is disintegrating - The Joads begin to realize that it is not just their family, it is all human beings that are their family. This is symbolically represented by Tom Joad leaving his family."Then maybe it's like Casy says. A fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then..." "Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they - I'll be there too."

Tom Joad leaves his literal family to join the "collective family" he realized by the end of the novel that all along it's about the "we" and not the "I". This is a fundamental criticism against Capitalism. Capitalism is based upon private ownership and individualism. Here Steinbeck portrays his protagonist as not caring for private land or even a private soul - fully embracing the ideals of Collectivism (and perhaps it's assorted ideologies - Communism, socialism, etc.) Chapter 14 points out the true essence of this philosophy in the novel. In Chapter 14 it is claimed that a social shift is occurring "From "I" to "We"" and that as the working people are dispossessed they will eventually form together to overthrow the social order. Notable examples are shared such as Marx, Lenin, Paine, and Jefferson. All of these men share one thing in common: they all opposed the social order of their time and strove to create e anew society based upon the collective feelings of an oppressed social group. Jefferson and Paine broke away from the British Empire and advocated for agrarianism and humanism with detachment from the huge power of government and assorted capitalist institutions. Marx and Lenin argued for the creation of Socialist Republics where the people themselves managed the means of production (farms, factories, etc.) Steinbeck is channeling these social revolutionaries themselves and comparing the circumstances that lead to their prominence to that of the Okies! The Okies themselves are suggested by Steinbeck to be forming their own social resistance; but this never fully materializes in the novel. The idea of Capitalism being cruel is now no longer on the scale of the Okies however. Steinbeck expands the novel to an epic scale detailing these past revolutions; and how one was due in America!

In the end of the novel, the final scene is probably one of the most memorable; where Rosasharn after giving birth to a still born baby, feeds a starving man with her breast milk. This of course representing her recognition of herself being a part of the vast human family and not just her individual family unit. The Grapes of Wrath ends on the note that despite the futility of the Joads struggle, at least one man can be saved through an act of selflessness. Overall, the themes of Humanism, Collectivism, and altruism - stand in stark contrast to those of Individualism, Self-Preservation, and Greed; the excesses of Capitalism.

(J.S. 2014)