John Steinbeck on Good, Evil, and the Power of Choice

05 June 2014 · 25 comments

I’ve recently returned to the world of reading after many years away. For one of my first books back, I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and I loved it. It’s very much a “J.D. book”.

East of Eden tells the storis of three generations of one family, and of the people in their lives. (Most of the book takes place in California’s Salinas Valley.) Steinbeck paints one of the characters as pure evil and one as pure good, but most are flawed masterpieces. Then he sets the wheels of the plot in motion to demonstrate his worldview, and to argue that the power of choice is the greatest gift that humankind possesses.

Steinbeck doesn’t seem to find pure evil or pure good particularly interesting. Both states are hollow, one dimensional. People like this lack something that’s essentially human. He’s much more fascinated by the typical person, the one who possesses elements of both good and bad. If you’re all good or all bad, you don’t really have a choice about what you do. You’re simply controlled by your character and moral compass (or lack thereof). But when you have a bit of both, who you are and what you do is determined by the things you choose to do.

The core idea in East of Eden is centered around the meaning of a single word from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: timshel. Different translations of the Bible translate the word in different ways:

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “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?”

For Steinbeck (and his characters), this ability to choose is a revelation. It’s what makes humans human.

“There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ 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.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man.”

If you’ve been reading More Than Money this year, you know that I’ve written a lot about choice. And you can probably imagine how I feel about these passages. It’s exciting to read a novel with a plot specifically designed to showcase the consequences of choice. It’s nice to see an author create flawed characters who make bad choices but whom we can nonetheless call “good people”. We can forgive them, just as the characters forgive each other. People make mistakes. It’s how they react to those mistakes that defines who they are to become.

East of Eden contains lots of other great bits. For one, Steinbeck himself appears as a minor character (he’s just a boy when the events of the story take place). Plus there are dozens of throwaway gems scattered in the pages. Gems like these:

  • “You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” Steinbeck wrote this in reference to how the Salinas Valley felt about its paltry river. But I think this applies to education, experience, and more. At the time I read it, I thought of how the more a person travels, the more they see that their own country isn’t particularly unique or special.
  • “The direction of a big act will warp history, but probably all acts do the same in their degree, down to a stone stepped over in the path or a breath caught at sight of a pretty girl or a fingernail nicked in the garden soil.”
  • The first section in Chapter 13 is a wonderful meditation on “man and glory”. It also compares the pros and cons of collaboration and individualism. It’s good stuff. And the first part of chapter 24 has some great thoughts on aging, dying, and memories.
  • “There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.”
  • “In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry. So often men trip be being in a rush.”
  • “A miracle once it is familiar is no longer a miracle.” This is in reference to an electric coffeepot, but could apply to any sort of technology.

There’s lots of other good stuff in East of Eden. Perhaps the most important passage for me was this bit about storytelling:

People are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And I here make a rule — a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar.

This made me think of my own writing at Get Rich Slowly. When I started in 2006, I was writing about getting out of debt, about being lost and searching for a path out of the darkness. Many people could relate to my story. But the more money I had, the less relatable my experience became. People could not see themselves in me, and readers drifted away. I knew this at the time, but could never put it into words. East of Eden eloquently states the idea.

Later in the book, Steinbeck has more to say about the importance of story — specifically about the stories that make up our lives. Here’s a conversation between two of his characters:

“When we were children we lived in a story that we made up. But when I grew up the story wasn’t enough. I had to have something else, because the story wasn’t true anymore.”

“Well –”

“Wait — let me get it all out. Aron didn’t grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn’t stand to have it come out any other way.”

“How about you?”

“I don’t want to know how it comes out. I only want to be there while it’s going on.”

What a lovely passage.

I think Steinbeck highlights an important divide between people. Some have written a story and they want to see it come to pass. Others are active participants, but they’re not committed to a specific ending. And still others experience the story of their lives passively. No one way is “right” — although I’d argue that passive participants allow their stories to be written by other people — but those who attempt to control the direction their life takes often end up frustrated. (They’re trying to move beyond their Circle of Influence to their Circle of Concern.)

Note: Reading this section, I was reminded of the famous opening to Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I believe we should all strive to be the heroes of our own stories, but we shouldn’t be so committed to an ending that we don’t allow the story to twist and turn in new and unexpected ways.

The key, of course, is to remember that each person is living a separate story. We’re ultimately each the protagonist in our tiny tale, but our stories intertwine to weave a greater tapestry. And in the grander scope of things, we must learn to give and take from each other.

Here’s another quote:

When you’re a child you’re the center of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They’re only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you’re you own shape and size. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It’s worse, but it’s much better too.

I’m gratified to have read East of Eden, and to have resumed the reading habit. I’ve already started Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (about a months-long cross-country drive similar to the one I plan to do next year), but that’s just light reading. I’d love to find another book that’s filled with a strong story and interesting ideas. I’m thinking maybe Siddartha. Any suggestions for other books I ought to read?

1 Mrs. PoP June 5, 2014 at 17:45

East of Eden is one of my favorite books of all time, but I haven’t re-read it in a few years. You’re making me feel like it needs to move up again on my reading list.
FWIW, Hermann Hesse is one of Mr PoP’s favorite authors, and he’s read Siddhartha many times. It’s almost as if you’re moving down our bookshelves.

2 Kaye June 5, 2014 at 18:10

Hi JD,
For the last few years, I’ve started thinking that life is just an illusion, literally. That each of us really is living in our own separate ‘play’. Or maybe I just think too much :) I would be interested to know what you think.

3 David June 6, 2014 at 03:03

I really loved reading East of Eden years ago. Steinbeck has been a favorite. Here are a couple of others that really made a difference to me in my travel.

The Grapes of Wrath
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzche

Thank you for your effort on your blog.

David

4 Patrick June 6, 2014 at 05:06

I enjoyed East of Eden myself, for many of the same reasons you posted. I also enjoyed the location development.

One for your list: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. It also has a good story with strong ideas.

5 Kandace June 6, 2014 at 07:29

I haven’t read “East of Eden” for 20 years or so. Probably time to borrow it again from the library and read it. The fiction I would recommend is Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. Again, haven’t read it for 20 years or so, but it was thought-altering at the time. Henry James “Portrait of a Lady” comes to mind, as does Edith Wharton’s “Custom of the Country”.

6 Affording Happiness June 6, 2014 at 07:49

Sounds like a great read. I particularly enjoyed your take on the passive participant vs active mover style of living life. In my younger days I was definitely in the passive participant (perhaps as I was the youngest sibling?), then I took a huge swing toward the opposite extreme as a young adult. I had a plan and nothing was going to get in my way. Now I think I have found a much more balanced approach in which I have a plan but am open to changes and welcoming of a more circuitous path. I really enjoy your writing and look forward to more!

7 Ian June 6, 2014 at 07:56

I really liked East of Eden, this was a good take on the book. Actually, I’m generally a Steinbeck fan. The Winter of our discontent is another good read of his. Maybe not EOE but still an interesting and thoughtful read.

8 Rita June 6, 2014 at 08:42

Totem Salmon. Life Lessons From Another Species, by Freeman House – great writing and a big reality check.

The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis hyde. A classic.

9 Karen June 6, 2014 at 09:24

LOVE East of Eden. Feels like what a novel should be. Have you read Dharma Bums by Kerouac? It’s one I revisit every few years and it speaks to me differently every time. Would love to hear your take on it.

10 Katelyn June 6, 2014 at 14:17

I was going to recommend On the Road, by Kerouac, since you have a big road trip coming up.

I greatly enjoyed Grapes of Wrath when I read it in my teens.

The Fountainhead (another Rand novel) is excellent. Some very interesting thoughts on collaboration.

11 Matthew Brundage June 6, 2014 at 09:43

I concur with Kandace; Atlas Shrugged would be a fine choice. I’m interested in reading what you have to say about it — particularly in regards to the novel’s themes of money, regulation, and individualism.

12 Matt Rings June 6, 2014 at 10:31

I highly recommend continuing down the Steinbeck path… he will not disappoint. Travels with Charley is not as light as you might think. It is filled with a lot of profound insights on the good & evil of man. In Dubious Battle and The Winter of Our Discontent are also must reads!

13 Donna Freedman June 6, 2014 at 22:45

I’ve been reading and re-reading “The Grapes of Wrath” since the seventh grade. Apparently I’m in the minority because I feel that “The Winter of Our Discontent” was one of his weaker works. Sue me.
Loved “Cannery Row,” “Sweet Thursday,” “Tortilla Flat” and “Of Mice and Men.”
You’ve already read another of the books I’ve been re-reading for more than 40 years: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

14 Bruce June 7, 2014 at 04:51

JD

It was great to meet you and your wife at CampMustache. Reading is such a pleasure and it is good you are getting back to it.

Steinbeck is wonderful as well as anything by Hemingway. One of my all time favorites that I have read multiple times is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not sure what keeps bringing me back to it, but its like a magnet.

The other Author I really enjoy is Paul Theroux. He writes on some great travels he has done all over the world.

15 Christy June 7, 2014 at 16:03

Hi J.D.,
I’m another Camp Mustache participant with a few recommendations. I suggest A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor and On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz.

Christy

16 Madge June 7, 2014 at 07:42

Have you ever read Island by Aldous Huxley? It’s his utopian vision, written some 30 years after Brave New World, and it’s tremendous. All about how choices made at the societal level impact choices possible on the individual level, and vice versa. I find it super inspiring and thought-provoking every time I read it. You might, too.

17 Andi Blackwell June 7, 2014 at 17:31

Books is my jam!

I recommend Siddharta and The Sun Also Rises (Gotta throw some Hemingway in there). A couple of other books that I can always read include Count of Monte Cristo, Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour, and the Dream Park series by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes.

18 Tom Erceg June 8, 2014 at 13:52

JD, I’ll second the recommendation of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. A great read, and several life changing ideas

19 Naomi June 8, 2014 at 17:15

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

20 Michelle June 9, 2014 at 15:23

I loved reading Steinbeck, and East of Eden has it all. I think you would enjoy Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, for reasons given above by other posters. You may also want to read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, very good read as well. For non-fiction, The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton-very interesting on paradigm shifts.

21 Ramblin' Ma'am June 10, 2014 at 12:42

I read “East of Eden” last summer and loved it. Other “ideas novels” that I really enjoyed are “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera.

22 Alvin June 12, 2014 at 02:04

I have to say that I didn’t find Siddartha a good introduction to Buddhism. Good writing perhaps, but not a good intro to the key tenets of what Buddha taught.

A book I would recommend is A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller. Not related to Buddhism at all, in fact it’s Christian, but I keep going back to it. Poetically written, and speaks about how leading a life worth reading about means living a life continuously stepping outside of your thresholds.

23 Carol K. June 13, 2014 at 08:14

Love the insight in this post.

24 Diana Y July 4, 2014 at 22:29

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

25 Diane C July 22, 2014 at 07:44

I live in Walnut Creek, CA and am an active library volunteer. We have a vibrant “One City, One Book” program and this year’s selection is “East of Eden”. Normally, I wait until the end of the summer to read the current selection so it’s still fresh in my mind when the supporting activities occur. Thanks to this post, I will make it my very next book. That way I’ll have time to read it twice before the festivities begin. Thanks, JD!

Previous post:

Next post: