You’re not supposed to re-read classics for pleasure, but I do. To me, that’s the real definition of classic: when something’s so good it transcends the first or second wave of popularity so people return to it year after year, seeing new ties and ideas with each re-reading. so their depth of appreciation grows with age. Anyone can read a book once and pronounce a judgment, good or bad. On the other hand, it takes an age to appreciate the depth in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. At least it requires an understanding of the Power of Two.
In many ways, East of Eden is the story of two families, the Hamilton and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are the author’s own family, the maternal relatives he knew and heard about in family gatherings. The accounts of his grandfather’s gentleness, his grandmother’s fortitude and the bravery and sadness of their children were the first tales that stirred Steinbeck’s imagination and he wanted these stories immortalized. The Hamilton family tales are mixed in an earlier family saga, already known to most of the world. The Trasks are the first first family of all, and two sets of Trask brothers follow the biblical story of Cain and Able. The youngest generation of Trasks live close to the Hamiltons and through their association or the author’s talent, seem more understandable than their biblical counterparts.
The Genesis story is a bald recounting of sibling rivalry, how only one brother’s gift received praise and the other brother slew him in a fit of jealousy. However, the Trask brothers, first Charles and Adam and then Cal and Aaron both have a longstanding relationships with their emotionally distant fathers and all of the Trasks experience the confusion and regret that comes when a beloved sibling is also a hated rival. Even better, the second generation of Trasks experiences comedy and joy along with the drama, making the characters more believable and identifiable than their Biblical counterparts. Here the boys form a warm relationship with Lee, the family housekeeper, and memorize the series of steps for driving an early automobile before emotion and circumstance pull them apart.
Lee reveals the central question and dichotomy in East of Eden with the Hebrew word, Timshel, which means “thou mayest”. According to this passage, the Hebrew verse of Genesis relates that God recognizes the jealousy in Cain’s heart, calls it a sin and assures the boy he still has choice about his future. Cain can submit to these feelings and do something evil or he can choose to do the work necessary to transcend them. Lee states that our ability to choose, even in the most extreme circumstances, is what ennobles the human race. And it the end, this choice is the greatest blessing a wounded father can give his sorrowing son.
To laugh or to cry, to forgive or hold a grudge, to surrender or fight on is the choice humanity faces every minute in every day and our stories grow from the decisions we make. And it is the attraction of the choice that pulls us into each new chapter. No matter how many times the hero or villain has declared an allegiance, there is always a chance he or she will change and we read to find those undeclared decisions. It’s what pulls me back into the classics: the endless power of two.