I was first introduced to John Steinbeck in high school; however, my high school education was split between two years of productivity and two years of confusion. I read his short story “Chrysanthemums” and was sorely befuddled and probably quite bored. I was never privileged to read Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath during high school like other students. Four or five years later, I am finally discovering a twentieth century American writer I actually somewhat enjoy. His seeming inability to complete a story still frustrates me to death, but I confess I am often taken aback at his ability to write what he does choose to tell his audience. Though I disagree with much of what he says, I appreciate him for begging the question. This year I have had the opportunity to read the two books I feel I was deprived of in high school. I now have completed what I would assume is an adequate synopsis of the writer’s greatest works after reading what may be his best novel, East of Eden.
Christianity has long debated the roles of free will and fate in the cosmos, the argument now taking the somewhat popular title of “Predestination vs. Free Will.” The Calvinists argue until they are blue in the face, stating that man is only free if a higher being chooses him to be so, all the while making the faces of the Armenians a reddish hue as their anger boils. “Man is obviously free to choose good from evil,” they counter. The quarrel continues and scriptures are often taken out of context by both sides unfortunately. The blue faced Calvinists, however, have won my vote through the years. I cannot see how one can actually read the book of Romans without coming to a conclusion that God has chosen some specific children for his kingdom. If nothing existed in the beginning but God in his beautiful three-being nature, I do not believe it is so offensive a viewpoint to say that he decided for the world to work in such a way. If we are so upset at such a notion, I suppose we could clinch our insignificant little fists at the Godhead and tell him he is performing his job poorly. We could, at the same time take an eraser to our minds and blot out the whole notion of such a being existing, replacing him a black hole of nothingness or with a much more reasonable creature less powerful but altogether more accepting of our decisions in life. We could perform this small act and by doing so blot out our own existence, for nothing exists if a true idea of God does not exist. He is life, and without him we cease.
The offensive nature of such a belief proclaimed above is the argument that God’s will (or we can call it “fate”) is so set that we are closer to slaves than freemen. We are bound by the inability to make a decision based on anything other than our pursuit of joy. Every decision we make has the deep rooted belief that it will give us more joy. The Armenian philosophy is the easy way out of the maze. Of course we make decisions, but what if there is a line of thought that far exceeds our comprehension? A baby in a play pen may be under the guise of free will, given free reign to make decisions within those parameters. But at the same time a one year old cannot fathom anything outside of those walls. God has given us free reign to make decisions within this sphere of reality. It being a weekend, I chose to make eggs for breakfast today in lieu of my usual porridge. However, just because it is a weekend does not give me the right to make a decision about something I cannot consciously conceive. We have but the illusion of choice in this world — as babies in a play pen.
All this to lead in to one of the underlying themes in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. About halfway through the novel, Steinbeck’s hero in the story, Samuel Hamilton, learns the Hebrew word Timshel, meaning “thou mayest.” East of Eden plays off of the story of Cain and Abel all throughout the novel. Charles and Adam are the focus of the first half of the book, and Adam’s (or possibly Charles’) sons, Aron and Cal, are the focus of the second half. In Genesis Chapter 4, Cain is told by God that “Sin is crouching at the door… you must rule over it.” Steinbeck plays off the Hebrew word for “you must” translating it “you may” rule over it. The first indicates a command, the latter a choice. Steinbeck (or we could say the narrator and the characters Lee and Sam Hamilton) argues that God giving Cain a choice in the matter of sin is far more freeing than him commanding Cain not to sin. In a sense, the philosophy would be that if God was such a God that demanded our holiness, he would be a far less acceptable God than if he put the ball in our court to either reach him or hang ourselves.
We first, however, must discuss the issue of original sin. Do we necessarily have any such thing as inherent sin inside of us when we are born? Here is an argument in which I believe I could agree with Steinbeck. Steinbeck plays on this idea of the inevitable acts of committing the same sins your ancestors did. Are we ever able to break free of the grand shadows of our forefathers? Steinbeck discusses the fallout of a child when he first realizes the imperfections of his parents.
When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.
And this discovering inevitably leads to the notion that if our parents could not defeat certain sins what chance have we? Steinbeck plays off this notion that we inherit our parents’ characteristics. Cal finds out his mother is a whore, and he wrestles with his seeming inability to not be a mean person.
“Dear Lord,” [Cal] said, “let me be like Aron, Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be. If you will let everybody like me, why, I’ll give you anything in the world, and if I haven’t got it, why, I’ll go for to get it. I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be lonely. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.” Slow warm tears were running down his cheeks. His muscles were tight and he fought against making any crying sound or sniffle.
Cal’s haunting belief that he is forever subjected to a mean personality is rooted in this idea that man is not free from his sin. Every person grows up with a different level or area of vice they fight against. Cal thought he was born a mean person and wrestled with escaping that temptation. In this same way, even their father lives under the shadow of his own mother who commits suicide, and when Adam begins to suspect that his father was a huge fake, he reveals he never truly loved him. Charles, Adam’s brother, still holds own to his father’s credibility despite the fact that Cyrus Trask loved Adam better. In all of this, the shadow of who their father was weighed heavy on who they were.
I find it rather easy to argue that Steinbeck believed in some form of original sin. No characters ever escape him to holy purity. That it is inevitable that each person has a dark, hidden vice is evident in the novels of Steinbeck as well as a casual glance at our world. This novel is no different, and its structure is such that layers of vice are handed down. Steinbeck is very good at purposefully structuring his novels in such a way that the structure itself is commentary on the argument in between the lines of the story. Patience is key in this novel, and Steinbeck slowly builds a type of genealogy to the climax of the novel: Cal’s response to his imminent sin bearing down upon him. This brings us back to our original argument.
No person can logically argue against the message Adam gives his son at the end of the novel. Guilt is bearing down on Cal, and the simple, one word advice his father gives him is the word Timshel: “thou mayest.” Cal obviously has a decision to make as do all people: He can wallow in his guilt and embrace his sin or he can choose to reform. No argument can be made against his responsibility in the matter, and the novel purposely leaves us guessing as to what Cal will choose to do. In the end, Steinbeck argues that because Cal has this power to decide, he is free. But freedom cannot be found in a constant battle between vice and virtue. Having to constantly wrestle with a fleshly desire to do evil while wanting to do good is not freedom at all. No soldier believes he is free but looks to a future peace in which he will no longer be required to fight and can live as he pleases. Freedom is the ability to choose among an unlimited number of options with the knowledge that one can do whatever he wants with absolutely no consequences. Freedom cannot be found in choosing between good and evil because, as soon as you choose evil, you are bound by consequences. This is illogical, yet we cannot write off our ability to make decisions as irrelevant. This is where our earlier analogy comes into play.
We have been given, like babies in a crib, the absolute freedom to make decisions that have no bearing on our spiritual state. What we have not been given is the freedom to make decisions that affect our eternal state. In other words, we are so corrupted in our sinful condition that without grace from God, we choose only to sin. This is not to say that we cannot choose to do good — who can deny this? — but to observe that the Bible characterizes even our best works as filthy rags if not done with a spirit of gratitude towards our Creator. In the end, what we are acknowledging is not that man cannot choose good apart from God but that even this good proves an evil when attributed to self. What we call “good” is based on a different standard altogether, and God demands perfection. We, of course, cannot be perfect on our own, and this finally is why God must demand our holiness. He is holy, and without our becoming like him, we cannot reside in his presence. This is grace: that God’s Son was slain so that we could be brought into that union apart from our own efforts. For if it was based on our decisions, we would choose the noose.
I am grateful for people like Steinbeck even though I find myself disagreeing with him. At least he begged the question; it is far better to ask for and seek a god you may or may not believe exists than to just write off the whole notion entirely. Steinbeck was wrong in my opinion, but I appreciate him for making me think and even question or view my own beliefs from a different angle. Like many novels I blab about, I feel I did his a great injustice. The narrator is a created John Steinbeck, and like Melville’s Ishmael, he is so insignificant to the novel that we question why is is there at all. Yet at times he peeps his head in as if to remind the reader they are reading a first hand account. His presence is at once insignificant, at once paramount to the story. He weaves and threads his way around the different story lines and characters, giving a broad picture of humanity in the Salinas Valley. The allusions to the Bible are so vast, we cannot help but recognize, that as Cain killed Abel in the fourth chapter of Genesis, so Steinbeck’s East of Eden has four parts. At last, the depths and lengths this novel travels on a literary level are profound. Like Tolstoy he transitions among so many different characters and plot lines which are so intertwined that we often question where we are going and if we will ever arrive, only to discover that we never left home.