In an effort to better understand human flaws—particularly parental failure—I have taken to reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This is my first foray into Steinbeck which might be a bit ambitious for an amateur reader such as myself, but I simply feel drawn to the story at this phase in my life. It might have to do with my current boredom with The Amber Spyglass, a supposed reinvention of Milton’s Paradise Lost. I find Pullman’s inversion of biblical allegory and myth to be too unrelatable and disjointed to my own experience of the metaphysical and spiritual. Maybe I simply need someone to explain it to me (Billy, anyone?). The suspense and character development of the first two installations and the only subtle beginnings of a Milton-esque drama made me forgive the first two novels’ flaws, but the irreverent inversion of biblical allegory thus far in the third book has made me lose interest momentarily, hence my Steinbeck detour.
I realize as I am only a third of the way through, my opinion will likely change. I find Adam a frustrating protagonist. I just finished the part when his twin sons are born, and I am absolutely appalled at his inability to read his wife, which is quite possibly the point. Samuel—the wise prophet character embodied in a lusty, good-hearted Irishman—sees through Cathy’s machinations within a few minutes of their meeting. The character of Cathy is actually really the only gripe I have with the novel. She is far too malevolent and inhuman from even a young age to be plausible as an actual person. But it’s Steinbeck’s world, and he can make a metaphor out of a person if he wants to. He’s earned it, for Pete’s sake…
Anyway, this novel has certainly made me rethink the Cain and Abel story, and I’m not even halfway through yet. We are always told that Abel was the good son, the obedient son because of his willingness to sacrifice his lamb. Cain’s offering of the harvest—no less sacrificial in the economy of toil and sweat—is unequivocally rejected. God accepts Abel’s sacrifice, so we assume—as Sunday school conditions us to assume—that Cain was the “inferior” brother. In fact, his immediately defensive response to God’s rejection suggests underlying jealousy and bitterness that may have taken root long before the story takes place.
Despite that assumption, I think this story is more of a commentary on free will and the knowledge of good and evil to which their parents have been newly introduced. What does it mean for the human race when Cain, the first man born into creation—fully equipped with intellect, passion, conscience and free will—brutally and premeditatively murders his own brother? What are the ramifications of that realization?
In his book Story, Stephen James had a remarkable reimagining of this scene that evokes Hitchcock. I think that this psychological foray into Cain’s mind for the first time de-demonized Cain for me and also stripped Abel of his sainthood. Now Steinbeck for me has caused me to revisit that paradigm, for it was Charles (the Cain figure) and not Adam (Abel) who professes to deeply love their flawed father. Adam professes only fear and respect. It is love that evokes this deep jealousy.
We must ask ourselves though, what happens when love—by definition intertwined with the glory and perils of free will—translates into action. It is love—twisted and demented—that drove Cain to murder.
Love inextricably mixed up with self-love can destroy… or it can, I suppose, give life in one redemptive blaze of glory.
But the choice must be made.
The choice is the thing.
And that is actually, strangely, quite empowering…