Why We Forget Most of What We Read." In it the author, Julie Beck, describes something called the "forgetting curve," with the steepest part of the curve coming within 24-hours of reading something. Unless we do something, like review, take notes, or reread it is likely we will forget a good portion of what we read. Information has no way of becoming knowledge unless it "sticks" and that only happens if we space out the reading. The author used to hate it when her English teacher assigned only three chapters of a book a week, but that actually helped with learning the material. Well, if all of this is true, and I'm sure it is, I will never ever forget a single thing from East of Eden by John Steinbeck because it took me so long to read it. Ten months. It took me ten months to finish the dang book and now it will be stuck in my head forever!
I started East of Eden for a Classics Club SPIN activity and was pretty excited to get going because I had heard that it made biblical allusions to the creation story. I got bogged down way before I identified any of those allusions and then just slogged along at a snails pace. Finally at page 300 (out of 600 pages, I kid you not) there was a very clear conversation in the text about the Cain and Abel story, one that everyone knows and few even attempt to understand. I perked up. Suddenly I was very interested in proceeding and could see how Steinbeck used the bones of this bible story to frame his text. I know there are lots of other themes in East of Eden but I want to focus on just a few.
Parenting and parental love:
Adam Trask and his brother, Charles, are raised by a demanding father who clearly loves Adam best. Charles is jealous of this parental preference and tries to "buy" his father's love. When that doesn't work he tries to kill his brother. Later, when Adam is a father to twin boys, Cal and Aron, it is Aron he admires most for his erudite ways, though it is Cal who clearly wants and needs his love. Cal, like his uncle before him, tries to buy his father's love. When that doesn't work, he takes revenge on his brother, and though he doesn't pull the trigger, feels responsible for Aron's death. Finally, nearing the end of his life, Adam is finally able to give Cal his blessing.
There are several biblical stories of sibling rivalry but none is so powerful and deadly as the first siblings: Cain and Abel. Cain brings his sacrifice to God of grains from the harvest, while Abel, a shepherd, brings a lamb. God prefers Abel's gift. Cain got jealous and killed his brother. Of course, God caught up with him and gave him a warning about sin. In Genesis 4:7, in the King James version, God tells Cain "thou shalt" rule over sin, as if it were a promise that he would conquer sin, and God had preordained it. But another translation, the American Standard Bible, says "Do thou rule over him" as though it was a commandment. Same scripture, different translation, different meaning. When the Trask servant, Lee, explored this further, with the help of Chinese and Hebrew scholars, he discovered that the original Hebrew word could be translated as "thou mayest." This translation puts the responsibility on the person...you may triumph over sin. Cal Trask struggles with this his whole childhood. Why does he do things he knows are wrong? Lee, the philosopher servant of the book, reminds him repeatedly that he is not bad, and he can beat his confused feelings about himself.
Another biblical allusion that isn't mentioned directly in East of Eden, is the Jacob and Esau story. Isaac, their father, is tricked into giving his blessing on Jacob, the younger of the boys. The importance of parental blessings is big in the old testament. Cal feels the sting of his father's blessing landing on Aron's head, not his, until the end of the story. Adam's last word to Cal is "timshel". The word implies that Adam is freeing Cal from the Cain-Abel curse allowing him to parent without bringing that curse to another generation of Trasks.
Good and Evil
The Bible is full of examples of the struggle between good and evil or between Satan and God. In East of Eden Cathy, mother of the Trask boys, abandons them soon after birth, choosing to be a prostitute instead. She is always contemplating how to trick this person or that out of money, or obtaining items with which she can blackmail them, even killing to gain position. When Adam finally finds her after many years of not knowing where she was, Cathy thinks she can continue to manipulate him, but he finally sees that she is so evil that she doesn't recognize goodness in other people. When Cal meets her, he fears that the evil he sees in his mother also resides within him. It becomes a daily battle he rages against himself, trying to thwart what he sees as a genetic predisposition to be evil. Forgiveness, a very biblical word, factors strongly into the story line.
The Cain and Abel story takes up less than one chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Little is known about these first boys and their lives but in them we see ourselves, striving to be pleasing to God yet wanting our own way. Steinbeck took that story and wrote a rather long book to show us how these are our struggles, too. That is pretty brilliant writing, I'd say.