Preliminary remarks by SJG

On this page you will find three excerpts taken from East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck. The focus of the novel is on questions of good and evil, free will, humans, and their relationships with one another.

Steinbeck is notable in that he approaches such themes with the utmost circumspection. Coming at them gently, through metaphor, symbol, and dialogue, he is able to convey nuanced emotions that one could not otherwise. East of Eden is perhaps the best example of how he does this, but you can see him learning how to do it in other books. At the beginning of Cannery Row (1945), he writes,

“How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open a page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves”

Without further ado, here are three excerpts from East of Eden that I particularly enjoyed. They all take place at night

Night scene I

The Hamiltons at the well rig had finished their lunch of Liza’s bread and rat cheese and venomous coffee cooked in a can over the fire. Joe’s eyes were heavy and he was considering how he could get away into the brush to sleep for a while.

Samuel knelt in the sandy soil, looking at the torn and broken edges of his bit. Just before they had stopped for lunch the drill had found something thirty feet down that had mangled the steel as though it were lead. Samuel scraped the edge of the blade with his pocketknife and inspected the scrapings in the palm of his hand. His eyes shone with a childlike excitement. He held out his hand and poured the scrapings into Tom’s hand.

“Take a look at it, son. What do you think it is?”

Joe wandered over from his place in front of the tent. Tom studied the fragments in his hand. “Whatever it is, it’s hard,” he said. “Couldn’t be a diamond that big. Looks like metal. Do you think we’ve bored into a buried locomotive?”

His father laughed. “Thirty feet down,” he said admiringly.

“It looks like tool steel,” said Tom. “We haven’t got anything that can touch it.” Then he saw the faraway joyous look on his father’s face and a shiver of shared delight ame to him. The Hamilton children loved it when their father’s mind went free. Then the world was peopled with wonders.

Samuel said, “Metal, you say. You think, steel. Tom, I’m going to make a guess and then I’m going to get an assay. Now hear my guess – and remember it. I think we’ll find nickel in it, and silver maybe, and carbon and manganese. How I would like to dig it up! It’s in sea sand. That’s what we’ve been getting.”

Tom said, “Say, what do you think it is with – nickel and silver –”

“It must have been long thousand centuries ago, “ Samuel said, and his sons knew he was seeing it. “Maybe it was all water here – an inland sea with seabirds circling and crying. And it would have been a pretty thing if it happened at night. There would come a line of light and then a pencil of white light and then a tree of blinding light drawn in a long arc from heaven. Then there’d be a great water spout and a big mushroom of steam. And your ears would be staggered by the sound because the soaring cry of its coming would be on you at the same time the water exploded. And then it would be black night again, because of the blinding light. And gradually you’d see the killed fish coming up, showing silver in the starlight, and the crying birds would come up to eat them. It’s a lonely, lovely thing to think about, isn’t it?

He made them see it as he always did.

Tom said softly, “You think it’s a meteorite, don’t you?”

(Chapter 17)

Night scene II

Samuel Hamilton rode back home in a night so flooded with moonlight that the hills took on the quality of the white and dusty moon. The trees and earth were moon-dry, silent and airless and dead. The shadows were black without shading and the open places were white without color. Here and there Samuel could see secret movement, for the moon-feeders were at work – the deer which browse all night when the moon is clear and sleep under thickets in the day. Rabbits and field mice and all other small hunted that feel safer in the concealing light crept and hopped and crawled and froze to resemble stones or small bushes when ear or nose suspected danger. The predators were working too – the long weasels like waves of brown light; the cobby wildcats crouching near to the ground, almost invisible except when their yellow eyes caught light and flashed for a second; the foxes, sniffling with pointed up-raised noses for a warm-blooded supper; the raccoons padding near still water, talking frogs. The coyotes nuzzled along the slopes and, torn with sorrow-joy, raised their heads and shouted their feeling, half keen, half laughter, at their goddess moon. And over all the shadowy screech owls sailed, drawing a smudge of shadowy fear behind them on the ground. The wind of the afternoon was gone and only a little breeze like a sigh was stirred by the restless thermals of the warm, dry hills.

[Samuel’s horse]’s loud off-beat hoofsteps silenced the night people until after he had passed. Samuel’s beard glinted white, and his graying hair stood up high on his head. He had hung his black hat on his saddle horn. An ache was on the top of his stomach, an apprehension that was like a sick thought. It was a Weltschmerz – which we used to call “Welshrats” – the world sadness that rises into the soul like a gas and spreads despair so that you probe for the offending event and can find none.

(Chapter 16)

Night scene III

Lee and Adam walked out to the shed with Samuel to see him off. Lee carried a tin lantern to light the way, for it was one of those clear early winter nights when the sky riots with stars and the earth seems doubly dark because of them. A silence lay on the hills. No animal moved about, neither grass-eater nor predator, and the air was so still that the dark limbs and leaves of the live oaks stood unmoving against the Milky Way. The three men were silent. The bail of the lantern squeaked a little as the light swung in Lee’s hand.

Adam asked, “When do you think you’ll be back from your trip?”

Samuel did not answer.

Doxology stood patiently in the stall, head down, his milky white eyes staring at the straw under his feet.

“You’ve had that horse forever,” Adam said.

“He’s thirty-three,” said Samuel. “His teeth are worn off. I have to feed him warm mash with my fingers. And he has bad dreams. He shivers and cries sometimes in his sleep.”

“He’s about as ugly a crow bait as I ever saw,” Adam said.

“I know it. I think that’s why I picked him when he was a colt. Do you know I paid two dollars for him thirty-three years ago? Everything was wrong with him, hoofs like flapjacks, a hock so thick and short and straight there seems no joint at all. He’s hammerheaded and swaybacked. He has a pinched chest and a big behind. He has an iron mouth and he still fights the crupper. With a saddle he feels as though you were riding a sled over a gravel pit. He can’t trot and he stumbles over his feet when he walks. I have never in thirty-three years found one good thing about him. He even has an ugly disposition. He is selfish and quarrelsome and mean and disobedient. To this day I don’t dare walk behind him because he will surely take a kick at me. When I feed him mash he tries to bite my hand. And I love him.”

Lee said, “And you named him ‘Doxology.’”

“Surely,” said Samuel, “so ill endowed a creature deserved, I thought, one grand possession. He hasn’t very long now.”

Adam said, “Maybe you should put him out of his misery.”

“What misery?” Samuel demanded. “He’s one of the few happy and consistent beings I’ve ever met.”

“He must have aches and pains.”

“Well, he doesn’t think so. Doxology still thinks he’s one hell of a horse. Would you shoot him, Adam?”

“Yes, I think I would. Yes, I would.”

“You’d take the responsibility?”

“Yes, I think I would. He’s thirty-three. His lifespan is long over.”

Lee had set his lantern on the ground. Samuel squatted beside it and instinctively stretched his hands for warmth to the butterfly of yellow light.

“I’ve been bothered by something, Adam,” he said.

“What is it?”

“You would really shoot my horse because death might be more comfortable?”

“Well, I meant–”

Samuel said quickly, “Do you like your life, Adam?”

“Of course not.”

“If I had a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you, should I give it to you? Inspect yourself, man.”

“What medicine?”

“No,” said Samuel. “If I tell you, believe me when I say it may kill you.”

Lee said, “Be careful, Mr. Hamilton. Be careful.”

“What is this?” Adam demanded. “Tell me what you’re thinking of.”

Samuel said softly, “I think for once I will not be careful. Lee, if I am wrong – listen – if I am mistaken, I accept the responsibility and I will take what blame there is to take.”

“Are you sure you’re right?” Lee asked anxiously.

“Of course I’m not sure. Adam, do you want the medicine?”

“Yes. I don’t know what it is but give it to me.”

“Adam, Cathy is in Salinas. She owns a whorehouse, the most vicious and depraved in this whole end of the country. The evil and ugly, the distorted and slimy, the worst things humans can think up are for sale there. The crippled and crooked come there for satisfaction. But it is worse than that. Cathy, and she is now called Kate, takes the fresh and young and beautiful and so maims them that they can never be whole again. Now, there’s your medicine. Let’s see what it does to you.”

“You’re a liar!” Adam said.

“No, Adam. Many things I am, but a liar I am not.”

Adam whirled on Lee. “Is this true?”

Adam stood swaying in the lantern light and then he turned and ran. They could hear his heavy steps running and tripping. They heard him falling over the brush and scrambling and clawing his way upward on the slope. The sound of him stopped only when he had gone over the brow of the hill.

Lee said, “Your medicine acts like poison.”

“I take responsibility,” said Samuel. “Long ago I learned this: When a dog has eaten strychnine and is going to die, you must get an ax and carry him to a chopping block. Then you must wait for his next convulsion, and in that moment – chop off his tail. Then, if the poison has not gone too far, your dog may recover. The shock of pain can counteract the poison. Without the shock he will surely die.”

“But how do you know this is the same?” Lee asked.

“I don’t. But without it he would surely die.”

“You’re a brave man,” Lee said.

“No, I’m an old man. And if I should have anything on my conscience it won’t be for long.”

Lee asked, “What do you suppose he’ll do?”

“I don’t know,” said Samuel, “but at least he won’t sit around and mope. Here, hold the lantern for me, will you?”

In the yellow light Samuel slipped the bit in Doxology’s mouth, a bit worn so thin that it was a flake of steel. The check rein had been abandoned long ago. The old hammerhead was free to drag his nose if he wished, or to pause and crop grass beside the road. Samuel didn’t care. Tenderly he buckled the crupper, and the horse edged around to try to kick him.

When Dox was between the shafts of the cart Lee asked, “Would you mind if I rode along with you a little? I’ll walk back.”

“Come along,” said Samuel, and he tried not to notice that Lee helped him up into the cart.

The night was very dark, and Dox showed his disgust for night-traveling by stumbling every few steps.

Samuel said, “Get on with it, Lee. What is it you want to say?”

Lee did not appear surprised. “Maybe I’m nosy the way you say you are. I get to thinking. I know probabilities, but tonight you fooled me completely. I would have taken any bet that you of all men would not have told Adam.”

“Did you know about her?”

“Of course,” said Lee.

“Do the boys know?”

“I don’t think so, but that’s only a matter of time. You know how cruel children are. Someday in the schoolyard it will be shouted at them.” “Maybe you ought to take them away from here,” said Samuel. “Think about that, Lee.”

“My question isn’t answered, Mr. Hamilton. How were you able to do what you did?”

“Do you think I was that wrong?”

“No, I don’t mean that at all. But I’ve never thought of you as taking any strong unchanging stand on anything. This has been my judgment. Are you interested?”

“Show me the man who isn’t interested in discussing himself,” said Samuel. “Go on.”

“You’re a kind man, Mr. Hamilton. And I’ve always thought it was the kindness that comes from not wanting any trouble. And your mind is as facile as a young lamb leaping in a daisy field. You have never to my knowledge taken a bulldog grip on anything. And then tonight you did a thing that tears down my whole picture of you.”

Samuel wrapped the lines around a stick stuck in the whip socket, and Doxology stumbled on down the rutty road. The old man stroked his beard, and it shone very white in the starlight. He took off his black hat and laid it in his lap. “I guess it surprised me as much as it did you,” he said. “But if you want to know why – look into yourself.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“If you had only told me about your studies earlier it might have made a great difference, Lee.”

“I still don’t understand you.”

“Careful, Lee, you’ll get me talking. I told you my Irish came and went. It’s coming now.”

Lee said, “Mr. Hamilton, you’re going away and you’re not coming back. You do not intend to live very much longer.”

“That’s true, Lee. How did you know?”

“There’s death all around you. It shines from you.”

“I didn’t know anyone could see it,” Samuel said, “You know, Lee, I think of my life as a kind of music, not always good music but still having form and melody. And my life has not been a full orchestra for a long time now. A single note only – and that note unchanging sorrow. I’m not alone in my attitude, Lee. It seems to me that too many of us conceive of a life as ending in defeat.”

Lee said, “Maybe everyone is too rich. I have noticed that there is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich. Feed a man, clothe him, put him in a good house, and he will die of despair.”

“It was your two-word retranslation, Lee – ‘Thou mayest.’ It took me by the throat and shook me. And when the dizziness was over, a path was open, new and bright. And my life which is ending seems to be going on to an ending wonderful. And my music has a new last melody like a bird song in the night.”

Lee was peering at him through the darkness. “That’s what it did to those old men of my family.”

“‘Thou mayest rule over sin,’ Lee. That’s it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not, and they are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles – only the winners are remembered. Surely most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness. ‘Thou mayest, Thou mayest!’ What glory! It is true that we are weak and sick and quarrelsome, but if that is all we ever were, we would, millenniums ago, have disappeared from the face of the earth. A few remnants of fossilized jawbone, some broken teeth in strata of limestone, would be the only mark man would have left of his existence in the world. But the choice, Lee, the choice of winning! I had never understood it or accepted it before. Do you see now why I told Adam tonight? I exercised the choice. Maybe I was wrong, but by telling him I also forced him to live or get off the pot. What is the word, Lee?”

Timshel,” said Lee. “Will you stop the cart?”

“You’ll have a long walk back.”

Lee climbed down. “Samuel!” he said.

“Here I am.” The old man chuckled. “Liza hates for me to say that.”

“Samuel, you’ve gone beyond me.”

“It’s time, Lee.”

“Good-by, Samuel,” Lee said, and he walked hurriedly back along the road. He heard the iron tires of the cart grinding on the road. He turned and looked after it, and on the slope he saw old Samuel against the sky, his white hair shining with starlight.

(Chapter 24)