“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck

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What about a novel where the purest of heart is ruthlessly punished? What version of morality is Steinbeck advocating for?

A clear extraction from all of his narrative decisions is the idea that goodness is only a virtue when it exists in tandem with bad, only when a man composed of equal measures of malice and benevolence wills himself to abide by the latter. When goodness manifests effortlessly, it is more of a vice than a virtue, as seen in our less rounded A- characters.

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With that in mind, for Steinbeck’s take on morally nuanced, irrepressibly good-willed men, we turn to Samuel Hamilton and Lee, two narratives not bound by namesake, running adjacent to the more archetypical Trask family. The two, through experience and wisdom of age, have developed the ability to accept in stride the paradoxical amalgamation of good and evil in themselves and actively find empowerment over their respective destinies.

Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s larger-than-life righteous man, is so rapidly aged from continuous familial tragedies and acting as the dutiful patriarch of a wholesome family that his unsatisfying, wrongful demise seems inappropriate. His son, Tom Hamilton, shoots himself in his farmhouse with his extended family miles away despite being a loving brother and a kind soul. This is contrasted with the implication that Cathy ‘got what was coming to her’, committing suicide by poison in the solitude of her office. The inconsistent degree of poetry justice Steinbeck dishes out stands to confuse rather than clarify.

The rationalisation of that is as follows. Steinbeck’s good is defined as good entirely without conditions, not so much blind as it is selfless. The stories from the fictional Trasks make narrative sense because they are written to convey an unambiguous moral lesson, but the Hamiltons are real people and hence their stories irregular. If the autobiographically inclined narrative following a conventional framework- our heroes get their well-earned happy endings and our villains eternal damnation- the decision to do good becomes a selfish one and much less free, as a choice between happiness and misery scarcely qualifies a choice. The consequences of our choices outside of Eden do not necessarily coincide with our intentions, good or bad. Adam’s good is irrational, without proper motivation or justification, which explains why it eludes Cathy entirely, why she could not fathom Adam’s immunity to her manipulation. Straining the qualifier further, Steinbeck offers that goodness arising from a fear of hellfire or a desire for heaven does not qualify as true goodness.

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