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Biblical Symbolism in John Steinbeck s work East of Eden
John Steinbeck is considered to be one of the most talented American writers of all time. Most of his works are regarded highly by critics and celebrated as magnificent forms of twentieth-century literature. Steinbeck s style remains consistent throughout many of his works; he almost always incorporates the Bible. There are few better examples of Steinbeck s style than East of Eden. Throughout Steinbeck s novel East of Eden, he exercises the use of many biblical references to illustrate clearly his views pertaining to the conflict of good and evil.
Much of the plot of East of Eden is centered upon the two sets of brothers representing Cain and Abel. Both pairs are similar to Cain and Abel in the way they go about winning their fathers favors. All four give gifts to their fathers, and the fathers dismiss the gifts of Charles and Caleb, the Cain representations (Marks, Jay Lester. p.121). Caleb and Charles Trask are obviously the more malignant brothers. They are also the more loving towards their father. Steinbeck s purpose in this is to illustrate the need of the Cain character in the story. Abel, Adam and Aron, is the opposite of his brother and naturally good and pure. The purpose of Adam and Aron in East of Eden is to clarify the belief that purity must know wickedness (Marks, Jay Lester. p.122). Steinbeck illustrates the need for both good and bad with the actions and beliefs of these supposed good characters. The representations of Abel, Adam and Aron are both described as unloving. Adam has not treated his children fairly and his treatment is caused by his innate goodness. Aron grows as an ignorant selfish person because he is naturally good (Fonterose, Joseph. p. 3382). Steinbeck uses Cain to illustrate the choice man has. In the case of Charles, Cain dies an unhappy man who did not live a worthwhile life, Caleb on the other hand, chose to realize his dark past, but chose to continue living his life with hope (Marks, Jay Lester. p. 122-123).
In Steinbeck s East of Eden he is constantly using single characters to illustrate many different biblical references. Adam and Jehovah are combined in Cyrus Trask in the first generation, and combined with Adam Trask in the second. Cathy-Kate combines many biblical figures as well. She is not only Eve, but she is Cain s wife and the serpent of Eden as well (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3380). Thus she is the representation of evil too. Cathy is evil to the point where she is not human. Her presence in the novel is meant to represent evil and all of its cruel intentions. All of her deeds are intended to show how far from the real world Cathy actually is (Howard, Levant. p. 245). Steinbeck compares Cathy to other prostitutes in Salinas Valley, the setting of East of Eden. She is described as the only whore who is incapable of being a good person. She is an inhuman being whose life revolves around cruelty and wrongdoing. She is solely satanic and destroys the innocence of man (Marks, Jay Lester. p. 126-127).
John Steinbeck includes more of the tale of Genesis: 4 than is actually told in the bible. The basis of this is a Jewish story involving twin sisters of both Cain and Abel. The two disputed over Abel s twin whom Abel was to marry. Cain murdered Abel and wed the twin sister of his brother (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3380). The story differs also in that it is Abel who leaves his home instead of Cain. Abel found his Eden, represented by Salinas Valley, but lost it after fathering a second generation very similar to the first, Caleb representing Cain and Aron representing Abel (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3379). The story is changed by Steinbeck to illustrate the idea that men naturally have both good and evil tendencies within them, and that this mixture compels men to choose between the two. The story told is similar to an alternate interpretation of Genesis: 4 called timshel. This alternate reading introduces the idea that Cain feels evil and kills Abel because of the jealousy he feels towards his brother and God s love for Abel (Levant, Howard. p.243).
The relationship of good to evil is found in many different ways throughout East of Eden. One way is the opposition between the two. Such a relationship is illustrated through the Cain and Abel allusions in the novel. Another relationship is that the two must coexist. This relation is represented by the arrival of both the church and the brothel in town at the same time. Good comes from evil is the third relationship. Cathy making Adam appear all the more pure shows this relation. The last relationship is that both terms are relative (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3381). Caleb Trask is illustrated as being a man more evil than others are. This innate wickedness varies from the immoral values of other characters such as Charles or Cathy-Kate. The wickedness is attributed to Caleb s ability to choose between good and evil and his choosing of the latter (Levant, Howard. p.240). In East of Eden, good is associated with individual morals. Examples of such would be abstinence from sexual activity and virtues like generosity and self-respect. Evil is illustrated through acts such as prostitution and murder (Fonterose, Joseph. p. 3381). Sex is treated as a carnal act that cannot be good. It is a sin; where in other Steinbeck novels, it would be easily accepted. The sex in East of Eden is considered extremely bad and thus an evil action (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3381).
Steinbeck elucidates in East of Eden the belief that man, as a whole is a part of the continuous stream of good and evil. Where one man becomes condemned for his sloth, another might see the mark of Cain as a reason to persevere. Steinbeck states, using the character Lee, Cain bore the mark not to destroy him but to save him It was a preserving mark . (Marks, Jay Lester. p.123). The major motifs in East of Eden are actually based on two independent thoughts. The first is based on who man is. It is a statement of how he lives his life. The second is the choice that man has between good and evil. These two thoughts are easily related and thus make up the motif (Marks, Jay Lester. p.120). Steinbeck s belief that evil is not passed from parent to child is illustrated by Kate and her sons. Aron and Caleb are obviously nothing like their mother when it comes to the matter of good and evil. Aron, the Abel figure, is not capable of his mother s wickedness and lack of morality. Caleb differs from his mother in that he is heterogeneously good and evil. Caleb is the proof Steinbeck gives that man takes his own path and not necessarily the path of his bloodline (Marks, Jay Lester. p.127). Steinbeck s interpretation of the timshel document suggests that the schism of moral values is illustrated in the story of Cain and Abel. Thus, good and evil are separated each having its own moral standpoint. Because of man s evil heritage, being descendent of Cain, he is naturally forgiven for any breach in purity (Levant, Howard. p. 244).
Steinbeck s references and allusions to the bible are very obvious. Although they are most apparent when taking the story of Genesis: 4 into consideration, the more subtle devices are equally as useful to Steinbeck to prove his point. His beliefs of the relationship between good and evil are easily understood with the allusions that are exercised. It is perhaps because of this fact that John Steinbeck s works are commonly considered genius.
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