East of Eden (1952) John Steinbeck

Underconsumed Knowledge
29 min readJun 8, 2021

Humans Are Caught In A Net of Good and Evil, But You Have A Choice

East of Eden argues the paradox of life, many things which do not necessarily make sense with one another. “It was a mystery, but then there are many mysterious things in our social thinking.” “Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence… There is no other story.” Adam, the righteous man, lives off what he thinks is money his father stole. The Sheriff burns evidence from the local brothel, damning evidence that would sink the community’s figures if it was known, “Every envelope contained a man’s honor and peace of mind. Effectively used, these pitures could cause half a dozen suicides.” He sees, “We [the law] don’t drive people. We’ve got to live with them.” “If we closed them up [the brothel] they’d just move. The people want those houses. We keep an eye on them so not much bad happens.” “If I told some of the things I know [the Sheriff], this whole goddamn county would go up in smoke.” The Sheriff sees the contradictions that exist, but sees their necessity, for better or worse, the consequences for families, wives, and children in the balance (such as Cathy’s children finding out she is a prostitute). “[The Sheriff] remembered hearing a doctor say, ‘I love to deliver a baby, because if I do my work well, there’s joy at the end of it.’ The sheriff had thought often of that remark. It seemed to him that if he did his work well there was sorrow at the end of it for somebody. The fact that it was necessary was losing its weight with him.” This sorrow is the creation of imperfect people, not the Sheriff, however. Lee, the Chinese house servant who is born amongst the railroad gangs in the West, to a mother who disguised herself as a man, and who was raped during childbirth; these same men raised Lee as if he were their own child, “And then the half-mad men knew [his mother was not a male worker] and they all went mad. One hunger sharpened another hunger, and one crime blotted out the one before it, and the little crimes committed against those starving men flared into one gigantic maniac crime… Before you hate those men you must know this. My father always told it at the last: No child ever had such care as I. The whole camp became my mother. It is a beauty — a dreadful kind of beauty [the truth]”. It emphasizes Viktor Frankl’s truth, how you respond to your life. Timshel, the Hebrew word from the Bible, “Thou Mayest”, you have the choice, if you want to, “that gives a choice… that says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou Mayest’ — -it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”. You can overcome the evil that exists. Furthermore, it emphasizes that all is not either good or all bad. Steinbeck sees, as an astute observer of life, the ways in which people need the World to be; the way it should be, vs. the way it actually is. Throughout his characters look reality in the face and contort it to fit it to be what they want it to be. Adam sees his wife Cathy as a perfect angel, and he manufactures a dreamworld for the two of them; he does not see what she literally tells him to his face, that she is miserable, that she does not want to be where she is, and that she will leave him (which, she does, shooting him in the shoulder after giving birth to their twins). Later his son Aron manufactures a similar World for his girlfriend while he is away at Stanford; he falls in love with an ideal. In such a manner, his girlfriend Abra loses her freedom, and has to live up to an ideal of perfection that does not exist. She tells Cal, Aron’s brother, “…he writes me love letters now — only they aren’t to me… It’s like they were to — himself.” She is relieved when he goes away to war and writes that they can no longer be. Adam’s father wants to be a great man, and he so becomes one as an authoritarian father, “The techniques and training were not designed for the boys at all but only to make Cyrus a great man.” Throughout, various characters see through the illusions of society and culture, but they let things be, knowing the alternative for the people in the balance to be too great. Samuel Hamilton sees that his wife’s assurance in her convictions about religion are both strong and immutable; better to leave her alone, “[A] tight hard little woman humor-less as a chicken. She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do.” “It was well known that Liza Hamilton and the Lord God held similar convictions on nearly every subject.” Despite this God-fearing wife, Samuel Hamilton continues to asks questions for himself, but sees it best to leave sleeping dogs lie for people whom derive a great meaning from faith. “Samuel wrote to [his son] Joe, saying, ‘I would be disappointed if you had not become an atheist, and I read pleasantly that you have, in your age and wisdom, accepted agnosticism the way you’d take a cookie on a full stomach. But I would ask you with all my understanding heart not to try to convert our mother. Your last letter only made her think you are not well. Your mother does not believe there are many ills uncurable by good strong soup. She puts your brave attack on the structure of our civilization down to a stomach ache. It worried her. Her faith is a mountain, and you, my son, haven’t even got a shovel yet.’” Liza, “wins all arguments by the use of vehemence and the conviction that a difference of opinion is a personal affront.” Why are things the way they are, a young Adam wants to know from his father? He says, many never reconcile their what with a why, “I’ve studied and maybe learned how things are, but I’m not even close to why they are. And you must not expect to find that people understand what they do. So many things are done instinctively, the way a bee makes honey or a fox dips his paws in a stream to fool dogs. A fox can’t say why he does it, and what bee remembers winter or expects it to come again?” Charles, Adam’s brother, is born knowing his place in the World, perhaps too much; Cyrus wants to send Adam to the military so that he might grow a spine. He says, “Charles is not afraid so he could never learn anything about courage. He does not know anything outside himself so he could never gain the things I’ve tried to explain to you. To put him in an army would be to let loose things which in Charles must be chained down, not let loose.” On learning courage, “… nearly all men are afraid, and they don’t even know what causes their fear — shadows, perplexities, dangers without names or numbers, fear of a faceless death. But if you can bring yourself to face not shadows but real death, described and recognizable, by bullet or saber, arrow or lance, then you need never be afraid again, at least not in the same way you were before. Then you will be a man set apart from other men, safe where other men may cry in terror. This is the great reward. Maybe this is the only reward.” When fear dies, one can really begin to live; Only Fear Dies. People fear what they do not understand, even fear kindness, “He was regarded by his comrades with contemptuous affection and the unspoken fear men have of impulses they do not understand.” As Adam volunteered in the army field hospitals. Samuel, the great inventor and man of knowledge, “A shining man like Samuel could, and can, cause a lot of trouble. He might, for example, prove too attractive to the wives of men who knew they were dull. Then there were his education and his reading, the books he bought and borrowed, his knowledge of things that could not be eaten or worn or cohabited with, his interest in poetry and his respect for good writing.” People want others to be like themselves, out of fear, and out of lack of comprehension. Samuel’s son Will, who became a great businessman and man of practicality, was one of the main things that even put food on the table for the Hamiltons, over time. And this conservative practicality serves the demands of reality, however soul-crushing it may be. “He was a conservative, not only in politics but in everything. Ideas he found revolutionary, and he avoided them with suspicion and distaste. Will liked to live so that no one could find fault with him, and to do that he had to live as nearly like other people as possible.” Will later in the book says to Adam on his frozen lettuce shipping idea, “We had ideas for breakfast. We had ideas instead of breakfast. We had so many ideas we forgot to make the money for groceries… I’m the only one in the family, except my mother, who didn’t have ideas, and I’m the only one who ever made a dime… And if you tell me you don’t care about making a profit, I’m going to throw that coffee pot right at your head.” You can’t eat books about progressivism; you need to pursue both ideas and economic pursuits. “The others didn’t even know they needed him… He thought the Hamiltons despised him for his one ability… He thought they were ashamed of him, and he fought bitterly for their recognition.” Steinbeck’s glory, a recurring theme. Adam sees the role of self-hatred in a man’s actions in his years after being in the military as a vagrant and in chain gangs, “Adam thought how a man doing an ugly or a brutal thing has hurt himself and must punish someone for the hurt… Adam knew from his years in the army that a man afraid is a dangerous animal.” Our society’s strain for personal responsibility does not keep people from shirking it and planning ahead, “In the houses [the prostitutes] had no responsibility. They were fed and clothed and taken care of until they were too old, and then they were kicked out. This ending was no deterrent. No one who is young is ever going to be old.” Mr. Edwards, the man who falls for Cathy and then beats her to a pulp to be relieved of her spell, was, like Adam, out of control, “Love to a man like Mr. Edwards is a crippling emotion. It ruined his judgment, canceled his knowledge, weakened him.” One of Steinbeck’s chief messages in the book is the role of glory in society, which certainly has a large role. He puts forth, however, that without glory, there would be nothing great, and I find this to be untrue; all great things do not need to stem from the quest for glory. But, he sees it as a unifying phenomenon, “And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.” We want people to like our creations, but does that mean it has to be the quest for glory? Maybe there is a strain of truth to it. In one of the novel’s best long passages about what is a human, it is the only creative species, and Steinbeck believes in the principle that people ought to be able to exercise their creative capacities,

“In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

“At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

“And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”

Samuel Hamilton illustrated this creative man, even if it wasn’t always profitable for him, “He don’t talk like other people… [H]e’s all full of plans… And he’s all full of hope… But you remember this — he’s a fine worker, a good blacksmith, and some of his plans work out.” To his children Samuel imparted, “his love of learning, and he set them apart from the prideful ignorance of their time.” Samuel was wise, and liked to wonder and wander in his thoughts; he even would wonder if the new age of modernity would bring happiness to the people, what with flush toilets and telephones. “Where Samuel went haywire was wondering whether people would be happy when all that came… Samuel could remember hearing of a cousin of his mother’s in Ireland, a knight and rich and handsome, and anyway shot himself on a silken couch, sitting beside the most beautiful woman in the world who loved him. ‘There’s a capacity for appetite,’ Samuel said, ‘that a whole heaven and earth of cake can’t satisfy.’” This same prideful ignorance that permeates many social groups in modern society with the propensity to result in poor economic outcomes. Samuel was also a fair-minded person, who takes people for their human worth, including the Trask’s Chinese servant Lee. Lee says of him, “You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.” This foreshadows Jiddu by 2 years, being able to see “what is” without emotional blinders (1954 for First and Last Freedom, 1952 for East of Eden). Steinbeck sees the potential for good and evil to exist in everyone, “Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free? Would not such a man be our monster, and are we not related to him in our hidden water? It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Adam couldn’t see Cathy’s “evil and ugly things.” Instead, she set off Steinbeck’s “glory” for him, and he became drunk with love. “Whatever Cathy may have been, she set off the glory in Adam. His spirit rose flying and released him from fear and bitterness and rancid memories. The glory lights up the world and changes it the way a star shell changes a battleground. Perhaps Adam did not see Cathy at all, so lighted was she by his eyes. Burned in his mind was an image of beauty and tenderness, a sweet and holy girl, precious beyond thinking, clean and loving, and that image was Cathy to her husband, and nothing Cathy did or said could warp Adam’s Cathy.” Adam only saw what he wanted to see, was in love with the story, his expectations; he illustrates his lack of self-love, self-direction and self-confidence, “I never had energy or direction or — well, even a very great desire to live before I had you.” “A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to waken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” Adam was not his own man anymore, either, however (though he never really was). When Cathy is gone, of his garden of Eden, “I never wanted it for myself. I have no one to show a garden to.” This is Steinbeck’s glory-as-motivator; he does not see positive social feeling as a potential motivation, though a great many are motivated by the need for admiration. Later, Faye also couldn’t see Kate for similar reasons as Adam’s blindness, ultimately sealing her murder and Kate’s (Cathy’s) taking over the brothel. Faye says, “You make me happy too. Happier than I have ever been. Now I don’t feel alone. Now I feel safe.” Samuel sees through Cathy and wants to help Adam see through the errors in his ways, indeed, thinks it is his duty as a friend, “It’s my duty to take this thing of yours and kick it in the face, then raise it up and spread slime on it thick enough to blot out its dangerous light.” His voice grew strong with vehemence. “I should hold it up to you much-covered and show you its dirt and danger. I should warn you to look closer until you can see how ugly it really is… Oh, I should. And I should straighten out your tangled thoughts… If I did my duty well, I could give you back your bad old life and feel good about it, and welcome you back to the musty membership in the lodge.” He uses a clever trick I may borrow in life to see if Adam and Cathy are listening to him, “…within a few words neither Cathy nor Adam was listening to him. To prove it, he used a truck he had devised to discover whether his children were listening when they begged him to read to them and would not let him stop. He threw in two sentences of nonsense. There was no response from either Adam or Cathy. He gave up.” Cathy was cunning. “As a very young child she had learned to win by using the momentum of her opponent. It was easy to guide a man’s strength where it was impossible to resist him.” Get the horse to do what you want it to do instead of forcing it. Somewhat similarly, Lee thinks a good servant can, “completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce… and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped, and beaten anyone I’ve worked for and come away with thanks… You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less… and [am] still… fed, clothed, and protected.” Back to Cathy, she sees what a fool Adam is, saying, I can do anything to you. Any woman can do anything to you. You’re a fool.” Once Cathy crushes Adam’s heart and leaves him with a shot in the shoulder, Samuel tries to shake him out of his stupor after a number of years of his wallowing, seeing his duty to help, for the sake of the children mostly. He says to Adam, “Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true… You’re going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow.” If Adam does nothing, bad things will grow and happen to his children; he needs to try to live, he needs Dostoevsky’s “air.” When he is coming out of it, finally, Adam asks Samuel, “Was she very beautiful Samuel?” He replies, “To you she was because you built her. I don’t think you ever saw her — only your own creation.” In a funny anecdote, Adam worries the children have Cathy’s DNA in them, and Samuel assuages his fears saying he thinks it doesn’t matter much. Adam says, “You can’t make a race horse of a pig.” To which Samuel replies, “No… but you can make a very fast pig.” Everyone can do and be something, people put their own fears on their children, “I don’t very much believe in blood… I think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he planted in them after they cleared the womb.” Adam thanks Samuel for hitting him, and Samuel closes on the fact that Liza won’t believe he hit him, pivoting to the difficulty of unbelieved truth as heresy and the potential penalties for the heretic, “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.” Adam starts to finally snap out of his funk, and Samuel says, “Some people think it’s an insult to the glory of their sickness to get well.” As Eric Hoffer points out, people love having a wooden leg. “In his wife Adam had touched the living world… Adam could do no dishonesty. He didn’t want anything. You had to crave something to be dishonest.” Adam resumed his state of not-really-living without Cathy, though somewhat on a spectrum. On the contradiction of the brothels and the churches in the same community, “And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels… each [church] for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.” Churches and brothels both helped with the inherent meaningless of life; the former helped to build our shared morality and culture. One of the men of God, “the Reverence Billing… turned out to be a thief, an adulterer, a libertine… but that didn’t change the fact that he had communicated some good things to a great number of receptive people. Billing went to jail, but no one ever arrested the good things he had released. And it doesn’t matter much that his motive was impure. He used good material and some of it stuck… The sects… built the structure of social life in the Salinas Valley.” As Lee, Samuel, and Adam go into discussing Cain and Abel, Lee explains he went to Sunday School, saying, “People like you to be something, preferable what they are.” Samuel explains why he defies his wife’s desire for him to stop asking questions of the Scriptures, “And I made a promise to myself that I would not consider enjoyment a sin. I take a pleasure in inquiring into things.” Of troubling stories in the Bible, Samuel says, “If it troubles us it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves.” Samuel chastises Adam for not caring for his land, ““Is it a good feeling to let your life lie fallow?” “What else could I do?” “You could try again.” Adan faced him. “I’m afraid to, Samuel… I’d rather just go about it this way. Maybe I haven’t the energy or the courage.” Cain, despite having killed his brother, “in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee continues, “It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey.” Samuel asks Adam, “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.” He then tells Adam the truth about Cathy and that she runs Kate’s brothel. Samuel says, “I exercised the choice. Maybe I was wrong, but by telling him I also forced him to live or get off the pot.” So many people do not live, are walking dead, look away from truth. Adam and Lee go back and forth, “’I said that word [Timshel] carried a man’s greatness if he wanted to take advantage of it.’ ‘I remember Sam Hamilton felt good about it.’ ‘It set him free,’ said Lee. ‘It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.’ ‘That’s lonely.’ ‘All great and precious things are lonely.’” Lee says his father said, “There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.” Lee points out to Adam he doesn’t want his actual advice, “You want to talk about this letter. Then talk, and I will know from your talk whether I can offer an honest opinion or whether it is better to reassure you in your own.” Many people seeking “opinions” are just looking for their own opinion parroted back to them. Lee later says, “Goddam it, whenever a person wants reassurance he tells a friend to think what he wants to be true. It’s like asking a waiter what’s good tonight.” Lee sees Adam is incapable of his own function, as he shrieks about not knowing what to do; Lee says, “Faced with two sets of morals, you’ll follow your training. What you call thinking won’t change it.” Adam’s twin sons, Aron and Cal, antagonize one another. Cal, “punished because he wished he could be loved as Aron was loved. It had gone so far that he preferred what he had to what Aron had.” They switch schools, and the new school is opulent. “But as is true of all humans, they were stunned for one day, admiring on the second, and on the third day could not remember very clearly ever having gone to any other school.” Man can get used to anything, the bastard (Dostoevsky). When Lee decides he cannot live without Adam and the boys and that his desire to open a bookstore in San Francisco is a pipe dream, he settles in. “…for Lee had lived poised to go someplace else. Here, for the first time in his life, he built a home for himself, feathered with comfort and permanence.” This is a feeling I know all to well, from undecorated work desks to only recently acquiring a couch and a condo, a desire to flee to something else. Cal felt the painful sting of his father’s rejection throughout his life. “And once a boy has suffered rejection, he will find rejection even where it does not exist — or worse, will draw it forth from people simply by expecting it.” This, a debilitating affliction of a bad parent. Lee yells at Cal, “It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry [Cathy]. Don’t let me catch you doing it!… Whatever you do, it will be you who do it — not your mother.” Cal later tells Cathy when he confronts her, “I’m my own. I don’t have to be you.” He sees that Cathy ultimately reels from social rejection, whether or not she is an actual sociopath; she can’t believe that humans can be good, she can only see the bad (hence her file of blackmail photos). He comments on her dark lean-to in her back room, “I don’t think the light hurts your eyes. I think you’re afraid.” She cries, “Get out!… Go on, get out!” He goes to leave and says, “I don’t hate you… But I’m glad you’re afraid.” Aron took to the church, and his “training in worldliness was gained from a young man of no experience, which gave him the ability for generalization only the inexperienced can have.” Those who over-generalize do not seek to understand, do not have time to understand, and often are just plain immature. “But Aron had reached a point of passionate purity that made everyone else foul. After a few lectures Cal found him unbearably smug and told him so. It was a relief to both of them when Aron abandoned his brother to eternal damnation.” This statement applies equally to religious zealots today as well as woke jargon-peddling “anti-racist” racists. Lee says of Cal, “Cal’s trying to find himself… I guess this personal hide-and-seek is not unusual. And some people are ‘it’ all their lives — hopelessly ‘it.’” Aron has a sort of self-loathing, he hates the city, he somewhat hates himself, he just wants to idealize himself as a pure deity, and is also very self-conscious. “Sometimes I feel dirty. I want to get away from the dirt and be clean.” I can think of some people like this who I have known to be OCD about appearance and apartment cleanliness. Lee says to Aron, “You’re growing up… Sometimes I think the word tests us most sharply then, and we turn inward and watch ourselves with horror. But that’s not the worst. We think everybody is seeing into us. Then dirt is very dirty and purity is shining white. Aron, it will be over… That’s not much relief to you because you don’t believe it, but it’s the best I can do for you. Try to believe that things are neither so good nor so bad as they seem to you now… Go through the motions. Sam Hamilton said that.. pretend it’s true and maybe it will be. Go through the motions.” Another point Steinbeck makes is that people are different; even children raised in the same circumstances wind up completely different, such as Aron and Cal, and Adam and Charles. “Maybe some people need things more than others, or hate things more… Aron needed a mother more than Cal did. And I think he always blamed his father” said Abra (Aron’s girlfriend). On the ability to laugh at one’s self, Steinbeck calls this the height of maturity, as Lee posits, “Laughter comes later, like wisdom teeth, and laughter at yourself comes last of all in a mad race with death, and sometimes it isn’t in time.” Cal wants to impress his father with his profits from selling beans, a business venture he entered into bean contracts with Will Hamilton, predating futures, as they wanted to contract to buy beans at $.05 and sell them to the British military for $.10 when the demand went up. This episode exposes the ever-present idea that permeates modernity amongst “progressive”-types that all forms of commerce are a sort of ugly nastiness. Adam tells his father to “…give it to the farms you robbed.” “’Robbed?’ Cal cried. ‘Why, we paid them two cents a pound over the market. We didn’t rob them.’” People bring different perspectives to life. Adam is stuck in his myopia, and continues to reject Cal. He thinks Adam has “pride in the thing he’s doing [going to Stanford], gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn’t’ stack up with that.” He tells Cal to be more like Aron, despite the fact that Aaron doesn’t even like himself or what he’s doing. Lee tells Cal later, “He couldn’t help it, Cal. That’s his nature. It was the only way he knew. He didn’t have any choice. But you have. Don’t you hear me? You have a choice.” Adam is dead inside and doesn’t know how to think, as Lee earlier analyzes, that he just relies on his “training.” Lee tells Cal, “We’re a violent people, Cal. Does it seem strange to you that I include myself? Maybe it’s true that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.” The human imperfections are part of the will to live, the Will To Power. Lee points out that Americans are a contradiction, people who left the old behind, “All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed-selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and over-fearful — we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic — and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture. That’s what we are, Cal — all of us.” Americans didn’t stay in their home plots, they wanted something better; thus, the culture itself calls for contradictions, some as central as freedom and equality. Near the end, Steinbeck comes back to the central theme of seeing only what you want to see, and how it is so for Aron; how the World must be, for you. Abra says to Cal,, “When we were children we lived in a story that we made up. But when I grew up the story wasn’t enough. I had to have something else, because the story wasn’t true any more… Aron didn’t grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn’t stand to have it come out any other way… I don’t want to know how it comes out. I only want to be there while it’s going on. And, Cal, we [Aron and Abra] were kind of strangers. We kept it [the relationship] going because we were used to it. But I didn’t believe the story any more… [Aron] was going to have it come out his way if he had to tear the world up by the roots… He couldn’t stand to know about his mother because that’s not how he wanted the story to go — and he wouldn’t have any other story. So he tore up the world [joined the military]. It’s the same way he tore me up — Abra — when he wanted to be a priest.” This passage says so much about everything in life. People want the story, the house, the car, the relationship. Any deviation from how things are “meant to be” sets people into a tailspin. Likewise, many people want “the story” of an equal-results society, and are willing to go full Mao/Stalin to try to produce it. Many things are painful to know, and people can’t bear them; this is unfortunately not a good thing for democracy, as Cass Sunstein points out. Cal says to Abra, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. Is that it?” “I guess so. Maybe that’s it.” If you don’t have to live your life by an Index Card, you can actually get closer into touch with what is “good” in your own estimation (as Nietzsche saw). Steinbeck closes out with an ode to Sam Hamilton, he who was always rich in spirit, “He had the most schemes and plans, and no one would give him any money. But of course — he had so much, he was so rich. You couldn’t give him any more. Riches seem to come to the poor in spirit, the poor in interest and joy. To put it straight — the very rich are a poor bunch of bastards. He wondered if that were true. They acted that way sometimes.” When Lee gets the letter about Aron’s death in WWI, he despairs, “Nobody has the right to remove any single experience from another. Life and death are promised.” When Adam has a stroke, the doctor tells Cal to perk up, saying, “I’m sorry, Cal. Bear up! You’ll have to bear up… It always surprises me how people bear up. They always do.

Extra Quotes & Passages That Didn’t Fit Above:

· “You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” This regarding the Salinas River, but a great parallel to life.

· “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” People quickly forget the good times and the bad in times of opposite.

· “They landed with no money, no equipment, no tools, no credit, and particularly with no knowledge of the new country and no technique for using it. I don’t know whether it was a divine stupidity or a great faith that let them do it. Surely such venture is nearly gone from the world. And the families did survive and grow. They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while. It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves. But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units — because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.” The immigrant experience to the United States and what one believes were and are tightly intertwined; now that God Is Dead, these belief systems which so supported humanity leave many humans more fumbling than before.

· Conformity and the cohesion required in military: “Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you. And if you can’t finally give in, they’ll vomit you up and leave you stinking outside — neither part of themselves nor yet free. It’s better to fall in with them. They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question to weaken it. Within itself, if you do not hold it up to other things for comparison and derision, you’ll find slowly, surely, a reason and a logic and a kind of dreadful beauty. A man who can accept it is not a worse man always, and sometimes is a much better man. Pay good heed to me for I have thought long about it. Some men there are who go down the dismal wrack of soldiering, surrender themselves, and become faceless. But these had not much face to start with. And maybe you’re like that. But there are others who go down, submerge in the common slough, and then rise more themselves than they were, because — because they have lost a littleness of vanity and have gained all the gold of the company and the regiment. If you can go down so low, you will be able to rise higher than you can conceive, and you will know a holy joy, a companionship almost like that of a heavenly company of angels…”

· “What freedom men and women could have, were they not constantly tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured by their sexuality! The only drawback in that freedom is that without it one would not be a human. One would be a monster.”

· On self-hatred and Brotherly Love, “But some men are friends with the whole world in their hearts, and there are others that hate themselves and spread their hatred around like butter on hot bread.”

· When the narrator’s mother, Olive (both of whom are minor characters) has a friend who is killed in WWI, she illustrates what it is to have principles to stand behind, and she raises tons of money for the War. “When they [the Germans] killed Martin Hopps they lost the war because that made my mother mad and she took out after them. She had liked Martin Hopps. He had never hurt anyone. When they killed him Olive declared war on the German empire.”

· Regarding the man Una Hamilton married, “He had great contempt, born of fear, for the Hamiltons, for they all half believed they had wings — and they got some bad falls that way. Anderson never fell, never slipped back, never flew.” If you are afraid to die, you are afraid to live.

· “Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” -Will Hamilton

· Dessie Hamilton becomes a downer, and her dressmaking business starts to decline. “Dessie’s friends were good and loyal but they were human, and humans love to feel good and they hate to feel bad. In time the Mrs. Morrisons found unassailable reasons for not going to the little house by the bakery. They weren’t disloyal. They didn’t want to be sad as much as they wanted to be happy. It is easy to find a logical and virtuous reason for not doing what you don’t want to do.” Excuses are very easy to make.

· “And Croesus more than likely did not listen [to Solon], so anxious was he about himself.” The insecure and self-centered person has trouble being in the moment.

· “He was amused that a chair could give him so much pleasure.” (Lee on his Morris chair)

· Lee says to Adam, “One must be very rich to dress as badly as you do. The poor are forced to dress well.”

· Ethel, the old prostitute who Kate wants chased out of town because she has dirt on Kate about her having killed Fay, “She was just not very bright and not very pretty and, because of these two lacks, not very lucky.” Life and chance can be cruel.



Underconsumed Knowledge

"For the time being I gave up writing -- there is already too much truth in the world -- an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!" Otto Rank, 1933