* NOTICE: Mr. Center's Wall is on indefinite hiatus. Got something to say about it? Click HERE and type.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

East of Eden IV: Cyrus, the Trasks, and Sexism

I apologize.  This entry won't even be representative of an entire chapter.  It's late, and there's just no way I'm going to get all the way through chapter 3, so here's 3.1 and nothing more until tomorrow.

I can't say this about all authors, but it would appear likely that most ascribe meaning and history, for the sake of connotation and allusion, to their characters' names.  Steinbeck says he based this book on the story of Cain and Abel.  While he takes mild liberty with the names, contrasted against those of the Old Testament, it is nonetheless--and maybe because of this--interesting to see where his names may have come from.

Before we get much more into that, however, I want to look at the first issue of the chapter.


Reading Questions 3
chapter 3.1

  1. "It was quite normal in that day for a man to use up three or four wives in a normal lifetime."  While it's of a different nature now-a-days (yes, I just wrote "now-a-days"), this is without a doubt an objectification of women, and there are a couple questions that follow (the simpler of the two first):
  2. Is Steinbeck sexist, or is he just reporting?  If the former, dig in and find some evidence that it's true of the author, rather than just the times.
  3. The situation of the novel demands that we compare, side-by-side, the two patriarchs introduced thus far.  So take it a step further: post them up aside each other in terms of their spouses.  My tendency in past readings (unconscious tendency) has been to regard Cyrus's treatment of his wives very negatively, as I regard Cyrus negatively; on the other hand, I've tended to regard Samuel's treatment of Liza as relatively positive, because I regard Samuel positively.  I believe I've been mistaken (to what degree??).  Is there a practical difference between the proffered spousal treatment of the two patriarchs, or does the apparently acceptable (for the period) treatment of women at Cyrus's hand support James's thoughts on the matter from the previous post?
  4. "...she never said anything unless she was asked.  From Cyrus's point of view this was possibly the greatest of her virtues.  She never offered any opinion or statement, and when a man was talking she gave a vague impression of listening while she went about doing the housework."  So, does this quotation speak more of Alice or of Cyrus?  I don't mean that Cyrus was such a jerk that he pushed her to this extreme (there's potential evidence that this was just her nature, after all), but that he accepted it--that he needed no more complete feedback on his exploits and lies as justification to keep them up!
  5. Along these lines, how common a thing is it for someone to talk himself into the truth of his lies?  How complete a conviction can this actually become, or does the liar always know, somehow in the back of his mind, that he's a liar?  I can't help but consider my freshman English teacher, back in 1991, Mr. Buchanan.  We called him Bucky, of course, and he was one kookie dude.  Among his various eccentricities and stories were fidgeting with a lighter in his pocket (which he always claimed was kept for the purpose of thawing the lock on his car door in the winter, and NOT to light ANYTHING like a cigarette!) during class and lighting his pants on fire; and wandering, as usual, around the classroom one day, backing up toward the chalkboard while haranguing the class on some point or another and backing into the trashcan, upon which he tripped, then stood, and brought the can up with him, firmly attached to his--as he said--buttocks.  While the latter of these two stories was corroborated by former students before my time, the first is a mystery.  While I can easily believe such an amazing claim of dufusness, his track record for honesty brought even this into question.  While I can't remember for sure what conflict he was supposedly involved in--he was old enough for Korea, but I'm not sure--he, by his own and numerous accounts, was amazingly well-traveled during his time in the service.  As a class, we tracked his various whens and wheres and, like Cyrus, he was in multiple places across the globe at the same time.  He loved to tell these stories, and we heard them repeatedly.  Now, Bucky was a pretty nice guy--seemed always innocent--insouciant, even....  He didn't seem the type to be really even capable of a lie.  Could he really believe all the ridiculous stories he told of himself?
  6. Challenge:  Write a complete description of Cyrus, as a character, in one sentence.  Keep it no longer than a tweet.
  7. A favorite image of mine, though cruel, is that of Cyrus beating his wooden leg with a stick to keep time for his sons' drilling practice.
  8. Lastly and most importantly:  and back to the name thing.  If Adam Trask is a correlative to Adam, of Adam and Eve fame, then Cyrus, indeed and to extend the metaphor, would be Jehovah, of Old Testament fame.  What conclusions might you draw about Steinbeck's views of God (at least within context of the novel) by this extension?  Consider any knowledge or lingering impressions you have of the Old Testament.  Consider the following:
    1. Jehovah's presence in Isrealitish battles;
    2. Jehovah's scribing (albeit via his prophets) and  the qualities of these prophets' commentaries;
    3. Jehovah's oft-described indifference/ambivalence regarding the well-being of his people.
    4. The nature of a wife: if she, Alice, is indeed a representation of something actually present in the Old Testament, as is practically everyone else in the book, what might she be?  Perhaps the Earth itself--she is taciturn, direct, submissive....
    5. Consider the ultimate benefit of Cyrus's lies.  Without them, he would not have been awarded his secretaryship.  Is there a correlative between this and something regarding Jehovah?
    6. Finally, check out the definition/history of the name, Cyrus.

More tomorrow.  Hopefully the rest of chapter 3, but considering the length of this post and the shortness of the section it draws from, let's just hope I can be a bit more succinct.

Until then.


  1. Alright, I'm sure I'm going to get to more of these as the day goes on because they are interesting, but let me do 2 and 3. I read on to the next chapter this morning, and it seems clear to me that Steinbeck is criticizing the "Indian removal" policy of the early Americans because his tone is so detached that I believe it has to be parody. Something like, "It was horrible work, but it had to be done." And, "Adam didn't see the future farms, but only the present dead bodies." Again, these are approximations. My take is that he is doing a bit of the same thing with the way he talks about women. He is adopting the voice of the time. He knows that careful readers will catch the irony in his tone.

    Also, I think there is a difference between Samuel and Cyrus. Cyrus dominates his submissive wife, while Samuel submits himself to his dominating wife. Cyrus wants to make sure that his wife does not speak up, while Liza is the one who tries to reprimand Samuel in every bit of worldly fun that he ever has. I see Liza as equal to Cyrus and Cyrus's wives as more equal to Samuel. I don't know what you think, though.

  2. Let me take a crack at #8.

    I think there are 2 ways of seeing this.

    1. Cyrus is NOT God. Notice that the name starts with a C? What is the case with every other person whose name starts with a C in this story? They have flaws resembling Cain. The message of this interpretation could be that the story of Cain continues through every generation. Furthermore, remember that Adam does not always represent Adam, the first man. Indeed, throughout much of the early book, he is transparently Abel. That would make Cyrus Adam. Does Cyrus share many characteristics with Adam? Well, his second wife Alice does kind of appear like Eve did out of Adam's body. On the other hand, the name Alice creates another A&C pair, pointing toward Cain. The point is that the narrative is so convoluted in the naming regard that it is at times difficult to tell who exactly represents whom, and it certainly seems to change throughout the story.

    2. Cyrus is God. Some of the greatest evidence of this is the passage about when the gods come crashing down. In context, it refers to Adam's opinion of Cyrus. Also, Cyrus is definitely God in the Cain-Abel storyline between Adam and Charles. What does this suggest? First, God can be very demanding and some laws/rules can be arbitrary, but the book tells us that Cyrus always left a way out to escape. This is certainly a possible religious metaphor. Further, God love some of us differently, and it can seem arbitrary. Why did God love Abel above Cain, or the conniving Jacob above Esau? On the ambivalence, Cyrus often knew what was happening, but decided to let people fight their own battles. Finally, on the lying, this one is difficult. There may be a touch of religious protest in here by Steinbeck, claiming that all the things that religious followers ascribe to God may not have actually happened. It's a very clever way of driving the point home if that is what he is doing, but I can't be sure.

  3. James: I don't see that Liza actually dominates her husband. We don't have much ground for it this early in the book one way or the other, but Samuel manages perfectly to do what he pleases despite her, wherease Cyrus's wives were full-on pushovers, nearly devoid of personality or self. Of course, this could be, as you said (and I agree), Steinbeck's parody. I just can't see a parallel between the wives and Samuel. He is too independent, indulging his wife's views for her benefit and his children's.

    As far as #8 is concerned, where is everyone else? Let's get some discussion going!

  4. "Liza had a finely developed sense of sin. She was suspicious of fun whether it involved dancing or singing or even laughter. She felt that people having a good time were wide open to the devil. And this was a shame, for Samuel was a laughing man, but I guess Samuel was wide open to the devil. His wife protected him whenever she could."

    It sounds to me like the kind of person who wouldn't allow Samuel to do anything he enjoyed when she was there to prevent it. Yes, Samuel was free from her admonishments when he was in his blacksmith shed talking to people, in the same way that Alice was free to smile as long as Cyrus was not around, but it seems like Liza had the dominating type of personality that would check any singing, laughing, or conversation (in other words, the things that Samuel loved) as long as she was around.

  5. Okay. Using the text against me, huh? I'll have to break out the big guns! I still don't agree that Samuel's a parallel to Alice. (But I'll do it this evening.)

    Thanks for the comment. ;)

  6. Yeah, I realized that using the text might be a low blow, but I can never accept that my argument is wrong without a prolonged and bloody fight.

  7. Prepare yourself. I've had prep time in the art class today to put stuff together!

  8. Haha, ok, I was going to respond to the other one and had a ton written, but clicked on "doppelganger," (and come on, I take German) to get a better feel for the truest sense of the word, and it took me away from the page, erasing all of my progress. I've been rather discouraged since then and haven't tried again.

  9. Alright. I'm getting writing-tired. I'm going to copy out the notes I scribbled out earlier while reading. Most of my thoughts came during Chapter 5: (via 2 posts; I wrote it in Word first)

    First, Samuel is happy. He is not isolated and alone. (I know it's possible, though terribly unlikely, that Alice is also happy, though she is incontrovertibly isolated.) Samuel is not even shy in his joy. He is not dominated or compelled; he knows what his wife prefers and indulges her. Hiding “sin” so as not to overly startle her. What are the chances she knows? I remember my dad’s hidden stash of Twinkies in under a false bottom at the back of one of his desk drawers at work. Mom knew it was there (I’m pretty sure). Looking back, she didn’t say anything because she only cared enough about the example it set the kids. As long as the kids knew she was against it, she was good.

  10. The couple embody, between the two of them as one, the very characterization Steinbeck cites: “The Irish do have a despairing quality of gaiety, but they have also a dour and brooding ghost that rides on their shoulders and peers in on their thoughts. Let them laugh too loudly, it sticks a long finger down their throats. They condemn themselves before they are charged, and this makes them defensive always.” This is them together. Again, Steinbeck’s tendency, at least in EoE, to match up opposites—or compliments—in such a way that together they create one whole. Doppelgangers. Ego and Id.

    Her treatment of son, Joe, is evidence of existent softness; her hardness with her husband was perhaps to keep him wrangled by tough love.

    She is loved enough that he named (and the men did the naming) a daughter after her.

    Narrator’s perspective is only that of grandson, and therefore very limited. How much do you know objectively about your grandparents’ relationship and history of such? (Of course, as we’re using the text together with subtext, this very claim can devalue everything I’ve just written….)

    “Her husband and her children and her grandchildren respected her.” Did Alice have any respect for her husband; did Cyrus for her?

    I wanted to put all these together into a great cohesive whole, but, like I said, I’m tired. I concede the battle if this is insufficient.

    1. @joe Do you know what page the Irish characterization comes from? Thanks

    2. It depends on which edition/printing you have. Sorry. :/

  11. No need to concede the battle. I am convinced at least that my description is incomplete if nothing else. I think a lot of what you are saying is true. It seems clear that at best my argument is a stretch, although at least it got some good discussion going temporarily.

  12. I do see, of course, what you were saying from the beginning. And the whole reason I love these discussions is the discovery of new stuff. That's what this is all about.


Be sure to subscribe to the thread to receive discussion updates.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...