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
- "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):
- 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.
- 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?
- "...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!
- 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?
- Challenge: Write a complete description of Cyrus, as a character, in one sentence. Keep it no longer than a tweet.
- 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.
- 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:
- Jehovah's presence in Isrealitish battles;
- Jehovah's scribing (albeit via his prophets) and the qualities of these prophets' commentaries;
- Jehovah's oft-described indifference/ambivalence regarding the well-being of his people.
- 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....
- 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?
- 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.