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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

East of Eden X -- Nature versus Nurture

In comments to the Monster post, James brings up the issue, though not with these particular words, of nature versus nurture.  I guess I don't have my thumb adequately enough pressed upon the pulse of world discussion to know how hot-or-not this discussion is, but it crops up all the time in lit-talk.  Obviously, this applies directly to East of Eden, chapter 8 inasmuch as Cathy is a monster by nature.  Maybe that's another issue that needs to be addressed on the "Continuum of Monstrosity" -- a third dimension, or z-axis, showing whether the monster became so in its life and by influence of its surroundings or happens to be innately monstrous.

May I recommend a side project?  I think we should compile a manner of classification for monsters in literature and accurately project them on the continuum, including the third axis for nature/nurture.  I could probably draw it up by hand, but computer imaging would work better.  Stephen, are you reading this?  How hard would this be?  In the meantime, anyone reading this, we would need to compose questions and tiers delineating degrees of monstrosity in order to grid them on the image....  Thoughts?

So what do you think (back to nature/nurture and Cathy's monstrosity)?  Can you really be born monstrous, evil, terrible?  This is a big deal for many religions.  Are we born pure?  Are we born evil?  This is the dilemma--or perhaps point of contention--of, or between, many religions regarding baptism.  Where does the evil come from then, if not inborn?  Was Satan, Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, eternally evil, or did he become so?  I'm not trying to create a theological discussion or debate here.  When it comes down to it, in order to keep the discussion truly applicable to the source text, we need to tend within Steinbeck's own demonstrated belief system.  However, I don't think we need to limit ourselves!

So, chapter 8.


Reading Questions
Chapter 8.1, 8.2
  1. Simple and direct: if you want evidence that Steinbeck intends Cathy to be evil by nature, these two sections are loaded!  Consider how she, and entirely passive-aggressively, frames the two boys for sexual assault.  Sure, they're not innocent, but holy cow!  Can a person be that horrible and from that young?  Her father doesn't think so.  Does his passivity--or, at best, though still, I think, guilty by omission, silence--incriminate him?  Could he have NURTURED his daughter into something wholesome, or at least less evil?  Is a person born like Cathy capable of gaining some sort of purity?
Chapter 8.3
  1. I read this first paragraph and, forgive me, can't help but think of young Tom Riddle of Harry Potter fame requesting a teaching position from Dumbledore.  Why does she really want to be a teacher? (Do you suppose Rowling was in any way influenced by Steinbeck?)
  2. James Grew reminds me of Kurt Cobain. 
  3. Mr. Ames just ticks me off.  Maybe he reminds me of me.  Like him, I'm not confrontational.  Might it be also within me to ignore such impressions and cause, inadvertently and by laziness or cowardice, such destruction?  I hope not.  And is this not the great power of great literature, to reflect us upon ourselves?
  4. Steinbeck writes in the last paragraph of 8.3, "That was Cathy's method."  WHAT?  What is it that is Cathy's method?
Chapter 8.4

So I'm writing these questions and discussion points as I'm re-reading the book for the first time in three or four years (has it been that long?), and HOLY CRAP! I forgot about this brilliant exchange and cross-textual reference:
  • "What's that book you're hiding?" [her mother asks.]
  • "Here!  I'm not hiding it."
  • "Oh!  Alice in Wonderland.  You're too big for that."
  • Cathy said, "I can get to be so little you can't even seen me."
  • "What in the world are you talking about?"
  • "Nobody can find me."
  • Her mother said angrily, "Stop making jokes.  I don't know what you're thinking of.  What does Miss Fancy think she is going to do?"
  • "I don't know yet," said Cathy.  "I think I'll go away."
  • "Well, you just lie there, Miss Fancy, and when your father comes home he'll have a thing or two to say to you."  (Yeah, right!  That coward?)
  1. Keep this exchange in mind as you learn more and more about Cathy.  Is she really just a girl lost down the rabbit hole?
  2. Is Cathy without love or empathy?  Consider just the page or so since the Wonderland dialog.  Was it foresight that prevented evidence of childhood in her bedroom or careful erasure that left it empty after he departure?
  3. Interesting about Mr. Ames: the very thing that makes him a coward in confrontation is also--or is it? -- the very thing that makes him "a very good man in a crisis."
  4. The whipping scene makes me think--or, I guess, it's Cathy's reticence and utter control throughout the ordeal--of Denzel Washington's character in the movie Glory.  Thoughts?  Certainly, she's no martyr; there's no glory in her resistance, but still....

chapter 8.5
  1. "We've all of us got a little of the Old Nick in us," says Cathy's father.  Who is Old Nick?
chapter 8.6 
  • "Now look here, Mike," he said, "you shouldn't do a think like that.  If that poor fellow had been just a little smarter you might have got him hanged."
  • "He said he did it."  The constable's feelings were hurt because he was a conscientious man.
  • "He would have admitted to climbing the golden stairs and cutting St. Peter's throat with a bowling ball," the judge said.  "Be more careful, Mike.  The law was designed to save, not to destroy."


  1. Lutheranism teaches that all people are inherently sinful. I think this is true. However, it does not mean we are born monsters, as in Cathy's case. I find this passage a bit troubling. What he seems to be making is a scientific case that someone can be born without a conscience. I suppose this is what a sociopath is. I know this is a cop-out, but I think it's always a little of both, but mostly nurture. Some people may be born at a disadvantage, just like people are born with disadvantages at other traits, but I really think that with the proper parenting, they can learn values. Anyway, that seems to be the more optimistic view. Puts people more in control of their own destiny.

    As far as the teacher question, I don't think Cathy ever did want to be teacher. She just wanted to appear to be on track to be one. I think it is just part of an elaborate guise to seem so respectable that she can get away with anything.

    On Rowling: I can see where you're coming from, but I think it's a bit of a stretch. Riddle wanted to be a teacher so that he could corrupt people like he was. Cathy doesn't seem to have this sense of mission. She just wants to be evil because she derives enjoyment out of it.

    Further, Rowling and Steinbeck seem to diverge on the nature vs. nurture argument. Steinbeck attributes much of it to nature. Meanwhile, Rowling seems to have a charitable, but inconsistent outlook. The good characters, such as Harry, can survive no matter what their nurture. The bad ones, though, are mostly bad because of the poor quality with which they have been nurtured. For example, Harry and Riddle start out in similar positions. Harry rises above it, which is credit to his nature. On the other hand, Riddle becomes Voldemort, but in all the scenes of Riddle's past, it seems as though we are supposed to feel sorry for him and believe that under different circumstances, things could have turned out for the better. It just seems like, if she were influenced by that book, it didn't go that deep.

  2. I know we're inevitably getting into religious perspectives here, so I'm going to generally avoid the human condition at point of birth. However, as well as in view of that, what exactly is, religiously speaking, a sociopath? I don't know. But, yes, that's what she is.

    I agree with you regarding the teacher question. That and the HP bit are just thoughts I had in the moment of reading, though I am going to contradict you a little bit in your last paragraph:

    I don't think her view is necessarily inconsistent. She says herself--or says via Dumbledore--that it's not about anything more than the choices you make. For her, nature/nurture has nothing to do with. It's free-will and what you do with it. She basically shows two extremes on the same tract: Harry and V have, essentially, the same upbringing, and how different the results. I'm pretty sure she was not influenced by EoE. If she were, it's very likely no more than, hey, I want to be a great writer too.

  3. I will try to keep this as un-religious as possible, but at the same time, I believe it's an important point, not just for religion, but for life in general. It's horribly unpopular to criticize babies, but if you think about it, there's really a lot of evil present already. All they care about is themselves. They have no sense of compassion; it is just living from meal to meal. I would say much of religion is an attempt to make us more than our original state of nature, which is what we would be without it.

    You are right that free will is one of her main themes, but don't you sense that we are still expected to sympathize with the young Tom Riddle just a little bit? In other words, we say, yes, he made this choice, but could you really have expected better given his circumstances? To me, that shows that nurture CAN trump free will, at least to some extent.

  4. Also, this confirmed my suspicion, although I had never heard it used before. Old Nick, from Wikipedia's page on the devil:

    In English, the Devil has a number of epithets, including Old Scratch and Old Nick.

  5. Old Nick: There's a really terrible Adam Sandler movie (and yes, I believe that all of his movies are not terrible--just most of them) called, I think, Little Nickie, where Sandley plays Satan's child. Ugh.

  6. I really like the statement that "much of religion is an attempt to make us more than our original state of nature," but I don't feel that chidlren are evil from birth. That is partially due to my own religious beliefs and tenets, but it is also, I believe harder to argue against those tenets (and I think I speak objectively of myself here and say that even seven or eight years ago I could have posed successful contrary arguments, even if I didn't fundamentally believe them) since my children were born. As far as I'm concerned, children are innocent and pure, their nature not being evil but immature--underdeveloped--physically, not spiritually. This is not an argument in defense of my children or any children, and not saying that you are anti children or claiming something against babies (I'm not!), because I can see where such a view is plausible.


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