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Sunday, November 14, 2010

East of Eden XXXIII -- chpt32: Purple Eggs and White Pigeons


"Tom's cowardice was as huge as his courage, as it must be in great men.  His violence balanced his tenderness, and himself was a pitted battlefield of his own forces."

Tom and Dessie are so happy to be together because perhaps they're the two of the family who fit together most completely, especially now that she's broken, at least partially, like he is broken.  She knows her brother, and she knows herself, and she knows somehow things--living--might work out better if they're together back on the farm.  But she's no longer happy--truly happy--there, just like she was no longer happy in town.  Why can't Tom fill the void that's dragging her down?

On the contrary, Dessie seems to be all Tom needs to be his old self again.  He is energized and thrilled--on a perpetual high, fueled simply by her presence.  But just as the bravest are the most cowardly, perhaps so are the strongest the most fragile.  I think we can all read the writing on the walls.  Dessie isn't going to last much longer, and then what will that do to Tom, who doesn't do well with loss (crazy understatement) in the first place?

Then there's the memory--the first piece of a montage of family flashbacks or hallucinations--of Sam buying up the white pigeons.  It smacks of metaphor, but pinning it down is a little more difficult than assigning some direct correlation.  It seems there's more at work here than that, like this is just one of many pieces that fit into a well-balanced machine.  The pigeons are a sign of Samuel's refusal to give in to superstition, even if there are other supporting reasons for staying away, but the superstition is that of death, and did death not follow the pigeons into the family, even if not immediately?  Finally, Dessie notices and remembers the pigeons as she approaches her own end in the presence of the brother who reminds her most of her father.  Yet pigeons and any other flighted bird represent freedom, though these happen to be caged.  If white pigeons are harbingers of death by one label, may they not be the same animals and yet be harbingers of freedom--and freedom not only of release but of impurity?  Maybe Dessie and Tom are two white pigeons, brought to the farm by Samuel, now reunited, and soon to be freed.

I don't know.

Purple eggs, by the way, if not just a joke here, are fried eggs seasoned with sumac:

Purple Eggs | by Samer Farha


  1. On the first question, I think that we have to keep in mind that Steinbeck tells the entire story from Dessie's perspective. It may be quite possible that Tom is faking happiness while he is around Dessie in order to appear cheerful/cheer her up. With Dessie, we see her actual emotions while, with Tom, we just see how Dessie perceives him. I'm pretty convinced that both of them are sad, but trying to act happy for the benefit of one another.

    I agree with just about everything you said on the pigeons. Along those lines, I think that they illustrate the dichotomy of the Hamilton family. There is a Samuel/Dessie/Tom wing and then a Will/Liza wing. The Will/Liza wing is conservative and plays it safe. One could argue that they meet the best results. For example, if there's a superstition about something like the pigeons, they'd rather just play it safe and get another color. The Samuel/Dessie/Tom wing is the one that Samuel would say is, "struggling with greatness." They are far more interesting and inspiring people in just about every way. However, by doing this, they become tragic figures. The person who tempts fate may be more interesting, but he also may end up dead. They have the potential for true greatness, but they also have more potential for tragic failure.

  2. Hmm.... Maybe I'm struggling with greatness, and that's been my problem all this time. (Think like Will. Think like Will. Think like Will.)

    I agree with you, by the way, on the perspectives issue and what we see through it and what we don't. If it were flipped around, we wouldn't see anything but super happiness on the part of Dessie.

  3. Maybe you are. Keep in mind that Samuel does not conflate greatness with "popularity" or "fame" or "wealth" or "power" like most people do. I think he means it more in the sense of some combination of virtue, moral greatness/personal integrity, and the ability to dream. True greatness, in Samuel's mind, seems to be when one's convictions and dreams can transcend material demands and appetites, almost like a philosopher, which is, I think, why he admires Lee so much. Will, on the other hand, is completely conservative. He doesn't dream of what could be, but instead secures what already is. By almost anyone's measure, he's completely more successful than Tom, but that's not greatness in Samuel's mind. Will's acceptance of things the way they are and trying to make the best out of them may be practically very wise, but it's also conceding any chance of ever doing anything more than just incrementally better than what he currently can do/possesses. It's kind of like when Adam depresses Samuel by telling him he doesn't care about the farm anymore because he's already set for life. Practically, it's true, but there's no ability to dream for anything better there.

  4. As these two men are extremes along the line, it's interesting finding one's own place on this line and wonder which direction you might move to increase your "success." I tend to embody a greater degree of Tom-ness, though I desire deeply a success much more like Will's, and for no reason more than temporal comfort and security. However, as I keep slogging through life, I wonder more and more if one can have success at both ends of the spectrum simultaneously.


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