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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

East of Eden XXXV -- chpts34-35: BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Chapter 34


that's a pretty big number

I have heard a university professor of literature claim that there are but three types of stories: The Coming of Age, The Quest, and The Battle.  But if you take Scheherazade as any indication of count, then you might say there are as many as 1001 stories.  According to Google, on the other hand, there are (and I'm writing this out just for the weight of it) one hundred twenty-nine million, eight hundred sixty-four thousand, eight hundred eighty books "in the world."  It's likely that the majority of these are non-fiction, but even if, say, twenty percent represents fiction, that still leaves more than twenty-five million books, many of which will be collections of stories, not to mention all the non-fiction narratives out there.  Let's round up to fifty million stories, just to be safe, in the world.  That's a lot more than three.  That's a lot more than one, which, according to Steinbeck, is all there is.  Of course, he says that all stories boil down to a battle against evil.  Do we trust him?  We do tend to venerate the man here at the Wall.  Is his claim not true?  (...which is another way to request examples of stories that transcend the labels.)

If we look again at the three stories brought up once by that university professor, they are actually three types of stories, as is good versus evil a type of story, or narrative.  The Coming of Age is man vs. self, The Quest is man vs. nature or other natural and supernatural forces, and The Battle is man vs. man.  When it comes right down to it, any one of those twenty-five million plus stories represents one or more of these three narrative types.  Look again, and you'll see that each of these three story types is a battle against evil.

  1. "Do you not consider me lucky?"  "How can I tell?  You aren't dead yet."
  2. What are the categories for the life stories of the three deaths the narrator "remember[s] clearly"?
  3. "It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember or dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world," and I might add: "yet pleasure to ourselves."

Chapter 35

There and Back Again

  • Lee is right, as he usually is.  "It's my observation that children always surprise us."  However, not all boys--children--surprise in the same way.  This, however, is not my point of contention (yes, point of contention!).  My issue is Steinbeck's portrayal of these boys as their surrogate father walks out on them (BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT HE DOES).  I know kids who would have been crushed--and I don't think I know a kid who wouldn't be--by his departure, crushed exactly as if it had been a parent who left.  I think this may be one of the only places I disagree with Steinbeck in his various philosophies of life.  In the first moments of Lee's departure, I agree with the depiction.  Yes, I can see Cal asking about tickets to the game and Aron talking about hot dogs, but in the days that follow, the loss would begin to set in, and they would feel abandoned.  Knowing what little I do about Steinbeck's life, I wonder if this is perhaps beyond his realm of experience or understanding.  Thoughts?

  • When I first read East of Eden, laying on my hide-a-bed in my realtor's basement, my family across the country waiting for the house to finalize so we could move in, I cried twice in this chapter.  I was--and it surprised me, the superlative of emotion the book brought, likely particularly so for the context of my read-- "incomparably, incredibly, overwhelmingly glad to [have Lee] home."


  1. I think it's important to point out, also, that chapter 34 is the first of the fourth section of the book. Notice the difference of theme and mood between chapters 33 and 34: chapter 33 is the death of two Hamiltons, both champions of humanity; chapter 34 is the rebirth of the Trasks, Lee as integral a member as any.

  2. Good vs. Evil question: I don't know. What about a satire? Right now I'm reading Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." I don't know that there's really evil in the book so far, as much as just poking fun at various things. Then again, I'm only a little over a fourth of the way in, so maybe that will change. I agree that the vast majority of books are good vs. evil and that it is humanity's story, so I'm ok with the hyperbole, but I am not entirely convinced that it's literally true.
    34.2. I took these to be references to actual historical people in addition to prototypes. I came up with robber barons, in particular, John D. Rockefeller for the first, and for the third, it seemed like a perfect description of FDR. The second one, I couldn't think of, but the Internet consensus seems to be William Randolph Hearst, which I can definitely see. More broadly, one is a man who burns all his bridges for personal gain and then tries to rebuild them (which usually doesn't work), two is sort of a conniving thief who doesn't seem to realize, unlike the first, that people really do dislike him underneath. The third is a person who stands up for and inspires people, a true leader.
    35. It's so hard to tell. It's a different era. I feel like there's far more attachment within the family than there used to be this past generation or two. For modern times, I'd agree with you, but I don't feel comfortable calling him wrong when he was writing this in the '50s about the way things were a few decades even before then.

    Also, I just wanted to bring up an interesting quote that I wouldn't have noticed had we not read these both together tonight. In 35, Lee says, "I don't want them to be sad. I hope I'm not so small-souled as to take satisfaction in being missed." But doesn't this contradict what Steinbeck just said in 34 about how we want to die? And make no mistake, Lee's idea of the bookstore is initially a sort of death. He doesn't even want to write again. Do you think Steinbeck's critiquing his own writing or are they reconcilable?

  3. I can't say that I believe he is fully WRONG, but I do have issue with the fact that during the six days of Lee's absence, the boys do little more than wonder passively where he is or what he's doing. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that two boys would do no more than speak and even feel that way. Aron, in his simplicity, I think is more believably portrayed. I don't believe, however, that Cal, in his complexity and insecurity, does not feel, at least to some small degree, abandonment. The other saving grace for Steinbeck--maybe not grace, as it's likely calculated--is that in just six days, the boys don't have time to fully develop or comprehend the beginnings of such emotions. What do you think?

    You summations of the historical figures are similar to what I thought/guessed.

    Regarding your question at the end, James, I think you're neglecting a third question(though I don't believe it appliesi n this case), "Did Steinbeck just make a mistake of continuity?" Publishing houses hire professional readers for the sole purpose of checking continuity in high profile publications. While I think this is possible, I believe that your second question is more likely correct, that the two quotations are reconcilable. (But I have class just about to start, and will address the rest of my thoughts in a further comment.)

  4. So, the reconcilability of the "small-mindedness" of a desire to be missed upon one's departure, and a recommended interest in one's desire to be mourned upon death. In context, these two quotations represent very different motivations on the part of the "departers." Lee's potential small-mindedness would come from saitsfaction at the boys' discomfort--indeed small-minded and petty. In the latter, being missed and mourned upon death indicates--again, by context, and what with death as the departure, the potentially small-minded one isn't around to enjoy the wake--a life well- and fruitfully lived, as opposed to the first two deaths of the three deaths mentioned in the chapter.

  5. I definitely think your answer on the reconcilability of the two chapters is a possible answer.

    There's some evidence for your idea on Aron and Cal because Lee suggests they might eventually miss him. I still wouldn't rule out chronological differences in lifestyle, though.

  6. Haven't been reading East of Eden, but thought I'd just comment about the actual WALL itself (see photo, above). The large foundational crack is eerily reminiscent of the crack in the house of Usher, leaving this writer to wonder exactly why Mr. Center wants to entice former students into his blog of literary social politics via a large foundational crack? Are we to take it as a nod to Poe? Or is it representative of something more sinister? More eerie? Perhaps . . . a crack in the foundation of . . . Mr. Center himself?

  7. If this were "The Fall of the House of Usher," the wall would already be a pile of rubble. The crack is more reminiscent of something that would happen in "Crying of Lot 49." It is only there as a sort of Rorschach test to see whether you believe in conspiracy theories.

  8. Dear Anonymous --

    Nice to have you here, if only for a moment, and I cordially invite you to visit the wall with the crack in the wintry gray forest, and hope you might, more frequently. While I was not nodding, at least intentionally, to Poe, such an allusion is certainly not unwelcome nor necessarily unwarranted. Your collective first person may take it, if metaphor is your preference, as quite likely representative of a crack in me if not indicator of connection to a particular haunting tale. Eerie? Sinister? Perhaps, and I'll leave you to your insinuating tender hooks. In the meantime, what might your wall look like? Mine, I believe is merely metaphoric of any man's, and awaiting Spring.

    Yours in Literary Fellowship,

    Mr. Center


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