Have you ever read Tess of the d’Urbervilles?
Let me answer that for you–you probably haven’t, unless an English teacher forced you to when you were sixteen. If that’s the case, let me apologize for your well-meaning instructor. If you read Tess in high school, you probably thought that it was the worst book ever written. It’s long and descriptive and Thomas Hardy is quite possibly one of the top five most depressing authors of all time (and I’ve read a lot of depressing authors, so that’s saying something).
Well, I read Tess of my own free will, and I loved it–it was so thought-provoking that I found myself dwelling on it for about a month after I finished the book. I’m glad I read it outside the walls of a classroom though, because I was able to form my own opinions instead of griping with my peers about how much we hated the work.
Sometimes I think the authors we read in school deserve a second chance outside the classroom. Today’s example: John Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men and The Pearl while I was in school, and I did not enjoy either of them. So when I started East of Eden I had to try and forget those negative experiences. I’m so glad I did, because this novel was, for me, another Tess experience. The book is so full of symbolism and Biblical references that I know I will be thinking about it for a long time.
East of Eden follows two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, over the course of many years. The story is also largely based on the book of Genesis, with different families and individuals acting out different parts of the story of the fall and the story of Cain and Abel. The Biblical symbolism is sometimes heavy-handed, but it works. The families in the book are dysfunctional at best, and their lives are dark and disturbed at times, but so are the lives of the people in Genesis. I don’t like reading books with gratuitous sex, language, or violence, but I felt that all of these elements in Steinbeck’s novel contributed to my understanding of the characters and their motivations. If I could sum the novel up in one sentence, I would say that this book is a long, wandering, but also intimate portrait of the human condition.
Beside the rich symbolism and Biblical references, I also appreciated this novel because it is a stunning example of a writer’s craft. In my fiction writing course we have been discussing how writers should study the works of other writers to see how they accomplish their purposes. I underlined, circled, and marked so many passages in this novel that I don’t think I’ll have time to go back and study them all. Steinbeck’s descriptions, his dry humor, and his compelling characters are great examples for any future writers out there.
So go check out East of Eden if you haven’t read it yet, or maybe watch the film version. Whatever you do, don’t write off an author because you hated their work in high school. I almost did that with East of Eden, and I’m so glad I didn’t!