Family Drama, Tragedy, Mythology
If you were to summarize East of Eden in one sentence, you would have to mention that it's about the Trasks and the Hamiltons. After all, this novel is riffing off of one of the oldest family dramas we have: the story of the original biblical family. Turns out not a whole lot has changed. We've got jealousy, violence, lies—you know, family matters. It's no wonder that all of the tension in the Trask household comes to a head at Thanksgiving dinner.
It's not just that there is drama between characters that happen to be family members; the drama is there because they are family. Cal wouldn't be jealous of Aron over Adam unless they were brothers. Aron wouldn't be upset about Kate unless she was his mother. They say that blood is thicker than water, but these characters probably wish that they could dilute it some.
In its most basic sense, a tragedy is sad. We mean really sad, as in it builds you up just to let you down. And something can't really be truly sad unless the ending is sad. Though the ending of East of Eden isn't totally hopeless, it does end in two dead bodies, so it's not exactly happy.
But there is more to it than that. Way long ago, smart Greek dudes like Aristotle said that good tragedy has a main character who is fated to fall, as in, no matter what he does things are going to end badly for him (womp womp).
One question stewing in the back of our minds as we read East of Eden is whether or not it's inevitable that Cal will tell Aron about Kate and send him into a suicidal fit. We know that he's almost always fighting the urge to do it (but let's face it—we also totally want to see him do it), and we know that Lee keeps on insisting to him that he has a choice (remember that whole timshel thing?), but at the same time we know that this wouldn't be a good Cain and Abel allegory unless we get to see some fratricide.
So is it really inevitable? Take a peek at our "What's Up with the Ending?" section if you want to think about it some more.
Lastly, let's talk myths. For our purposes, we're treating the story of Genesis as a creation myth rather than a religion (though we totally acknowledge that it is). But the point here, and in East of Eden, is to think of Genesis as a symbolic story that says something about our human nature. After all, that's what myths do, and why the same tropes keep appearing over and over again (just ask James Frazier or Joseph Campbell).
You may have noticed us tossing the term allegory around a lot. It means that the characters and actions in a story have symbolic doubles. Adam Trask, for instance, is both Adam Trask the character in East of Eden and the biblical Adam. So when he's innocent and obsessed with creating a perfect Eden to live in with Eve (Cathy), we have an Oh-I-see-what-you-did-there-Steinbeck moment. It gives his actions a new significance once we realize that he isn't just someone who wants to live on a nice ranch with his wife. Apply this to the whole story, and presto: you've got yourself a twentieth-century Genesis.