Study Guide

East of Eden Memory and the Past

By John Steinbeck

Memory and the Past

Once, fifty miles down the valley, my father bored a well. The drill came up first with topsoil and then with gravel and then with white sea sand full of shells and even pieces of whalebone. There were twenty deep of sand and then black earth again, and even a piece of redwood, that imperishable wood that does not rot. Before the inland sea the valley must have been a forest. (1.1.5)

The sedimentary layers of the Salinas Valley are like a prehistoric timeline. We've got primordial oceans where there are now dry hills (major change there), the remnants of imperishable forests (not subject to time—how cool is that?), and all sorts of crazy cool evidence of a ridiculously old past. It's almost like watching the earth form, and seeing the present as just another layer in that story. And what other story just so happens to be about the earth forming? Genesis. What a coincidence.

There was a time when people kept their fly buttons fastened. And man's freedom was boiling off. And even childhood was no good any more—not the way it was. No worry then but how to find a good stone, not round exactly but flattened and water-shaped, to use in a sling pouch cut from a discarded shoe. Where did all the good stones go, and all simplicity? (12.1.2)

Yeah, we would love to go back to the good old days when people threw rocks into lakes for entertainment. In this passage, the narrator is putting on the voice of a crotchety old man complaining about the kids these days with their fast cars and rock n' roll music—get with the times, Gramps. The point of this quote is to show that it's very typical to idealize the past. It's easy because the past isn't here anymore, so we can choose to remember it however we want, but does that mean that the past (generally speaking) was actually so great?

Let's get it over and the door closed shut on it! Let's close it like a book and get on reading! New chapter, new life. A man will have clean hands once we get the lid slammed s*** on that stinking century. (12.1.17-18)

Compared to the last passage, this one is a complete 180—down with the past, and up with the future. But both passages take a hyperbolic stance, which is a fancy way of saying that they take an extreme view on either side of an issue. Just as it's not always true that the past was a better time, it's also not always true that the future will be better just because it's the future. While the future might be a clean slate, underlying this quote is the knowledge that World War I is looming on the horizon.

It was a time when the past had lost its sweetness and its sap. You'd go a good long road before you'd find a man, and he very old, who wished to bring back a golden past. Men were notched and comfortable in the present, hard and unfruitful as it was, but only as a doorstep into a fantastic future. (15.1.7)

So now we've got the opposite of the crotchety old man, and that's the man who sees the way things are going to be. Steinbeck uses the example of roads, and the people who think, Won't it be great when the roads are all paved and it takes less time to travel? We hear this kind of rhetoric all the time and in every era: Won't it be great when we have all have hover cars? Won't it be great when we all have robot-servants doing everything for us? It's optimism about the future, and as this passage shows, it affects how people look at the present around them; people see their present as notched and comfortable even if things aren't all that easy.

Do you remember hearing that, old men? And do you remember how an easterly breeze brought odors in from Chinatown, roasting pork and punk and black tobacco and yen shi? And do you remember the deep blatting stroke of the great gong in the Joss House, and how its tone hung in the air so long? (19.1.9)

Do you remember, dear reader? Because Steinbeck is talking to you. And you are both the reader and the old men. How is that possible? No, there is not an actual group of old men to whom Steinbeck is referring; instead he is asking the reader to go along with him for a little bit and pretend. Pretend what exactly? That you grew up in Salinas at the same time as Steinbeck and that you share all of these memories of Chinese food. Who doesn't want to remember the smells of their childhood?

She got up from her bed and threw her robe around her and walked barefooted through the house crowded with Hamiltons. In the hall they were gone to the bedrooms. In the bedrooms, with the beds neat-made, they were all in the kitchen, and in the kitchen—they dispersed and were gone. Sadness and death. (32.2.75)

Part of the sadness of the past is that once it's gone, it's gone—there's no getting it back. Dessie here is lamenting the times when all the Hamiltons were together, but it's not like she can rustle them all up and recreate these memories. Another reason why people feel drawn to the past is because they know that they can never get it again. Dang, time is harsh.

The nation slid imperceptibly toward war, frightened and at the same time attracted. People had not felt the shaking emotion of war in nearly sixty years. The Spanish affair was more nearly an expedition than a war. (41.1.1)

Time also tends to make people forget. Sixty years is a lot of generations, which means a lot of generations who have no actual experience with war whatsoever. And without any hard experience to say otherwise, war can seem pretty exciting from a historical distance. This is called not learning from previous mistakes, and we don't recommend it.

Somehow we didn't connect Germans with Mexicans. We went right back to our myths. One American was as good as twenty Germans. This being true, we had only to act in a stern manner to bring the Kaiser to heel. He wouldn't dare interfere with our trade—but he did. (42.1.3)

It's like the whole point of the past, which is to make sure that things are better in the future, just doesn't manage to manifest. And then we, as people, are surprised when we do the same thing and get the same result. Weird, huh? Take note: the past has a lot to show us about the present (though only if you don't idealize it, as we talked about earlier in this theme).

He just stood there sobbing. And do you know?—Mary and I turned around and walked stiffly across the street and into our front yard. We felt horrible. I still do when I think of it. (46.1.19)

You guys, don't be jerks—because then you'll have to live with yourself afterward, and it's a pretty major bummer. Steinbeck here is clearly trying to make up a little for his past unpleasant deeds with Mr. Fenchel, though at the time, he and his sister were just mimicking what everyone else in Salinas was doing to German-Americans. But the thing about the present is that it can be really easy to lose perspective. Sometimes, it takes the distance of hindsight to realize what things really meant. So this is yet another way of looking at the past.

"Maybe you'll come to know that every man in every generation is refired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger to make a perfect cup—thin, strong, translucent?" (55.3.20)

Hooray for progress. Lee is getting on board with the whole optimism thing. Things might be bad, but that doesn't mean we are locked into them. We have to keep trying to be better, and make sure that history doesn't repeat itself—both in the grand scheme of things and in the context of our own lives and families.