I was surprised to learn during my reading that, although this book is a classic, it was met with a harsh critical reaction. It seems as though many people thought that the characterizations were much too blunt and unwieldy to be artistic, and it was far from the critical success that it's thought as today. I, for one, believe that the characters in this novel are perhaps more relevant and believable in today's society versus how they would have been looked on when the book made its debut in the mid-fifties. It seems to be a novel that has come into its own, character-wise, and may indeed have been ahead of its time.
Steinbeck begins his story with a a very detailed look at the land in the Salinas Valley, and much of the first section of the book explains the area and sets the stage for the drama to come. It's only in the second or third chapter that we first get a look at the people who inhabit this story and find out their origins. Mild mannered Samuel Hamilton is introduced, along with his crowd of a family, and then the action shifts over towards the Trask household, where it remains for many chapters. From the beginning of the chronicling of the Trasks, the biblical symbolism of the Cain and Abel story runs thick throughout the narrative, a theme that will wind its way through the story until its conclusion. In fact, there are several scenes where the characters pick up this thread of symbolism and actively discuss its meanings and portents in regards to their own situations. I found this to be a very impressive feat of the narrative, for the reader and the characters seem to almost be discovering the same ideas and themes together, which lends a heightened relevance to all that is taking place.
As the action moves towards the second half of the story, the narrative begins to focus on the lives of the Trask twins, Cal and Aaron. These boys are beset by conflicting ideas of their futures but share the same questions about the whereabouts of their missing mother. Though Adam attempts to keep them in the dark about Cathy's malignant life and behavior, he can't help but see shades of the woman running through his children's personalities. Here again, various other aspects of the Cain and Abel story come into play within the lives of the Trask children. Through his artistry and juggling of the recurrent themes and symbolism, Steinbeck plunges his readers deep into the heart of what it means to sin and begs us to consider whether the sin of the soul is inherent or acquired. These are questions that plague both the Trask and Hamilton households, and the reader can't help but examine and ponder the evidence that the men so eloquently lay before them.
Here I must discuss Cathy's character. Her story takes up about a fourth of the book and was, I felt, brilliant in its execution. Steinbeck introduces her without much fanfare but states clearly in the narrative that there are some people who are born monsters, people who have no conscience or regret and who seem to bide their time, waiting to unleash all of their pent up hostility on the world when it stands in their way. Cathy, it turns out, is one of these people. She is a vile specimen who cannot even take pleasure in her destruction, for she has no sense of joy. She is like a predatory animal who seeks only to gain the advantage, no matter what the cost is to another. I found her to be shocking and truly one of the most heinous woman I've ever run across in literature. Her evil runs deep into the recesses of her mind and she pours violence from her soul in a flagrant disregard for anyone who is foolish enough to step in her path. I found it very odd that Adam wasn't able to see her as she truly was and, at one point, believed her to be a sainted woman. Charles, on the other hand, was able to see the evil in Cathy because her depravity was mirrored within his own soul and he found her to be a kindred spirit.
At its most basic level, this novel is an epic tale of family, but hidden deep within its tissues are stories of sin and absolution, grief and redemption, and the very difficult struggle between good and evil. Steinbeck tackles all of this in his tale, using his characters' lives as object lessons to his readers and posing his questions to them as they fall deeper and deeper into his story's spell. Among the very typical things that go on in his characters' lives, there are hidden secrets and endless possibilities posed not only by the characters and their predicaments, but by their thoughts and beliefs about themselves and each other. They are multi-faceted creatures, at once wise and naive, worldly yet sheltered, and though they claim to be able to see themselves clearly, they operate under false assumptions of themselves, living in the darkness of their limited understanding.
There's just too much grist in this story for this review to ever be able to communicate it succinctly, and although I feel that I've only scratched the surface, I invite you to delve into this book and plumb its depths with an aim at tasting the heady brew the Steinbeck offers you. It's the story of life, told through a small lens that captures the woes and heartaches of its characters in a way that everyone will understand, and a story that you can peel back layer after layer, exposing both the affirming and disappointing aspects of human nature. I was so glad to have experienced it and to have been able to have taken away such thought provoking messages from it. If you haven't yet experienced this wonderful book, I highly recommend it to you and envy the experience you will have reading it for the first time. A brilliant and beautiful book.