EAST OF EDEN (1955): Life without God

 “I can’t believe your fickleness – how easily you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message!  It is not a minor variation, you know; it is completely other, an alien message, a no-message, a lie about God.”

St Paul, Letter to the Galatians[i]

Even when a writer is inspired by the Bible, the result of that inspiration might undercut the truth of God.

John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952) sought to tell the story of Cain and Abel as the story of Cal and Aron, sons of a misbegotten marriage in Salinas, California.

Adam Trask, a wealthy reader of the Bible, has married Cathy Ames without knowing her past of prostitution and parental murder. Not wanting the domestic life of motherhood on a ranch, Cathy shoots Adam and flees to the city, leaving Adam to raise her infant fraternal twin boys, Cal and Aron.

In Salinas, Cathy, now “Kate”, murders the madam of a brothel and takes over the operation.

Although rumors reach Aron and Cal that their mother is still alive, they mature assuming their mother to be dead.

Elia Kazan’s beautiful film version, East of Eden (1955), focuses on the story from this point on. The film’s visual beauty overwhelms the author’s undermining of the Biblical world of Eden and East of Eden

As a product of “realism” in both novel and film, East of Eden has no place for God. In the film, God lies only in the stiff, life-denying father Adam. In Adam, the God of the Bible is equated with never-ending moralizing.

Genesis concerns the relationship between God and human beings as they work out their relationship after being exiled from the Garden of Eden. For Steinbeck and Kazan, there is no authority higher than the foolish, and easily overlooked, father Adam.

Genesis’ cosmic unfolding of our nature and place in the universe is reduced to a domestic soap opera framed by sociology and psychology- the Gods of the modern world. (Eugene O’Neill had reduced Aeschylus’ Oresteia to a similar sordid domestic tale with his trilogy for the stage, Mourning Becomes Electra.

For modern secular realists, the power and wisdom once attributed to God can be explained through the scientific method as applied to human behavior. Sociologists and psychologists, not God, is where theater and film artists look for their problems and praise. Science, realists believe, is the source of the world’s actual power and proper object of devotion and reverence. The notion of a God is a leftover of a bygone era of superstition.

The problems between Cal and Aron realists believe, is simply a problem of genetics and upbringing. Cal has inherited Cathy’s rebellious and disrespectful personality, while Aron has inherited Adam’s rigid personality. The competition of the sons for Adam’s favor is due to natural sibling rivalry. Each son tries to win Adam’s favor through what each believes their father values most. Aron announces his engagement to the nice girl Abda as a birthday gift to his father, while Cal presents his father with the money his father had lost in a business venture.

Adam rejects Cal’s gift because he doesn’t think Cal was ethical in making money on the war which had just broken out. Hurt by failing to win his father’s love, Cal strikes out at Adam and Aron by announcing that Cathy is not dead, but owns a brothel in Salinas.

The shock fells Adam with a stroke and Aaron enlists in the military, hoping to die in the Great War. Cal is left to tend to his bed-ridden father, happy that he has finally won his father’s approval by this action of filial devotion. Beside him stands Abda, now realizing that she had loved the wrong man. Cal is the brother worthy of her love.

Nowhere in the film do the realist artists offer human beings’ sinful nature as the cause of the characters’ problems.

The great Biblical tale of Cain and Abel has become a domestic blame-game as children vying for both daddy’s love and the love of the cute girl down the street.

When explaining to Adam and Eve the benefits of defying God, the Serpent said, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Science, especially the science of sociology and psychology- promises to make men like God.

Denying any human nature, twentieth century realists looked to science to explain and correct human behavior. The sciences of the mind and community sought to quantify exactly how heredity and environment affect human actions. By identifying the scientific causes of behavior, scientists believe unfortunate behavior (once called “sin”) can be eliminated.

Secular realistic storytellers like Kazan and Steinbeck embraced the new gods. Their work sought to demonstrate the truths revealed through their sciences. Realistic stories wish to study the human character as a case study. Theology was suspect to scientific artists who considered heredity and environment, not God, to be the true determinants of human destiny. Scientific determinism led many playwrights to deny free will to the characters they drew.

Realists saw the traditional family as the incubator of human misery. Cathy and her like-minded son are conceived as heroic for rejecting and fleeing the oppressive family created by Adam Trask. Freedom to follow one’s passions (or “bliss” as pop mythologist Joseph Campbell would name it), unrestricted by social convention is shown as a healthier way of life.

Abda’s name is  derived from “Abraham”. So, when she chooses the free-spirited, rebellious Cal, we see the film’s symbolic representative of God’s people of faith and promise  abandon God for a new “god”.

Free from the tyranny of tradition, Cal and Abda will be the new Adam and Eve, creating a new world order to replace the dying Adam and his God.

Inside Kazan’s visually beautiful film, is a new message about the new gods – “not a minor variation, you know; it is completely other, an alien message, a no-message, a lie about God.”








[i] Paul, Galatians, 1:6-7. The Message.

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