John Steinbeck's East of Eden - The Gift of Free Will

John Steinbeck's East of Eden - The Gift of Free Will

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East of Eden - The Gift of Free Will


An excellent benefit of choosing to major in English is that it has allowed me four years to dig deeply into my love of the written word. This involves looking beyond the surface of literature and studying its effects in the course of my everyday life. Some books are easy to read quickly, enjoy, and forget, but others exert an influence that is not easily discarded or forgotten. In my mental library, the classic American novel East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, falls into this category. I believe East of Eden has helped shape me morally by illustrating the power of free will in a world caught between a constant battle of good and evil.

I decided to read East of Eden after hearing a friend share a short passage from it in his valedictory address. Although I do not remember the contents of that particular passage anymore, I remember that it was the power of Steinbeck's simple, direct language that urged me to take it on as my next big foray into what my high school English teacher called "real literature."

The Cain and Abel story, possibly the most enigmatic story of good and evil in the Bible, is the basis for East of Eden. Although allegorical elements are scattered throughout the whole novel, the most evident theme struck me as three of the main characters discussed the ramifications of God's words to Cain after Abel's death. Lee, a Chinese servant to one of the novel's main families, explained to his two companions a little-known conflict between the translations of Genesis 4:7 in two versions of the Bible. In one translation, God tells Cain that "thou shalt" rule over sin. In another, God says to Cain, "Do thou" rule over sin. The first is a promise, and the second is an order. Lee concluded that the ambiguity presented by the two translations is at the heart of the universal human story.

I agree. I know some people who surrender themselves to the fatalistic belief that everything in life has been mapped out by God. I also know people who believe that God is a harsh drillmaster who issues demands under the constant threat of damnation. Until I read this book, however, I never wondered where the dispute originated. As the characters in Steinbeck's novel discussed the discrepancy of Genesis 4:7, I also wondered at the intended meaning of the verse.

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I did not have to wonder for long, though, because Lee revealed the results of his investigation only a few pages after his introduction of the problem. He shared his discovery that the original word spoken to Cain was timshel, which means "thou mayest." Lee argued that timshel "might be the most important word in the world."

The power of his argument reinforces itself every time I reread that part of the novel, which I have singled out with the help of a bright yellow marker. It reminds me that free will is the ultimate determiner in the course of my moral destiny. Although human history places some forces in my life that I have no control over, I always have the freedom to choose between good and evil. I have the ability to shape my future circumstances through recognition of the power given to me through the gift of free will. This means every moment is open to limitless possibilities-- opportunities to make good on the assurance that "thou mayest" rule over sin.

This holds incredible moral weight, because I consider the gift of free will a serious charge to lay claim to my own actions. I have come to believe that it is immoral to surrender to a fatalistic philosophy that weakens me to the level of a pawn in a cosmic chess game. If I allow myself to believe that uncontrollable forces are in constant conspiracy against my chances for happiness, I might as well resign myself to a life of unhappiness. Life is simply too short to spend on wasted chances and squandered aspirations.

Now when I feel as though the world is bearing down on me and robbing me of my chances for happiness, I remember Lee's conclusions about free will and try to find a variety of options to consider for my course of action. This helps to remind me that I am never truly powerless. I will probably never completely stop offending people with my careless words, misjudging situations without first evaluating them fairly, and foolishly slamming shut doors of opportunity. But timshel gives me ownership of my mistakes. It tells me that maybe, if I work hard enough and care enough about making the most of free will, I can stop making so many mistakes. Timshel gives me hope for becoming a better person.

My yellow marker has taken captive of one other Steinbeck passage for moral reference. Toward the end of East of Eden, Steinbeck suspends the plot momentarily and takes a chapter for his own philosophical thoughts. Among them is this sentence:

It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

I think this passage combines the moral reasoning of East of Eden and reinforces the timshel concept that Lee brings to the forefront of the characters' minds. Most importantly, it has made an indelible impression on my understanding of morality. I can think of no greater horror than that of my death bringing pleasure to the world. I only live once, and I only die once, so I think I will take my free will and use it as wisely as possible. Armed with my yellow marker, I will try to be a force of goodness and hope that my life might actually bring some pleasure to the world.
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