Some books, I find, have an ‘atmosphere’ that lingers in the mind for several days after I finish reading them, like a cloud of smoke or a heavy scent on the air. When I finish a book like that, I don’t want to start reading anything else until the cloud or the perfume has dissipated and the air is clear again.
Often, when this happens, it’s because the sense of ‘place’ in the novel is very strong. Great Expectations is one such book, with all its dark locations – the foggy River Thames, the dank walls of Newgate Prison, the mustiness of Satis House. Watership Down is another, with a starkly different atmosphere – the rabbit’s-eye view of grass, sparkling rivers and the dappled shadows cast by the leaves of trees high above. I could think, too, of Hardy’s The Return of the Native, in which Egdon Heath has its own personality, and Forster’s A Passage to India, with the sinister Marabar Caves at its centre. In novels like these, the places have a definite shaping influence on the characters’ emotions, motives and actions.
One book I read recently, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, had the same lingering effect on my mind, but this time it was not because of the physical setting. The story takes place mainly in the Salinas Valley of California, but there’s a sense in which it could be anywhere, because this is a story of the psychological places – the interior landscapes – where any of us could find ourselves.
East of Eden is based consciously on the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. These two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve, both bring sacrifices to God. Abel’s is accepted by God but Cain’s is inexplicably rejected. God warns Cain to combat the jealous rage that threatens to overwhelm him, but Cain is unable or unwilling to do so and murders his brother. He’s then exiled to ‘the land of Nod, east of [the garden of] Eden’ – in other words, even further from paradise than his parents have wandered.
Like many of the ancient origin stories in Genesis, this one is short, mysterious and rather unsatisfying to those of us who are used to the extended narrative arc of the Western novel. But Steinbeck fleshes out the common human emotions at its heart and creates from it the kind of narrative that we are familiar with. Few authors draw a clearer picture of the internal struggle between good and evil impulses at the core of a person’s identity.
The homage to Cain and Abel could be seen as a bit clumsy, a bit contrived: all the major characters who show Cain’s murderous instincts – Charles, Cathy, Caleb – have names beginning with ‘C’, while their more passive victims have names with the initial ‘A’. (There is a twist in this pattern, though, as one ‘C’ is given hope of being led out of his destructive path by the strong love of another ‘A’.)
But the characters representing the extremes of evil and goodness, and the individual whose mind is the most compelling battlefield between the two sides, do make a vivid impression. There’s the horrific Cathy, possibly the most evil fictional creation this side of Lord Voldemort; Caleb, who, of all the players in the story, fights the hardest against his shadow side; and Lee, the Chinese servant who, like God, urges Cal to overcome his jealous rage and grief. Lee knows and understands far more about everyone else’s motives than he ever tells or explains, because he listens closely, not just to the words spoken but to the spirit behind the words.
So in this novel, the physical location is of secondary importance. There’s no need for a great river, prison walls, grassy hills, caves or heathland to create a lingering atmosphere. ‘East of Eden’ is the metaphorical but very real place where we all live and make our moral choices every day.