John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is about losers. It would be a stretch to call it Noir, but it draws its characters from the same gutter of broken-down lives. Steinbeck’s protagonists resemble David Goodis’ in that they are dreamers who fail to live up to their goals, and whose ambitious drive gives them only enough strength to try and fail again. The only two characters in Steinbeck’s book to find any sort of success in their lives are those without any ideals or goals whatsoever: a Civil War veteran who fabricates his entire military history and robs the government of his money, and a war profiteer who rips off bean farmers and makes a bundle during WWI. The next closest success is the brothel madam Cathy, a femme fatale if there ever was one, who slept and seduced her way across the country and left a trail of corpses in her wake.
The rest of the characters belong to a downtrodden lot who never lived up to their hopes. They aspired to greatness, and fell short because of their own flaws. The story follows two families—the Hamiltons and the Trasks—through three generations. The Hamiltons hail from Ireland, while the Trasks come from Connecticut, but both families wind up in California at the turn of the 20th century. The patriarchs of both families buy land with hopes of making it rich, and both learn the hard way that prosperity is easy to dream of but difficult to realize.
When looked at this way, the motivating forces behind Steinbeck’s characters aren’t so different from those in a traditional Western novel. The character move westward in hopes of leaving their past behind, reinventing themselves, and finding prosperity and success through the land. These same desires can also be found in Steinbeck’s earlier novel, The Grapes of Wrath. But if we are to consider East of Eden as a Western, then we have to pay close attention to its time period. While Samuel Hamilton settles in California sometime after the transcontinental railroad is completed (perhaps mid-1880s?), most of the novel takes place after 1900, when the Wild West was already settled. This time period is crucial: both Adam Trask and Samuel Trask (the respective patriarchs) have missed their historical mark. Samuel was too late to buy fertile land, and he had to settle for an arid plot without access to water, and which never amounted to much. Adam, on the other hand, was rich enough to buy the best land, but personal tragedy left him depressed and deflated all his dreams. Neither Samuel nor Adam lived to be the majestic Western settler they wanted so badly to become. The West was settled before they arrived, only they didn’t know it.
While I do see distinctive parallels between East of Eden and both Western and Noir genres, Steinbeck’s novel doesn’t belong in either category. It is an epic work, spanning multiple generations and a huge cast of characters. The book is not only impressive for its breadth, but for its thoroughness. Steinbeck can introduce a character in a chapter and encapsulate their entire life in a mere few pages. From chapter to chapter, he moves amongst different characters, some of whom appear only for a few pages never to appear again. But with each successive character, the story deepens and the plot thickens. The narrative develops because of the complexity of the characters and their interactions. Impressive is hardly a sufficient word to describe the intricate, delicate, and sublime narrative structure that Steinbeck has created.
In a way, East of Eden is the opposite—or, perhaps, complement—of The Grapes of Wrath. Where Grapes is focused on a single family during a short, specific time period, East of Eden is expansive and ephemeral. But though its tapestry may be large, East of Eden never feels thin or rushed. Steinbeck is patient, and he lets his characters wreck their own lives when they’re ready for it. Part of that patience is his sympathy, and part of it is his wish that, this time, maybe things will work out all right. As all of the characters realize, hope will have to lie with the next generation who, whether they like it or not, might just wind up repeating the mistakes of their elders.