Dignity and Despair: A Reaction to Steinbeck’s East of Eden

Series: The Lord and Literature 

by Ethan Collins August 9, 2021

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”

John Steinbeck wrote those words in the novel he identified as his grandest work, East of Eden. Evidence for Steinbeck’s personal belief in such a claim is unmistakable in his writing.  East of Eden is so reflective of the human experience that even the shocking and unbelievable events therein feel historical.  Steinbeck’s vivid description of Salinas Valley and her residents is noticeably familiar, and he conveys this familiarity in such a way that readers seem to join in reminiscence. The unfiltered—even brutal—recounting of tragedy, triumph, and the quiet anxiety or numbness that lies between provides a robust depiction of life as we know it. Thus, not only does the story feel historical, it feels like our story. Readers are not exposed to something foreign, but something in which they intimately participate. The story may not be real, but it is true.

It seems Steinbeck wrote in this way because of his views on the biblical account of Cain and Abel—the subject of the introductory quotation. For Steinbeck, every human participates in this ancient narrative. We all have Cain’s blood in our veins, and his murder is our ancestry. At more than one point, characters in the novel question what chance man ever had with such a violent past. Steinbeck derived his optimistic response from the biblical text itself.  In Genesis 4:7b, God speaks to Cain before his infamous crime: “sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou mayest rule over him (Steinbeck’s interpretation).” The choice given to Cain is the choice we all have. It distinguishes man from beast. It gives us dignity. Steinbeck believed moral agency is not only what makes us human, but what makes humans extraordinary. Though the world may attack a man time and time again, he will never be completely destroyed because he always has “the great choice.”

I have a deep appreciation for Steinbeck’s views. As a reader, I shared the invigoration of his fictional characters as they formulated these conclusions. Furthermore, I find the choice to do right or wrong incredibly meaningful.[1] I was glad to encounter a worldview that esteems mankind without denying them any fault. However, in my estimation, our response to the Genesis 4 story ought to be two-sided. Steinbeck illustrated the dignity of God-given choice. An equally valid reaction to this significant responsibility is despair.

Steinbeck’s globalization of Cain’s predicament rings fearfully true. Sin still lies at the door. God still calls us to overcome it. Actually, the dreadful choice between good and evil is even older than Cain, but not by much. The mere anxiety of having options is not what makes moral choice dreadful. Rather, it is accountability for the terrible consequence. Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey God was the most consequential human decision of all time. What a tremendous weight to carry! An incredible source of dignity, no doubt. But what of the result? A single glance at the world will reveal the vast misuse of moral freedom. A second glance, this time toward one’s own heart, will confirm suspicions that not only is Cain’s choice universal—so is his failure.[2] Moral choice leads to despair because we know that when we fail, the blame rests on our own shoulders.[3]

God’s gift of moral choice is prestige placed in unworthy hands. There is no one else to blame for the death and sin we bring upon ourselves through the misuse of moral freedom. We have sewn, so too should we reap. But God is not simply Creator; He is Father. God is not an employer who irresponsibly delegates power and terminates those who falter as a result. Rather, He is more like the mother who, after her child touched the forbidden stovetop, lovingly tends to the wounds.[4]

Even after witnessing humanity’s fall into destruction and despair through misuse of His dignifying gift of choice, God continued to give.  He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes will have eternal life.[5]  God gives forgiveness and grace to spiteful rebels.  He could take away the gift of choice and rid His creation of both dignity and despair. But instead, He demonstrated love in its highest form: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.[6] His children keep the divine gift of dignity without the eternal consequence of its misuse. How wonderful it is to serve a God who is faithful and just to give and forgive.[7] This is not a Father who we run from upon falling. Rather, this is One upon whom we fall, knowing that He cares for us and will lovingly tend to our wounds.

Steinbeck was right to feel the weight of Cain’s God-given choice. There is tremendous dignity in having such a decision. But, we must not overlook what humans consistently choose. Because of our sinfulness, despair clutches the heel of dignity—always following close behind. Praise be to our God and Father—the fount of Goodness—who gives ceaselessly by calling us out of our darkness and despair into His marvelous light.[8]

[1] For an insightful look at the way choice is integral to meaningful living, see Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

[2] Romans 3:10

[3] This is precisely the sort of despair portrayed in Romans 7.

[4] For the theologically conscientious and concerned: metaphors only extend so far.  In this one, I am not making a theological claim about holiness or sin (for which it may fall short), rather I am simply illustrating that God came to humanity’s rescue instead of destroying or abandoning us after the Fall.

[5] John 3:10

[6] Romans 5:8

[7] 1 John 1:9

[8] 1 Peter 2:9