East of Eden was on my to-see list for several years. I seemed to have escaped ever reading Steinbeck’s classic. A visit to Steinbeck’s museum in Salinas, California prompted me picking up The Grapes of Wrath, but time got away from me and his other books didn’t make it into my orbit.
A visit to Fairmount, Indiana last year with all of the James Dean sites and museum reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen a James Dean movie.
So it was with some delight that I saw East of Eden. Having not read the book, I really walked into the movie fresh, with no idea really of the plot. I also have no idea how true to the book the movie was. How well did the movie do with covering Steinbeck’s story? That will have to wait for another time.
East of Eden is set in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula—not very far apart geographically but they seem to occupy entirely different worlds. The story is set just prior to the US entry into World War I. Railroads connect the two worlds of the farmland of Salinas with the city of Monterey, with James Dean’s character (Caleb) hitching rides to get from one world to the other.
Railroads were also the defining moment for the fertile farmland in California’s Central Valley. If only there was a way to keep produce fresh during transport from the California farmland to places back east. Caleb’s father tinkers with the idea of putting lettuce on ice for transport by rail. Unfortunately, his attempt ends in failure; he bet heavily on his idea and lost.
East of Eden uses this backdrop to explore ideas of identity, the self-made man, and parent-child relations. Caleb is the bad child compared to his perfect brother Aron. References to Cain-Abel are stark. Caleb doesn’t kill Aron but rather eclipses him. As the story progresses, Aron becomes the sulky one, brooding and beset with troubles. Caleb steals the heart of Aron’s betrothed. In the end, Caleb assumes the long-desired place in his father’s heart.
Caleb is bedeviled by the role he seems to be forced to play. Others see him and thus he sees himself as the bad brother, a disappointment to his father and to everyone else. He assumes this interpretation of himself and becomes obsessed with the idea that his badness was inherited. His mother was long gone from the scene—died after childbirth. Or did she? Somehow Caleb suspects that she is still alive and tracks her down. As he suspected, he takes after his mother—a woman who refused to conform to the roles assigned to women at the time. She is a successful businesswoman. To break free of the constrains on women at the time, she had to leave her family and personal relationships behind.
After interacting with his mother, Caleb seems to accept himself more. He is like her. Genetics are destiny it seems. But he still strives for acceptance and love from his father—a highly unlikely source of either. He devotes himself to helping his father succeed in his endeavor to send fresh produce east. His father partially accepts his hard work and inventive ideas.
After seeing his father’s money and dream disappear when the venture ends in failure, Caleb uses his talent and skills to earn back the money his father lost. He takes advantage of the times, knowing that the US entrance into World War I would result in increased food prices. Borrowing money from his mother, he invests—along with a partner—in produce futures. At a birthday celebration for his father, he presents his father with the money. Sadly, his attempt to receive love and acceptance fails. He and his work are rejected by the high morals of his father who views benefiting from the high prices caused by the war as immoral.
Advised by others to leave the area and the family, Caleb seems destined to strike out on his own. But fate intervenes. On what will apparently be his deathbed after a stroke, his father asks Caleb to stay and care for him. Caleb, the wayward son continually rejected by others, seems like a vulnerable little boy who has finally received what he needed all along: love and acceptance from his father.
As his first major film, James Dean played the role of Caleb well. Critics point out that he played sulky teenagers well but that was all he played; his accolades may be misplaced. Perhaps if Dean lived, we would have discovered that this was the only type of role he could play. Or perhaps we would have discovered that he really was a great actor with a wide repertoire. We will never know.
I enjoyed the acting Dean brought to the role as well as the film in general. The themes explored were engaging and the film shots interesting, sometimes off kilter at an angle. I am looking forward to watching his other films…and reading more Steinbeck.