“And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen?
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be its desire, and thou mayest rule over it.”
The story of Cain and Abel is a story of rejection. Or perhaps more aptly, the fear of rejection. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck says their story “is the best known story in the world because it is everybody’s story.”
What is the world’s story?
I can’t say I loved reading East of Eden, but at the same time I’m glad that I did. Some of the characters were darker than life and left me dissatisfied with their treatment in the plot. Some of the subplots seemed empty and I was unsure of their purpose. But overall the story left an impression on me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. This book engaged me from the beginning and I discovered some new ideas.
As an author, Steinbeck’s message hit home. When I write something, frequently blog posts, occasionally entire books (I know, right?), there is a part of me that is always afraid. The fear is irrational, possibly, but it’s also real. As I said when I published my book, my fear is not that people will dislike what I wrote. What I fear is that no one will read it.
For an author, that is the same as rejection. I write partially for self-fulfillment, but mostly because I want to share what I think with others. And I want to hear what they think in return. After I have written something, and as there is sometimes (or often) silence, a feeling comes that I can’t escape.
To tie this thought back to Cain and Abel, I believe I know a little bit how Cain felt. He must have put his heart and soul into his gift, and it was rejected.
One of Steinbeck’s characters, Lee (my mother-in-law’s favorite), says, “The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved.” Lee continues, “I think everyone in the world…has felt rejection.” And finally the key, “with rejection comes anger, and with anger…crime in revenge…and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind.”
East of Eden
In Genesis, the Garden of Eden was a paradise where Adam and Eve lived. When they left Eden, they started their family. The story of their two sons, Cain and Abel, is the story of Cain’s desire for acceptance and his fear of rejection. He offers the labor of his hands, but his gift does not please God. We all know what happens next.
I suppose there are numerous debates over Cain’s story and fate. Why did God reject Cain’s first offering but accept Abel’s? Did God prefer Abel? An inescapable train of thought inevitably arrives to ask whether or not God was “fair” to Cain.
I can’t really answer those questions. But I can say with certainty that the answers are not important. What is important is what Cain did afterwards. He made a choice. After his offering was rejected, he had a second chance, and possibly would have had many chances after that for all we know. A significant detail to me is that God did not punish Cain, he only warned him. He warned him that he stood at a fork in the road and he had to choose.
The choosing was the most important thing. It was Steinbeck’s crucial theme throughout East of Eden. God told Cain that it was up to him. Cain had the choice. “Thou mayest rule over it.” He didn’t have to give in.
As I have said elsewhere, I feel strongly that our purpose in life is to become something greater than we were before. Cain could be any one of us if we choose to give in to anger, hate, or jealousy. Steinbeck thought that we all have the seeds of both good and ill inside of us.
He believed our decisions and actions determine which side emerges from this internal conflict to define us.
“Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back.”
I share Steinbeck’s belief in this. There is the potential for evil in all of us, and it is only our strength of will, our desire for good, and our choices that can resist it. And in resisting, we strengthen our souls.
What will be your story?
All great literature causes us to look into ourselves and learn a little bit more. In East of Eden, two brothers, Cal and Aron, face a situation blatantly analogous to that of Cain and Abel, even down to the alliterative names. But unlike Cain, Cal breaks the cycle of rejection that would have led him to resentment and regret. Instead, he finds a way to rise above and change himself.
He does not fall to the same fate as Cain.
I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck’s works, and although most of his writing is (almost by definition) very sad, he finishes East of Eden with hope. The book ends with the promise that any of us can be better and choose better than Cain. He says, through the story of Cal, that despite our parents, despite our background, despite our tendencies, and above all despite our circumstances, we can choose to do good.
And that is the only story. “We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.”
What do you think? Share your thoughts below.