The narrator remembers growing up in the Salinas Valley of northern California. He recalls the landscape in poetic and nostalgic terms and describes the rich beauty of the wildflowers that grew there. He also explains how he learned to recognize east from west in this valley. The east was represented by the Gabilan Mountains, always light and lovely; and the west was represented by the Santa Lucia Mountains, which were dark and foreboding. He notes that the valley underwent a thirty-year cycle. The first five-to six-year period was always wet, with the valley receiving nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain. Then another six-or seven-year phase would commence, and the rain would lessen to twelve to sixteen inches a year. Next, the dry years would bring only seven or eight inches of annual rainfall. In the dry times, the people forgot there were ever lush times, and in the lush times they forgot the dry times.
The history of
Salinas Valley began with the Indians, whom the narrator denigrates as "an
inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture -- a people . . . too
lazy to hunt or fish. . . . Even their warfare was a weary pantomime." Next
came the greedy Spanish, who were
searching for gold and trying to convert the Indians to their religion. They colonized the area, using land grant titles. They raised cattle and named everything in sight with Catholic holy names or Spanish place names. Next came the "Americans," who were greedier than the Spanish. They settled the land and added their own names to places.
Like most of his books, East of Eden is set in Steinbeck’s native California. He begins the novel with a detailed description of the natural landscape and beauty of the Salinas Valley. He presents a cosmic view of the valley, noting its thirty-year cycles. Steinbeck’s beautiful narration of the Salinas area is marred by his racist description of the Indians who settled the region. Calling them "an inferior breed," it is clear that he is prejudiced against native Americans, preferring the European Americans of non-Spanish descent, whom he calls simply "Americans."
The narrator pieces the story of his ancestors together from hearsay and photographs. Samuel and Liza Hamilton came to the Salinas Valley in 1870 from Ireland and settled on the worst land in the region because all the good land had already been taken. They did, however, wind up with 1760 acres on which Samuel built a house, a barn, and a blacksmith shop.
The Hamiltons had nine children. To support his large family, Samuel worked as a blacksmith and a well digger. He also acted as an amateur doctor for his own family and the families on surrounding farms. Samuel was appreciated for his services and well liked for his wit, humor, and moral uprightness. His wife, Liza, was Samuel’s opposite in many ways. Although she also had a strict moral code, she had a humorless manner.
The first European settlers to the Salinas Valley were land greedy and grabbed large parcels for themselves. The size of the land, however, did not guarantee wealth. Some people arrived in Salinas Valley with money and retained their wealth. Adam Trask was one of these. He planted wheat in the fertile land of the valley and made more money.
In presenting his characters in this chapter, their economic status is kept at the forefront. Steinbeck defines the working class family of the Hamiltons and sets up the contrast between them and the ruling class character of Adam Trask, who will be described in the next chapter. Samuel Hamilton had to accept the worst land in the valley, for he arrived after the best land had been grabbed by other settlers. He then had to work hard as a blacksmith and well digger to support his large family that included his wife and nine children.
Steinbeck’s style is always realistic and sometimes naturalistic. His prose style is characterized by a spare exactitude. He uses surprising and yet mundane metaphors and similes. For example, he describes Liza Hamilton’s ability to bear children with bluntness: "She must have had a pelvic arch of whalebone, for she had big children one after the other."
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