The Fears and Struggles of Womanhood in East of Eden

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John Steinbeck’s East of Eden gives undeniable prominence to the societal fears of his time above all themes by using his characters as depictions of the good and the evil to explore the contrast in ethics throughout history, stating that there is “no other story” besides the contest between the merits and the monsters. In doing so, Cathy Ames, the villainous “psychic monster”, is portrayed both explicitly and implicitly as the “embodiment of evil” (Sapurta, 2018) as she does not abide by the roles of archetypal women in literature. She is profoundly powerful and autonomous, and therefore the interpretation of her character is met with ambivalence as her disparity from the rest of the female characters in the novel denotes to how she is a representative of either a conniving antagonist who poses a threat to humanity, or a feminist icon, similar to Ma Joad in Steinbeck’s earlier novel, The Grapes of Wrath. “[Monsters] tend to reflect the power dynamics, prejudices and fears of society, and the people in it” (Pengilley, 2018), hence, Steinbeck’s portrayal of Ames may be emblematic of his fears of society where female dominance or ’pseudo-feminism’ is accepted.

The femme fatale icon has historically become a prevalent way of depicting women of power, however, used (predominantly in American literature during the 1940s and 1950s) to demonstrate how women, once in possession of power, would use their authority for nefarious purposes, inducing gender-based fears. This fear escalated following the Second World War, where the employment of women in manufacturing made “men anxious about the disruption of the family and the workplace. The femme fatale was thus a projection of male fears and a cautionary tale for women…when they step out of bounds” (Fortini, 2015). The idea of patriarchy, alongside the dependancy women had on men deteriorated as a result of the war, and feminist empowerment was seen as a “process which enables the woman to organise themselves to increase their self reliance” (ref). This is the self-reliance which Steinbeck warns his readers about in East Of Eden, using Ames’ destructive nature which she imposes on both Adam Trask and his twin sons, and this is also the self-reliance which Trask later fears, leading him to the conclusion that she is not the “image of beauty and tenderness” he once believed, but rather she is “no human at all”.

Despite Ames’ possession of power, she does not fit the conventions of the femme fatale, as a femme fatale is a “deceitful antiheroine [who] seduces a male protagonist… then manipulates him into committing unscrupulous act” (Fortini, 2015). She does not commit to, or manipulate others to commit to an unscrupulous act; in fact, Ames notably does not have an ultimate goal or aim, and her motivations remain a mystery which makes her appear more fearsome and daunting. It is here where Steinbeck demonstrates how female empowerment may constitute to unfamiliar problems, and further uses nuances and narrative gaps in the plot to reinforce this unfamiliarity. For the entirety of Part Two, it is not revealed how Ames uses her manipulation to her advantage during her travel to the Salinas Valley and “since we cannot know what she wanted, we will never know whether or not she got it”. The narrator discusses how Ames remains a monster and invites the reader into his quest in determining what her intentions are, and hence invites the reader to the issues the characters of East of Eden are facing. Aside from using the narrator as an author’s surrogate on the opinion on women empowerment, Steinbeck uses the personal pronoun “we” to make the narrator the mouthpiece of the reader’s opinions, forcing the reader to agree and therefore sharing the same fears.

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At first glance, it seems Steinbeck purposefully saturates his novel with misogyny due to his scepticism of women’s empowerment but in contrast, he may have instead characterised Ames with complexity and with importance to authenticate the greatness of empowerment. Ames is indeed fiendish; she uses her virtues, such as her patience, as her weapon, she has “something inhuman about her” due to her rejection of her role as a mother, she sexually exploits men much like Succubus, and even down to Steinbeck’s intrinsic details of her suggests so, such as how the focalisation through Hamilton as he watches her devouring her food and his wonder on how he has “never seen anyone chew that way before” implies her beastly disposition. However, Hamilton’s close analysis of Ames and her importance in the entirety of the novel proves her “varying degrees of depth and complexity” (Porter Abott, 2002:127) which constitutes to the ‘roundness’ of her as a character, and this is the greatest distinction Steinbeck draws from her and the rest of the female characters in the novel. Alice Trask is only described through her “admirable qualities”, Mollie is associated only to her marriage to a “well-to-do man”, and Faye, with her significance only being the owner of the “whorehouse”, all reinforcing the ‘rigidity’ of their characterisation.

All the more Liza Hamilton is the only female character, other than Ames, to be considered ‘round’ due to her exceptional sense of independence and dedication following Hamilton’s death. Steinbeck shows how the important female characters, across all his novels, such as “Elisa Allen, Ma Joad, and Cathy Trask” work “toward[s] a new way of living in a male-dominated society” (Garcia, 2016). Where Mary Steinbeck sees her femininity as a “misfortune”, Ames embraces hers and uses it to her advantage. This leads Steinbeck to keep Mary in the background and put Ames forward in his story for one of two polar reasons; to emphasise on how significant the unfamiliar problems of empowerment are, or to demonstrate how the lack of one’s acceptance for their femininity will encourage the acceptance of a patriarchal society. Steinbeck shrewdly uses these reasons to generate gender-based fears in both genders.

Furthermore, Ames rejects the renouncement of “all ambition and desire” she possesses with ease, which “gets a strongly negative connotation” (Bertens, 2001), and Steinbeck’s allusions to the myths of the Abrahamic religions moulded with this ease reminds the reader of how the first sin ensued from the independence of women. The morality of the characters in East of Eden is explored with direct parallels to the Old Testament, where Trask and Ames resemble Adam and Eve in the Creationism story. Eve commits the first sin after affirming she is Adam’s equal and causes humanity’s original state of sinfulness. However, Ames also mirrors ‘Lilith’, the demoness originating from Jewish mythology believed to be Adam’s first wife. Much like Lilith, Ames represents chaos and seduction, and unlike Eve, Lilith was made from the same materials as Adam, and due to this, they are “both alike in importance” (Gaines, 2001) as they were “both created from the earth” (Eisenstein, 1915). Lilith’s refusal of Adam’s authority, her disobedience and God’s banishment of Lilith from the faith represents the battle between the sexes, where man is unable to comprehend the woman’s desire of empowerment, and womanhood’s unwillingness to settle for less, which Steinbeck shows is a flaw in society that should be feared. In Ames’ first conversation with Cal, she asserts her point that Trask “tried to tie [her] down that way” as “most people get tied down that way”, the same way Adam had tried to “tie down” Lilith.

As “modern feminists celebrate her bold struggle for independence from Adam” (ref), Steinbeck instead fears Lilith’s lack of submissiveness, which Ames also withholds. In addition, Lilith and Ames have a greater resemblance by reason of their use of sexual wiles of power, which suggests “that women can get what they want through entrapment, artifice, and seduction”(ref). Ames feels more comfortable at a “whorehouse”, a place where she is in control of her sexuality and hence has more power, rather than living with Trask. She is unable to adapt to the patriarchal environment surrounded by the likes of Hamilton, Charles, and Trask because she does not possess this power, which Steinbeck purposefully necessitates in the novel to teach the reader how women can “get what they want” no matter the circumstances, and his fear of the shift in the power between gender remains.

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