Rumi told us where we could find him — “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing… I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass.” If Eden is the place beyond good and evil, then Steinbeck can’t seem to find it. East of Eden, Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, holds a microscope to our virtue but somewhere in his exploration, arrives at a triumph as freeing as Rumi’s couplet.

East of Eden is set in California before the first World War and follows the lives of the Trask family. Two brothers, Cal and Aron, their father, Adam Trask, and their mother, Cathy, who is thought to be dead, but really escaped the family to run a brothel in the city. The story of the Trask brothers follows that of the Biblical Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve. The Book of Genesis tells us of a gift Cain offered to God, which He rejected. God thanked Cain, but chose his brother Abel’s gift, and out of jealousy Cain killed his brother. God, through his rejection, drove Cain to murder his brother. In so doing, sin was woven into the fabric of mankind. It is from this original crime we descend, with the same ability to hurt each other. Adam and Eve are too often blamed for the messiness of the world, but their only mistake was curiosity. And if Eve’s curiosity is the first tale of humanity, then our capacity for evil is its direct son.

Despite its ties to the Bible, the novel is really a story of its reader, Steinbeck gives us the cosmic reason for our meanness. We think we’ve conjured sin up from depths so dark that they are inhuman, but sin was always in our destiny. Steinbeck writes “every little boy thinks he invented sin. Virtue we think we learn because we are told about it. But sin is our own designing.” The novel arrives at our noble struggle to try and choose against the sin that was written in our fate. Our attempts to overcome meanness “makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods… Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice. A bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.” Cal Trask, the parallel to biblical Cain struggles through his natural meanness, which sets him apart from his brother Aron. He plunges himself into walks through the night to understand why he’s different, and is led to a horrible loss of innocence, when he discovers his mother is running a brothel in the neighboring city. When she tells him she shot her father in the arm and escaped their home when the boys were young, Cal’s veil of youth is peeled back. Suddenly, his sin seems more like an inheritance from his mother than evil that he designed.

Steinbeck’s novel deserves a spot in our 2020 for the same reason NBC’s The Good Place commands its audience. The show, for all of its musings about Heaven and Hell, ends up being a show about how we spend our times here on Earth. The Good Place captures all of our anxiety as we navigate morality to try and stave off a wave of American Psycho styled Postmodernism. But following a non-deluded moral compass can feel impossible today when we know so much about the world we live in. Ordering portable silverware to help the environment but using Amazon feels more neutral than it does a pat on the back. I don’t think it’s bad to know. It’s better to know than not know, but the knowledge can be suffocating. The Good Place offers thoughts on how to live in such a world. Eleanor and Jason aren’t evil, they’re just living for themselves. They warn us from ignoring the voices of change. They behave like children in the adult world, as if the problems of others can’t concern them. But Tahani’s misguided philanthropy isn’t much better. Michael tells her that her philanthropy should be matched with internal harmony, not driven by her familial jealousy. Perhaps the most urgent warning for our generation is Chidi’s indecisiveness. We have to act in the world, even if it’s hard, even if we know too much. Simply knowing is no moral high-ground. The Good Place condemns those who pay lip service to change, it calls for us to take steps for progress.

East of Eden follows the same advice as the The Good Place. Cal tries to run from his lost innocence and escape with his wife away from the valley they grew up in. She tells him this is weakness, the same as Chidi when he escapes into his philosophical musing. Knowing the darkness isn’t enough, Cal has to accept it and confront it.

‘ “Abra, my mother was a whore.”
“I know. You told me. My father is a thief.”
“I’ve got her blood, Abra. Don’t you understand?”
“I’ve got his,” she said….
“I want you to go inside the willow tree with me. That’s what I want to do.” She
stopped and her hand pulled him to a stop. “No,” she said. “That’s not right.”

​ “Don’t you want to go in with me?”

“Not if you’re running away-no, I don’t”’