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Steinbeck was the pre-eminent writer of the Great Depression. He often wrote protest fiction, which reached its height in the 1930s. Like much of the protest fiction, Steinbeck wrote in the tradition of Naturalism. Naturalism was a literary movement that was prominent in American fiction in the 1890s and in the 930s. Naturalism was coined as a term in France and originally meant scientific. When it was adopted by novelists, it was intended to impart a philosophy of skepticism and determinism to the world of fiction. In naturalism, a writer would regard the most important element of the fictional world to be the social, historical and economic context of the setting. A naturalist writer would provide all the elements of the characters’ environment and those elements would exert their influence until the inevitable result would occur. The individual’s ideas and desires would in no way free her or him from fate. In fact, the individual’s ideas and desires would be derived entirely from the social world, not from some unique vision held only by that person. Determinism, then, was the prevailing narrative mode of naturalist fiction.
In East of Eden, naturalism is mixed together with another kind of philosophical system of thinking--structuralism. At the time Steinbeck wrote the novel, Structuralism had taken hold in all areas of intellectual life, from anthropology to literary studies. It involved a philosophical observation of the world as one that was divided along a series of binary structures. In anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss identified one of the core elements in all social systems as the difference between the raw and the cooked. In literary studies, structuralists identified all literature as arising from a limited set of binary conflicts: humanity versus nature, humanity versus God, and humanity versus humanity. John Steinbeck seems to have been greatly influenced by the structuralist thinking of his time. He writes his novel out of a conception that the complexities of the social world and the human psyche can be reduced to the simple binary of good versus evil.
Steinbeck’s fiction reflects his philosophical framework. It is lyrical rather than prosaic, concentrating on the idealized outlines of large human movements rather than the complexities wrought by mundane living. At his best, he captures the cadences of his characters’ speech, giving the novel an oral quality. At his worst, Steinbeck writes a stiff dialogue with his characters giving voice to abstract principles. In this respect, Steinbeck’s characters tend to be ideologues--advocates of particular ideologies. That is, they are in the novel to embody a particular set of ideas. Their complexity, then, is often compromised. Many of them are so dedicated to representing one ideal that they lose their credibility as complex characters living in a complex reality.
Steinbeck’s vision as a writer prevented him from maintaining the simplicities of structuralism and naturalism from beginning to end. By the end of the novel, Steinbeck has created a complex character in Cal Trask. He is supposedly born with evil tendencies, but he has chosen to act for the good. Aaron, the character who represents the pure quality of goodness, is shown to be self-indulgent in his idealism, and his death at the end of the novel has little emotional force. The embodiment of pure evil, Cathy/Kate, is a stagnant figure who is incapable of changing at anytime in the novel. She is so evil that the reader can always figure out her next move.