I have blogged about Tolkien a lot in the past, more than other writers. This is mostly because of the Peter Jackson films. I do enjoy Tolkien's writing but if I were list my favorite writers he wouldn't be high on the list, but he'd be on it. My problem with his work is the well defined line between good and evil. Characters are either good or evil. This doesn't bode well with my world view. Reality is more nuanced than that. It is not black and white, people teeter back and forward through many shades of gray. Evil and good are not entities. People, everyone, has capacity for both. I am not too critical of Tolkien, I still love his books. Perhaps I'd I have a different take on good and evil if I were writing a novel while living in England during World War II. He wrote it in the malaise of one of the few conflicts in the history of the world where there certainly were well defined lines of good and evil.
Higher on that list (and I promise I will put it together someday) is John Steinbeck. I just finished reading East of Eden, a book that I have wanted to read for years, and I have the same problem with it that I have with Tolkien, at least, the beginning of the book. He has good characters and evil characters with very little gray. This is the fourth book of his that I have read and I might have to put it as my least favorite, certainly below Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
Perhaps it is hubris, but since I have been reading novels for close to four decades now, I am confident enough in my reading that I feel that I could edit some canonized works of literature to make them better. For example, I love Moby Dick, but I think it would be a better book if those 80 pages about the history of whaling were removed in the middle of the book. East of Eden is about two families, I think it would have been a better book if it were only about one. One of the families in the book is Steinbeck's, the Hamilton family. He is the narrator of the book and he even makes an appearance now and then mostly as an infant. While reading the book, you find yourself wanting to skip over the chapters about his family to get to the chapters about the more compelling Trask family.
Steinbeck began writing East of Eden merely because he saw his beloved Salinas Valley in California changing dramatically. He started writing about the valley for his children so that they would know what it was like when he was a child, but the story evolved into a religious allegory. The story of the Trask family is the story of Eden, Cain and Abel told in an American backdrop. The Eve character, Catherine (later called Kate) is pure evil. She uses her beauty and sexuality to get what she wants destroying people in her path. She has killed, blackmailed and has abandoned her children. The Trask storyline is of the good people who get hurt in her path. Adam who married her and her children, the twins, Aron (Abel) and Caleb (Cain). As Sam Hamilton (Steinbeck's wise grandfather character) explains, something is missing in her. The goodness that Adam possesses, is nowhere to be found in Catherine. I'd love to read what Feminist critics thinks of this book.
The Trask story is a collection of antithetical pairs, opposing evil and good, all starting with C and A like Cain and Abel. The story starts with Cyrus and Alice who are the parents of Charles and Adam. Adam's children, that may be Charles', are Caleb and Aron. The two main female characters are also a C and A match-up Catherine and Alba, girl friend of the twins, although they never actually meet in the story. The most interesting character, the youngest of the C characters, Caleb (or Cal) acknowledges the evil that he inherited from his mother (the sin he inherited from Eve) and struggles with it. The angst ridden Cal is famously portrayed by James Dean in the Elia Kazan film which whittles the story down even more than I would. The film concentrates on the twins Cal and Aron which is basically the last third of the book. Kazan might have it right, for evil that Cal struggles with is a far better story than the comic book like Catherine who doesn't struggle with it at all. She thrives on it. Magneto and Doctor Doom from Marvel Comics have more depth than her.
Most books that I love have a complex narrative structure. Three of my favorites, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, have first person narrators that are unreliable and biased minor characters. Their imperfections as narrators make for complex interpretations and are fodder for many conversations of what is really going on in the novels. East of Eden is different in that the narrator (Steinbeck) is a very minor character but who obviously wasn't present during the time of the story. So interpretation of his narration is problematic because everything he narrates was obviously told to the narrator, not a first hand account. The narrator tells us that Adam Trask is a good man, but his actions are, sometimes, otherwise. He frequents prostitutes and he neglects his twins during their formative years. Evil no, but hardly is he as purely good as his wife is evil.
Like a Tolkien hobbit, Cal Trask struggles with an evil that possesses him. No magic here, though, nor is there an embodiment of evil, the evil is humanity itself. It makes for a more mature book when you have a main character who is full of flaws but you love him anyway. This is why we love Gatsby and Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights). We see wrong in them and we want them to make good because the wrong we see in them, we see in ourselves. It seems my problems with the book is that I don't believe in sin, original or otherwise. So perhaps I would cut East of Eden down even further, like Kazan, to a short story or a short novel about Cal, a teenage boy trying to be good but failing, but I guess if I did that we'd just have another Catcher In the Rye.