Are Steinbeck's women stereotypical? Criticism of Steinbeck's women often examines their social roles, concluding, rather dismissively, that he writes about mothers and whores. It may be more important to recognize that neither the mothers nor the prostitutes in his writings are one-dimensional. His fascination with the byways of human sexuality—from the whimsical Lopez sisters in The Pastures of Heaven who sell their bodies with their tortillas, to the lusty creatures in Tortilla Flat, to the motherly Faye, the sensual African-American madam whose funeral in East of Eden (Chapter 48) is as somber and mysterious as her life, and the depraved Kate—is a firm rejection of middle-class mores and values. The whorehouse is on the fringes of respectability, where much of Steinbeck's imaginative vision expands; and his prostitutes and madams, far from being stereotypical, run the full range of human experience.
Furthermore, his mothers are hardly tied to the stove. What they do have in common is an iron fiber and determination shared with the men. They dream, they pine, they are sexual creatures, they adapt. Motherly women create homes, and the values these women embrace—family, community bonds, communication, adaptation—are essential to the survival of the species. Those same values are essential to Steinbeck himself, who craved domestic tranquility. "I think my house is in order," he wrote in Journal of a Novel before he began writing in his new little workroom on 72nd Street in New York City. A day later, he wrote, "Everyone wants to have a family" (Journal of a Novel, page 8). In East of Eden, both Liza Hamilton and Abra Bacon the two most admirable women, create islands of domestic harmony; both are also resolute, independent, creative and adaptable.
Creating an Alternative Family: Abra Abra takes the full measure of the men in the Trask household. When Aron is writhing with the disgrace of his father's business failure, Abra demands that he kiss her publicly, so she, as "Mrs. Lettucehead," will share his humiliation. Brave and independent, she loves fully.
When Aron goes to Stanford, she finds solace in Lee to whom she told "only true things even when she wasn't quite sure what was true." She converses knowingly with him, and thus another bond is forged. Growing into her own sexuality, she rejects Aron's purity and devotion, resisting his idealization of her. Abra craves the fullness of life—and only guilty, brooding, complex Cal can give her life as it is.
Abra's humanity and compassion is reflected in the love she attracts and the kind of space she shares with each of these males, all motherless, all outsiders, all needy of her love. With Aron she inhabits imaginary enclosures, a secret tree, an imagined farm in their future. With Lee she shares the kitchen, the heart of the Trask house, and as his "daughter" will inherit the legacy of his wisdom along with the gift of his mother's only ornament, a hand suggesting support and love. With Cal she stands at the foot of his dying father's bed; she, Cal and Lee, a realigned family, witness Adam's forgiveness of Cal.
Unlike Cathy who shrinks and retreats, Abra grows and moves outward as she reaches maturity through her love of the Trask family. And they in turn grow—or resist growth, in Aron's case—from love of her. Abra embodies the meaning of timshel — she chooses her path and she forges a life of her own making.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, December 4, 2013