Category Archives: Steinbeck

Cather Steinbeck

Cather’s O Pioneers! and the "Old Story"

“And now the old story has begun to write itself over there. Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

Earlier this month, I blogged on Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! about the immigrant farming experience. How interesting to continue reading along and come to a sentence similar to one in another past blog, John Steinbeck’s epic book East of Eden. Steinbeck writes there is only one story — the fight between good and evil. Cather’s “old story” is that farming families stay on their land repeating traditions and continuing the struggle for survival, generation after generation. I’d like to hope we learn from past evil and past struggles rather than going through life like Sisyphus, forever destined to roll a huge boulder up a hill only to watch it fall down again. Tell me Steinbeck and Cather are “wrong!”


Steinbeck’s East of Eden

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

John Steinbeck is explaining in the middle of his long and classic novel East of Eden that he believes the only story is that humans are caught in a net of good and evil. This sprawling masterpiece is an engaging story of generations of two families set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley. It’s both a powerful family saga and a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis. Do you agree with his premise that there’s only one basic story?


Steinbeck’s The Pearl

“In the surface of the great pearl he could see dream forms. He picked the pearl from the dying flesh and held it in his palm, and he turned it over and saw that its curve was perfect.”

But that perfection doesn’t last in John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl. It is a sad folk tale about a pearl diver who finally finds “the greatest pearl in the world” and the tragedy that potential wealth brings to his family. Kino looks in the big pearl and sees a path out of poverty. But Steinbeck foretells the tragedy in this sentence by writing the pearl came from “dying flesh.” The language in the story is simple and visual so it’s not surprising that it was made into a movie in 1948. What did you think of this bleak moral fable?