Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cathy Ames: East of Eden

                                                       *SPOILER ALERT*

    "East of Eden" is remarkable, truly one of the most life-changing, visionary books I've ever read. It is a beautiful retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, set in the Salinas Valley in California. Cathy Ames, the main antagonist of the book, is like a reincarnation of Eve; the difference is that Eve created sin, while Cathy embodies it.
     Cathy is completely, unequivocally evil. Even from a young age, she is murderous and sexually depraved, confounding her dutiful parents and her friendly, church-going community. She has an unceasingly pessimistic view of humanity; she believes that everyone out there is just as evil as she is, but they don't have the guts to show it or act upon it. Depraved, cruel, and as callous as a snake, Cathy goes through life manipulating people, mostly men, into giving her what she wants. When she cares to, she can appear kindhearted, but it's a ruse she detests. Men tend to trust and admire her, but only because of her striking beauty. She hates them, but uses them to achieve her own goals.
      After elaborately murdering her own parents, Cathy finds herself married to Adam, a man so good and so kindhearted that she can't stand the sight of him. Adam is a bit like Forrest Gump; so sincere and humble that he cannot fathom that his pretty wife whom he adores could possibly be the conniving trollop that his brother warns him she is. Like Eve, Cathy singlehandedly brings down the small, loving world of the Salinas valley with her deceit and cruelty, ultimately isolating her family from the rest of the world. After giving birth to twin sons, whom she attempted to abort, Cathy shoots Adam through the shoulder and abandons the family. When asked if she had wanted to kill him and simply failed, Cathy snarls "If I'd wanted to kill him, he'd be dead. Just ask my parents."
       After abandoning her heartbroken husband and infant children, Cathy becomes a prostitute in town. Hers is a house full of the darkest form of sexual depravity. While whorehouses are strewn all over the valley, but offer only the service you'd expect, Cathy's brothel is for those whose sexual desires are repugnant, dark, and disgusting, too much so far even a regular prostitute to cater to. With her beauty and ability to sense another's guilty pleasure, she soon becomes the madam of a very profitable house, and becomes something of an urban legend whispered throughout the town.
       Cathy's ultimate trait is her parasitic nature. Other than being pretty and crafty, she doesn't have much and tends to leech onto others and literally drain them of their energy and life source. Most of her victims are men, whom she slowly but surely breaks down with her sexual perversions and cruelty. She then takes everything they own and leaves those who loved them to pick up the pieces. When men frequent her whorehouse, they leave knowing that she keeps proof of their obscene behaviors, and so is able to elicit anything she wants from them. She is a keeper of guilty secrets, and therefore a powerful force to be reckoned with.
       Her twin sons know nothing of their mother's whereabouts. They believe that she is dead, and as they grow, they are taught to believe that she is in heaven. This causes one of her sons to be very religious, believing that if he lives a good life and studies his Bible daily, he'll be reunited with her again. His twin brother is more like his mother, mean-spirited and callous, and as the ultimate act of revenge against a slight in their late teens, ultimately reveals to his brother that their mother is alive, even showing him where she is. Cathy's cruelty truly knows no bounds. When she learns that her saintly son has been so devastated by the truth of her location that he causes his own death, she laughs.
        Some critics have dismissed Cathy as a ridiculous character because her innate evil doesn't lead to anything. She doesn't seem to have a goal or an aim, so her cruelty comes across, to some, as difficult to believe. However, I believe that is the point: She is a monster, completely and totally, and therefore provides a sinister villainess for the ages. Steinbeck notes in the book a fascinating conclusion and observation:

"I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?"
    

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