Analyzing East of Eden – 1/17

EastOfEden

It’s been a while since I talked about writing, as my mind has been more consumed with film production. I took a few minutes today to read a brief excerpt from East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and analyze it. I think this is a great practice because it helps me understand the techniques great dramatists employ in order to have the most emotional impact on viewers. Here is the excerpt, followed by my thoughts:

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Ethel tried to keep her fingers from grabbing at the money. [Kate] fanned the bills like a poker hand – four tens. Her mouth began to work with emotion.

Ethel said, “I kind of hoped you’d see your way to let me take more than forty bucks.”

“What do you mean?”

“Didn’t you get my letter?”

“What letter?”

“Oh!” said Ethel. “Well, maybe it got lost in the mail. They don’t take no care of things. Anyways, I thought you might look after me. I don’t feel good hardly ever. Got a kind of weight dragging my guts down.” She sighed and then she spoke so rapidly that Kate knew it had been rehearsed.

“Well, maybe you remember how I’ve got like second sight,” Ethel began. “Always predicting things that come true. Always dreaming stuff and it come out. Fella says I should go in the business. Says I’m a natural medium. You remember that?”

“No,” said Kate. “I don’t.”

“Don’t? Well, maybe you never noticed. All the others did. I told ’em lots of things and they come true.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I had this-here dream. I remember when it was because it was the same night Faye died.” Her eyes flicked  up at Kate’s cold face. She continued doggedly, “It rained that night, and it was raining in my dream – anyways, it was wet. Well, in my dream I seen you come out the kitchen door. It wasn’t pitch-dark – moon was coming through a little. nd the dream thing was you. You went out to the back of the lot and stooped over. I couldn’t see what you done. Then you come creeping back.”

“Next thing I knew – why, Faye was dead.” She paused and waited for some comment from Kate, but Kate’s face was expressionless.

Ethel waited until she was sure Kate would not speak. “Well, like I said, I always believed in my dreams. It’s funny, there wasn’t nothing out there except some smashed medicine bottles and a little rubber tit from an eye-dropper.”

Kate said lazily, “So you took them to a doctor. What did he say had been in the bottles?”

“Oh, I didn’t do nothing like that.”

“You should have,” said Kate.

“I don’t want to see nobody get in trouble. I’ve had enough trouble myself. I put that broke glass in an envelope and stuck it away.”

Kate said softly, “And so you are coming to me for advice?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” said Kate. “I think you’re a worn-out old whore and you’ve been beaten over the head too many times.”

“Don’t you start saying I’m nuts-” Ethel began.

“No, maybe you’re not, but you’re tired and you’re sick. I told you I never let  friend down. You can come back here. You can’t work but you can help around, clean and give the cook a hand. You’ll have a bed and you’ll get your meals. How would tht be? And a little spending money.”

Ethel stirred uneasily. “No, ma’am.” She said. “I don’t think I want to – sleep here. I don’t carry that envelope around. I left it with a friend.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I thought if you could see your way to let me have a hundred dollars a month, why, I could make out and maybe get my health back.”

“You said you lived at the Southern Pacific Hotel?”

“Yes, ma’am – and my room is right up the hall from the desk. The night clerk’s a friend of mine. He don’t never sleep when he’s on duty. Nice fella.”

Kate said, “Don’t wet your pants, Ethel. All you’ve got to worry about is how much does the ‘nice fell’ cost. Now wait a minute.” She counted six more ten-dollar bills from the drawer in front of her and held them out.

“Will it come the first of the month or do I have to come here for it?”

“I’ll send it to you,” said Kate. “And, Ethel,” she continued quietly, “I still think you ought to have those bottles analyzed.”

Ethel clutched the money tightly in her hand. She was bubbling over with triumph and good feeling.

***

*Let me preface my analysis by confessing I have not read this novel in its entirety. Nevertheless, I’d like to share my insights and you can correct me in the comment section if I’m wrong.

This scene is great in so many ways. It is really a mini-story, and clearly demonstrates Steinbeck’s dominance as one of the greatest writers of all time. I remember when I first started studying writing, I read somewhere that Steinbeck preferred to use one syllable words. I had always thought his style of writing made him a legend, but now that I have a better understanding of some of the more abstract writing concepts, I can see his ability to play with the emotions of readers is what makes his pen so devastating.

Right from the start, we can see that Ethel is desperate for money, so clearly this is her objective. But it is not enough for her to simply accept the original offering, and that is what makes her courageous here – she wants every nickel she can squeeze out of Kate.

Kate, on the other hand, begins the scene by desiring Ethel get out of her hair. After Ethel all-but threatens to turn in evidence that could potentially put her behind bars, Ethel changes her tune and her new motivation becomes doing whatever it takes to keep Ethel quiet.

What I like most about this scene is how Ethel goes about manipulating Kate to fork over more dough. She never explicitly states that she knows Kate is responsible for the death of Faye, but she implies it through a most devious way – by slyly feigning to have psychic abilities, and almost comedic-ally stating she had a dream where she witnessed Kate’s crime.

Once Kate gets the hint, Ethel has her over a barrel – and knows it. After a brief outburst of her true anger at the situation, Kate presents Ethel with a much more generous offer than the original forty bucks. But this still isn’t good enough for Ethel(rising tension!). Ethel requests a hundred dollars on the first of every month, then has the audacity to requests that it be delivered, so she does not have to go out of her way to retrieve it.

I believe that Kate threatens Ethel when she tells her that her biggest concern should be how much the night clerk, who “never sleeps”, costs. She appears to be implying that she could always pay him enough money to look the other way while Kate has somebody eliminate Ethel.

This scene features two foes with clashing objectives. Their dialogue, at the surface, appears to remain cordial – but the truth is always written in the subtext. This is one area of writing I need to improve upon. I have a bad habit of allowing characters to state their objectives outright, and go about getting their way through direct and obvious threats. This is fine for characters who maneuver through life this way, but it is so much more fun and engaging when characters behave in ways that force viewers to read between the lines in order to keep up with their motives and ploys.

I hope these insights have helped you in some way. I already know these realizations will benefit me in my own writing. See you tomorrow at 7:00 am PST.

  • Thomas M. Watt
  • Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 1952. Print.
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James meets Penny Part 1 – Building the Stakes

Durr

The quest of your protagonist will matter more to your readers when the repercussions of failing at that goal will have known devastating internal or external consequences.

In the following scene, James puts Penny on such a high pedestal that his initial encounter with her will have a drastic effect on his psychological well-being. All of this build-up is being done to create greater tension and conflict later on, which you will see in the second half of the chapter when it is posted tomorrow.

Every piece of dialogue or description that is designed to increase the stakes (the importance of James’ 1st conversation with Penny) is in bold typeface. The following is an excerpt from my novel “A New Kingdom.”

* * *

CHAPTER 12    

TSSH TSSH TST. The clamor from pots and pans being whacked together rang throughout the room. James slowly wiggled out from his bed and peeled his crusty eyes open. The clashing metal meant that it was time to wake up and get some breakfast, at least for James’ group.

It’d been nearly ten months since the invasion. Life in the underground military base consisted of the same monotonous routine, day-after-day. But group breakfast was the moment James most looked forward to – that was because Penny’s group always followed his.

Penny was the name of the blonde girl who always wore the yellow rubber boots. He still hadn’t ever spoken to her, but a couple times she’d caught him staring at her. This day, though, James planned to ignore her completely. That way he could tell if she liked him back. If she did, he’d catch her staring at him. It was a foolproof plan.

James and his group made their way into the long hallway. Juan put the pots and pans down. James wished him a ‘buenos tardes’ and received a smile back.

“I hate this friggen hall,” Roy muttered. He never woke up in a good mood.

“Morning Roy,” Janie said, as she past him.

“Morning,” said Roy. When she was far enough away, he whispered to James, “What a smoke-show.”

“Good morning guys!” Said Bill, who was walking right behind them.

“Morning Bill! Uhh, Great day, huh?” Called back Roy.

“Sure is.” Said Bill with a chipper voice, before letting out the standard giggle that came at the end of his every sentence. He skip-jogged to catch up with his wife.

Janie, who was second chair in the Underground Council, led James and the gang through the plant room and into the food area. Roy refused to refer to it by that name, and insisted on calling it the, ‘Homeless Buffet.’ He called it that because the ‘Food area’ was no more than an aluminum trashcan. It was filled twice daily with palm-sized portions that were determined by the council. Conservation was a fundamental rule for survival, Fitz had declared. Even those who were whittling down to skin and bone, and spent their days with arms over their bellies, were not permitted to eat more than their allotted share.

Janie handed out a packet of instant oatmeal to each of the bedmates, as well as canned pineapples for them to share. On the clipboard hanging from the trashcan, she wrote down exactly what foods they ate and the size of their portions. To avoid mistakes, each person had to sign off. This process was required by every group, for every meal.

James waited anxiously for Roy to sign. Penny and her group would be coming down the hallway any minute.

“Canned pineapples again, huh? You really ought’a talk to Fitz about changing it up a little,” Roy said to Janie.

“I would, but every man I talk to around here looks at me like they want to bend me over and-”

Roy popped the can open and spilled juice onto his chest and stomach. He hurried over to the sink to let the excess liquid drain out.

“Are you alright, Roy?”

“Uh, yeah… How do men look at you?”

James poked his head outside. Penny’s group was coming down the hallway. He didn’t want her to spot him sitting by himself, though. Then she’d think he was a loser.

“Like they want to bend me over to their perspective on things.”

“Oh. Course.”

 “C’mon Roy, sign the sheet,” said James.

 “What’s your hurry, kid? Got a date?”

 “What? No. Why?”

Roy laughed as he dried his shirt off. “All right, all right.” He signed the sheet and walked along with James out into the hallway. They reached their typical spot and sat down. Roy and James always played Go Fish during breakfast.

“Hurry Roy, deal them out,” said James.

“Geeze, hold your horses, I will!”

James wanted to look like he was busy when Penny walked by, so that she wouldn’t know that he was ignoring her on purpose.

After Roy dealt the cards, he spotted Penny and her group coming up the hallway. Roy looked back at James with a troublesome grin.

“What?” whispered James.

Roy shook his head and continued to smirk.

James adjusted his sitting position to be more upright, and when he spoke he did so with a manlier voice than normal. She might have been close enough to hear. “C’mon, let’s play.”

“That’s it kid, I can’t watch you embarrass yourself any longer.” Roy tossed his cards, stood up, and walked toward the group. James looked away nervously, hoping to God that Roy wouldn’t do what James was absolutely certain he was about to do.

To be continued…

* * *

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

Author of “A New Kingdom”