Sam Hamilton’s Wife: East of Eden and the Failure of Feminism
In 1950’s America, women were ensnared in suffocating gender roles. It was a retroactive decade in feminist history compared the power women had in the work force in the 1940s and the progression to come in the 1960s. Bound to the home and pressured by high beauty standards, women found themselves cornered, bored and desperate. Since the public did not value the female voice, women needed was a powerful male member of society to speak for them. John Steinbeck did not step up to this challenge. With his influence and popularity, he could have done a great service to women by advocating for them using his incredibly famous novels as a medium. Instead, in East of Eden, Steinbeck shies away from the idea of revolution and only succeeds in creating underdeveloped, unlikable and weak female characters. Liza Hamilton is the most prominent example of such a character. Unscrutinized, she may seem like a strong, powerful woman. Liza runs a strict household; she expects respect from her husband and children, believes the bible literally, and does not tolerate any drinking. Yet as the novel progresses, each of her expectations, which are really just Steinbeck’s feeble attempt at character traits, are disrespected thereby making her a weak character. Through the characterization of Liza, it is clear that East of Eden is not a feminist text.
Early on in the novel, Samuel shows disrespect for his wife. When he comes home late from dinner at Adam Trask’s ranch, Liza is clearly upset the following morning. She moves “like a caged leopard” (Steinbeck 177) while making breakfast. Despite knowing he has done wrong, Sam walks into the kitchen only announcing, “I’m late, Mother” (178). He does not offer an apology. Furthermore, he kisses Liza and asks for her blessing. His actions shows a refusal to accept responsibility and a blatant belittling of his wife’s feelings. A man who truly respected how his wife felt would apologize or at least give her space, knowing that most likely she would not be in the mood to serve him breakfast. Then, surprisingly, she not only complies but does so “automatically” (178). While her obedience to Samuel is already a submissive action, it is made even more weak by the fact that she does so without thinking. This portrays Liza as a flat, weak woman who is helpless against her husband and lacks the ability of cognition.
As if the former example was not enough evidence of the inequality in Sam and Liza’s marriage, Sam again proves how little he respects his wife in a conversation with Adam about Cathy:
“What does Eve say to that? She has a say, you remember. And Eves delight in apples.”
“Not this one.” Adam’s eyes were shining. “You don’t know this Eve. She’ll celebrate my choice. I don’t think anyone can know her goodness.”
“You have a rarity. Right now I can’t recall a greater gift.” (167)
At first, readers may be tricked into thinking that Samuel does value females and their opinions, or more specifically Liza and hers, when he states that “She has a say” (167). Yet as the conversation continues, he immediately contradicts himself. When Sam says that Adam has a rarity and a gift, he means that he is lucky to have a wife who lacks opinions, who does not contradict her husband, who remains submissive and subordinate. Through Samuel’s disrespect for his wife’s free will, Steinbeck depicts an unflattering and weak image of Liza thus furthering East of Eden’s unfeminist theme.
Liza praises her favorite and youngest son, Joe, and only wishes the best for him. She even puts him, and only him out of her nine children, through college, a rare and cherished opportunity during the time period. Therefore, one could logically infer that Joe would want to do everything he could to please his mother in return. Yet due to Liza’s weak character, she is manipulated and disrespected by her sons, just like she is by her husband. When Samuel asks if he can take Joe with him to help him work on Adam’s farm, Liza immediately and vehemently disagrees. Instead of respecting his wife’s wishes, Sam and his sons Joe and Tom devise a way to manipulate Liza. Sam pretends to be against Joe coming with him by saying “I’m sure you would if you could come. But I’m against it. And when you talk to your mother about it, I’ll thank you to let it slip that I’m against it. You might even throw in that I refused you” (181). Here Samuel indicates if Joe lies to his mother and tells her that his father is against him coming, she’ll change her mind. To this, “Joe grinned, and Tom laughed aloud” (181). Her sons’ joviality at lying to their mother shows their disrespect for her. Of course, Sam’s plot works and Joe is able to help his father on the Trask farm. The manipulation of Liza and her husband’s and sons’ lighthearted nature about doing so show the disrespect that Sam and the children have for Liza thus once again highlighting her weak nature.
The disrespect that Liza’s children have for her continues throughout the rest of the novel. As Sam and Liza get older, their children decide it’s time for their parents to tour the country and visit their children’s homes before they die. This creates a lot of tension in the family for they Hamilton children know their parents’ attachment to the ranch. Yet in 4 pages of discussion, there only one brief mention of Liza when Will says “It’s time Father and Mother saw something of the world” (284). Just that fact that the single time their mother is brought up is in conjunction with their father almost discredits the mention of her at all. The children say how “he could have a happy life” and how a trip “would freshen him” (284) but not one of them talks about Liza’s desires. Whether Liza would be content to stay on the ranch the rest of her life or would eagerly travel to visit her children is never discussed. Because Liza is a woman, her opinions, even about her own future, are seen as irrelevant. Her own children do not respect her wishes or care to consider them. Or, even worse, because Liza is a woman, the Hamilton children just assume that she will be submissive and obediently follow her husband wherever he decides to go regardless of her own desires. Either way, the blatant ignoring of Liza’s wishes for her future further Steinbeck’s unfeminist and weak development of her.
One of the first traits we learn about Liza is her dedication to the Bible. Devoutly religious, Liza believes the Bible word for word and ignores all contradictions. Unlike most who study the Bible routinely, Liza does not like to find meaning, she’ll “just read it” (42). In fact, she reads nothing else. “In that one book she had her history and her poetry, her knowledge of peoples and things, her ethics, her morals, and her salvation” (42). Intellectually, her husband could not be more opposite. Samuel is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful man. He has a “knowledge of things that cannot be eaten or worn or cohabited with” unlike the common people of Salinas Valley, an “interest in poetry” and “respect for good writing” (42). Simply put, “If Samuel had been a rich man…he would have had a great library” (42). By juxtaposing Samuel’s grand and existential intellectual drive to Liza’s, whose “total intellectual association was the Bible” (42), readers come to almost pity Liza. When her husband is so revered for his intellect, and Liza is so clearly the opposite, readers develop an attitude of contempt towards Liza. She is constantly compared to and seen as lesser than her husband as far as intelligence goes. By creating Liza to be so narrow-minded and uneducated, Steinbeck only succeeds in making her character underdeveloped and weak.
Liza’s strongest character trait may be her religious devotion. From this derives her repugnance towards alcohol. She “hated liquors with an iron zeal” and regarded drinking any alcohol “as a crime against a properly outraged deity” (42). Her disgust is so strong that it is widely known throughout the whole community if Salinas Valley. Of course Samuel disrespects his wife again and often drinks throughout the book. In fact, the first time that Adam goes to meet Samuel, he brings a bottle of whiskey customarily. Louis, the man that Adam travels with, tells him about Liza’s abhorrence of the drink and tells him to “leave it under the seat” (42) so they can sneak it to Samuel without Liza seeing. Louis then says “That’s what we always do” (42). The fact that sneaking Sam whiskey is a regular occurrence not only shows Sam’s disrespect for his wife’s values but the whole community’s disrespect for her. While this is bad enough, we also discover that later in life, Liza is forced to take port wine as medicine in her old age. “From that moment on she never drew a sober breath” (42) and her entire personality changes. She becomes an alcoholic, “more happy and more relaxed” (42). Liza’s repulsion of alcohol was her strongest trait. When she loses this part of her character, she loses what she is best known for and she essentially loses herself entirely. She loses her identity. The fact that this lose of identity happens so quickly and that the catalyst is an action as petty as drinking a tablespoon of wine demonstrates Liza’s weak characterization more than an other point in the novel.
Upon reading about Liza Hamilton, readers can clearly see that East of Eden is not a feminist text. Though Steinbeck attempts to depict Liza as a tough as nails woman, he ultimately fails and only succeeds in developing another weak and subordinate female character. While Steinbeck could have been a pivotal figure in the early feminist movement with his popularity and influence, he fails to do so. Whether his failure is due to his reservations against the movement or his incompetence as a feminist writer is unclear. The only remark that can be made with absolutely certainty is that with East of Eden, Steinbeck missed opportunity to make a difference in the fight for gender equality.
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