Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The hard, clean questions

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too--in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well--or ill?

--John Steinbeck, East of Eden


  1. Hmm, very thought provoking. I don't remember that quote, I just might have to reread East of Eden.

    Do you think Steinbeck is right?

  2. I think for most people, boiling a life down to whether it was good or evil is way too simplistic.

  3. What an extremely interesting quote. I've just posted about Darwinism today and I can see such echoes of it in Steinbeck's thinking. I wonder whether both writers were the last cry of the nineteenth century grand narratives, the belief that we could explain everything from a basic principle.

  4. I think the idea of good and evil is most useful kind of like a bathroom scale. At the end of a set period, you count up all the "evil" acts and all the "good" ones and see which is prevailing.

    I hope you don't count what I did today in the "evil" column. I passed along a badly-worded award to you at Necromancy Never Pays.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.