Copied without the kind permission of Bantam Books from
East of Eden, 1952, by John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
(Part Four, Chapter 34):
A child may ask, "What is the world's story about?" And a grown man or
woman may wonder, "What way will the world go? How does it end and, while
we're at it, what's the story all about?"
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 -- 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?
Herodotus, in the Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest
and most-favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading
question. He would not have asked it if he had not been worried about
the answer. "Who," he asked, is the luckiest person in the world?" He
must have been eaten with doubt and hunger for reassurance. Solon told
him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely
did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not
mention him, Croesus was forced to say, "Do you not consider me lucky?"
Solon did not hesitate in his answer. "How can I tell?" he said. "You
aren't dead yet."
And the answer must have haunted Croesus dismally as his luck disappeared,
and his wealth and his kingdom. And as he was being burned on a tall fire,
he may have thought of it and perhaps wished he had not asked or had not
And in our time, when a man dies -- if he has had wealth and influence and
power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock
of the dead man's property and his eminence and works and monuments -- the
question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil? -- which is another
way of putting Croesus's question. Envies are gone, and the measuring stick
is: "Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind
of joy come of it?"
I remember clearly the deaths of three men. One was the richest man of the
century, who, having clawed his way to wealth through the souls and bodies
of men, spent many years trying to buy back the love he had forfeited and
by that process performed great services to the world and, perhaps, had much
more than balanced the evils of his rise. I was on a ship when he died.
The news was posted on the bulletin board, and nearly everyone received
the news with pleasure. Several said, "Thank God that son of a bitch is
Then there was a man, smart as Satan, who, lacking some perception of human
dignity and knowing all too well every aspect of human weakness and wickedness,
used his special knowledge to warp men, to buy men, to bribe and threaten and
seduce until he found himself in a position of great power. He clothed his
motives in the names of virtue, and I have wondered whether he ever knew that
no gift will ever buy back a man's love when you have removed his self-love.
A bribed man can only hate his briber. When this man died the nation rang
with praise and, just beneath, with gladness that he was dead.
There was a third man, who perhaps made many errors in performance but whose
effective life was devoted to making men brave and dignified and good in a
time when they were poor and frightened and when ugly forces were loose in
the world to utilize their fears. This man was hated by the few. When he
died the people burst into tears in the streets and their minds wailed,
"What can we do now? How can we go on without him?"
In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty
men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are
attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his
talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a
failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or
I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember
our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending
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.