Why Oprah loves Steinbeck
In an earlier chapter we noted that the most enduring works of individuals and groups are driven by a desire to bring more hope into the world. We pondered the words of William Faulkner who proclaimed that the "poet's voice" is not "merely a record of humankind" but one of the "props" or "pillars to help humankind endure and prevail." In Hope in the Age of Anxiety, you will find innumerable examples taken from great literature and immortal poetry as well as popular music, legendary films, and well-known paintings. On this page we present four excellent examples of artistry in the service of hope. These include 2 books, 5 films, and a painting by van Gogh.
East of Eden: Steinbeck's saga of hope
"[There was] absolute quiet in the room - I could hear a fly buzzing over the ceiling. It seemed to me as if somebody was going to burst out crying. Not a word was spoken for I don't know how long. "
Oprah Winfrey fell in love with East of Eden, calling it one of the best books she had ever read. "It's a saga," said Oprah. "You will not be able to turn the pages fast enough."
A noted literary critic referred to East of Eden as a tale with "an optimistic ending." I wonder what book they reviewed? East of Eden is filled with sadness and heartache, repeated acts of pathological cruelty, unfulfilled longings, and unnecessary losses. But while it is not at all an optimistic book, it is a saga of hope. I believe this is why it has become Oprah's favorite book.
In Hope in the Age of Anxiety, we discuss ten hope lessons that can be extracted from East of Eden. Here are four examples:
Lesson One: The Varieties of Hope Providers
In our chapter on attachment and hope, we discuss the qualities that you need to be a "hope provider." In East of Eden, there are three main hope providers, Samuel Hamilton, Lee the servant, and Abra, the young heroine. Samuel Hamilton is responsible for much of the hope that shines in the first part of this novel. When Samuel is gone, Lee and Abra do their part to keep hope alive.
Samuel Hamilton: Samuel is the most powerful of the hope providers for he embodies all three of the hope motives: mastery, attachment, and survival. Samuel is a "jack of all trades" and a first class inventor. He is supremely kind and intuitive, one of the very few characters in the novel who finds his way into the center of another's soul. He meets Cathy only once but immediately senses her cold and monstrous heart. Deeply attuned to Adam's suffering, he offers him the best antidote for a soul sickened by false hope. Samuel forces Adam to see the real Cathy. When Samuel grows old and tired, his family struggles to cope with the impending loss of hope. They even blame one another for failing to do something about it. After Samuel's death, Adam reflects on the life of his good friend:
"Somehow he made a man better than he was."
Lee: Lee's hope is a mixture of mastery and survival. He is both a competent housekeeper and a learned scholar. He provides nourishment for the hungry and counsels the distressed. He serves as a buffer between warring family members. He supplies medicines, herbs, and potions for the sick. Most importantly, Lee dispenses wisdom. He provides Adam and the boys with lessons in courage and coping, self-regulation and terror management, a bridge to eternal truths and a glimpse of immortality. In the final pages of the novel, Lee exhorts Adam to fulfill his spiritual duty:
"I don't know how long you will live, Adam. Maybe a long time. Maybe an hour. But your son will live. He will marry and his children will be the only remnant left of you… Don't crush him with rejection…Help him, Adam-help him. Give him his chance."
Abra: Abra's hope is attachment-based. She is a precocious helper, who possesses from an early age, many of the key hope provider qualities (e.g., availability, a safe presence, clarity). In modern psychological parlance she is an emotionally "gifted child" with a talent for discerning the needs of those around her (Alice Miller). While still a little girl, she lifts the heavy hearts of Cal and Aron and re-awakens their dream of being loved by a woman. As a teenager, her compassionate soul is able to penetrate the core of Aron's wounded spirit. As a young lady, her dignity and inner beauty melt the frozen heart of Cal and helps to renew Lee's zest for life and his faith in humanity. One of the best descriptions of Abra's powerful energy can be found on page 421 (Penguin edition). She and Aron sit hidden within the folds of a great willow tree.
"There was wisdom and sweetness in her expression. She seemed deep in thought… His attention seemed tied to her face by a taut string…She folded her hands in her lap almost as though she were praying.. She put a cooing tone in her voice and said, 'Come, my baby, put your head in Mother's lap. Come my little son. Mother will hold you.' She drew his head down, and without warning Aron began to cry and could not stop. He wept quietly, and Abra stroked his cheek and wiped the flowing tears…"
Lesson Two: Counterfeit Hope
Cathy (a.k.a. Kate) is the clearest embodiment of counterfeit hope. Her mastery consists of egotistical pursuits. She never shares her power and wouldn't dream of asking for help. Her achievements are always rooted in lies, deception and manipulation. Her attachments are superficial. She is unable to see, hear, or feel love. Even as a child, she used her body to lure young men into her evil snare. She kills her parents. She allows Adam to fall in love with her but keeps him at a distance while sleeping with his brother. She abandons her children. Cathy's survival skills are also quite limited. She can't control her rage. She trusts no one and never feels safe. There is nothing eternal about her. She denies Adam the certainty of a legacy and mockingly insinuates that his brother may be the biological father of the boys. As her outer beauty fades, her inner chaos takes over. Her growing helplessness is symbolized by the arthritic condition of her hands. She is literally and figuratively "losing her grip". Shortly before she kills herself, she acknowledges her utter hopelessness.
Lesson Five: Abuse and Hopelessness
As a child, Adam Trask tries his best to earn the love of his family. Towards his brother Charles, Adam is loyal, trusting and kind. But Charles is cruel and takes every opportunity to torture Adam emotionally as well as physically. Cyrus, his father, is less vicious but his actions prove equally destructive. Insensitive to his son's needs, he forces him into the army, selfishly trading Adam's life for his own twisted agenda of gain and glory. By forcing his reluctant son into the army, Cyrus effectively ends Adam's chance for a hopeful life.
Having lost his will to hope, Adam goes through the motion of being a soldier. Having forgotten his own dreams and desires, he keeps re-enlisting, preferring extra duty to a fated and barren future. When he is finally cut loose from the army, Adam wanders about, lost and confused. To add insult to injury, Adam is arrested for vagrancy and assigned to a road gang. Adam learns firsthand what captivity and abuse can do to the soul.
"He learned how men can consider other men as beasts…a clean face, an open face, an eye raised to meet an eye…these drew attention and attention drawn brought punishment…the savage whippings for the least stir of will, for the smallest shred of dignity or resistance …Adam, like anyone in the world, feared what whipping would do to his body and his spirit… He drew a curtain around himself…He removed expression from his face, light from his eyes, and silenced his speech…It was much more horrible afterward than when it was happening…Adam reduced his personality to minus. He caused no stir, put out no vibration, became as invisible as it is possible to be."
Lesson Ten: Hope and the Future
Some of the most hopeful words in the story are uttered by Lee, the Chinese servant who lives with the Trask's. Lee adores the biblical account of Cain and Abel, especially 16 magical lines that revolve around the Hebrew concept of "Timshel". Translated as "Thou shall" or "Thou mayest", timshel suggests that humanity's fate is far from sealed. The intimation of possibility, openness, and renewal fills Lee with hope.
"This is a ladder to climb to the stars …You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness…I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed - because 'Thou mayest.' "
In the final pages of the book, Lee makes his faith in the future even clearer:
"When Samuel Hamilton died the world went out like a candle…I re-lighted it to see his lovely creations, and I saw his children tossed and torn and destroyed as though some vengefulness was at work…I thought the good are destroyed while the evil survive and prosper…I thought that once an angry and disgusted God poured molten fire from the crucible to destroy or purify his little handiwork of mud… [But] Maybe you'll come to know that every man in every generation is refired…All impurities burned out and ready for a glorious flux, and for that more fire…Can you ever think that whatever made us - would stop trying?"
Hope & Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
Have you've read Dickens' Great Expectations? Embedded in this tale of mystery, heartache and vengeance are a myriad references to hope. In fact, by the end of the novel, Dickens has introduced at least a dozen different ways that love and hope may be joined in the heart. After a false suitor abandons Miss Havisham's on her wedding day, she adopts three-year old Estella in the hope of giving her the love that she was denied at the altar. Unable to reverse her mounting bitterness, Havisham's hope is negatively transformed and she spends most of her life grooming Estella to break the hearts of unsuspecting men, including young Pip. At the end of her life, she finds her cruelty has been nothing but a spiritual poison. She throws herself before Pip, repeatedly crying, "what have I done", "what have I done" and expressing her hope for forgiveness and redemption.
Although Pip's "great expectations" include the promise of a large inheritance, the most compelling hope of his youth is to have Estella's hand in marriage. As his capacity for love is enlarged, so is his manner of hoping. For example, sensing that he may never possess the cold-hearted beauty, he nevertheless hopes Estella will save herself from the clutches of Miss Havisham. In the hope of taking care of his kind but simple friend Herbert, Pip beseeches Miss Havisham to arrange for a secret allowance. Hoping to assure the dying Magwich of a good and peaceful death, Pip visits him every day, prompting in the convict a "placid look" and brightened eyes that put some distance between his soul and the constant "dark clouds".
What motivated a convict like Magwich to become Pip's secret benefactor? He tells Pip that his abysmal "low life" in Australia was sustained by the "one fixed idea" of elevating Pip to the status of an English gentleman. The otherwise dour accountant Jaggers manages to have Estella adopted by the wealthy Miss Havisham in the hope of saving "one pretty little child from the heap of…children being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected." Regretful of abandoning his adoptive parents, Biddy and Joe, Pip tells them "I hope you will have children to love…and some little fellow…who may remind you of another little fellow." In the last lines of the novel, Estella realizes that her heart has been "bent and broke, but - I hope into a better shape" while Pip is comforted by the "broad expanse of a tranquil light" and the hope of "no parting from her."
Hope & The Ten Greatest Romantic Films (American Film Institute)
The greatest romantic films also blend hope with love.
At the end of the past millennium, the American Film Institute ranked the 100 greatest romantic films. The top ten might surprise you. The stories are filled with heartache, loss and cruelty as well as deception, rape and terminal illness. In eight of the ten films there is a bittersweet ending. In seven of the films the lovers are separated by death or forced apart by complex internal or external circumstances. What helped to make these films great? We believe it is the dramatization of the most profound hopes that human beings can express within the context of an intimate relationship, culminating in a desire for the life of another to be transformed for the better. In short, while the typical romance film supply a dose of fleeting optimism, the great ones deliver an enduring sense of hope. In Hope in the Age of Anxiety, we discuss the hope themes in each of these ten films. Here are five examples:
Fishing Boats at St. Maries (Vincent van Gogh)
Erich Fromm wrote that a sense of common humanity is the most fundamental of all the experiences of love. This oceanic state encompasses feelings of care and respect as well as the wish to enhance another's life. Sometimes a feeling of common humanity comes in the form of exposure to a great piece of literature, a fine play or a film masterpiece. In fact, psychologist Michael Wallich has proposed that the greatness of a work of art can be measured in terms of the extent to which it evokes certain universal emotions. A good example is van Gogh's famous painting of Fishing Boats on the Beach at St. Maries. This work was completed in the summer of 1888 during one of the more positive periods in his tumultuous life. It is a simple but reassuring array of four colorful boats sitting on the margins of a beach, nearly touching the sea. If you look closely, there is a rope tied to each bow that extends all the way to the left edge of the painting. Rather than moored by an anchor or a dock post, the boats are held by an attachment that lies inland. Subconsciously, this has the effect of evoking hope on the part of sailors as well as their loves ones left behind. Although separated for months or even years by miles of ocean, they are nevertheless bound by love and the hope of a future reunion.
There is something deeply hopeful, even archetypal about a sea voyage. Perhaps it has something to do with the origins of life or the fact that our blood carries virtually the same percentage of salt that is found in the ocean. Do you remember the lyrics from this Bobby Darin hit?
Somewhere beyond the sea