East of Eden filter: Help me solve a literary medical mystery
November 25, 2014 8:29 AM   Subscribe

One of the characters in East of Eden dies under circumstances that have always baffled me. I turn to the Steinbeck scholars and armchair physicians of Metafilter to help me figure out what happened. (Steinbeck spoilers below).

Dessie Hamilton's death has always bothered me because I can't understand its cause. I would love to hear either theories about what Steinbeck was thinking when he wrote it or an educated guess of what happened to her based on her symptoms. I am sure that there's a clear and obvious answer that I'm just not seeing.

Here is what we know:

-She has an unhappy love affair and was depressed for some time.

-She experiences strong stomach pains that leave her doubled up in pain relatively frequently (once a day or so). They are characterized by 'a chill of pain... a nibbling pinch and then a little grab and then a hard catch and finally a fierce grip as though a huge hand had wrenched her. When that relaxed, she felt a soreness like a bruise. It didn't last very long..."

-While she is in the midst of one of these, her brother, Tom, gives her 'good old fashioned salts.' I'm not sure exactly what those mean here, but they are clearly intended as a purge. They don't work as intended. Dessie is unable to vomit and nothing comes out the other end. Several hours later, she is still in severe pain.

-Later that night, she screams. Her 'eyes were milky and crazy, like those of a madden horse. Her mouth corners erupted thick bubbles and her face was on fire.' Her muscles were 'knotted like iron.' Then the fit stops and she falls back.

-When Tom calls the doctor, the doctor says 'Is her stomach hard? What did you do? Salts! You goddam fool!...Go back and lay cold cloths - cold as you can get them. I don't suppose you have any ice." At this point, it is clear to the doctor that Dessie is dying.

What killed Dessie?
posted by oryelle to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like appendicitis to me --- specifically a burst appendix.
posted by easily confused at 8:33 AM on November 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

My father's Aunt Dessie, Olive's sister, appears in some detail with her brother Tom in the Hamilton sections of East of Eden. Tom was Dad's favorite uncle. Since Olive was made of sterner stuff, Dessie was the sweet Hamilton girl. Sadly, she died of appendicitis while staying out in the country alone with Tom, a tragedy for which he blamed himself unto suicide. Apparently, thinking it only a tummy ache, he gave her a bromide and before morning came, both their lives were fatally ruptured.

posted by Floydd at 8:38 AM on November 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Mystery solved! Thank you! I should have asked metafilter years ago.
posted by oryelle at 8:51 AM on November 25, 2014

I'd just add, this isn't the only Steinbeck character to die of appendicitis. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Joad's wife dies of misdiagnosed appendicitis. John is Pa Joad's brother, and this event directly contributes to John's alcoholism and perpetual sadness.
posted by mosk at 4:53 PM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to pop back in and recommend that you read the whole memoir. It's a delight.
posted by Floydd at 6:34 PM on November 25, 2014

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