John Steinbeck was born in California’s Salinas Valley in 1902. He grew up there, about 25 miles from the Pacific coast and this was the setting for many of his books. Steinbeck went to Stanford University in San Francisco in 1919 to study literature. He left, however, in 1925 without a degree. After college he moved to New York where he worked as a journalists. His works include Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), To God Unknown (1933), The Long Valley (1938), The Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and The Forgotten Village (1941).
In East of Eden, Steinbeck revolves around the theme of good and evil many times calling upon the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Another book that dealt with a similar theme was Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff is much like Cathy in their ideas of revenge and hatred.
The book begins by describing Samuel and his family living in Salinas Valley. Samuel was a very creative man who invented many things. Even though any one of his inventions could have carried him to fortune, he remained a poor farmer because the fact was that even though he was a creative inventor, he was a bad business man. Sam was known around his area to be wise and people came to him for advice. He had a wife and nine kids.
After describing Samuel and his family, Steinbeck jumps to a family living on a farm in Connecticut. The father of the family, Cyrus Trask, was an army veteran. His wife died after his first child whom he named Adam. Cyrus married again and had another son, one year younger than Adam, named Charles. The boys grew up close to each other. On one of Cyrus’ birthdays, Adam gave his father a stray puppy while Charles gave him an expensive Swiss knife. Cyrus never used the knife but was always played with the dog. Charles grew very bitter at Adam for this. Adam, at eighteen, was sent into the calvary by his father. 10 years later, Cyrus had died and Adam returned home to live with Charles.
After discussing the Trask family, Steinbeck jumps again and moves to the Ames family. The Ames had one daughter who was very beautiful named Cathy. Through her beauty, she learned to manipulate people. Cathy made an elaborate plan to kill her parents and does so one day by locking them in the house while burning to down. The townspeople believe Cathy to be death also.
After burning her parents, Cathy left to work as a prostitute for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Edwards fell in love with her but eventually found out about her past. He took Cathy to her old town to play a little psychological warfare, same as she had done to him. At Cathy’s old town he beat her nearly to death but left her on the ground bleeding. Cathy crawled to the Trask house. The police question her about her beating but she claimed remember nothing. Adam fell in love with her and married her, not knowing she was pregnant with Charles’ child.
Adam and Cathy move to Salinas Valley where they bought a large farm and got a Chinese housekeeper named Lee.. Adam needed to build a well for his farm and was introduced by some of the residents to Samuel Ames. Later, when Cathy was in labor, Samuel was sent for to deliver the baby which turned out to be fraternal twins, both boys. Soon after Cathy was well, she pulled a gun on Adam and shot him in the shoulder. She left to work in a whore house owned by a lady named Fay. After Adam was found wounded by Lee, the police questioned him but he said that he accidentally shot himself. The police didn’t believe him because he was in the Calvary for ten years. Eventually, they figured out through some help by Samuel and other neighbors that it was Cathy who tried to kill him. They found Cathy working in Fay’s whore house but decide not to tell Adam, who eventually found out anyway. Adam grew very depressed after Cathy left him. He neglected his children who was cared for by Lee. Samuel found out that the children were one year old and still not named so he went to visit Adam to knock some sense into him. At Adam’s house, Samuel, Lee and Adam begin talking about names and people in the Bible. They start talking about the Story of Cain and Abel. Adam named his kids Caleb and Aaron.
Caleb (who is known as Cal) and Aaron (who changed his name to Aron) grew up taught by Adam that their mother was dead.
Cathy, after she went to the whore house, changed her name to Kate. Kate killed Fay buy giving her poisoned tea. Fay thought she died through food poisoning and willed everything to Kate. Kate then owned the whore house.
Adam and his family (including Lee) moved to an apartment in the city. Adam fell in love with a girl named Abra and became very involved with the church. Cal found out that his mother was alive and the owner of the whore house and visited her to see if it was true. Adam bought an ice company and lost much of his money in a venture to send cabbage from California to New York. Aron skipped a grade of high school and went to Stanford one year early. Adam was so proud of him that he bought him a pocket watch. Cal felt sorry for his father who lost his money in the cabbage venture and decided to make it up to him by making money in the bean industry and giving the profit to his father. One thanksgiving, when Aron was visiting from Stanford, Cal presented his gift of $15,000 to his father. Adam grew upset and rejected the money saying that the pride that Aron gave his was better than the money. Cal wept and took the money to his room where he burned it. Cal was bitter at Aron and decided to get revenge on him by taking Aron to see his mother.
Aron was so shocked when he saw his mother working as a prostitute he joined the army telling his family later in a letter. Aron died in the military and Cal felt that he was guilty of murdering him. Adam was so distraught by Aron’s death that he went into shock and died. But just before he died, Cal asked for his forgiveness. Adam only mutters “Timshel.”
The plot was excellent. Everything in the story ran out from the nature of the characters. Nothing was too derived but ran smoothly from even to event. For example, Cathy evil nature brought her to killing her parents, attempting to make Mr.. Edwards go mad, attempting to kill Adam, and killing Fay. Adam’s gullible/innocent nature made him fall in love with the evil Cathy, and kept him from telling the police that it was Cathy that tried to kill him. Aron’s innocent/holy nature sent him into shock when he found out that his own mother was a prostitute. There was a lot of conflict and tension, enough to keep me reading. The events are believable in that time period but could also be something that would happen today in Downtown LA. Also, it was very interesting to follow the references of Cain and Abel throughout the story. For example, Adam’s accepted gift of the puppy and Charles’ rejected gift of the knife, just like Abel’s accepted gift and Cain’s rejected one. The Charles’ beat his brother like Cain killed his (note the A in Abel and in Adam, and also the C in Charles and in Cain). The same thing happens in the following generation with Aron’s accepted gift and Cal’s rejected one. Then Cal kills Aron (note again the A and the C). The ending was pretty good but I felt that Steinbeck took a shortcut by not really resolving anything but killing most of the main characters. However, his ending with Timshel got me wondering about our own sin and our own evil nature. Also, Cal’s nature was an interesting point for discussion on the nature or nurture question. Was Cal manipulative because of genes from Cathy? or was he manipulative by growing up jealous of Aron?
Steinbeck’s characters were all fully developed and could have made for an interesting story by themselves. I felt that I really knew the Trask household including Adam, his kids, Cathy and Lee. I grew opinions of the characters and I saw myself in Lee’s place. Cathy was a freaky person. She had no conscious and was just a cold blooded killer. I cringed and her every description. Adam was a fool. He was too gullible falling in love with Cathy when everyone else saw that there was something wrong with her. I liked Samuel (more than cause he’s me). He was a very nice person and went to help his neighbors. Like Lee said, he sees what is and not what he expects. Lee was another great character. I thought it was interesting that he spoke like a Chinese immigrant when actually he was born in America and even went to college here. The way he took care of the kids went Adam was depressed was very honest and the way he searched after the true meaning of the story of Cain and Abel was amazing. All of Steinbeck’s characters brought strong emotions from me.
Adam Trask: Son of Cyrus Trask and brother of Charles. He was an army veteran and married Cathy Ames who nearly killed him.
Aron Trask: Son of Adam Trask. He was very devoted to the church and had a holiness around him. Still, he lived in a fantasy world believing everything to be holy, even his mother. His fantasy world was shattered at his discovery of his mother in the whore house.
Cal Trask: Son of Adam Trask and brother of Aron Trask. Cal had some of the manipulative nature of his mother but unlike her, he felt guilty went he hurt people, so much so that he asked his father for forgiveness from indirectly killing his brother.
Cathy Ames: Freak. Killed both her parents, killed her close friend Fay, attempted to kill Adam her husband, and attempted to kill Mr.. Edwards. He had no sense of good. She had no conscience or guilt... until the end when he went to church just to see her son whom she abandoned many years ago.
Samuel Hamilton: All around nice guy. He was the father of nine kids and had a creative mind. He knocked Adam out of his self-pity after Cathy left him.
Lee: Adam’s Chinese housekeeper. This guy brought about most of the humor in the book from the way people treated him. People called him “Chink” or “Ching Chong” and talked to him as if he didn't speak English when in fact he was fluent in it. He raised Adam’s kids practically by himself for the first year.
The setting was very realistic. Probably because Steinbeck actually grew up in Salinas valley where much of this book takes place. But like I said before, the setting wasn’t very important because much of the things that happened could have happened today in LA.
I enjoyed Steinbeck’s style. Difficult words rarely came out and his sentences were always too the point. They were never too long or flowery which made for fast reading. Also, Steinbeck did a good job of bringing out the inner qualities of his characters. His use of Timshel wasn’t very clear but did cause a lot of thought.
Steinbeck’s theme was the most basic, rudimentary theme of all. A theme that was talked about since creation. Good and evil. His use of Cain and Abel and the word Timshel brought about ideas of sin. Cathy in this book could be seen as soaked with evil. No good. But good did seem to penetrate through her cold heart near the end of the book. Is man responsible for his actions or not? This was a question Lee pondered and pondered. He fought for the answer which was Timshel. The correct translation was not thou must which is a command from God, or thou shalt which would imply that you didn’t have to worry about sin, you would eventually conquer it, but it was thou mayest. You are responsible for your action. If you want to be good you can and if you want to be evil you can.
This small group of characters was a microcosm of the real world. There discussion of Cain and Abel was part of a much larger question, a yearning for the truth. It was a discussion of Heaven and Hell, right and wrong, truth and lie. This group of people represented good, the bad, and the gullible. Anything you want to do you can do. Thou mayest, BUT you are responsible.