66 pages 2 hours read

John Steinbeck

East of Eden

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1952

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Summary and Study Guide


John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an American classic. A work of contemporary fiction, the novel was a popular success upon its 1952 publication, quickly rising to the top of the fiction bestseller list. It has remained in print ever since and is still a widely read and well-respected book. Steinbeck published 33 books, including nonfiction, and received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his contribution to American letters. His most famous works are the novels The Grapes of Wrath (which won a Pulitzer Prize), East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat and the novella Of Mice and Men. A cherished American writer, Steinbeck is revered for his rich descriptions of life in California, for portraying human existential crises with sensitivity and humor, and for giving voice to a generation in the wake of the Great Depression.

East of Eden explores concepts central to the ethos of the US: determinism, free will, family, individual identity, the value of hard work, and the battle between humans and rustic terrain. It’s a story about California life, about the essence of being human, about religion, and about family. A multigenerational saga, it focuses on one family but includes extended secondary families to enrich human dynamics. The novel connects and combines genres. An ode to the Salinas Valley, the novel is primarily a bildungsroman in which the protagonist’s coming of age resolves in major character development, and elements of biblical allegory and subversion play important roles. In addition, Steinbeck explores various philosophies through his narrator and one of the main characters.

Structurally, the novel has four parts, and each chapter contains different sections. Given the novel’s length (nearly 600 pages), these divisions help organize the family stories, historical contexts, and philosophical musings. Most of the novel uses a third-person omniscient narrator. This narrator—who arguably represents Steinbeck himself—has his own sections in which he adopts the first-person narrative point of view to assert philosophies or provide historical context; this first-person viewpoint is often self-contradictory, allowing Steinbeck to challenge his own notions. Additionally, the narrator switches to a third-person limited viewpoint when the plot centers on the story’s antagonist, implying an inaccessibility that is crucial to her character arc.

East of Eden has been adapted for both stage and screen. Among the adaptations, Elia Kazan’s 1955 film, starring James Dean, holds prominence even though it covers only Part 4 of the novel.

This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

East of Eden is set primarily in California’s Salinas Valley and focuses on two pairs of brothers in two generations of the Trask family. In addition, to contrast class and other differences, it follows the history of another family that settles in the area, the Hamiltons. Samuel Hamilton and his wife, Liza, emigrate from Ireland to the Salinas Valley and settle there before the Trask family. Although the Hamilton family is too poor to afford good land, they have nine children and toil relentlessly on the wrong side of the valley. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Cyrus Trask enlists in the Union army during the Civil War. Although he doesn’t fight well, he makes himself out to be a hero after his discharge. Cyrus has two sons with two different wives (the first of whom kills herself) and raises them on a farm in Connecticut. The older son, Adam, is sensitive and kind, while the younger son, Charles, is smart but ruthlessly cunning with a violent streak.

As Adam and Charles grow up, Adam develops a well-founded fear of Charles’s temper. Charles acts out in part because his father shows a clear preference for Adam—even though Adam doesn’t care about being the favorite and has done little to earn it. Charles’s resentment grows so strong that eventually he tries—unsuccessfully—to kill Adam with an ax. Cyrus forces Adam to join the army but keeps Charles at home to help with the farm. While Adam is away, Cyrus becomes an important figure in Washington, DC. By the time Adam returns to the Trask farm in Connecticut, his father is dead. However, Cyrus has left an enormous inheritance for the two brothers. Adam uses his portion of the money to buy a large Salinas Valley ranch, where he moves with his new wife Cathy, a young woman he found badly battered on the steps of his Connecticut home. While Adam sees her as the ideal woman, Charles recognizes her true nature. A cruel and predatory woman, she killed her own parents by setting fire to their home just to get away from them. Cathy becomes pregnant (although she had an affair with Charles before leaving for California, so the paternity is unclear). Adam hires Lee (a Chinese American man who’s also a philosopher) and Samuel Hamilton to help prepare his ranch. After Cathy gives birth to twin boys, she abruptly abandons the family. When Adam tries to stop her, she shoots him in the shoulder. Fleeing to the nearby city of Salinas, she becomes a sex worker.

Lee essentially raises the twins, while Adam—in deep emotional shock after realizing that Cathy isn’t the woman he’d imagined—wallows in heartbreak. Samuel Hamilton helps snap Adam out of it, and the three men name the twins Caleb and Aron. As they continue to grow under Lee’s care, the twins are close but motherless and lonely. Aron is light and sensitive like Adam, while Caleb (Cal) is dark and brooding, resembling Charles physically and emotionally. Adam eventually discovers that Cathy is a sex worker, and he tries to forget about her. Although Adam tells the twins that their mother is dead, Cal learns the truth about their mother but conceals it from Aron. Cal thinks that their father favors Aron, who (like Adam) seems not to care that his father favors him. Meanwhile, Cal loves his father and craves his attention.

Adam moves his sons to Salinas so that they can attend school and have more opportunity. Aron is immediately popular at school and earns the affection of Abra Bacon, a girl for whom both Cal and Aron have fallen. Cal struggles to make friends but is a natural leader. Aron graduates high school early and goes to Stanford University for divinity school. When Adam’s lettuce transport business fails, which results in financial ruin, Cal tries to earn his father’s love by recovering the money. He succeeds by speculating on the price of beans shortly after the US enters World War I. When Aron comes back to visit, old wounds fester between the brothers. Aron wants to leave the university but doesn’t get the chance to tell their father because Cal tries to give Adam the money he made. Cal eagerly expects to please his father; instead, Adam is ashamed and appalled that Cal obtained the money through profiteering during wartime. Adam has been serving on the draft board, feeling terrible guilt about sending young men away to serve and die in the conflict; meanwhile, Cal has profited from it, which reminds Adam of his father’s corrupt dealings during the Civil War.

Devastated by the rejection, Cal thinks this only proves that his father still loves Aron more. In revenge, he takes Aron to the brothel to meet their mother, who now runs it, having murdered the previous owner. Aron, shocked, reacts by dropping out of college and enlisting in the army, knowing that he’ll be sent to the European field of war; Cal tries unsuccessfully to stop him. Tormented by guilt, Cal never sees his brother again, as he’s killed in the war. After learning of Aron’s death, Adam has a stroke that leaves him paralyzed. Lee, the philosophical family servant who raised Aron and Cal, ensures that Cal—with Abra by his side—receives Adam’s forgiveness and blessing despite Cal’s cruelty toward Aron. The blessing consists of two words: “Thou mayest.” This phrase derives from the biblical story of Abel and Cain: God knows that Cain is so jealous of his brother that he contemplates killing him. Therefore, God uses the Hebrew word timshel (“thou mayest”) to tell Cain that he must choose between good and evil.

As allegorical fiction, the novel’s central theme is the choice between good and evil with which all humans struggle. Steinbeck presents characters in contrasting pairs of good and evil, and their choices shape the narrative as well as their character arcs. In a further reference to Abel and Cain, the major character names in East of Eden all have the first initial A or C to indicate their good or evil tendencies.

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By John Steinbeck