by Anna Bauman, Carl Appen, Jacob Storey-Gilleland, Brynn West, Matthew Medcalf, John Cao
East of Eden (novel 1952, movie 1955) was Steinbeck’s second “big book,” arguably his most powerful and enduring novel, and a classic of American cinema starring James Dean. Always one of Steinbeck’s bestsellers, the novel received a new lease on life in 2003 when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her popular book club (Abbott). As had been the case with The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck kept a daily journal as he worked on East of Eden, which was posthumously published in 1969 under the title Journal of a Novel. Both the journal and novel serve as windows onto Steinbeck’s shift from “I to We” (as encapsulated in The Grapes of Wrath) to “We to I.” In addition to examining the power of the individual will to break the chains of the past and spark change, East of Eden provides one of the most insightful explorations of evil in American literature (Steinbeck vii-viii).
This novel depicts a generational struggle against evil, centered on the Trask family. The two brothers in the family, Adam and Charles, have a jealous relationship fraught with tension and violence. Charles envies Adam because he feels that their father, Cyrus, treats him preferentially. When Cathy, a stranger with a history of murder and prostitution, shows up on the Trask doorstep, Adam immediately falls in love with her seemingly innocent façade. The couple moves across the country to the Salinas Valley in California and become acquainted with Samuel Hamilton, an industrious and jovial man who lives in the area with his family. Once in California, Cathy gives birth to twin brothers, Caleb (Cal) and Aron, but leaves the family after shooting her husband in the shoulder.
Cathy then works in a whorehouse, and Adam recedes into a passive existence. His Chinese cook and servant, Lee, raises the twins. Mirroring the relationship between Adam and Charles, the twins jealously compete for their father's attention and approval. Aron, with good looks and an innocent demeanor, is the favored son. In contrast, Cal possesses some of his mother's innate evil.
Ultimately, Aron is killed in World War I and Cathy commits suicide, leaving only Cal, Lee, and Adam in the novel's final scene. Cal finally finds freedom and peace with the realization that the evil within him does not define him; Cal, like all other humans, has the ability to choose between good and evil.
Visit the following pages to learn more about certain themes, characters, and insights on the novel.
- The book directly references the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which is repeatedly mirrored in the father-son relationships between men in the Trask family. Steinbeck employs the use of biblical allegory and allusions throughout the novel to give it greater meaning. Learn more about this topic on the Biblical Theme page.
- A specific biblical theme drawn from a passage in the Cain and Abel story is that of the words "thou mayest," which are at the heart of the novel's core theme of individual choice. For an explanation of these words, view the Thou Mayest page.
- Further explore the favoritism that plays out between Charles and Adam first, and later, Cal and Aron at this webpage focused on Favoritism in East of Eden.
- Many of the core themes regarding individualism and good versus evil are presented in the novel by one of Steinbeck's most memorable, yet overlooked, characters, Lee. For a thorough explanation and analysis of this pivotal character, see the Character of Lee webpage.
- In addition to biblical themes, Steinbeck advances several new themes in East of Eden that are not seen in any of his previous works. In other pieces, Steinbeck emphasized the importance of family and teamwork, but in this novel, he highlights the power of individual choice. Read more about this key theme on our Phalanx to a Man webpage.
- Another powerful central character in the novel is Cathy Ames, one of the most chillingly evil characters in American literature. For a unique analysis of this character, read A Nietzschen Overview of Cathy Ames.
Abbott, Charlotte. “Oprah Book Club Returns with ‘East of Eden.’” Publishers Weekly. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20030623/36314-oprah-book-club-returns-with-east-of-eden.html. Accessed 11 December 2017.
Steinbeck, John. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. Viking Press, 1969.