Steinbeck’s East of Eden explores the ways in which favoritism—often subtle and undetected—erodes relationships.
Cyrus is the first character to show favoritism in the novel. He shows a preference for his son Adam over his other child, Charles. This causes conflict within the family. Since he always feels second best, Charles acts out in bouts of rage and indulgence. Adam and Charles never develop a loving relationship. As a parent, Adam later makes the same mistakes as his own father by treating his son Aron better than Cal. Adam realizes he must be a better parent, but he fails. Once again, the least favorite child reacts with anger and poor decision-making (Steinbeck 328, 331-334, 423-424).
Biblical sources inspired Steinbeck’s depiction of favoritism. James 2:9 states, “But if you show favoritism, you sin”, but time and time again, fathers and mothers in the Bible exhibit this trait. The patriarch Abraham is a prime example of this. Much of East of Eden is based on the relationship between his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael (as well as Cain and Abel). In this case, Abraham made it clear who was his favorite son when he sent Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, out into the wilderness. Later, Isaac shows favoritism toward his own son, Jacob, leading Jacob’s brother, Esau, to proclaim he would murder him. Jacob runs away, then commits the same sin later in his life. This cycle of favoritism and violence mirrors the family dynamic in East of Eden.
Many criticize Steinbeck’s work for its predictable and somewhat simple themes, but they must consider the context of its creation. Steinbeck had two sons, Thomas and John Steinbeck IV. Much of the motivation for this novel was to provide a guide for his sons to help them gain a sense of moral righteousness (Peterson 73). Scholar Robert DeMott explained this in From an Existential Vacuum to a Tragic Optimism stating, “He proposed to tell them who they were by explaining their genealogy and their geographical background and to prepare them for their futures by creating a paradigm of responsible behavior. In this way, East of Eden is a kind of ‘manner book,’ a guide to ethical conduct and moral deportment passed on from elders to children” (in DeMott 69). In short, Steinbeck thought his novel had a didactic purpose, and therefore, he focused on making the theme of favoritism clear and pronounced.
DeMott, Robert J. Steinbeck's Typewriter: Essays on His Art. Whitston, 1996.
Peterson, Richard F. “Steinbeck’s East of Eden.” In A Study Guide to Steinbeck, Part II, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. John Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, New York, 1994. pp. 309-947.