This complex novel explores not only the imperfection of humanity but also the victory that can happen when individuals choose good over evil. Throughout East of Eden, Steinbeck creates a contrast between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and failure and victory. Ultimately, he uses this novel to remind readers that striving for good is always worthwhile; mercy awaits those who seek it. Steinbeck summarized this when he said that he wrote the novel to share "one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable—how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born” (Journal 4).
Cyrus, Cathy, and Cal illustrate the tensions within the novel. Cyrus, who Steinbeck describes as "something of a devil" is seemingly pure evil, but at the same time, exhibits incomprehsible love for his first born, Adam (East 321). He is full of hate and love. Cathy is outwardly beautiful, but inwardly a monster. Cal is the main representation of humanity and the power of choice. Cal is both good and bad. He can be both, but he chooses to overcome the innate sinfulness and impurities in his heart. In the end, Cal chooses to strive for goodness, even if he fails sometimes. He chooses to keep trying to be good (East 386-388, 944-947).
As Cal grows older, he questions if he can overcome the evil he feels that is stirring in him. Unlike Cain, Cal worked very hard on his present for his father, but Adam rejects it (East 937-938). Steinbeck is playing with the theme of the double, the idea that beauty and ugliness are entangled. Cal mirrors Cain, but at the same time reflects some of Abel's character. He has good and bad in him. He confesses to Lee, “I don’t want to be mean. Help me, Lee!” (East 911). Lee, the voice of reason offers the tormented boy this rational:
“You’re pretty full of yourself. You’re marveling at the tragic spectacle of Caleb Trask—Caleb the magnificent, the unique. Caleb whose suffering should have its Homer. Did you ever think of yourself as a snot-nose kid—mean sometimes, incredibly generous sometimes? Dirty in your habits, and curiously pure in your mind. Maybe you have a little more energy than most, just energy, but outside of that you’re very like all the other snot-nose kids. Are you trying to attract dignity and tragedy to yourself because your mother was a whore? And if anything should have happened to your brother, will you be able to sneak for yourself the eminence of being a murderer, snot-nose?” (East 912).
This is the theme of the novel. Like the rest of humanity, Cal has evil in him, but he is still able to possess goodness. As the Book of Genesis shows, Cain should have been the restless wanderer because of the evil that was within him. However, God offers him salvation and promises of prosperity. In other words, humanity is not simply a collection of mistakes. Cal is even loved for his flaws. Like Cain, he is not loved for his perfection, but instead is loved for his imperfection, his natural humanness. Abra confesses her love to Cal, and he argues, “I’m not good” to which she responds, “Because you’re not good” (East 921). Cain and Cal both know they are not worthy of God’s love and have wrestled with envy for their brothers, who gained their fathers' favoritism; however, like God, Abra chooses to love Cal through his imperfections. This is what ties Steinbeck's narrative to biblical themes of mercy.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. John Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, New York, 1994. pp. 309-947.
Steinbeck, John. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. New York: Viking Press, 1969.