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“I think everything else I have written,” noted once John Steinbeck, “has been, in a sense, practice for this… It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.”
Considering the fact that these are the words of a Nobel Prize-winning author—a man justly called a giant of American literature—it is only redundant to say that we’re about to recount for you one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.
Who Should Read “East of Eden”? And Why?
East of Eden is perhaps the best book in the oeuvre of a writer who is considered one of the best ever.
So, if you’re into literature, East of Eden is undoubtedly one of the books you must read before you die.
But the same is true for the ones who are not into literature.
Because you should be—and this is a book which might make you like it.
John Steinbeck Biography
John Steinbeck was an American writer, one of the greatest of the 20th century.
During the 66 years of his life, he authored 27 books, 16 of them novels or novellas. Many of them have been praised for their style and humanity, and at least four of them are considered modern classics in many countries of the world: the novellas The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, and the family epic East of Eden.
All of them—and many others—have been adapted for the screen quite a few times.
In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.”
According to critics, East of Eden is not merely “the magnum opus of one of America’s most enduring authors,” but also “a masterpiece of biblical scope.”
And when they say “biblical,” they do mean “biblical”!
In at least two senses.
First of all, East of Eden, at about 700 pages, is a rather lengthy work chronicling the rises and falls of two prominent Californian families; it is, in fact, one of the most memorable family epics ever written.
But, also, secondly, as realistic as it is, it strives to be some sort of a modern parable; or, better yet, an allegory. Meaning: the lifelike characters who inhabit the pages of Steinbeck’s classic, in essence, are much more symbolic than real; they are meant to represent someone else.
Think of them as reincarnations of biblical characters. And for some reason, most of them are reincarnations of Adam and Eve, and, especially their children Cain and Abel.
Which is why many of the characters in this book bear names which start with an A or a C.
Now, that we covered that, time to move on to the summary.
It is the late nineteenth century, and we’re in California—or Salinas Valley to be more precise. And we’re there with Samuel Hamilton, an Irish immigrant, and owner of probably the worst piece of land in the Valley.
However, this doesn’t stop him from being an awfully nice person with a heart the size of a continent.
Really, we’re not kidding!
He’s an exceptionally smart inventor and a farmer but, also, an exceptionally bad businessman; because of the latter, his life is not all milk and honey; but that hasn’t averted him from, apparently, the sole ambition he has set before himself: to be nice to practically everybody around him.
Now, Samuel is married to Liza Hamilton who, though having “good manners and iron wills” is not exactly as nice as him; in some ways, in fact, she’s almost the opposite: too rigid, Bible-loving, and strict.
However, just like Don Quixote needs Sancho Panza so that his head doesn’t pierce the clouds, Samuel needs Liza for a periodical, but much-necessary reality slap.
And it’s not like these two don’t love each other very much!
That explains the nine children. As unimportant as most of them are, we kind of feel that they deserve at least a bullet list here:
• George Hamilton, the eldest one; bland and anemic;
• Will Hamilton, diligent and hardworking (and, eventually, wealthy);
• Tom Hamilton, a guilt-ridden dreamer (eventually, he commits suicide: see Dessie);
• Joe Hamilton, a bit lazy, but bright and “poetic” (eventually, a successful advertiser);
• Lizzie Hamilton, the bitterest of the bunch;
• Una Hamilton, the darkest of the lot;
• Dessie Hamilton, the most fun (eventually dies through Tom’s fault);
• Olive Hamilton, teacher, the mother of the narrator of East of Eden (really: that’s Steinbeck’s mum!)
• Mollie Hamilton, the family’s sweetheart.
The first Trask we meet is Adam Trask, just as he arrives in Salinas to buy the best ranch in the Valley. So, one thing’s apparent from the start: he is a wealthy individual.
How did he become one?
Time for a pretty extended flashback!
Adam is the son of Cyrus Trask, a one-legged Union Civil War veteran, and the half-brother of Charles Trask, the offspring of Cyrus’ second marriage with the dreadfully quiet Alice.
Now, when we said veteran above, we really meant that Cyrus spent about an hour on the battlefield before losing his leg to amputation. However, he has twisted that story so much in the meantime that he has managed to fool the Government.
Which is why he is in the Army administration—and at not so trivial position.
However, he’s a dreadful father who explicitly states that he loves Adam much more than he loves Charles.
Apparently, because he’s “not clever,” doesn’t “know what [he wants]” has “no proper fierceness,” and lets “other people walk over him.”
Now, these are, you’ll agree, strange reasons to love someone!
You know what’s even stranger?
That Cyrus has decided to send Adam to the army!
And this regardless of the fact that Adam’s brother Charles is much stronger and fiercer than him, being “a natural athlete, with instinctive timing and coordination and the competitor’s will to win over others, which makes for success in the world.”
It doesn’t matter that Charles tries a lot to get the approval of his father, working tirelessly on the farm and often even abusing his brother.
In short: even though he is basically God/Adam, he’s a lousy father and a bad man.
Yup: that means that Charles is Cain and Adam is Abel.
Wait a second – it gets even more confusing!
Because we’re about to see the transformation of Adam Trask from the Abel of a Connecticut family to an Adam of a Californian household!
OK, at least in this case, his name makes a lot more sense.
Another thing that makes sense: when you have an Adam settling in the Garden of Eden, you need an Eve and a Satan as well.
Steinbeck decided that one character should do for both: Cathy Ames.
It’s not even a spoiler to say that she’s evil: Steinbeck implies that well before we get to know her.
“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents,” he writes. “Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies.”
OK, that’s not a nice thing to say; but it sets the tone for this:
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?
And Cathy’s face and body are indeed perfect: she’s, of course, blonde and has “oil-soaked” skin which gives her a “pearly light.”
Which is why Adam falls for her head over heels; and eventually marries her.
How could he not?
“Burned in his mind was an image of beauty and tenderness,” Steinbeck informs us, “a sweet and holy girl, precious beyond thinking, clean and loving, and that image was Cathy to her husband, and nothing Cathy did or said could warp Adam’s Cathy.”
It doesn’t even matter that, the first time he sees her, she’s a beaten-up prostitute left to die on the Trasks’ doorstep.
Adam and Cathy
After Cyrus dies, he leaves Charles and Adam a suspiciously large amount of cash: $50,000 each! (Of course, it is not honest money.) And after Adam marries Cathy, he uses the money to buy a ranch in Salinas Valley.
So, we’re back at the beginning of our story.
When the newly-rich newlyweds Adam and Cathy arrive in California, Cathy is already pregnant with twins. There’s a slight chance that these are Charles’, but let’s just skip that part—it’s the mother here who is more important.
Samuel quickly senses that something’s wrong with her:
Cathy was chewing a piece of meat, chewing with her front teeth. Samuel had never seen anyone chew that way before. And when she had swallowed, her little tongue flicked around her lips. Samuel’s mind repeated, ‘Something—something—can’t find what it is. Something wrong,’ and the silence hung on the table.
Wondering what’s wrong with someone chewing strangely and flicking her tongue around the lips?
Well, translate that into terms of symbols (but, please, for the love of Cyrus, don’t go this far!)
Yup, Cathy’s a snake.
Or, to use Steinbeck’s description from a personal letter of his: “a total representative of Satan.”
Unfortunately, Adam is not that into symbols and is still unaware what has hit him when, soon after giving birth to Aron and Caleb (yes, another Abel/Cain pair), Cathy shoots him in the shoulder and flees.
Fortunately, he has Lee.
Lee and Timshel
No, Lee is not Adam’s second wife.
Lee’s not even a woman.
He’s Adam’s Chinese-American servant, but also a sort of an Alfred Pennyworth with a dash of Confucius or another ancient sage.
Though born in the United States and pretty smart, he’s living a life on the margins—because, you know, he’s Chinese at the time when America was meant for the whites only.
How smart, you ask?
Well, in addition to knowing how to take care of Caleb (Cal) and Aron, he seems to also have exceptional knowledge of the Bible.
Especially of the Cain and Abel story.
He knows so much about it that he even knows that it is incorrectly translated in all of the English-language Bibles.
At least according to his Hebrew-knowing relatives from San Francisco who took a special interest in one word mentioned in the story: timshel.
Apparently, it doesn’t mean “Thou must,” but “Thou mayest.”
And that changes everything:
But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’
In other words, you’re not fated to be an Abel or a Cain; you choose your own path—to sainthood or doom.
No, Kate Albey is not a new character—that’s Cathy Ames/Cathy Trask’s third and final name. Let’s call it her stage name.
That is if by stage you mean brothel.
Because that’s where you can find Kate in case if you’re looking for her.
And it’s not just any brothel: we’re talking about the most respectable brothel in Salinas!
Of course, since it’s dear old Cathy we’re talking about here, and since it’s her job to tarnish all things she touches, that brothel is about to lose all respect and become a den of sadism.
How, you wonder?
Well, Cathy first wins the trust of the brothel’s Madam (Faye) and then poisons her and makes it look like an accident. After she inherits the business, she starts blackmailing the powerful men of the city with photographs which show them in, ahem, not-so-decent poses.
In the meantime, both Samuel and Charles die. The former (remember him?) informs Adam of the truth about Cathy; in a rather improbable outcome, the latter leaves Cathy some money.
So, Adam (who, by the way, has lied to the police that his gun wound had been caused by accident) visits Cathy to give the money to her.
There, Adam finally sees her for what she truly is: a monster.
Cal and Aron
Adam’s sons, however, grow up not knowing anything about their mother.
And even less about the fact that they are Cain and Abel all over again: Cal is wild and manipulative, and Aron is goodhearted and dutiful.
These traits become even more apparent when Adam invests all of his money in a business venture—and, eventually, loses it.
However, make no mistake: things aren’t that black and white.
In the seventh grade, Aron falls in love with a virtuous girl named Abra Bacon; in the meantime, just like his uncle Charles before him, Cal does everything he can to win the love of Adam, even praying to be more like Aron.
Eventually, Aron decides to become an Episcopal priest and Cal a farmer.
One day, Cal accidentally discovers not only that his mother is alive, but also that she is the Madam of, by this time, the very disreputable brothel of Salinas.
He goes to her, and, during the discussion, Cathy casually tells him that he has inherited her dark genes. Not a good thing to say to someone who is already afraid that he embodies evil. Especially if you’re his mother.
Now, Cal tries to overcompensate.
He teams up with Will Hamilton (if you don’t remember, that’s the only rich Hamilton) in order to earn some of his father’s money back.
And he does exceptionally well!
However, when he gives the money to Adam at Thanksgiving, Adam refuses them, believing that they are earned in a dishonest manner.
“I would have been so happy if you could have given me,” he says to Cal, “well, what your brother has – pride in the thing he’s doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn’t stack up with that.”
Ironically, just as Aron plans to drop out of school.
East of Eden Epilogue
Disappointed and jealous, Cal takes his brother to the brothel, knowing full well that Aron is about to see something which will deeply hurt him.
Since Aron is a goody two shoes, it does something more than that: he practically breaks down.
Soon after, he joins in the Army to fight in the Frist World War.
After finding of the news, both Adam and Cal are in a state of shock. Lee comforts the guilt-ridden Cal by telling him about the meaning of timshel.
In other words, he is not an embodiment of evil; he has the freedom of choice to be something more than the biological himself.
This makes Cal feel better, and soon he starts a relationship with Abra.
A telegram arrives and informs the Trasks that Aron has been killed in a battle; Adam suffers a stroke upon hearing the news.
Lee calls Cal and Abra to see him at his deathbed. Then, this mysterious Chinese Alfred pleads Adam to forgive his only surviving son and bless him before passing away.
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“East of Eden PDF Summary Quotes”I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible. Click To Tweet And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good. Click To Tweet All great and precious things are lonely. Click To Tweet There's more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty. Click To Tweet My imagination will get me a passport to hell one day. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“A novel planned on the grandest possible scale,” says a review. “One of those occasions when a writer has aimed high and then summoned every ounce of energy, talent, seriousness, and passion of which he was capable.”