Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Perpetual Contest between Good and Evil
In Chapter 34 of East of Eden, the narrator articulates his belief that the struggle between good and evil is the one recurring narrative of human history. In fact, he goes so far as to state that there “is no other story.” Writing from the perspective of the Christian tradition, the narrator contends that every human individual since Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel has struggled with the choice between good and evil. The narrator writes that each person, when looking back on his or her life, “will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” Because the struggle is an individual one, the narrator implies that no progress is made through the generations—each person must reenact the same ancient story and grapple with the same ancient problems.
East of Eden dramatizes this perpetual conflict between good and evil in the society of the Salinas Valley as a whole and within the individuals of the Trask and Hamilton families in particular. The main characters of the novel,generation after generation,wrestle with the problem of evil. Cyrus, the patriarch of the Trask family, apparently chooses evil by stealing money during his term as a U.S. Army administrator. Charles succumbs to jealousy of his brother, Adam. Cathy takes the path of evil at every turn, manipulating and wounding others for her own benefit. Cal, worried that he has inherited a legacy of sin from his mother, struggles perhaps the hardest of all the characters. Ultimately, the novel ends on a positive note, as Cal accepts the possibility and responsibility of free will—of free choice between good and evil. This optimistic ending is tempered, however, by our knowledge that future generations will endlessly replay the same struggle that Cal and his ancestors have endured.
The Freedom to Overcome Evil
Although one of the fundamental ideas in East of Eden is that evil is an innate and inescapable human problem, the novel also sets forth hope that each individual has the freedom to overcome evil by his or her own choice. This idea of free choice is encapsulated in the Hebrew word timshel, the meaning of which Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, has researched. The word, which translates to “thou mayest,” appears in the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible, when God tells Cain that he has the freedom to choose to overcome sin. Lee sees this idea of free will as central to the human condition—in fact, he says that timshel might be the “most important word in the world.”
The other characters in East of Eden have different opinions regarding whether or not individuals can truly overcome evil by free choice. Cathy, for instance, insists that there is only evil in the world, so she immerses herself in it and exploits other people’s human weaknesses to her own advantage. Aron, meanwhile, is only able to face the good in the world, and the evil that his mother embodies ultimately proves too much for him to handle. Cal struggles to find a middle road between these two extremes. Ultimately, he is successful, as he accepts Lee’s belief that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice, regardless of the fact that all humans are imperfect, sinful beings. With this newfound knowledge, Cal is able to go forward into a new life with Abra, confident that he controls his own moral destiny.
The Pain of Paternal Rejection
The dynamics of father-son relationships, especially the issue of a father’s preference for one son over another, are central to the story told in East of Eden. In the first generation of the Trask family covered in the novel, Cyrus displays a clear preference for Adam over Charles, for no discernible reason. Charles, who seems to love his father far more than Adam does, senses this disapproval from his father and resents it deeply. Charles’s resentment comes to a head when Cyrus prefers the birthday gift Adam gives him (a stray puppy, to which Adam gives hardly any thought) to the gift Charles gives him (a knife for which Charles works hard to save money in order to buy). Once again, Cyrus’s preference for the puppy over the knife appears to be completely arbitrary, and the disapproval enrages Charles. Later, Adam displays the same kind of arbitrary favoritism in his relationships with his own sons, Aron and Cal. Aron grows up to be somewhat cowardly and fragile, while Cal courageously struggles to stay on the path of good amid numerous temptations toward evil. Nonetheless, Adam perceives Aron as ambitious and promising but dismisses Cal as shiftless and directionless.
Steinbeck patterns these father-son relationships in the Trask family on an example in the Bible—the relationships that the brothers Cain and Abel have with God, who represents a father figure to both of them. When Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God (mirrored in Steinbeck’s novel by Charles’s and Adam’s birthday gifts to Cyrus), God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. Conspicuously, neither God nor the narrator of the story in the Bible offers any reason or justification for God’s preference. In East of Eden, Adam mentions that, upon reading the story of Cain and Abel, he felt “a little outraged at God” for favoring Abel so arbitrarily. However, as we see, Adam favors Aron over Cal just as arbitrarily as God favors Abel over Cain. Adam does not realize the depth of his favoritism until he is on his deathbed, when he acknowledges the mistake he has made and grants his final blessing to Cal.
More main ideas from East of Eden
When John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, critics considered The Grapes of Wrath (1939) his best work, but Steinbeck himself always believed East of Eden to be his greatest achievement. The novel disappointed critics upon its first appearance because they were expecting something resembling his previous works. However, in East of Eden Steinbeck departed from his usual concise narration to explore complex philosophical and psychological themes about which he had been preparing to write since the late 1930’s. As a fictional epic of the area around Salinas, California, where Steinbeck had grown up, the subject is much more personal than that of previous books. In fact, Steinbeck names himself as the grandson of the model for Sam Hamilton. The epic traces the history of two families—one a deteriorating New England family and the other a large family of recent Irish immigrants.
The novel’s central theme is the struggle of good against evil, most obviously symbolized by the recurring discussion of the story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck presents characters in pairs—Adam and Charles, Aron and Caleb, Abra and Cathy—using first initials to identify clearly which characters are inherently good and which must struggle to overcome the seeds of evil within them. Associated with this theme is the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest). In the Old Testament, God tells Cain that he may overcome evil and gain salvation. Timshel does not command that he must overcome evil or guarantee that he will; rather, it provides the opportunity to overcome evil if he chooses to do so. Ironically, it is Lee, the Chinese Presbyterian, who appeals to a group of Confucian scholars to solve the meaning of timshel. After learning Hebrew and spending months reading and discussing the Talmud, they give Lee the answer: “Thou mayest.” Timshel appears again at the end of the novel when Adam, paralyzed by a stroke, whispers the word to Caleb, who has just confessed the evil he has done by taking Aron to meet Kate. The father tells the son, “thou mayest.” Hence, the answer to Steinbeck’s urgent question—can human beings overcome evil?—is left undetermined.
The philosophical discussion of timshel also influences the psychological portions of the novel. Through Steinbeck’s explorations of how trying to overcome evil affects the human mind, the reader sees unsettling glimpses of the darkness of the human soul. Customers at Kate’s house of prostitution illustrate the varieties of torture and perversion of which the human mind is capable.
“Eden” as symbol for both the biblical garden and the Salinas Valley in Northern California also has ambiguous meaning. Parts of the valley are lush and fertile, but others, like the Hamilton farm, are virtual wastelands—dry and barren. Even the lush Trask ranch is a deceptive ambiguous Eden: Although it is one of the most fertile properties in the county, the fields, orchards, and gardens have been allowed to go wild and the deteriorating old house crumbles to ruins.
In addition to its literary merits, East of Eden offers a wealth of social and historical information. In tracing the history of two families, Steinbeck depicts the waves of settlers passing through California, first the Mexicans, then the white Americans, and finally the Irish immigrants. A community cringes at the arrival of its first automobile and gets a lesson on how to crank-start a Ford. New inventions either work (Sam’s new windmill) or dreadfully fail (Adam’s attempt to exploit icebox railroad freight cars). Through Caleb and Will Hamilton, Steinbeck shows how profitable speculating in food was during wartime, and through Cathy Trask and Kate Ames, he shows a great deal about organized prostitution across the country.
Since the late 1970’s, some significant trends developed in the criticism of East of Eden. No longer content to say merely that the novel is not like the rest of Steinbeck’s work, critics began looking for value in the differences. Whereas earlier novels are more naturalistic, objective, and detached, East of Eden is more subjective and personal. Steinbeck remained satisfied with that work’s indeterminacy rather than striving to make order where none exists. After a period in which studies focused primarily on the Trask men and Sam Hamilton, criticism turned to some of the peripheral characters, mainly women, and their contribution to the complex fabric of Salinas society. These included perseverant Eliza, Dassie, in whose relaxed dress shop women could laugh and break wind, and Lee, the Trasks’ Chinese servant, who is really the voice of wisdom and reason—the mouthpiece for Steinbeck’s own views on philosophy and religion. In 1952, readers were not ready for a book like East of Eden from an author like John Steinbeck, but the novel seems to age like the fine fermented apple wine in Lee’s jug—it gets better with each critical discussion, and its content never diminishes.
East of Eden’s psychological explorations of good and evil find predecessors in nineteenth century American novels such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). At the same time, in its thorough, almost encyclopedic chronicling of Salinas’s places, people, and events, Steinbeck’s techniques foreshadow those used by William Kennedy in his Albany novels such as Ironweed (1983) and Quinn’s Book (1988), for example. Steinbeck’s comfort with indeterminacy also suggests a connection to other postmodern fiction.