East of Eden
Corrupt Cathy: Evilness in East of Eden
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck explores how the personality trait of evilness affects an individual. He shows this through Cathy Ames’ resulting lack of humanity and lack maternal instinct.
Initially, Cathy’s malice leads to her lack of motherly care, preventing her to love her children. Those close to Cathy often portray and perceive her as a beautiful and delicate woman. However, the narrator expresses the monstrous and evil side Cathy often hides, through her behavior at a dinner with Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask: “Cathy was chewing a piece of meat, chewing with her front teeth. […] And when she had swallowed, her little tongue flicked around her lips” (Steinbeck 173). Cathy exhibits evilness due to the metaphor comparing Cathy and a snake, when it is stated that “her little tongue flicked around her lips.” A snake is often represented as a symbol of evil in Catholic religion. In Genesis, the snake represents Satan, the personification of evil. The snake commits multiple acts of immorality such as leading Adam and Eve towards a path of sin. Cathy exhibits similar behaviors to a villainous snake when “her little tongue flick[s] around her lips” symbolizing that she is a wicked character. As a result of this profound immorality, Cathy has no love for her children. Cathy Ames is pregnant with two twins, Aaron and Caleb Trask, in Salinas with her husband Adam. The narrator expresses that Cathy has no sense of maternal instinct through the description of her physical body as she undergoes pregnancy: “Her breasts did not grow and her nipples did not darken. There was no quickening of milk glands, no physical planning to feed the newborn” (Steinbeck 184). When it is stated that “[She had] no planning to feed the newborn,” Cathy demonstrates that she lacks a sense of maternal love. The narrator allows the reader to infer that Cathy has no intention of caring for her kids, showing her lack of care for the newborn. Cathy Ames’ body unconsciously rejects her motherhood when it is stated that “her nipples did not darken” or that “her breasts did not grow.” Cathy rejects her children mentally, when she explains that she has no intention to nurture them. Cathy Ames expresses is speaking to Adam Trask, her husband, telling him that she has no intention to care for her children: “I didn’t want to come here. I am not going to stay here. As soon as I can I will go away” (Steinbeck 175). Cathy has absolutely no love for her children, as it is stated that “[She was] not going to stay [there].” This shows that Cathy has no feeling of maternal affection and care for her children. “As soon as [she]” gave birth, she would leave the twins motherless and forget that they had ever existed. Cathy lacks a sense of motherly love through her immorality and evilness, leading her to lack compassion towards her children.
Later, Cathy’s wickedness leads to her lack of humanity, preventing her to have any sympathetic feelings for others. Cathy Ames, after leaving her children, goes to a prostitution house and begins working there. Cathy keeps photographs of powerful men in the Salinas community at the prostitution house, as blackmail, which grants her protection. However, Cathy expresses her evilness to Adam, as she would deliver these pictures to harmful places, resulting in the destruction of the men’s lives: “Those men know that if anything should happen to me […] one hundred letters, each one with a picture, would be dropped in the mail and each letter will go where it will do the most harm. […] In a few years I’ll be going away. And when I do — those envelopes will be dropped in the mail anyway” (Steinbeck 323). Cathy exhibits evilness when it is stated that she would send the letters to “where it [would] the most harm.” These letters would destroy the lives of the men and Cathy would deliberately send them to “the most harm[ful]” places, such as their families or their work environment. The men’s lives would be ruined and the reputation of all those around them would be tainted. Cathy is not only holding these “letters” for protection; she also keeps them, as a result of her evilness. Cathy confesses to Adam that she would “[drop the letters] in the mail anyway,” which demonstrates that Cathy is not only holding the “letters” for protection, she does it as a result of her evilness. She would destroy the lives of others, without a cause or reason which shows the profound immorality. As a result of this wickedness, Cathy has no compassion or care for others. Adam Trask confronts Cathy Ames, at the brothel, discussing the theme of good and evil. Cathy Ames, under the influence of alcohol, loses part of her humanity and fights with her husband, Adam. The narrator expresses that Cathy has no sense of humanity, in the debate between them: “Uncontrolled hatred shone in Kate’s eyes. She screamed, a long and shrill animal screech” (Steinbeck 325). Cathy demonstrates that she lacks a sense of humanity when it is stated that “[Cathy] screamed, a long animal screech”. She “screech[es]” like a savage “animal” and exhibits animal-like behavior, instead of acting humanely. She also does not feel any pity towards Adam, just pure and “uncontrolled hate” towards another human, which shows that she does not feel the humane characteristics of empathy. Cathy Ames screams, during the argument, which alerts the house pimp, Ralph, who punches Adam in the face to neutralize him. Cathy, however, expresses her lack of humanity through her orders directed towards Ralph: “‘I said give him the boots. Break his face!” (Steinbeck 325). Cathy has absolutely no sympathy for Adam, as it is stated that “[Cathy wanted Ralph to] break his face.” This shows that Cathy has no feelings of pity for others’ suffering. She tells Ralph to continuously hurt Adam, even though he had done nothing to harm her in any manner. Cathy lacks a sense of humanity through her immorality and evilness, leading her to have no empathy towards others.
The Battle between Good and Evil in East of Eden
East of Eden, written by John Steinbeck, is a complicated retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, focused around the overall struggle between evil and good. This was first seen in Adam and Charles Trask, followed by Adam’s sons, Aron and Cal Trask. The absence of a mother figure in these two instances of brotherly disagreement enhances the need of acknowledgment and love from their parental figures. And yet, both mother figures in East of Eden choose to abandon their children, leading them to find this love elsewhere. Adam’s mother killed herself when he was just a baby, Cal and Aron’s mother, Cathy, immediately escapes the life of obligation and never thinks about her son’s well being. Cathy never could have been a mother due to the fact she had no maternal instinct and believed to be evil. Although it is evident through her manipulative ways and wickedness that Cathy is the satanic ‘Eve’ of this retold religious story, by the end of the novel her monstrous nature is questioned and Steinbeck opens the possibility that Cathy is much more vulnerable than she originally appeared.
Ever since Cathy was a young child, she had taken advantage of anyone near through the use of her sexuality, believing herself to be smarter than everyone and fueling her anger with her hatred of the ignorant humankind. Living on a farm in Connecticut with her parents, Cathy was always getting into trouble, from being found tied down and naked with two boys, to torturing a local Latin teacher to the point of suicide. Overall, Cathy is able to exploit men with her seductiveness, “sexuality with all its attendant yearnings and pains, jealousies and taboos, is the most disturbing impulse humans have… Everyone concealed that little hell in himself, while publicly pretending it did not exist — and when he was caught up in it he was completely helpless” (Steinbeck 75). Not only does Cathy use her erotic ways to get what she desires, but she also uses physical pain and eventually, murder. After fighting with her father about Cathy’s attempt at running away, Cathy had had enough. One night Cathy leaves an apron in the oven of her house, locks all the doors, steals her father’s money, and leaves her parents to die in her childhood home, erupting into flames. Enjoying every second of her act and not feeling any remorse, Cathy’s cheeks “were bright with color and her eyes shone and her mouth turned up in its small childlike smile” (85). The murder of her parents is Cathy’s first real act of evil that Steinbeck shows in the book, showing how much hatred she is capable of and the extent to which she will go to get her way.
After not feeling the need to seek repentance for murdering her parents, Cathy moves on to other victims that she is easily able to seduce and take advantage of, ruining them in the process. Running from her crimes, Cathy tries to get a job as a prostitute, but instead becomes the mistress of Mr. Edwards, a pimp who falls in love with her. Cathy uses him only for protection, constantly stealing from him and making him feel insecure: “Her method was to keep him continually off balance” (94). This goes on for months with Mr. Edwards being so rapt with Cathy that his own health begins to deplete. He is so enthralled that he does not care about anything other than making Cathy comfortable. Mr. Edwards is eventually able to see through Cathy’s facade when she becomes drunk on wine, saying vicious words that Mr. Edwards cannot forget, “You fat slug. What do you know about me? Do you think I can’t read every rotten thought you ever had?” (96). Mr. Edward’s image of Cathy is now distorted and shatters completely when he learns of the murder of her parents. He becomes so scared that he takes her to an alley, beats her, and leaves her to die. Adam Trask then finds Cathy and nurses her back to health only to fall in love with her against all wishes of his brother, Charles, “She’s no damn good, I tell you. She’s a whore… Won’t you get rid of her? Please, Adam. Throw her out. She’ll tear you to pieces. She’ll destroy you, Adam, she’ll destroy you!” (123). Just like Mr. Edwards, Adam is completely blinded by the love Cathy allows him to have for her, leaving his brother and moving to California. Cathy soon learns she is pregnant, and tries multiple times to abort herself to no avail, becoming completely stuck. When she finally gives birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam in the arm and disappears, changing her name and never looking back to the seemingly meaningless point in her life. In her final words to Adam before she leaves, ‘her voice was dead and metallic.” Cathy tells her husband that she does not “give a damn” about him, and when he asks about their newborn babies, she responds, “throw them in one of your wells’ (201). Most new mothers fall in love with their offspring immediately as a maternal instinct takes over their whole being. The complete opposite occurs within Cathy. Not only does she leave her children, but she also leaves Adam, her husband, who had taken her in when she was at her lowest. This leaves Adam soulless and desolate, a shell of a person with nothing inside. Steinbeck explains Adam’s thoughts and feelings by explaining how “he saw the world through gray water. Now and then his mind fought its way upward, and when the light broke in it brought him only sickness of the mind, and he retired into the grayness again” (252). Adam stayed within himself and his gray world for years, completely ignoring the key moments in his own sons’ lives. By only being with Adam for a year or so, Cathy was able to shut him down completely when she left, taking an enormous emotional toll that wrecked the life of her husband and her own children. Cathy is able to be thoroughly toxic to those around her, destroying their humanity as well as her own, leaving the reader to constantly question if she is capable of empathy or kindness.
After years of sheltering herself within her own hateful schemes, Cathy begins to scrutinize her previous beliefs as to whether her motives were well judged. When Cathy set up a new life for herself as the owner of a whorehouse, Adam visits her the day his brother dies and is finally able to see her true self, ‘I know what you hate. You hate something in them you can ‘t understand. You don ‘t hate their evil. You hate the good in them you can ‘t get at. I wonder what you want, what final thing’ (323). Adam can see that all of Cathy’s plots are shielding what she is hiding deep within herself, something that she herself does not know yet. This refers back to when Steinbeck first introduced Cathy as a character, “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. … 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?” (72). Cathy is born without having that little piece that is inside everyone else, the piece that makes you moral and capable of purity. Instead, Cathy is only filled with malevolence and fear. As Cathy gets older, her fear of the world builds, causing her to completely shut everything out and hide within her self-built gray room. Just as Adam saw the world through gray water, Cathy sees the world from within her gray room. Steinbeck describes the gray room’s importance saying, “She [Cathy] believed that the light pained her eyes, and also that the gray room was a cave to hide in, a dark burrow in the earth, a place where no eyes could stare at her” (474). Even though Steinbeck constantly refers to the little piece that Cathy is lacking, making her a person that is incapable of goodness due to the fear that consumes her, Cathy’s final act before she dies leaves the reader to challenge this idea. After both of her sons come to visit her, she sees how much Aron is affected by seeing his supposed dead mother. She begins to feel guilty for the first time and shows a glimpse of protectiveness for her son, wishing that Aron had never met her. Cathy then decides to kill herself and make a will, “I leave everything I have to my son Aron Trask.’ She dated the sheet and signed it ‘Catherine Trask’” (553). This final act shows Cathy’s remorse, trying to find a way to fix her mistakes, leaving everything to her son and actually using her legal name, acknowledging her past with Adam. Cathy is capable of goodness, she was just too afraid to let it show, hiding away in her gray world of hate.
The battle between good and evil is a universal struggle that has long been established in our lives. However, the way that Steinbeck portrays it through Cathy shows his belief that some people are born with the equal opportunity to choose between good and evil, while others have to struggle to find their humanity. For Cathy, she was finally able to attempt reconciliation for her sins once she accepted that she was putting up fronts to shield herself from the feeling of fear. Not only was this a journey for Cathy as a character, but it was also a journey for Steinbeck as an author. He first speaks of evil monsters being born to human parents, referring to Cathy, but as the novel progresses Steinbeck allows for Cathy to change and become her own human self before she leaves the earth. Rather than being born evil, Steinbeck comes to the conclusion that being evil is a choice. At some point in a person’s life they realize that anyone can diminish their past sins and work towards forgiveness and righteousness.
Hopelessness and Desperation in East of Eden
East of Eden, the author John Steinbeck uses a narrator conducting a hopeless and desperate tone comidating before a critical change of Adam’s relationship towards another. Before the critical outcomes of Adam the tone of hopelessness and desperation can show a relationship that intertwines with the myths of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel.
Steinbeck’s narrator uses a hopelessly desperate tone when Adam tries to lock Cathy in their house. On page 201 near the bottom of the book, it talks about Adam, a major character who is married to Cathy, had locked her in their house. Adam did so because his wife had told him she wants to leave him and their twin sons to be on her own. “He stood panting, his ear close to the panel, and a hysterical sickness poisoned him. He could hear her moving quietly about. A drawer was opened, and the thought leaped in him- she’s going to stay. And then there was a little click he could not place. His ear was almost touching the door.” The narrator disputes what Adam’s perception was, listening to Cathy shuffling in the house, he subjected a group of tense words in order to describe his discomfort. “… a hysterical sickness poisoned…” shows a weakness in Adam and the way the narrator describes how Adam’s regret and disparity grows with the intense words the narrator uses. “the thought leaped in him- she’s going to stay…” using the hash mark right after the text saying Adam had a quick thought pop in his head, and then say what his thought was, shows the fact that Adam didn’t want to believe what was happening and he didn’t want to feel hopeless, which leads to the tone not only being hopeless but also desperate. In the event of East of Eden containing the concept of Adam and Eve, there being two sides of Salina Valley where there is good on one side and bad on the other, Adam chooses to want to find the hope of good through the bad of Cathy. The narrator tells this event in a hopeless tone to show that the narrator knows there is no way of Cathy being able to represent the good side in the story of Adam and Eve.
After Adam had been shot and Cathy was gone working at a whore house, Adam had become distant and closed off from the world. This has become a problem with Lee, Adam’s worker, and Adam’s neighbor, Samuel Hamelton. Samuel has decided to go over to Adam’s place to make Adam snap out of his delusions and to take care of his twin sons instead of Lee taking care of them. This shows a tone of hopelessness and desperation for both Adam and Samuel because they both want to fix the situation but both don’t know what exactly to do. “You bought your uprightness, You bought your thumb on sideways. Listen to me, because Im like to kill you after. You bought! You bought out of some sweet inheritance. Think now — do you deserve your children, man?” “Deserve them? They’re here — i guess. I don’t understand you.” Samuel wailed, “God save me, liza! It’s not the way you think, Adam! Listen to me before my thumb finds the bad place in the throat. The precious twins — untried, unnoticed, undirected—- and I say it quietly with my hands down — undiscovered.” (Page: 258-259) Where the passage is highlighted, the narrator tells that Samuel was begging for Adam to listen to him so he can confront him on his behavior, the emotion of how the narrator describes the actions of Samuel is desperation, if Adam doesn’t listen to him, he’ll kill him. The contempt of Samuel having the amount of frustration towards Adam proves that Samuel is hopeless with not knowing how to help Adam become a better father. Without looking at how tensing the words means are, and looking at the way the narrator tells of what Samuel and Adam had said, it shows contempt and frustration. Samuel is told in this passage to be desperate to want to change the way Adam is. To snap Adam out of his stage of grief, the narrator shows desperation. This passage doesn’t exactly go with Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel but is help from Samuel leading Adam back to the good side of Salina Valley and to prevent The Cain and Abel concept from Adam’s twin sons.
With the rest of the book to be read comes the last page. With the twins of Adam now with names, Cal and Aron they grew up to find out who their mother is and for Aron to go into the army. While Aron fights in the army, Cal comes to fear and question his true intentions of being born good or evil because of his mother. During the time of Aron and Cal growing up, Adam became like his father and cared for Aron over Cal. Cal grows to feel rejected and always second questioning himself as well as feel hopeless. Soon after Aron is killed in battle thereof Adam dies in disparity and hopelessness. Before Adam dies, Lee grows with desperation to get Adam to tell Cal that he means not to reject Cal all this time. “He did a thing in anger, Adam, because he thought you had rejected him. The result of his anger is that his brother and your son is dead.” Cal said, “Lee — you cant.” “I have to,” said Lee. “If it kills him I have to. I have the choice,” and he smiled sadly and quoted, “ ‘If there’s blame, it’s my blame.’” Lee’s shoulders straightened. He said sharply, “Your son is marked with guilt out of himself — out of himself — almost more than he can bear. Don’t crush him with rejection. Don’t crush him, Adam… Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered word seemed to hang in the air: “Timshel!” His eyes closed and he slept.” (Page 602) The narrator goes through a conversation of Lee yelling at Adam to forgive himself to his son Cal for the times Adam had rejected Cal as a person. Lee is hopeless about the way Adam is treating his now only son and tries to make amends towards the two before death parts them. This shows the last time Adam siding between the Adam and Eve concept. There being him making a detrimental choice that will affect his son Cal as he passes. This is helped with Lee knowing that if Adam doesn’t make things right, Cal will be stuck in the thought he was born to the side of evil like his mother. With these words, the narrator had Lee had spoken, Adam had only to say, “His whispered word seemed to hang in the air: “Timshel!” His eyes closed and he slept.” Timshel implies Cal may overcome his evil nature because of the ‘mark’ put upon him by “God”. In begging his forgiveness of his son, Lee also tells Adam ‘Your son is marked with guilt.’
Although the fundamental idea in East of Eden is that evil is an innate and inescapable human problem, the novel sets forth hope that each individual has the ability to overcome evil by their own choice. And through the tone of hopelessness and desperation, the narrator tells many of the ideas of how the people are helped or affected with good and evil.
Main Desire Of Cal in East of Eden Novel
The human desire to seek enlightenment and purpose in life permeates and intensifies the allure of literature. Throughout time, novels have continually supported the aphorism that hardships build character and strengthen one’s sense of personal identity. In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cal searches for liberation from the evil permeating his life. Throughout his childhood, Cal receives gratification from manipulating his brother, Aron. However, as he grows older, Cal realizes the darkness of his deeds, and he attempts to redeem himself by mirroring Aron’s goodness. As Cal struggles to find himself during his adolescence, he also seeks for freedom from the evil that he believes he has inherited from his mother, Cathy. After years of developing his own personality, Cal ultimately succeeds in distancing himself from Cathy. Consequently, Cal’s life exemplifies the concept of “timshel,” the idea that free will can release an individual from the erroneous path of previous generations.
As a child, Cal experiences a disturbing thrill from evoking pain and confusion in his brother. Simultaneously, Cal is frightened by the dark intent of his actions, and he attempts to remedy his personality. Throughout much of his early life, Cal struggles with these contrasting aspects of his personality: the protective, caring brother and the violent, hurtful sibling. Once he attends school, his flaws become starkly evident, and he quickly becomes feared as the “playground bully.” However, Cal fervently denounces this reputation, praying, “Lord, let me be like Aron. Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be.” As Cal struggles to find himself, he endeavors to improve his personality and reject evil.
Ironically, Cal’s greatest obstacle in his quest for morality is himself. Cal believes that he is innately immoral and that he maintains no control over his “darkness.” His violent temper possesses him, leading him to make mistakes that he later regrets. Cal fears that he inherited this evil from his mother, Cathy, stating, “I hate her because I know why she went away. I know- because I’ve got her in me.” Upon listening to Cal’s concerns, Lee wisely convinces him that he possesses the ability to choose between good and evil by being conscious of his actions and following his conscience.
Cal ultimately succeeds in discovering his identity when he relinquishes the notion that he can inherit evil from his biological mother, Cathy. After he learns that she operates a brothel in town, he stalks her and familiarizes himself with her routine. Meanwhile, Cal internally despairs that he is destined to be like her. Cathy finally confronts Cal and tries to convince him that they possess similar attributes. At this pivotal moment, Cal denounces her, realizing that he is not innately evil after all. He has the power to become a different person and to make his own choices in order to avoid the mistakes of his parents.
By yelling “timshel” with his final breath on his deathbed, Cal’s father, Adam Trask summarizes and foreshadows Cal’s ultimate success in freeing himself from the mistakes of his ancestors and developing his own identity. In retrospect, Cal’s familial problems and his inner turmoil only served to strengthen his character. Because he was juxtaposed with Aron, his angelic brother and because he struggled to tame his temper during his early years, Cal believed he was evil. However, Lee and others who truly knew Cal understood that his actions and emotions resulted from the jealousy, pain, and self-pity that constantly tormented him. Beneath the impulsive, cynical Cal existed a generous, loving individual, the person that Cal eventually grew to discover and cherish.
Depiction Of America in 19th-20th Century in East of Eden
East of Eden: Cathy Ames Trask Analysis
In John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, Cathy Ames Trask, the strong central female character, represents an inherently evil opposition to the society she lives in (Pattern #2). She opposes the male-dominated patriarchal organization of 19th and 20th century America and rejects the traditional role of a housewife and mother instead assuming the opposite role as a whore and sexual temptress. Her inherently evil character contradicts the popular idea of individual free will and society’s constructs of good and evil. Instead Cathy seems to be completely lacking the ability to make a choice between these two binary constructs thus undermining the central theme of the novel: timshel (Pattern #3).
In the novel, Cathy is clearly described as an entirely evil being, however she not only represents evil in the context of the novel. She also represents a woman who defies the stereotypical roles of her society. Therefore, it is important to understand her character in context of the 19th and 20th century attitudes regarding the role of women. In the beginning of the novel the description of Adam Trask’s stepmother outlines the qualities of an ideal 19th century woman in a traditional domestic role:
“Alice Trask had a number of admirable qualities. She was a deep scrubber and a corner-cleaner in the house. She was not very pretty, so there was no need to watch her. Her eyes were pale, her complexion sallow, and her teeth crooked, but she was extremely healthy and never complained during her pregnancy. Whether she liked children or not no one ever knew. She was not asked, and she never said anything unless she was asked… She never offered any opinion or statement, and when a man was talking she gave a vague impression of listening while she went about doing her housework” (Steinbeck 16).
Cathy Ames Trask and Alice Trask are on opposite sides of the spectrum of feminine domesticity; Cathy defies the traditional role in every way (Pattern #10). First, Cathy defies the societal expectation of an ideal traditional woman on a superficial level because she strays away from the plain appearance of a non-threatening and subservient housewife. Unlike Alice Trask, she is described as being very pretty: “Her hair was gold and lovely…Her nose delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping into a small chin so that her face was heart-shaped” (Steinbeck 73). More importantly, her personality differs from the domestic housewife’s in a drastic way. According to Hansen, Cathy was “an alien who refuses to fit into the conventional code of the good woman…” because “Cathy defies classification in a male-dominated world” (312). Rather than quietly living to please men as was expected of her, she used her appearance and sexuality to manipulate, “gain and keep power over nearly anyone” (Steinbeck 75). Cathy using her sexuality as a means of manipulation was enough for her to be considered “alien” among women of the 19th century in a time when female chastity was highly valued. Sex was considered something that respectable women should not seek out. Ideally women were expected to view it only as a way to reproduce. By using sex to her advantage, Cathy clearly defies the norm.
Even at the turn of the 20th century Americans clung to the traditional values regarding female domesticity, perhaps because of their fear of change in this time of perceived cultural turbulence. Acknowledging this fear, Steinbeck states:
“For the world was changing, and sweetness was gone, and virtue too. Worry had crept on a corroding world, and what was lost—good manners, ease and beauty? Ladies were not ladies any more, and you couldn’t trust a gentleman’s word” (Steinbeck 129). (Pattern #1).
Directly addressing Americans’ fear that “ladies were not ladies anymore” clearly shows societal fear of women straying from their traditional roles in the changing times. Cathy is an extreme representation this fear and the antithesis to the virtuous female by refusing to ever assume a womanly role as a wife or mother. She goes as far as to reject her newborn twins cruelly stating that she wants her husband to “throw them in one of your wells” (Steinbeck 201). Obviously such a cruel statement would bring shock in any society or time period, but it is significant to acknowledge the underlying fear of women losing their virtues during Cathy’s time. The first time Cathy Trask attempts to abort her baby, the doctor seems to question her moral values in context of society rather than her personal feelings. He asks, “‘Why don’t you want to have the baby?’ he asked softly ‘You’ve got a good husband’” (Steinbeck 135). Adding that the reason Cathy should want the baby is because she has a good husband indicates that she should be more concerned with filling her role as a woman than her own feelings. The doctor expects that most women would want the life that Cathy has, that a good husband should be enough to be happy, so it comes as a shock that Cathy would defy expectations by attempting an abortion.
From the beginning Steinbeck characterizes Cathy as inherently and completely evil, lacking the ability to change for the better, thus setting the foundation for the contradictory idea that novel’s central theme, timshel, does not apply to everyone. Steinbeck first introduces Cathy by talking about monsters stating:
“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents…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?… As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of consciousness” (Steinbeck 72).
Implying that she was born a monster, Cathy can be immediately thought of as an inherently evil being without the ability to choose to be good, thus undermining the concept of timshel. Stanton supports this idea stating that “Presenting Cathy as an inherently evil woman who possesses a ‘malformed soul’ and was born without ‘potential of conscience’ implies that she lacks the ‘great choice’—the ability to choose good over evil that ‘makes a man great’” (65). However, this introduction raises the question of whether or not Cathy truly lacks free will. Owens asks:
“Is Cathy the C.A.T, a genetically misshapen monster who is simply predetermined to be evil because of something she lacks?… Or is she more psychologically complex than this, as her early and late obsessions with the Wonderland Alice seem to suggest? Why is timshel must apply to all of us, does it seem not to Cathy, Adam, or even Charles, who is incapable of feeling sorry” (253)?
This question can be answered with evidence from Cathy’s pregnancy. Not only did she mentally reject the traditional role society imposed on her, she also physically rejected it during her pregnancy:
“She was misshapen; her belly tight and heavy and distended, made it impossible for her to stand without supporting herself with her hands. But the great lump was local. Shoulders, neck arms, hands, face, were unaffected, slender and girlish. Her breasts did not grow and her nipples did not darken. There was no quickening of the milk glands, no physical planning to feed the newborn” (Steinbeck 184).
Cathy’s malicious actions further enforce the idea that she was destined to remain evil throughout the novel. Danielle Woods wrote that:
“Not only does Cathy challenge American society’s traditional idea of femininity through her physical traits, but she also defies feminine associations through her malicious actions. Over the course of the novel, Cathy ruthlessly murders her parents, tries to abort her babies with a clothes hanger, shoots her husband, abandons him and her sons, and tortures and blackmails men of prominent social status who regularly visit her whorehouse” (10).
Therefore, it can be concluded that Cathy is evil because she was born a monster and destined to be that way. She does not appear to be able to choose anything else.
Since the plot of East of Eden parallels the biblical story of Adam and Eve, one may assume that Cathy represents Eve, a woman turned evil. However, descriptions of Cathy indicate that she in fact is inherently evil and inhuman. She therefore lacks the choice between good and evil that the biblical Eve and characters do. In contrast with Cathy, the character Abra does have these qualities. She not only embodies the image of feminine good in her society, but also the idea of free will. In this regard Abra represents the female character that supports the concept of timshel; Cathy, the female character who undermines it (Pattern #11). Adam Trask and Sam Hamilton first draw a parallel between Adam and Cathy and the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in a conversation about Adam’s plans for his ranch. “Adam said, ‘I won’t plant apples. That would be looking for accidents.’” Hamilton replies to this by asking, ‘What does Eve say to that? She has a say, you remember. And Eves delight in apples’” (Steinbeck 169). Adam, by jokingly stating that apples “would be looking for accidents,” he foreshadows that there will be trouble with Cathy later in the novel. However, he fails to realize this and the fact that Cathy does not fit into the role of his Eve as he expected. Hansen offers explanation on this topic stating that, “Strangely enough Cathy is not linked so much to the biblical symbolism of the book’s superimposed patriarchal ideals, but rather to a seemingly innocuous children’s fantasy” () thus further supporting the idea that Cathy fits into neither her society nor the novel’s themes. Cathy more closely identifies with the mysterious and withdrawn Wonderland Alice, even creating an imaginary friendship with her. She also places herself in Alice’s role and desperately clings to it until she dies by committing suicide with poison. This is evident when she imagines the poison as the “Drink Me” potion from Alice in Wonderland.
Instead, Abra represents the complex character, Eve, whereas Cathy represents her antithesis. Gladstein states, “If the reader is to accept Steinbeck’s contemporary rendering of the Cain and Abel myth as a representation of the ‘whole nasty, bloody, lovely history of the world, ‘then Abra as a second Eve is also a prototype for the feminine” (151). Supporting this is a statement from Steinbeck himself in a letter to his editor in which he recognizes that Abra represents “the strong female principle of good as opposed to Cathy.” Abra, the biblical Eve’s East of Eden parallel, also represents a complex female character, one that according to Woods is “a departure from the whore/mother binary” (6). Like the biblical Eve, Abra was born with the ability to make a choice between good and evil. Unlike Cathy whose character embodies one born evil lacking the ability to be good, Abra’s character embodies feminine good in combination with free will. Furthermore, Abra defies society in her own way by refusing to be the ‘perfect woman’ that Aron imagines her as, yet does not revert to being manipulative and evil. Unlike Cathy who represents evil and societal defiance on an extreme level, Abra “portrays both strength and domesticity while asserting her sexuality” (Woods 6). Abra is able to slightly differ from the expectations of the traditional subservient woman in a socially acceptable manner. The difference in action lies in the inherent characteristics of each woman. Abra was born with free will supporting the idea of timshel; Cathy was not and therefore is destined to remain evil. Yuji Kami states that, “As opposed to Cathy/Kate, Abra the mutual romantic interest of her sons Cal and Aron, a kind of ideal woman or Steinbeck heroine…Unlike Cathy/Kate, Abra is destined to be endowed with the capacity of free will. Her portrayal, in a reverse sense, suggests genetic determinism, a conviction that is based on inherent personality traits” (222). This further supports that Cathy contradicts the concept of timshel, which proposes that all people, even those who have sinned, are born with the ability to overcome their evil actions through free will.
Though the beginning 20th century was a time of change and social progress, Americans still clung to the traditional value of the 19th regarding the domestic role of women. This can be attributed to a number of factors including the fear and uncertainty prevalent at the turn of the new era and the perceived turbulence caused by cultural shifts in society. Cathy Ames Trask represents the opposition to the female domesticity of her society. She takes her defiance to an extreme by rejecting her newborn twins, leaving her husband, and returning to her old life as a prostitute. These extreme actions can be attributed to Cathy’s inherent evil. From her introduction it is established that Cathy is a monster, one without the ability to escape her destiny or choose good over evil. Because Cathy lacks the free will and blessing of choice that the other characters have in East of Eden she contradicts and undermines the central concept of timshel that dominates the novel.
Language Issues in East of Eden
With its intricate, complex plot infused with an abundance of emotional turmoil, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is indeed successful in fulfilling its author’s intention to rip a reader’s “nerves to rags.” As one finally becomes satisfied with the novel’s progression, Steinbeck orders a dramatic turn of events which transforms the satisfied mindset of the reader into hair ripping frustration within a matter of seconds. Thus, with descriptive imagery, use of theme, and specific diction, Steinbeck without a doubt succeeds in failing to satisfy his reader and is able to elicit vivid reactions.
Steinbeck opens East of Eden with detailed descriptions of setting. It is noticed that his description of Salinas Valley in the beginning of the novel parallels with the theme and future progression of the story. He introduces his theme of “balance” and the comparison of good and evil in an analogy to the setting; he describes his childhood in the Salinas and states, “I remember the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains […] The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west […] they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east” (Steinbeck 1). Gabilan vs. Santa Lucias, loving vs. brooding, east vs. west, birth vs. death, good vs. evil; already the author alludes that there will always be a bad side to everything, which causes the readers’ angst. Situations where the reader temporarily becomes satisfied changes as the “bad” to the “good” steps in. In his description of the Valley, the author also mentions blue flowers, and how the white flowers tend to bring out the blue. By placing contrasting colors or events together, one would stand out more. Therefore, by placing the “bad” with the “good,” the “bad” seems worse. The ups and downs, the bad and good, the unsatisfied and satisfied, contribute to the emotional turmoil that the active reader experiences.
Furthermore, the ambivalent nature of the story inhibits the reader from maintaining a single emotion and a single mindset, as Steinbeck is able to turn the story around instantaneously. When Adam meets Cathy, the readers know that Cathy is evil, though Adam is seemingly oblivious. After she recovers, he pops the question, “A surge of love filled him. ‘Will you marry me?’” (Steinbeck 120). Adam’s naïve and innocent words of love causes agitation within the reader. Nearly every single individual, both book character or reader, knows the true nature of Cathy. On the other hand, Adam’s common sense is clouded and disillusioned by his love for her. When he asks her to marry him, already the reader is able to anticipate an unfortunate future that has yet to come. These turn of events give the readers an uncontrollable urge to toss the book and shout at the characters – and perhaps the author – “WHY?” Adam’s proposal to Cathy is one of many events that have caused an intense reaction in the reader.
At times, the mood is absolutely ominous. Other times, the mood is playful. With his specific diction, Steinbeck is able to alter his tone and the readers’ emotion however he pleases. He thoroughly enjoys the use of figurative language, especially similes, metaphors, or any type of comparison. By utilizing comparison, Steinbeck is able to put any situation on an intensity scale and give either a negative or positive connotation. At one point in the story, Adam speaks to Eva, Kate’s assistant. Eva’s reply is noticeably cold and uninviting, as “the girl’s voice took on the edge of a blade sharpened on a stone” (Steinbeck 315). The specific word choice indicated in the metaphor is the very sharp edge of a blade. Steinbeck very well could have merely used “the girl’s sharp voice” but instead chooses to portray the girl’s voice as the sharpness of a blade. He specifically utilizes this phrase to insinuate that her voice, though sharp, is also murderous, dangerous, and able to kill like a blade. In this situation, the blade metaphor makes the uninviting mood even more uninviting. One of many of Steinbeck’s uses of extremely descriptive word choice and figurative language, this quote furthermore gets on the readers’ nerves and engraves into his or her head a lifelong impact.
One final relation, which is extremely significant to the story, is the term “timshel,” or choice. Though of course there is a contrast between good and evil, Steinbeck weaves “timshel” into this plot. Each man is given a choice of which path to choose. The unpredictable nature of decisions; the unpredictable, and sometimes disappointing, result of “timshel,” leaves the reader in a state of angst and exasperation. Steinbeck is ultimately successful in causing emotional turmoil within a readers’ mindset with his descriptive imagery, unique twist to plotline, and specific word choice. “I’ve done my damndst to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied,” and indeed Steinbeck easily achieves this goal.
Gender Roles in East of Eden
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was published in the 1950’s, a time when having a large family was a virtue and a source of comfort. Given the devastating psychological effects of World Wars I and II and the growing fear of the Cold War, people sought out a sense of calmness. This desire for comfort led to an increase in conventional lifestyles and conventional gender roles. Thus, women were defined as mother or wife in society, lacking identity and independence. Steinbeck, however, has opposed this occupation of a traditionalist conception of femininity through his characterization of strong-willed women: Cathy Ames, Liza Hamilton, and Abra Bacon. These three important characters challenge the societal expectations of the submissive woman, all possessing an inner-strength. Furthermore, these three women play pivotal roles in the text. Steinbeck has successfully criticized the stereotypical view of the traditional woman typical of male mid-twentieth century authors, through his illumination of strong female characters.
Cathy Ames uses her sexuality and inner-strength to manipulate others and acquire power over man, ultimately gaining an independence in which challenges traditional female roles. From causing her Latin teacher to commit suicide to having sex with countless men at her whorehouse in order to gain protection, Cathy has dehumanized and ruined the lives of many men around her. Her rejection of societal norms and capitalization of her sexuality begins in her childhood. At an early age, Cathy realizes she can use sex as an advantage: “At ten Cathy knew something of the power of the sex impulse and began coldly to experiment with it,” (Steinbeck 74). Throughout the novel Cathy “experiment[s]” with her body and uses it in a completely unconventional way, contrary to traditional expectations of the female body: she uses her sexuality to get what she wants and humiliate the men around her. For instance, after Cathy is beaten up by Richard Edwards, she tempts Adam with her sexuality in order to get money. Unfortunately, her plans backfire and she becomes Adam’s wife and the mother of his children. Her relationship with her husband and sons illuminates her lack of traditionalism: As a wife she doesn’t care about her husband and his emotions, and as a mother she doesn’t care about her children. After leaving her family, Cathy spends the rest of the novel working at a whorehouse, which is particularly significant: her new home and place of employment allows for her sexuality to flourish. Without really endorsing Cathy’s lifestyle, Steinbeck has nonetheless rejected the typical “mother and wife” figures women have been subjugated into through his characterization of Cathy Ames.
Liza Hamilton exhibits a sense of inner-strength throughout East of Eden, which was an unlikely depiction of women during the 1950’s. Although Liza seems to be an idealistic picture of the perfect woman of the mid-twentieth century given her simple-minded nature, Steinbeck illuminates her vigor and courage. Throughout the novel it is clear that Samuel Hamilton admires his wife. For instance, after Samuel delivers Cathy’s babies, he asks Liza to offer Cathy assistance: “And if Liza doesn’t want to come, tell her we need a woman’s hand here and a woman’s clear eyes,” (Steinbeck 194). Samuel is aware of his wife’s strong characteristics and, therefore, entrusts her to help Cathy. Although he highlights the fact that she is a woman and that they need a “woman’s hand,” and a “woman’s clear eyes,” it is apparent that these are not simply menial tasks often accomplished by the traditional housewife. Samuel acknowledges the evil in Cathy, and knows Liza can withstand Cathy’s overflowing small pond of evil. Thus, despite her conventionality in comparison to other characters in East of Eden, Liza possesses an inner-strength, capable of caring for such a destructive human being like Cathy. Steinbeck’s characterization of Liza Hamilton and her revealed feminine identity is uncommon to the female characters depicted in many mid-twentieth century texts.
Steinbeck identifies Abra Bacon’s shift into maturity in East of Eden, providing another strong female character. Therefore, he has rejected societal norms of the time. Throughout the novel, Abra dedicates her life to being Aron’s wife, which suggests that she is a traditional, submissive woman. However, once Aron flees for the Army, Abra’s dedication to Aron has also fled: “‘I think I love you Cal.’ ‘I’m not good.’ ‘Because you’re not good,’” (Steinbeck 576). Abra realizes she has fallen in love with Cal. This meaningful shift in Abra’s preference in man demonstrates her maturity as a character. Additionally, once she figures out that her father has embezzled money from his company, she discovers that she has bad within herself as well: “‘Abra, my mother was a whore.’ ‘I know. You told me. My father is thief.’ ‘I’ve got her blood, Abra. Don’t you understand?’ ‘I’ve got his,’ she said,” (Steinbeck 596). This realization expands Abra’s attraction to Cal, and her newfound attraction to complicated men like herself, highlighting her maturity. The traditional woman reflected in most mid-century texts would never claim such a maturity comparable to Abra’s.Abra is helpful in Cal’s redemption at the end of the novel, which depicts her inner-strength, and this characterization ultimately challenges traditional female roles of the 1950’s. For instance, when Cal is about to run away and wants to take Abra with him, she convinces him not to leave his father: “Cal said, ‘Then I don’t know what to do. What shall I do? Tell me what to do.’ ‘Will you listen?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘We’re going back,’ she said. ‘Back? Where?’ ‘To your father’s house,’ said Abra,” (Steinbeck 597). Abra plays a pivotal role in East of Eden, protecting Cal from inevitable self-destruction. Her love and care for Cal reflects her immense maturity and inner-strength as a character. Abra has essentially saved Cal and has rejected the conventional gender role submissive women play in the 1950’s.Although a piece of literature may include a story, which takes place in the past, many texts are often clouded with aspects of the time when written.
East of Eden is successfully stripped of the conventionality of the 1950’s. In fact, Steinbeck employs female characters with individualities, which go deeper than the ingrained housewife identity of the time, through his characterization of Cathy, Liza, and Abra. These three women break the barriers of traditional gender roles, given their inner-strength, while additionally offering the text with new, interesting dynamics. Ultimately, Steinbeck has torn away the patriarchal lens of which many male authors of the mid-twentieth century operate by.
East of Eden: The Effects of Lack of Money
The plot of Steinbeck’s East of Eden has the issue of money tightly woven in with the stories of most of the main characters. On the surface money seems to be accepted by the society and serves as the solution to all problems; on numerous occasions, the wealthy are able to afford the best lands and latest technologies. However, a closer look reveals that money is actually quite powerless. Often Steinbeck features the affluent characters as being dispirited with their surroundings or roles in life. As a result, through his treatment of characters in East of Eden, Steinbeck suggests that financial success cannot buy happiness and love, but can only lead to isolation from society.
Many characters try to buy love, but are unsuccessful. Cyrus, for example, creates suspicion rather than admiration from his sons. “‘I think he stole the money,’ Charles said miserably,” upon reading Cyrus’s will (69). He feels betrayed by his father whom he loves. Even Adam, who never mourned Cyrus’ death but instead accepted and used his share of inheritance freely, remarks “He was a thief… He stole from the G.A.R.” (582). Cyrus’ wealth leaves an imprint of remorse instead of respect on his sons. Charles, reciprocally, tries to purchase his father’s love. He spends six bits on a knife for Cyrus’ birthday, which goes unappreciated – “Where’s that knife?… I never even saw him hone it” (29). Mad at the lack of attention he receives for his expensive gift, Charles tries to take out his anger on his innocent brother.
Adam does not try to get his father’s attention, but instead lavishes money and attention on his wife and son Aron, where it is futile. Cathy leaves the ranch as soon as she is well enough and Aron never bothers to tell his father anything. Adam’s carefully thought-out gift to Aron is not cared for, “He didn’t take the gold watch” (573). Interestingly, just like the previous generation, while the father is busy chasing after the son that doesn’t love him, his other, neglected son is busy finding ways to be noticed by the father. Cal works hard on a large and valuable present of fifteen thousand dollars for his father, only to have it rejected and told that it doesn’t match up to his brother going to college. “I would have been so happy if you could have given me – 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” (544). All these unavailing attempts show that money is insufficient to purchase love.
Instead of benefits, money can actually lead to isolation. In East of Eden, the wealthy characters are often secluded from the society. Both Adam and Charles, rich from their father’s will, have enough to live on comfortably so that they do not have to work and therefore interact with others. Yet Charles, even though he’s rich, is such a miser that he “Never spent a dime. He pinched a dollar until the eagle screamed” (372). He labors like crazy on the farm and never has any fun. Even little amounts gets bickered, “You remember when you sent me a telegram for a hundred dollars? You never paid it back” (108). Charles even wants to buy his brother out so that he will not be bothered (107).
His brother, Adam, also takes advantage of his financial stability by wallowing in self-pity after Cathy leaves. His wages to Lee guarantees that he and his sons will be fed and their house will be cleaned for. He never bothers to pay visits to any neighbors because since he has money, he thinks that he does not need help from them.
The Trask brothers are not the only ones separated from their surroundings because of their money. Will feels isolated in his family because of his different views on success and life. “I am the only one who ever made a dime,” Will remarks proudly, trying to hide his hurt feelings of being the outsider (436). Will’s greed for money is so strong that he forsakes happiness for it. “He hated Fords with a deadly hatred, but they were daily building his fortune” (364). He hates his job and never even bothers to understand the things that are making him rich: “Will Hamilton, puffing under the burden of his new fat, explained the workings of a mechanism he did not understand himself” (364). Will is the only one in his family to care about money. However, due to his feeling left out, he even speaks badly of his much-beloved father, making Adam comment in surprise, “You make Sam Hamilton sound like a criminal” (436). Will, Adam, and Charles’ actions reflect that wealth is a factor that promotes isolation.
In Steinbeck’s novel, the happy characters do not care much about money. Sam Hamilton is greatly loved despite his financial status, “The daughters of Samuel Hamilton were not destined to become work-destroyed farm wives. They had a pride that transcended their poverty. Samuel raised a distinctly superior breed” (147). He is constantly praised by his neighbors, to whom he is always courteous and kind. “Mr. Hamilton maybe hasn’t got four bits put away, but he’s our people and he’s as good as we got. And he’s raised the nicest family you’re likely to see” (140). His achievements are not judged on his bank notes but instead on his morals, character, and family. Sam is always more concerned about changing things for the better and never gets mad at the patent firms for selling his ideas for their own profits. Steinbeck constantly quotes Sam whenever another character is thinking about the meaning of life. Even long after his death, Sam is well remembered in Lee’s memory: “he had so much, he was rich. You couldn’t give him anymore. Riches seem to come to the poor in spirit, the poor in interest and joy” (583). Therefore, happiness and love may be obtained by all, with no regard to materialistic values.
Money is not the solution to problems in East of Eden. It results in unhappiness as attempts to buy love fail. The wealthy also end up isolated from the society. Instead, it is the kind and generous people that end up happiest. As Lee sums up nicely, “Money’s easy to make if it’s money you want. But with a few exceptions people don’t want money. They want luxury and they want love and they want admiration” (541).
“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
What about a novel where the purest of heart is ruthlessly punished? What version of morality is Steinbeck advocating for?
A clear extraction from all of his narrative decisions is the idea that goodness is only a virtue when it exists in tandem with bad, only when a man composed of equal measures of malice and benevolence wills himself to abide by the latter. When goodness manifests effortlessly, it is more of a vice than a virtue, as seen in our less rounded A- characters.
With that in mind, for Steinbeck’s take on morally nuanced, irrepressibly good-willed men, we turn to Samuel Hamilton and Lee, two narratives not bound by namesake, running adjacent to the more archetypical Trask family. The two, through experience and wisdom of age, have developed the ability to accept in stride the paradoxical amalgamation of good and evil in themselves and actively find empowerment over their respective destinies.
Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s larger-than-life righteous man, is so rapidly aged from continuous familial tragedies and acting as the dutiful patriarch of a wholesome family that his unsatisfying, wrongful demise seems inappropriate. His son, Tom Hamilton, shoots himself in his farmhouse with his extended family miles away despite being a loving brother and a kind soul. This is contrasted with the implication that Cathy ‘got what was coming to her’, committing suicide by poison in the solitude of her office. The inconsistent degree of poetry justice Steinbeck dishes out stands to confuse rather than clarify.
The rationalisation of that is as follows. Steinbeck’s good is defined as good entirely without conditions, not so much blind as it is selfless. The stories from the fictional Trasks make narrative sense because they are written to convey an unambiguous moral lesson, but the Hamiltons are real people and hence their stories irregular. If the autobiographically inclined narrative following a conventional framework- our heroes get their well-earned happy endings and our villains eternal damnation- the decision to do good becomes a selfish one and much less free, as a choice between happiness and misery scarcely qualifies a choice. The consequences of our choices outside of Eden do not necessarily coincide with our intentions, good or bad. Adam’s good is irrational, without proper motivation or justification, which explains why it eludes Cathy entirely, why she could not fathom Adam’s immunity to her manipulation. Straining the qualifier further, Steinbeck offers that goodness arising from a fear of hellfire or a desire for heaven does not qualify as true goodness. It may also serve as a final condemnation of Aron’s warped sense of entitlement, who wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. couldn’t stand to know about his mother because that’s not how he wanted the story to goand he wouldn’t have any other story. So he tore up the world (Steinbeck 444).
East of Eden treads the careful line between fact and fiction, vacillating from an ancestral biography from the perspective of Samuel’s grandson and an omniscient moralistic creator, specifically in-between the Trask and the Hamiltons. The Trasks lead a life dictated by mythical symbolism while the Hamiltons’ legacy seem more or less grounded in reality. A moment that illuminated this diversion is during Cathy Trask’s childbirth. Cathy Trask’s physical descriptions are blatantly villainous, first likened to a reptile with Her ears were very little, without lobes, and they pressed so close to her head that even with her hair combed up they made no silhouette (Steinbeck 58), and later morphs into the Sabbatic goat Satan, her feet small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs. (59) Around the Hamilton, such outlandish character become comically antagonistic, borderline satirical, lashing out by biting Samuel Hamilton on the hand during childbirth, an injury that sent him into a feverish slumber, not alike the symptoms of a venomous snakebite. Fantastical characters like these not only leave disbelief not only unsuspended, but also actively enforced.
Lee is, rather unambiguously, the mouthpiece by which Steinbeck underscores the story’s theme. The moment he decides to is when he gives up his singular character motivation to open a bookshop is when he fully committed as a framing device, likewise when he was passed over from friendship with the somewhat truthful Hamiltons to the servitude of the completely fabricated Trasks. Hence his experience could be regarded as the same metafictional excessiveness as the Trask characters. His horrific birth in particular exemplifies the ugliness one has to suffer through to grapple with Timshel.
Amidst the maudlin revelations and impassioned journey of each character, Lee’s story is a horrifically depersonalised, less delicate illustration of the ubiquitous truth. My father came to [my mother] on the pile of shale. She had not even eyes to see out of, but her mouth still moved and she gave him his instructions. My father clawed me out of the tattered meat of my mother with his fingernails (Steinbeck 276) Something so deeply personal accounted by Lee himself in such a clinical, cooly visceral way again enforces his role as a transcendent, objective overseer to the drama, even his own. The narrative fabricated has Lee’s mother brutally raped then left to bleed out after the construction workers discovered she had lied about her gender and subsequently hidden her pregnancy to get work. That much is fully sufficient to establish the primal evil in man, but then we are told that Lee was cared for and brought up by the entire camp, the same people who murdered his mother, hence the capacity for penance even in the irredeemable. As extreme of a conclusion that might be, it shows how sure Steinbeck is in his convictions that humans are equal parts good and bad, so resolute that he is willing to take the ridiculous yet inevitable conclusion against the evidence of common sensibilities.
Despite all the pillage and misery, classifying Steinbeck’s world as bleak and dreadful would be a grave misnomer. East of Eden is a jeremiad, but an infectiously hopeful one at that. And though not subtly put, Steinbeck’s message is an important one. The title East of Eden alludes to the biblical passage where Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Genesis 4:16, New International Version), where he transformed human culture from innocence to craftiness, the society that sprung from him Godless and independent. To live far from his influence was a punishment in the Bible, but to Steinbeck, a world rid of supernatural control, adherent to the fickle whims of humanity, is the only legitimate one.
East of Eden – Setting
Intro John Steinbeck was born in 1902, in Salinas, California, the setting of this novel. From The Grapes of Wrath to Cannery Row, he has given American Ethos memorable portraits of the dispossessed- immigrants, farmers, rural underclass and the like. Though not in grinding poverty, Steinbeck did not manage to publish a commercially successful book until 1935, during which he observed how America responded to the Great Depression and labor unrest.
He grew incredibly fond of the proletariats, their compelling stories and concrete ethics, an admiration that would bring to the socially small and insignificant to fictional heroism, like Lennie of Of Mice and Men Samuel Hamilton of East of Eden. The fruit that the snake entices Eve to ingest is from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil. The consequences of the Fall are that humans are no longer innocent and, as Satan appeals to them with lies and grandeur, will always be naturally inclined to do evil.
God punishes his disobedient children with a trying mortal life of suffering, and asks humans to use free will to eradicate the urges of sin completely, repent otherwise and be good by His authoritatively prescribed standards for salvation. This binary, absolute path to the Pearly Gates provides comfort and consistency in a radical world. It is also this very simplicity of the divine that Steinbeck rejects for the complexities of that glittering instrument, the human soul. (Steinbeck 32). To say Steinbeck is interested in the tension between man and God would be an understatement- all but one novel in his wide body of work contain overt references to neo-Christian ideas. An Episcopalian from childhood and conversant with traditions of the faith, he gradually distanced himself from organised religion and grew skeptical of its role in American culture in his later years. If his previous work had the refrain to give polish and poise to his meditation on this dilemma, East of Eden makes no such effort to shield his intent evident in the primitivism in structure and hardheaded attitude. Coupled with his awareness that this should be his magnum opus- the work he has been preparing for all his life- this novel is the one where his authorial voice comes through the loudest, both in moral lesson and in artistic vision.
East of Eden takes two familiar biblical stories from the Book of Genesis- Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel- using the narrative framework of each to tell a multigenerational epic following the Trasks and the Hamiltons, that first and foremost pays tribute to the human spirit in all its good and evil. It explores what Steinbeck sees as the single most important question of existence- A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done wellor ill? (Steinbeck, 317). Sprinkled in between those sweeping questions is Steinbeck’s interrogation of the validity of these long-held moralities and the Juedo-Christian doctrines that defend- not only questioning its application outside of the Bible, but also whether it is realisable at all as a code of ethics. Both intentions manifest in inextricably intertwined ways- from the collapsed ruins of now obsolete scriptures, modern morality must rise in its place. What critique of evil present is so obvious and indisputable by nature that it has taken an ancillary role to the more revelatory study into good. Hence, in this essay, I will be examining the rich moral tapestry the characters must navigate to achieve Steinbeck’s idea of good. Goodness is traditionally unflinching and unwilling to capitulate to circumstances.
It, in its purity, stands in opposition to evil, and is forever in combat with it. To quote from Lee, Evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. While good is consistent and everlasting, it also necessarily means that good does not change, evolve or adapt, the harms of holding onto it like an anchor we see in each of these characters’ undoing. A central idea of Steinbeck’s characterisation is espoused in perhaps the most iconic line of the book: And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.. This line implies that perfection stands as an obstruction to the pursuit of goodness, that the two are diametrically opposed in nature. When the novel states outright that the wretched are empty because they are incapable of love, the same can be said about an absolute good. Adam’s romanticism disallows him from seeing the person as whole, leaving him unable to reciprocate love in any meaningful way. He still feels a general ambivalence towards his sons, despite his want to connect with and care for them.
Adam is good to his own detriment. During his interactions with his father and brother, and during his service in the army, he is continually exposed to brutality and betrayal, yet never develops the survival instinct of suspicion and measured cynicism. He has no comprehension of his wife Cathy’s immense darkness, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Burned in his mind was an image of beauty and tenderness, a sweet and holy girl… and that image was Cathy to her husband, and nothing Cathy did or said could warp Adam’s Cathy Although Adam recognises darkness in his father and brother, he determines Cathy to be good without calling for reaffirmation, blinded to her malevolence by a veneer of feminine vulnerability. This sightlessness is punished with a shot to the shoulder and consequently, a deep, lethargic depression as Adam feels his bedrocks of belief shaken. As no real human thought is without fault, Adam is thoughtless and grows to be hollow and inert, living in an internal world with no room for pride, ambition or desire. Later on, his cabbage importation business fails and he becomes a laughingstock due to his idealism and failure to consider the financial outcome of the project, one of many times Adam’s lackadaisical thinking causes harm. He fails at being a good brother when he was not perceptive enough to respond to Charles’ destructive cries for help.
He fails at being a good father to Abel when he rejects the gift he offers him , even after witnessing the immense sorrow and violence a similar refusal by his father imbued in his brother Charles, and at parenting Aron by being the same meddlesome, oblivious dad that he once resented Cyrus for being. He fails at being a good husband when he forces Cathy to behave in alignment with his idyllic vision of the future without considering her thoughts. When Adam would swell out in his stomach with a pressure of ecstasy that was close kin to grief, it is not real love, which is tempered with complexity and understanding, but a painful and volatile impression of love. Comparatively, those capable of hate are proven to be equally capable of love- the idea that love and can only thrive when one is familiar with the absence of it. Adam and Aron do not feel affection for their father, while Charles and Cal love their fathers fiercely. Cal, in particular, grew up a passionate love for his father and a wish to protect him and to make it up to him for the things he had suffered after he learns about Cathy, because having been on both ends of hurt, he understands the sheer extent of evil Cathy must have possessed to unleash this enormity of pain unto his father.
This understanding escapes Aron, who acts out in confusion and selfish anger. The idea that a perfect being cannot empathise with the plights of the corruptible as explored here is also a prominent strand in anti-theology, which states God is an intrinsically problematic judge of character as he does not possess our marred agency. The biblical Adam story is about a uncorrupted man’s arrival at humanity, and to a certain extent, Adam Trask manages to reach the same enlightenment, with his final labored utterance summing up the simultaneous gift and burden of free will: Timshel, or Thou mayest. His son, on the other hand, the closest adherent to the Christian ideal of morality, is never afforded the luxury of redemption or growth. In the same way that Abel dies before arriving at the promised Land of Canaan while Cain joins the rest of humanity in exile in the Land of Nod, Aron remains trapped in adolescence while his brother matured. Aron skews goodness into obsessive purity, taking on a much more sinister manifestation of perfect morality as a religious man bound by the rigid doctrines of his faith. Aron is perfect while Adam is good, and that makes all the difference. In maintaining the illusion that his father is categorically forthright and his absent mother an untainted saint, the revelation that people contradict his code of ethics by acting immorally breaks Aron completely. When he discovers Kate is the owner of a brothel, he is unable to comprehend it and rejects the notion.
Again, as with all perfect ideals, purity crumbles under the duress of complexity. Ultimately, the didactic lesson of the book is that everyone gets to choose between good and evil, yet complications with this rise in interpretation of Aron and Cathy. The ways in which Aron’s characterisation may be problematic in a narrative all about self-will are immediately apparent. During Aron’s life and his transformation from coddled golden child to devout theist to lost soul, he is so one-dimensionally depicted that his missteps seem inevitable by design. The fact that Cathy is introduced as a monster by birth, designed to make a painful and bewildering stir in her world (58), allows for very little room for postulation about the soul-stricken, innate nature of her evil. Crawling onto the Trasks brothers’ porch, leaving a slick trail of blood behind her, her entrance in their legacy is not just sinuous- it is the original biblical sin, which seems an odd choice when considering how the point of Steinbeck’s creation is to refute against the existence of any purely evil entity. Cathy did not have the agency to opt out of evil, as if the others knew something [she] didn’tlike a secret they wouldn’t tell [her]” (355). When Cal confronts her about her deficiency she seems to be in genuine grief, agonising over the emptiness of her conniving life. While other characters are given a wealth of opportunities to change, Aron and Cathy seem logically predisposed to make a specific set of decisions for epitomising their respective extremes, so much so that they are cursed by Steinbeck from the start.
They seem out of keeping in the complex moral realm so delicately crafted by the novel, but in fact, the coexistence of these two diametrically opposed ideas is reconciled when considering the metafictional identity of these characters as Christian-defined metrics which every other character compares themselves to. In the Bible, Jesus was sacrificed to allow the forgiveness of human sin, his infinite benevolence balancing out our infinite moral ruination. In East of Eden, grace has to be given by us to each other. In the same way Christ died for equilibrium, each symbolic character died to restore true free will into the world of East of Eden, with Adam’s ending the novel. As Adam would not be able to react proportionately and forgive, his death spares Cal from fulfilling the looming fate of Cain, retreat from the edge of his predestined demise and is finally truly free to choose. In Steinbeck’s words: The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. (Steinbeck, Banquet speech) The caveat of Aron’s tragic end is religion. He passively takes spiritual instructions from a clergyman and builds his moral framework according to the holy text without question. In usurping personal choice to divine intervention, he effectively denies himself the chance to choose between good and evil, becoming the perfectly good child of God without impure desires or any affinity to sin- men in Eden before being tempted by the snake.
The argument then seems to be that such a hypothetical being cannot survive outside of paradise and hence does not exist outside of the fictional vacuum. When Aron’s preconception of his mother shatters, the first aberration from his sinless existence, he becomes liberated from Eden, and uses his newfound free will to recklessly enlist in the army, stranding himself in the most amoral, diseased landscape of human making. In such, Aron embodies another criticism on Christian conduct, in that the cynical assumption that humanity is all ugliness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who look out for sinners to chastise will find an abundance. Those who do not accept the integral nature of vices along with virtue could run off and hide, but escapism may cost them their resilience and wisdom, and their insufficiencies will eventually catch up on them. The parallel evoked between the church and the whorehouse in Chapter 19, both having “arrived in the Far West simultaneously,” (Steinbeck, 166) and each “intended to accomplish the same thing: … [to take] a man out of his bleakness for a time” (166), is similar to that drawn between Kate’s and Aron’s experiences, with the two mirroring each other despite being on opposite ends of the moral spectrum.
Aron considers himself above the common and sullied crowd, Kate too thinks of herself as an intellectual superior to everyone else, and both suffer from their self-imposed desolation- In the end, both characters puts an end to their miserable existence through suicide or self-inflicted danger. Kate’s fondness of Aron as a son she had never spoken to no doubt stems from a superficial level of physical resemblance, but it could also be attributed to her understanding that he is the only character with a psyche as detached as hers. In the curious case of Kate Trask, it would still be reductive to label her a serpentine madam. In her old age, Kate is riddled with crippling arthritis, becoming a sick ghost, crooked and in some way horrible (Steinbeck 425) having lost her sexual allure to age, and conveys a loneliness and paranoia readers can relate to. Her doting on a son she never got to know, frantic attempts to restore control over her brothel’s toppling hierarchy, and contemplation of and eventual suicide all establish a humanity that was absent prior.
As seen from Cathy’s association with Alice in Wonderland since childhood, she feels bewildered and alone in a world too abstract and bizarre for her purely calculating mind. Alice… would put her arm around Cathy’s waist, and Cathy would put her arm around Alice’s waist, and they would walk awaybest friends (425) hints that she still desires companionship, and that the reason she so adamantly drives away everyone who ever got close to her may have been fear of true vulnerability or having a connection with someone that is not fictional. Even the verisimilitude of love abandons her in the end, as Alice doesn’t know (425) of her final journey to grow smaller and smaller and then disappear (426). This subdued end to her gloriously twisted life is candid and melancholic. In engendering feelings of empathy for the truly irredeemable, who does not by any stretch of the imagination deserve any goodwill, our instincts as moralistic readers prove to be the antithesis for Kate’s denouncement of humanity as nothing more than the gray slugs that come (180).
Much in the same way, the readers are able to identify narcissism and unflattering self-indulgence in Aron’s perfection where Adam, in his naivete, is blind to. Steinbeck trusts the readers to be able to pick up on the nuances and minitae, through attentiveness to complexity of psychological design, that makes them better humans than Adam and Cathy. In such, we see the characters compliant in the overarching theme. Steinbeck’s disinterest in making these symbolic people believable is not a mistake. The storyteller in-universe being named John Steinbeck, the decision to publish all his letters documenting the creative process and his quote that reads The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.” (Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez 1) all invite us to view the Trasks through metafictional critical lens, to read the story through a novelist’s mind and interpret it as such- a constructed story with a focused moral message. Considering that lens in application, conventions of storytelling dictates that if a novel where good triumphs implores us to be good.