Depiction Of America in 19th-20th Century in East of Eden

February 15, 2021 by Essay Writer

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.

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