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.
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