Maternal Absence and Paternal Rejection in East of Eden
Often times when we read or analyze texts, we ask simple, broad questions that are at the root of larger, deeper questions. For example, why does a particular character act a certain way? What are the motivations behind those actions? These questions often have no concrete answers that we can derive from the text. But by looking at these questions through the lens of a specific literary theory, we are able to create a hypothetical answer based on logical rules. By analyzing characters’ actions and motivations through the lens of psychoanalytic theory, which is highly influenced by Freudian thought, we are able to answer difficult questions about troubling characters in East of Eden. Psychoanalytic theory allows the reader to do an in-depth character analysis using Freud’s highly developed psychoanalytic concepts. In East of Eden, Cal struggles with an unusual Oedipus complex. This, combined with his under-developed superego, results in paternal rejection being significantly more traumatic for him than it would be for a person under normal psychological circumstances. These factors cause him to act out against his brother.
Freud identifies the Oedipus complex as the childhood desire to sleep with your mother and get rid of your father. Freud believes every child begins developing this complex as early as infancy, and its presence can remain throughout a person’s lifetime if it is never repressed. Freud believes that in order for a child to resolve the Oedipus complex, the child must form a strong identification with his mother or father at some point between the ages of 4 and 7. If the child does not resolve the Oedipus complex by this point, it can remain a dominant part of the psyche that manifests itself in a person’s adult actions. This is called regression, a return to childhood desires despite older age. Freud also introduced the idea of the superego, which controls a person’s impulses and is guided by a vision of the ideal self. But without a childhood which enforced strong moral values, a person’s superego can become misguided. The superego is also responsible for rewarding someone when they behave properly. But if the person is not rewarded, or is rewarded too rarely, a person’s response can be incredibly traumatic, especially if they have other psychological damage.
By analyzing Cal through Freudian thought, we are able to derive a better understanding of his actions and emotions. Because Cal’s mother is absent from his life during his childhood, Cal has an unconventional Oedipus Complex. He never had the chance to connect with his mother or create a close relationship with his father, and thus becomes severely dependent on his father’s attention and approval. But when he does not receive this approval, his superego does not know how to respond. Adam’s rejection is extremely traumatic for Cal, and his response to this experience is largely dictated by his unresolved Oedipus complex. Cal’s longing for a paternal relationship is evident from the beginning of his life, and this is partially because of the competition and jealousy he feels with his brother. Steinbeck writes, “From his first memory Cal had craved warmth and affection, just as everyone does…once a boy has suffered rejection, he will find rejection even where it does not exist-or, worse, will draw it forth from people simply by expecting it” (440). This cycle of competition and rejection began early for Cal, and as he grew up he was constantly vying for his father’s attention, because he never had a mother to develop and repress his Oedipus complex, a key process in childhood. Cal recalls being young and remembering that if he sat very quietly near his father and leaned on him, his father would caress his shoulder. This caress “brought such a raging flood of emotion to the boy that he saved this special joy and used it only when he needed it” (441). Cal takes immense pleasure in this action. Cal vys not only for his father’s approval, but for the simple affection and warmth that he never received from a mother. During a conversation with his father, Cal is desperate for “some wild demonstration of sympathy and love” (450) and “aches with affection” for his father (451). When he does receive approval, he is giddy. Steinbeck writes, “Adam’s recognition brought a ferment of happiness to Cal. He walked on the balls of his feet. He smiled more often then he frowned” (455). Because Cal grows up without a mother, with a relatively uninvolved father, and a twin who he feels competitive with, his superego is desperate for approval and affection. When he does not receive this attention, he acts out.
Cal aches for paternal approval and love, and believes that a gift for his father will be a way to receive more attention and prove he is the better twin. Because of his damaged Oedipus complex and the fact that he is constantly competing with his brother, Cal feels the need to win over his father. He devises a plan to earn back all the money that his father lost in his lettuce-shipping attempt. Before he even gives his father the gift, Cal acknowledges his ulterior motives. He says, “Why am I giving the money to my father? Is it for his good? No. It’s for my good…I’m trying to buy him…I sit here wallowing in jealousy of my brother. Why not call things by their names?” (535). After months of earning the money, Cal presents it to his father. Adam quickly rejects it, and Cal is immediately shocked, angry, and heartbroken. Soon, his angry feelings turn into jealousy and hate for Aaron. Steinbeck writes, “He [Cal] fought the quiet hateful brain down…he fought it more weakly, for hate was seeping all through his body, poisoning every nerve. He could feel himself losing control” (541). Although Adam was the one who rejected the gift, Cal feels hate and anger towards Aaron, and he is jealous because his father loves Aaron more. Cal deeply internalizes the rejection, but he takes that anger out on his brother, not his father. Cal apologizes to his father, and then goes out to find Aaron. Cal is in a state of severe anger and rage, and “his mind is numb”. When he finds Aaron, he tells him, “I want you to come with me…I want to show you something…You’ll be very interested.” He leads Aaron “past Central Avenue toward Castroville Street,” toward Cathy’s whorehouse (453). Aaron has no idea who his mother is or where she lives, and he is deeply religious. Cal purposely leads his brother to Cathy to punish him and make him feel as awful as Cal does in that moment. Cal’s psyche has complete control over his actions after his father rejects him, and his Oedipus complex and undeveloped superego completely dictate his decisions. Because Cal’s Oedipus complex makes him so attached to his father’s approval, he cannot accept the idea that perhaps it is his father’s fault for not giving him enough attention, rather than his brother’s for being the favorite.
Cal’s behavior is a direct result of his psyche and unconscious. Because of his estranged relationship with his father and abandonment by his mother, Cal’s Oedipus complex was never resolved or confronted. Because he did not have normal relationships with his parents, his superego never developed, and remained dependent on praise and approval. When he does not receive this praise, he takes his anger out on his brother. This reaction has been present since he was young. He took pleasure in his brother’s discomfort. When he pushed his brother’s buttons, “he felt his power, and it made him glad” (370). Cal acts out against his brother as a way of redirecting the anger he feels toward his father for not giving him attention. By understanding Cal’s behavior through psychoanalysis and Freud’s specific psychoanalytic theories, the reader can gain a better understanding of Cal’s intentions and actions.
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