East of Eden (novel)

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East of Eden
First edition cover
Author John Steinbeck
Country United States
Language English
Publisher The Viking Press
Publication date
September 1952

East of Eden is a novel by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, published in September 1952. Often described as Steinbeck's most ambitious novel, East of Eden brings to life the intricate details of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their interwoven stories. The novel was originally addressed to Steinbeck's young sons, Thom and John (then 6½ and 4½ years old, respectively). Steinbeck wanted to describe the Salinas Valley for them in detail: the sights, sounds, smells, and colors.

The Hamilton family in the novel is said to be based on the real-life family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck's maternal grandfather.[1] A young John Steinbeck also appears briefly in the novel as a minor character.[2]

According to his third and last wife, Elaine, Steinbeck considered it his magnum opus.[3] Steinbeck stated about East of Eden: "It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years." He further claimed: "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."

Plot summary[edit]

The story is primarily set in the Salinas Valley, California, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of World War I, though some chapters are set in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the story goes as far back as the American Civil War.

In the beginning of East of Eden, before introducing his characters, Steinbeck carefully establishes the setting with a description of the Salinas Valley in Central California.

Then he outlines the story of the warmhearted inventor and farmer Samuel Hamilton and his wife Liza, immigrants from Ireland. He describes how they raise their nine children on a rough, infertile piece of land. As the Hamilton children begin to grow up and leave the nest, a wealthy stranger, Adam Trask, purchases the best ranch in the Valley.

Trask's life is seen in a long, intricate flashback. We see his tumultuous childhood on a farm in Connecticut and the brutal treatment he endured from his younger but stronger half-brother, Charles. As a young man, Adam spent his time first in the military and then wandering the country. He was caught for vagrancy, escaped from a chain gang, and burgled a store for clothing to use as a disguise. Later he wired Charles for $100 to pay for the clothes he stole. After Adam finally made his way home to their farm, Charles revealed that their father had died and left them an inheritance of $50,000 each. Charles is torn with fear that his father did not come by the money honestly.

A parallel story introduces a girl named Cathy Ames, who grows up in a town not far from the brothers' family farm. Cathy is described as having a "malformed soul"; she is cold, cruel, and utterly incapable of feeling for anyone but herself. She leaves home one evening after setting fire to her family's home, killing both of her parents. Finally, she is viciously beaten by a pimp and left close to death on the brothers' doorstep. Although Charles is repulsed by her, Adam, unaware of her past, falls in love with and marries her.

Adam Trask – newly wed and newly rich – now arrives in California and settles with the pregnant Cathy in the Salinas Valley, near the Hamilton family ranch. Cathy does not want to be a mother or to stay in California, but Adam is so happy with his new life that he does not realize there is any problem. Shortly after Cathy gives birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam in the shoulder and flees. Adam recovers, but falls into a deep depression. He is roused out of it enough to name and raise his sons with the help of his Cantonese cook, Lee, and his neighbor Samuel Hamilton.

Lee becomes a good friend and adopted family member. Lee, Adam, and Samuel Hamilton have long philosophical talks, particularly about the story of Cain and Abel, which Lee maintains has been incorrectly translated in English-language Bibles. Lee tells about how his relatives in San Francisco, a group of Chinese scholars, spent two years studying Hebrew so they might discover what the moral of the Cain and Abel story actually was. Their discovery that the Hebrew word "Timshel" means "thou mayest" becomes an important symbol in the novel, meaning that mankind is neither compelled to pursue sainthood nor doomed to sin, but rather has the power to choose.

Meanwhile, Cathy has become a prostitute at the most respectable brothel in the city of Salinas. She renames herself "Kate" and embarks on a devious – and successful – plan to ingratiate herself with the owner, murder her, and inherit the business. She makes her new brothel infamous as a den of sexual sadism. After Charles dies, Adam goes to see her to give her money Charles left her. Kate renounces him and the entire human race, and shows him pictures of the brothel's customers, all pillars of the community. Adam finally sees her for who she is, and pities her.

Adam's sons, Caleb and Aron – echoing Cain and Abel – grow up oblivious of their mother's situation. At a very early age, Aron meets a girl named Abra from a well-to-do family, and the two fall in love. Although there are rumors around town that Caleb and Aron's mother is not dead but is actually still in Salinas, the boys do not yet know that she is Kate.

Samuel Hamilton finally passes away and is mourned by the entire town. Inspired by Hamilton's inventiveness, Adam starts an ill-fated business venture and loses almost all of the family fortune. The boys, particularly Aron, are horrified that their father is now the town laughingstock.

As the boys reach the end of their school days, Caleb decides to pursue a career in farming and Aron goes to college to become an Episcopal priest. Caleb, restless and tortured by guilt about his very human failings, shuns everyone around him and takes to wandering around town late at night. During one of these ramblings, he discovers that his mother is alive and the madam of a brothel.

Caleb decides to "buy his father's love" by going into business with Samuel Hamilton's son Will, who is now a successful automobile dealer. Caleb's plan is to make his father's money back, capitalizing on World War I by selling beans grown in the Salinas Valley to nations in Europe for a considerable premium. He succeeds beyond his wildest expectations and wraps up a gift of $15,000 in cash which he plans to give Adam Trask at Thanksgiving.

Aron returns from Stanford for the holiday. There is tension in the air, because Aron has not yet told their father that he intends to drop out of college. Rather than let Aron steal the moment, Caleb gives Adam the money at dinner, expecting his father to be proud of him. Adam refuses to accept it, however, and tells Caleb to give it back to the poor farmers he exploited. Adam explains by saying,

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.[4]

In a fit of jealousy, Caleb takes Aron to see their mother, knowing it will be a shock to him. Sure enough, Aron immediately sees Kate for who she is, and recoils from her in disgust. Wracked with self-hatred, Kate signs her estate over to Aron and commits suicide. Aron, his idealistic worldview shattered, enlists in the army to fight in World War I. He is killed in battle in the last year of the war, and Adam suffers a stroke upon hearing the news from Lee. Caleb, who began a relationship with Abra after Aron went to war, tries to convince her to run away with him. She instead persuades him to return home.

The novel ends with Lee pleading with a bedridden Adam to forgive his only remaining son. Adam responds by giving Caleb his blessing in the form of the word Timshel.

Major themes[edit]

The book explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction and especially of guilt and freedom. It ties these themes together with references to and many parallels with the biblical Book of Genesis (especially Genesis Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel).

Steinbeck's inspiration for the novel comes from the fourth chapter of Genesis, verses one through sixteen, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel. The title, East of Eden, was chosen by Steinbeck from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: "And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden" (King James Version).

Steinbeck's allusion to Cain and Abel is furthered by the naming of various characters; the first letters of the names of the main characters start with C, A, or both (Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy Ames and Abra).

Other biblical parallels in the novel include:

Book of Genesis, Cain and Abel East of Eden, Charles and Adam East of Eden, Caleb and Aron
Cain is a "worker of the ground"; Abel is a "keeper of sheep" (Gen. 4:2, ESV). Charles is a farmer who works diligently even after he inherits considerable wealth from his father, Cyrus. Caleb invests in bean crops. Aron studies to become a priest (who are commonly compared with shepherds).
God rejects Cain's gift of crops in favor of Abel's lamb (Gen. 4:3, ESV). Cyrus prefers the gift from his son Adam (a stray puppy he found) over the gift from his other son Charles (a hard-earned expensive knife). Adam rejects his son Cal's money and would rather he led a good life like Aron.
After rejection from God, Cain kills Abel (Gen. 4:8, ESV). After being rejected by their father, Charles attacks Adam and beats him nearly to death. After Adam rejects Caleb's money, Caleb informs Aron of their mother's brothel. Aron, distraught, enlists in the war and is killed in combat.
God put a mark on Cain to deter others from killing him (Gen. 4:15, ESV). Charles receives a dark scar on his forehead while trying to move a boulder from his fields. Caleb is described as having a more dark and sinister appearance than Aron. Also noteworthy is the fact that Adam tells Caleb, "timshel," meaning "thou mayest." This implies Caleb may overcome his evil nature because of the "mark" put upon him by God.
Cain is the only one with progeny. Adam has two children, but in the novel it's stated that the children may be Charles'. Aron dies in the war, and Caleb is the only one able to carry on and have children.


  • The Trask family: Cyrus Trask, Mrs. Trask, Alice, Adam, Charles, Aron, Caleb
  • The Hamilton family: Samuel Hamilton, Liza, George, Will, Tom, Joe, Lizzie, Una, Dessie, Olive, Mollie
  • Other characters: Cathy Ames, Lee, Abra Bacon, Mr. Edwards, Faye, Ethel, Joe Valery

Writing East of Eden[edit]

As he wrote the novel, Steinbeck went through a number of possible titles for the book, including "The Salinas Valley," the working title from the beginning; "My Valley," after a Texas businessman suggested he make it more universal; "Down to the Valley"; and then, after he decided to incorporate the Biblical allusion directly into the title, "Cain Sign." It was only upon transcribing the 16 verses of Cain and Abel in the text itself that he enthusiastically took the last three words of the final verse: East of Eden.

The novel was not well accepted by critics, who found it heavy-handed and unconvincing, especially in its use of Biblical allusion. Nevertheless, it became an instant bestseller in November 1952, a mere month after it was released, and is now considered one of Steinbeck's finest achievements.

Notes on the first edition[edit]

East of Eden was first published by Viking Press in September 1952. The first edition had two print runs: 1,500 copies were signed by Steinbeck,;[5] the second run was of unsigned copies.[6] In both print runs, there is a spelling mistake on page 281, line 38: "I remember holding the bite of a line while Tom drove pegs and braided a splice." The word bite was mistakenly changed from the original word bight during proofreading.[6]



  1. ^ Carl Nolte (2002-02-24). "In Steinbeck Country". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  2. ^ Chapter 46 of East of Eden
  3. ^ John Ditsky (1977). Essays on East of Eden. Muncie, Indiana: Steinbeck Society of America, Ball State University. p. 3. Retrieved 2011-10-12. 
  4. ^ Chapter 49, section 3.
  5. ^ DeMott, Robert J. (1996). Steinbeck's Typewriter: Essays on his Art. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Pub. Co., p. 224, ISBN 978-0-87875-446-5.
  6. ^ a b "First Edition Points to identify East of Eden by John Steinbeck". FEdPo.com - First Edition Points for Book Identification. Retrieved December 25, 2011. 
  7. ^ "East of Eden: Overview". MSN Entertainment. Retrieved 2011-10-12. 
  8. ^ Fleming, Michael (14 January 2009). "Hooper, Hampton, join 'East of Eden'". Variety. Reed Business Information. Retrieved 14 January 2009. 
  9. ^ Keegan, Rebecca (September 26, 2013). "Jennifer Lawrence to play 'East of Eden's' 'psychotic monster'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 5, 2014. 
  10. ^ "Jennifer Lawrence's 'East of Eden' May Be Two Movies, Says Director (Exclusive Video)". hollywoodreporter.com. Retrieved 14 April 2014. 

Further Reading[edit]

Govoni, Mark W. "Symbols for the Wordlessness': The Original Manuscript of East of Eden." Steinbeck Quarterly14.01-02 (Winter/Spring 1981): 14-23

McDaniel, Barbara. "Alienation in East of Eden: 'The Chart of the Soul'. Steinbeck Quarterly14.01-02 (Winter/Spring 1981): 32-39