Cathy Ames

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Jo Van Fleet as Cathy Ames in the 1955 film adaptation of East of Eden.

Cathy Ames, later known as Kate Trask or Kate Albey, is a fictional character and the main antagonist in John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. She is the wife of main protagonist Adam Trask, and the mother of his twin sons, Caleb and Aron. Beneath her charming, attractive facade, she is an evil woman who manipulates and destroys people for her own amusement and profit. Steinbeck characterizes her as a "psychic monster" with a "malformed soul".[1]

Concept and creation[edit]

In 1951, Steinbeck wrote a series of letters, known as The Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, to his editor Pascal Covici during the process of writing East of Eden.[2] On March 26, Steinbeck first mentions Cathy to Covici: “This is a woman and you must know her; know her completely because she is a tremendously powerful force in the book.”[2] The majority of these letters demonstrate that Steinbeck was most fascinated with Cathy's character, mentioning once that he must get back to writing about his “dear Cathy”.[2]

Physical description[edit]

Steinbeck depicts Cathy as small-breasted, delicate, blonde and beautiful, with “oil-soaked” skin that gives her a “pearly-light” and a sense of allurement.[2] Her beauty and charm fool most of the people she encounters, but a few characters detect her true nature by looking into her eyes, which Steinbeck describes as cold and emotionless. Samuel Hamilton, a supporting character in the novel, takes note that “the eyes of Cathy had no message, no communication…they were not human eyes”.[3]

As the novel progresses, Cathy becomes increasingly less attractive. She develops crippling arthritis in her hands, and by the end of the novel she is described as “a sick ghost”.[4]

Appearances in the novel East of Eden[edit]

Part 1[edit]

Cathy is the only daughter of a respectable family in a small Massachusetts town. Throughout her childhood, she pointedly causes harm to anyone who holds a relationship with her. She uses her precocious sexuality to manipulate and destroy men; she frames two young boys for attempting to rape her, and drives her naïve Latin professor to commit suicide by toying with his affections. At a young age, she learns to mimic emotions she is incapable of feeling and cons people into giving her what she wants. She attempts to run away once, at 16, to Boston, but her father tracks her down and reluctantly whips her as punishment. Afterwards she is a model student, and even certifies to become a school teacher. Consequently, her parents trust her enough to give her the combination to the family safe. Soon afterward, she robs the safe and burns down her family home while her parents are trapped inside, killing them.

She then runs away from her hometown and entrances a whoremaster named Mr. Edwards. The two become lovers for a time, until Edwards begins to suspect that she is being dishonest with him. He hires a detective who discovers a newspaper story about the death of Cathy's parents and her mysterious disappearance. Finally fed up, Mr. Edwards gives her a savage beating and leaves her to die. That night, Cathy is rescued by Adam Trask and his brother Charles. As Adam nurses Cathy back to health, he succumbs to her beauty and resolves to marry her. Cathy accepts his proposal in order to gain protection from Mr. Edwards. Charles sees through her and tries to warn his lovestruck brother, who refuses to listen. Part one ends with Cathy drugging Adam into a deep sleep and then having sex with Charles.

Part 2[edit]

After moving to California with Adam, Cathy becomes pregnant (the novel is ambiguous as to whether by Charles or Adam) and in turn attempts a primitive abortion on herself with a knitting needle. She fails, however, and decides to carry on with the pregnancy. Though she warns Adam that she plans to leave as soon as she is able, he brushes this off as homesickness. She leaves her family a few weeks after giving birth to twin sons, and shoots Adam in the shoulder when he tries to stop her.

Cathy then changes her name to Kate Albey and joins a whorehouse. She endears herself to the kindhearted madam, Faye, who eventually makes her new charge the main beneficiary in her will. Kate begins secretly poisoning Faye, and finally kills her by overdosing her on pain medication. She then assumes full ownership of the whorehouse, which she turns into a den of sexual sadism.[5]

Part 3[edit]

The plot steers away from Kate's life for some years, until her husband, Adam, visits her at the whorehouse. She reveals her motives for the first time, admitting that, from a young age, she took pleasure in using people: “I could make them do whatever I wanted…when I was half-grown I made a man kill himself."[6] She then shows Adam pictures of multiple public figures, including a Senator and a priest, who visit the whorehouse, and denounces the entire human race as a pack of hypocrites; she tells Adam that she'd "rather be a dog than a human."[5] Cathy attempts to seduce Adam, but he resists her temptations; enraged, she has her bouncers beat him up and throw him out.

Later on, Adam returns to give Kate $50,000 left to her by Charles, who has recently died. She is confused as to why Adam would show her any kindness, and refuses to believe in the sincerity of his actions. Adam finally sees Kate for what she is, and pities her, telling her:

And the men who come to you here with their ugliness, the men in the pictures — you don’t believe those men could have goodness or beauty in them. You see only one side, and you think — more than that, you’re sure — that’s all there is.[7]

Part 4[edit]

Years later, her son Cal visits her. Cal's goodness makes Kate uncomfortable, especially when he states his love for his father, Adam: “a curious spasm shook [Kate] — an aching twist tore in her chest.”[8] They have a brief conversation, in which Kate spitefully tells her son that they are just alike. Cal leaves, telling Kate that she is simply afraid.

Soon afterward, the truth of Faye's murder starts to surface and Kate fears being found out. She covers up the truth by framing her employees Joe and Ethel, the only people who know what really happened. At this point, she loses the will to live, especially when she is visited by her second son Aron, who is disgusted by her. Literary critic Sarah Aguiar notes that this incident causes Kate to feel remorse for the first time.[9] She signs over all her possessions to Aron, not Cal. She then commits suicide by taking a lethal dose of morphine.[10]


The Devil[edit]

One of the main characteristics of East of Eden is the prevalent allegory with the Bible and the battle between good and evil. In a letter to family friend Allen Ludden, Steinbeck states that “Kate is a total representative of Satan”.[11]

As noted by John Timmerman, Steinbeck demonstrates the devil allegory through repeated snake-like imagery used to describe Cathy.[12] In one instance in the novel, Samuel Hamilton observes that “when [Cathy] swallowed, her tongue flicked around her lips[13]…the eyes were flat and the mouth with its small up-curve at the corners was carven”,[14] giving a serpentine air to Cathy's demeanor.


Cathy also takes on the Pandora persona from classic Greek mythology. The story goes that Zeus gave Pandora a box and commanded her not to open it. She ultimately disobeys and when she opens the box, she sets loose evil into the world. In an academic article from The Explicator, Rebecca Barnes analyzes that Cathy is like Pandora in that her “broken box brings disaster” wherever she goes.[15] In the novel Cathy harms or destroys every life she touches: she murders her parents, drives her Latin teacher to commit suicide, shoots her husband, poisons her benefactress, and sadistically abuses (and later blackmails) countless men as a prostitute.


In Stephen George's article “The Emotional Content of Cruelty”, he writes that Cathy embodies hatred and fear, which he argues are the main motivators behind human cruelty. He writes that Cathy fears losing control in any way; for example, she refuses to drink because alcohol brings out her true nature. Her method of controlling her environment comes in the form of paranoia, which is manifested by her desire to manipulate men sexually. The hatred she feels in effect subdues her fear so that she feels superior to those she manipulates.[16]

In her essay “No Sanctuary”, Sarah Aguiar writes that Cathy's actions are due to a perversion of human virtues such as compassion and love.[9] Aguiar explains this deficiency is due to Cathy's “child-like egocentricity…the desperate need…to protect herself at all costs.”[9] Steinbeck further comments in his East of Eden letters that Cathy is in part evil because her “life is one of revenge on other people because of a vague feeling of her own lack.”[2]

Film adaptations[edit]

Actress Jo Van Fleet won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Cathy Ames in the 1955 film adaptation of East of Eden.

In 1982, Jane Seymour received a Best Actress Golden Globe award for her portrayal of Cathy Ames in the ABC mini-series adaptation of East of Eden. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Seymour commented that “there is nothing greater than playing evil incarnate. It is wonderful! It is an amazing experience, because you climb into a spirit or a soul that you have no idea you know, you can't even imagine it.”[17]


  1. ^ Steinbeck, John (1952). East of Eden. New York City: Penguin Books. p. 71. ISBN 978-0140186390.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e Steinbeck, John (1969). Journal of a Novel: East of Eden Letters. New York City: The Viking Press Inc. ISBN 978-0140144185.
  3. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 175.
  4. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 550.
  5. ^ a b Steinbeck 1952, p. 322.
  6. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 321.
  7. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 384-5.
  8. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 464.
  9. ^ a b c Appleton Aguiar, Sarah (2005). "No Sanctuary". In George, Stephen K. (ed.). The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. pp. 145–253. ISBN 978-0810854413.
  10. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 554.
  11. ^ Shank, Nathan A. (2015). Partial Minds: The Strategic Underrepresentation of Consciousness in Postwar American Novels (PhD). Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky.
  12. ^ Timmerman, John (1986). John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806119984.
  13. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 507.
  14. ^ Steinbeck 1952, p. 509.
  15. ^ Barnes, Rebecca (1997). "Steinbeck's East of Eden". The Explicator. 55 (3): 159. doi:10.1080/00144940.1997.11484162.
  16. ^ George, Stephen K. (2005). "The Emotional Content of Cruelty: An Analysis of Kate in East of Eden". In George, Stephen K. (ed.). The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. pp. 131–144. ISBN 978-0810854413.
  17. ^ Seymour, Jane (June 1, 2006). "An Interview with Jane Seymour". Oprah (Interview). Interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. New York City: ABC.