East of Eden (novel)

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East of Eden
First edition cover
AuthorJohn Steinbeck
CountryUnited States
PublisherViking Press
Publication date
September 19, 1952[1]

East of Eden is a novel by American author and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, published in September 1952. Many regard the work as Steinbeck's most ambitious novel, and Steinbeck himself considered it his magnum opus.[2] Steinbeck said of East of Eden: "It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years," and later said: "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." Steinbeck originally addressed the novel to his young sons, Thom and John (then 612 and 412 years old, respectively). Steinbeck wanted to describe the Salinas Valley for them in detail: the sights, sounds, smells and colors.

East of Eden brings to life the intricate details of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their interwoven stories. The Hamilton family in the novel is said to be based on the real-life family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck's maternal grandfather.[3] A young John Steinbeck also appears briefly in the novel as a minor character.[4]


The story is primarily set in the Salinas Valley, California, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of World War I. The first fourteen chapters, set in Connecticut and Massachusetts, go as far back as the American Civil War and serve as backstory for Adam Trask, his brother Charles, their father Cyrus, and Cathy Ames.

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.


Adam – newly wed with newly inherited wealth from his late father – arrives in California and settles with his pregnant wife Cathy in the Salinas Valley. Without Adam's knowledge, Cathy had tried to abort the pregnancy with a knitting needle. In their new home, she warns Adam that she had not wanted to move to California and plans to leave as soon as she can. Adam dismisses her, saying "Nonsense!"

Cathy gives birth to twin boys, shoots Adam in the shoulder after convincing him to unlock the bedroom door, and flees. Adam survives and falls into a deep depression. His Chinese-American servant, Lee, and his neighbor, the inventive Irish immigrant Samuel Hamilton, rouse Adam out of it enough for him to name his sons Aaron and Caleb, after biblical characters.

Lee becomes a good friend and adopted family member and has long philosophical talks with Adam and Samuel, particularly about the story of Cain and Abel. Maintaining that it has been imperfectly translated in English-language bibles, Lee tells how his relatives in San Francisco, a group of Chinese scholars, spent two years studying Hebrew so that they might discover the moral of the Cain and Abel story. Their discovery that the Hebrew word timshel means "thou mayest" becomes an important symbol in the novel of a person's power to choose their paths, meaning that human beings are neither compelled to pursue sainthood nor doomed to sin.

Meanwhile, Cathy becomes a prostitute at the most respectable brothel in the city of Salinas. She renames herself "Kate Albey", ingratiates herself with the madam, murders her, and inherits the business. She makes her new brothel infamous as a den of sexual sadism and a source of blackmail on the rich and powerful of Salinas Valley.

Adam's sons, Caleb ("Cal") and Aaron ("Aron") – echoing Cain and Abel – grow up oblivious of their mother's situation. They are opposites: Aron is virtuous and dutiful, Cal wild and rebellious. At an early age, Aron meets a girl, Abra Bacon, from a well-to-do family, and the two fall in love. Although there are rumors around town that Cal and Aron's mother is not dead but is actually still in Salinas, the boys do not yet know that she is Kate.

Inspired by Samuel'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's laughingstock and are mocked by their peers for his failure.

As the boys reach the end of their school days, Cal decides to pursue a career in farming, and Aron goes to college to become an Episcopal priest. Cal, 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. He goes to see her, and she spitefully tells him they are just alike. Cal replies that she is simply afraid and leaves.

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

Aron returns from Stanford University 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, Cal gives Adam the money at dinner, expecting his father to be proud of him. Adam refuses to accept it, however, and tells Cal to give it back to the poor farmers he exploited.

In a fit of rage and jealousy, Cal 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 action in the last year of the war, and Adam suffers a stroke upon hearing the news from Lee. Cal, who began a relationship with Aron's girlfriend Abra after Aron went to war, tries to convince her to run away with him. She instead persuades him to return home.

Lee pleads with the bedridden and dying Adam to forgive his only remaining son. Adam responds by non-verbally indicating that he forgives Cal and then says "timshel," giving Cal the choice to break the cycle and conquer sin.


  • 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

Major themes[edit]

The book explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, the struggle for acceptance and greatness, the capacity for self-destruction, and of guilt and freedom. It ties these themes together with references to and many parallels with the biblical Book of Genesis[5] (especially Genesis Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel).[6]

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. Steinbeck took the title, East of Eden, 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).[7]

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 "tiller of the ground"; Abel is a "keeper of sheep" (Gen. 4:2, KJV). 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, KJV). 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, KJV). After being rejected by their father, Charles attacks Adam and beats him nearly to death. Charles then goes to fetch a hatchet, presumably to murder Adam, but the latter manages to escape. 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, KJV). 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. In begging his forgiveness of his son, Lee also tells Adam "Your son is marked with guilt."
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.

In the novel, Adam, Samuel, and Lee have a significant conversation in which they realize that since Abel died before he had children, they themselves are the descendants of Cain. This is because Noah was descended from Seth. It is unclear, however, whether Noah's wife (or his sons' wives) were descended from Seth, Cain, or other of Adam and Eve's children.


Timshel is a major theme in the novel. However, there is no word timshel in Hebrew; Genesis 4:7 reads timshol, the second person singular masculine future indicative form of the verb moshel 'to rule', thus 'you shall/will rule'.[8] In the novel itself, the character Lee explains the meaning of timshel as "Thou mayest."[9]

Daniel Levin explores the nuances of Steinbeck's use of the Hebrew word, investigating potential reasons for and implications of Steinbeck's error in translation.[10]

Development history[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:

"And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden." (Genesis 4:16)

Steinbeck wrote to a friend after completing his manuscript, "I finished my book a week ago. [...] Much the longest and surely the most difficult work I have ever done... I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is 'the book.' If it is not good I have fooled myself all the time. I don't mean I will stop but this is a definite milestone and I feel released. Having done this I can do anything I want. Always I had this book waiting to be written."[11]

Publication history[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;[12] the second run was of unsigned copies.[13] 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.[13]


Upon the release of East of Eden in September 1952, the general reading public took it to heart and quickly propelled it to the number one spot on the fiction best-seller list. In a letter to a friend, Steinbeck wrote "I am getting flocks of letters .... People write as though it were their book."[11]

However, literary critics were not as gracious, calling the novel heavy-handed and unconvincing, especially in its use of Biblical allusion.[14][better source needed] Many critics found the novel repulsive yet captivating due to its portrayal of violence and sexual sadism. In particular, critics found the character Cathy (and her brutality) to be wildly unbelievable and off-putting.[15] Others found Steinbeck's philosophy to be too strong in the novel and claimed that he was a moralist.[14][better source needed] According to critics, Steinbeck's portrayal of good and evil was both hyperbolic and oversimplified, especially in the character of Cathy.[15]

Besides criticizing the major themes of the novel, others attacked his construction and narrative. For example, critics were perplexed at a lack of unity in the novel as Steinbeck attempted to incorporate the stories of two families.[16] Many found the first-person narration distracting, as it appears inconsistently throughout the novel. Critics also disparaged the symbolism as obvious, the narrative as disorganized, and the characters as unrealistic.[14][better source needed]

These aspects are what the reading public loved. East of Eden became an instant bestseller in November 1952, a month after it was released, and is now considered one of Steinbeck's finest achievements[citation needed]. About 50,000 copies of the novel are sold each year. Its popularity skyrocketed once again in 2003 after being named Oprah's Book Club pick; it gained the top spot in the New York Times' Paperback Best Sellers list and remains exceedingly popular with the general reading public.[17][18]




  1. ^ "Books Published Today". The New York Times. September 19, 1952. p. 21.
  2. ^ Ditsky, John (1977). Essays on East of Eden. Muncie, Indiana: Steinbeck Society of America, Ball State University. p. 3. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  3. ^ Nolte, Carl (February 24, 2002). "In Steinbeck Country". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  4. ^ Steinbeck, John (1952). East of Eden. London: Penguin Books. p. 1,496. ISBN 978-0140186390.
  5. ^ Králová, Eva (2013). "Inseparability of good and evil as a challenge in Steinbeck's East of Eden" (PDF). University Review. 7 (2): 51–57. ISSN 1339-5017.
  6. ^ McCright, David Stewart (1990). East of Eden: Steinbeck's proclamation of human greatness (MA thesis). Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University. doi:10.31274/rtd-180813-5579. hdl:20.500.12876/80716.
  7. ^ Steinbeck, John (1969). Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. New York City: Viking Press. ISBN 978-0140144185.
  8. ^ Meschonnic, Henri (2011). Ethics and Politics of Translating. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 154. ISBN 978-90-272-2439-2.
  9. ^ Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. p. 302. The Viking Press. ISBN 9780140186390.
  10. ^ Levin, Daniel (2015). "John Steinbeck and the Missing Kamatz in East of Eden: How Steinbeck Found a Hebrew Word but Muddled Some Vowels". The Steinbeck Review. 12 (2): 190–198. doi:10.5325/steinbeckreview.12.2.0190. ISSN 1546-007X. JSTOR 10.5325/steinbeckreview.12.2.0190. S2CID 147212744.
  11. ^ a b Benson, Jackson J. (December 1990). John Steinbeck, a Writer: a Biography. London, England: Penguin Books. p. 697. ISBN 978-0140144178.
  12. ^ DeMott, Robert J. (1996). Steinbeck's Typewriter: Essays on his Art'. Troy, New York: Whitston Pub. Co. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-87875-446-5.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b c Noël, Hannah (2015). Defending Steinbeck: Morality, Philosophy, and Sentimentality in East of Eden (PDF) (BA thesis). Asheville, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina at Asheville.
  15. ^ a b Warnick, Claire (June 2014). Cathy Trask, Monstrosity, and Gender-Based Fears in John Steinbeck's East of Eden (MA thesis). Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University. hdl:1877/etd7103. Retrieved April 7, 2023.
  16. ^ Wyse, Lowell D. (2006). Convenient Disguise: Engaging Lee in John Steinbeck's East of Eden (PDF) (MA thesis). Bluffton, Ohio: Bluffton University. hdl:10057/3341.
  17. ^ "PAPERBACK BEST SELLERS: August 10, 2003". The New York Times. 2003-08-10. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-09-27.
  18. ^ "East of Eden-Critical Reception". Steinbeck in the Schools. San Jose, California: San Jose State University. Retrieved April 20, 2015.
  19. ^ "East of Eden: Overview". MSN Entertainment. Archived from the original on August 25, 2010. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  20. ^ "History". Independent Theatre. Retrieved 8 January 2023.
  21. ^ "Rob Croser and David Roach mainstays of Adelaide's Independent Theatre love of classic drama from 1984". AdelaideAZ. Retrieved 9 January 2023.
  22. ^ Michael Fleming; Claude Brodeser (July 20, 2004). "'Eden' replanted with U, Imagine". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved December 30, 2022.
  23. ^ Fleming, Michael (January 14, 2009). "Hooper, Hampton, join 'East of Eden'". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved January 14, 2009.
  24. ^ Keegan, Rebecca (September 26, 2013). "Jennifer Lawrence to play 'East of Eden's' 'psychotic monster'". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. Retrieved February 5, 2014.
  25. ^ Appelo, Tim (April 12, 2014). "Jennifer Lawrence's 'East of Eden' May Be Two Movies, Says Director (Exclusive Video)". The Hollywood Reporter. Los Angeles, California: Eldridge Industries. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  26. ^ Yee, Amy (November 3, 2015). "Stephen Park On Playing A Code-Switching Character In Steinbeck's 'East Of Eden'". NPR. Retrieved April 16, 2024.
  27. ^ Kroll, Justin (June 21, 2022). "Zoe Kazan Adapting & Florence Pugh Starring In 'East Of Eden' Limited Series In Works At Netflix From Anonymous Content & Endeavor Content". Deadline Hollywood.

Further reading

External links[edit]