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Cathy Ames serves as the main antagonist in John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winning novel East of Eden. In the early Christian Era, the name Cathy was associated with the Greek word “katharos” meaning purity or chastity.[1] No other name could be more ironic considering Cathy’s character which is coined by Steinbeck as a “psychic monster.”[2] Sexual sadism and a love for cruelty list only a few of the many horrors demonstrated by what literary critics consider Steinbeck’s most fascinating character.

Concept and Creation[edit]

As primarily gathered from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, notes and comments indicate John Steinbeck gained some fairly negative views towards women.[3] In 1948, Steinbeck went through a tragic divorce with Gwyndolen Congor which he often notes as the “darkest period of his life.”[4] In one memorandum written to Bo Beskow, he noted that “she killed my love of her with little cruelties…I’m pretty much bruised now.”<refname="Letters" /> In another letter to Webster F. Street he stated, “I am inhibiting her and she can’t stand me” signifying his apparent sorrow and loss of confidence.[3]

Shortly after the divorce, Steinbeck read Raoul Faure’s novel Lady Godiva and Master Tom in which the main character, Lady Godiva, resembles some of the same sexually perverse characteristics as Cathy.[4] Both are blond, thin, small-breasted and exhibit hatred towards their respective husbands. By reading about Lady Godiva, his somewhat misogynist views were enlarged, thus planting the idea for the character Cathy Ames.[4]

However, the literal character did not emerge until 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.[5] 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.”[5] 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.”[5] This fascination arose from the difficulty he found in making her both believable and terrifying.

Physical Description[edit]

Steinbeck first introduces Cathy as a child. She is depicted as small-breasted, delicate, blonde and beautiful. Her skin is “oil-soaked” in order to give her a “pearly-light” and a sense of allurement.[5] The child-like innocence reflected in her countenance becomes the perfect contrast to her inner character. Consequently, Samuel Hamilton, another character in the novel, takes note that “the eyes of Cathy had no message, no communication…they were not human eyes” indicating Cathy’s inhumane nature.”[6]

However, as the novel progresses, Cathy becomes increasingly less attractive and more demon-like. She develops arthritis in her hands, in the end she is described as “a sick ghost.””[7]

Appearances in the novel East of Eden[edit]

Part 1[edit]

Throughout Cathy’s childhood, she pointedly causes harm to anyone who holds a relationship with her. Due to her ability to exploit man’s sexual weaknesses, she frames two young boys for attempting to rape her, and also drives her naïve Latin professor to commit suicide by toying with his sexual emotions.

For the remainder of her teenage years, Cathy spends her time building a fake trust relationship with her parents. She attends school and even certifies to become a school teacher, a noble profession. Consequently, her parents trust her enough to give her the combination to the family safe. To repay their love, she intentionally burns down her house murdering her parents who were still inside.

She then runs away from her home town and entrances a whoremaster by the name of Mr. Edwards. The two become lovers for a time up until Mr. Edwards has had enough of Cathy challenging his masculinity and consequently attempts to murder her. Cathy survives the event and is later rescued by Adam Trask (the main protagonist in the novel). As Adam nurses Cathy back to health, he succumbs to her beauty and resolves to marry her. Cathy consents to do so, not because she loves him but rather to exploit his noble intentions protect herself from another Mr. Edwards incident. Part one ends with her drugging Adam into a deep sleep and then having an affair with his brother Charles.

Part 2[edit]

After moving to California with Adam, Cathy becomes pregnant (the novel is unclear as to whether by Charles or Adam) and in turn attempts a primitive abortion on herself by using a knitting needle. She ultimately fails and decides to carry on with the pregnancy although she has no desire to be a mother. After giving birth to twin sons, she leaves her family highlighted by shooting Adam in the shoulder.

Cathy then changes her name to Kate and joins a whorehouse. Kate wins the affections of Faye, the madame of the brothel. Faye is deceived by Kate’s ploy to act as the perfect daughter, and consequently bestows to Kate all her worldly possessions in her will.

Faye then falls deathly ill and Kate starts to assume control over the whorehouse while pretending to care for Faye. In actuality, Kate poisons Faye by overdosing her on pain medication. Faye is described as a figure whose “skin had shrunk, clinging to jaw and skull, and her eyes were huge and vacant” to imply that Kate has in a way absorbed the life out of her, like a parasite. Kate then assumes full ownership of the whorehouse.[8]

Part 3[edit]

The plot then steers away from Kate’s life up until she is visited by her husband Adam. Throughout the scene, she surprisingly shows signs of paradoxically both aggression and weakness. She vocally reveals her motives for the first time. In such, she admits that she manipulated people for her entertainment: “I knew them. I could make them do whatever I wanted…when I was half-grown I made a man kill himself.”[9] She then rants on how the world is full of evil by showing Adam pictures of multiple public figures, including a Congressman and a priest, who visit the whorehouse and states that she’d “rather be a dog than a human.”[9] Cathy attempts to seduce him but she becomes infuriated when Adam successfully resists her temptations.

Later on, Adam returns to give Kate fifty-thousand dollars left to her by Charles. She is confused as to why Adam would show fairness and refuses to believe in the sincerity of Adam’s actions. Adam then makes the following remark about Kate: “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.”[10] Kate can’t love or see the goodness in others, and Adam pities her.

Part 4[edit]

Kate is further humiliated when Cal, one of her twin sons, visits. During the chapter, Kate is portrayed in a desperate state of mind as she talks with Cal. 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.”[11] Cal leaves and tells Kate that she is simply afraid. These words have a profound effect on her and slowly begin to demise. Soon, the truth of Faye’s murder starts to surface and Kate fears of being found out. She covers the truth up by framing the ones who know of her murder, Joe and Ethel. 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.[12]

Cathy-Kate signs over all her possessions to Aron, simply because she admires his goodness, and, unable to cope with the remorse, commits suicide by drinking poison. She dies with a full knowledge and terror of her actions.


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 talking to one of his family’s friends Allen Ludden, Steinbeck states that “Kate is a total representative of Satan” giving notion that The Devil is manifested through Cathy.[13] Cathy is also endowed with certain “monstrous” tendencies, such as a gift for lying and a deep understanding of man’s sexual weaknesses.

As noted by John Timmerman, Steinbeck demonstrates the devil allegory through repeated snake-like imagery used to describe Cathy.[14] In one instance in the novel, Samuel Hamilton observes that “when she swallowed , her tongue flicked around her lips…the eyes were flat and the mouth with its small up-curve at the corners was carven” giving a serpent-like air to Cathy’s demeanor.[15]

From the Bible, it is also apparent that the Devil is a master of half-truths. In Genesis, he manipulates Eve through telling her that if she ate the fruit she should “not surely die” but “shall be as [a god], knowing good and evil” in which the former statement is a lie while the latter a truth.[16] As indicated by the narrator “she told the best lie of all—the truth” in order to manipulate others.[17] For example, she would seduce men of high rank promising them the pleasures of sex, but keep hidden her motives for blackmailing them in the future.


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 The Explicator, Rebecca Barnes analyzes that Cathy is like Pandora in that her “broken box brings disaster” wherever she goes.[18] In the novel Cathy literally destroys every life she touches: she murders her parents, drives her Latin teacher to commit suicide, shoots her husband, and sadistically abuses countless men as a prostitute.

Terrible Mother[edit]

As a whore, Cathy encompasses characteristics of an anti-mother: sexual perversions, fear, darkness, emasculation, and death.[19] Throughout the novel, she consistently overly refers to women older than her as “dear Mother” in order to create a sarcastic tone towards motherhood.


One of the main topics amongst literary critics deals with the psychology behind Cathy Ames. In Stephen George’s article “The Emotional Content of Cruelty”, he argues that hatred and fear are the main motivators behind a person’s cruelty.[20] In Cathy’s case, she fears losing control of her situation. Her method of controlling her environment comes in the form of paranoia which is manifested by her desire to manipulate men sexually in a physical and psychic manner.[20] The hatred she feels in effect subdues her fear so that she feels superior to those she manipulates.[20]

In another critical essay entitled “No Sanctuary” by Sarah Aguiar, Cathy’s actions are due to a depravity of human virtues such as compassion and love.[12] Aguiar explains this lack due to Cathy’s “child-like egocentricity…the desperate need…to protect herself at all costs.”[12] John 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.”[5] This is significant because it reveals a common theme in East of Eden: that men choose who they want to be, not some unseen force. Cathy chose to be ignorant to the human side of love and this is what in effect brings about her demise.[21]

Film Appearances[edit]

It’s interesting to note that whenever East of Eden is adapted into a significant film work, the actresses that portray Cathy Ames win awards. The banality of evil elicited in Cathy’s character truly resonates to a universal audience.

Actress Jo Van Fleet received 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 performance of Cathy Ames in the ABC mini-series adaptation of East of Eden.23 In an interview with Oprah, 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.”[22]


  1. ^ Campbell, Mike. [/ "Behind the Name: The Etymology and History of First Names"] Check |url= value (help). 
  2. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 8.
  3. ^ a b Steinbeck, John. Ed. Elaine A. Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: The Viking Press, 1975. Print
  4. ^ a b c DeMott, Robert. "Cathy Ames and Lady Godiva: A Contribution to East of Eden's Background." Steinbeck Quarterly. Vol 14, No. 3-4 (1981): 72-83. Print.
  5. ^ a b c d e Steinbeck, John. Journal of a Novel: East of Eden Letters. New York: The Viking Press Inc. 1969.
  6. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 16.
  7. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 50.
  8. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 21.
  9. ^ a b Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 25.
  10. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 31.
  11. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 39.
  12. ^ a b c Aguiar, Sarah Appleton. "No Sanctuary." The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. Ed. Stephen K. George. USA: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2005. 145-253. Print.
  13. ^ Steinbeck, John. Introduction. East of Eden. By David Wyatt. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. vii-xxviii. Print.
  14. ^ Timmerman, John. John Steinbeck's Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. Print.
  15. ^ Steinbeck,John.East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 15.
  16. ^ King James Bible. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1989. Print
  17. ^ Steinbeck,John (1992).East of Eden. 1952. New York. Penguin Books, 1992. Print. Chapter 19.
  18. ^ Barnes, Rebecca. "Steinbeck's East of Eden." The Explicator. Vol 55, No. 3 (1997): 159. Print.
  19. ^ Burkhead, Cynthia. Student Companion to John Steinbeck. USA: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.
  20. ^ a b c George, Stephen K. "The Emotional Content of Cruelty: An Analysis of Kate in East of Eden." The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. Ed. Stephen K. George. USA: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2005. 131-144. Print.
  21. ^ Levant, Howard. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study. USA: University of Missouri Press, 1974. Print.
  22. ^ Seymour, Jane. Interview by Oprah Winfrey. Harpo Inc, 2006. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.