East of Eden Summary

John Steinbeck

East of Eden

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East of Eden Summary

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In East of Eden, John Steinbeck explores the story of brothers across two generations of a single family. In each generation, one brother is more beloved by his father than the other. The brother that is less loved becomes jealous, and tries to hurt his sibling. The first generation of this ill-fated family includes Cyrus Trask, who serves as a military official in the Union Army during the Civil War, and his two sons, Adam and Charles Trask. Cyrus loves Adam more than Charles, even though Adam does not care about being the favorite son and has done nothing to earn it. Charles eventually takes his resentment out on Adam by trying to kill him with an ax. When Cyrus dies, his sons discover that he has left an unusually large estate. It seems that Cyrus had not served in the Union army after all, but had stolen a fortune during the war.

Adam and Charles meet Cathy, a secretly cruel and predatory woman. Charles recognizes Cathy’s true nature, but Adam is more naïve. Seeing Cathy as the ideal woman, Adam marries her and takes her to California, where he buys a large ranch. Cathy becomes pregnant with twin sons, but since she has secretly slept with Charles as well as Adam, it is not clear whose babies they are. Cathy is not satisfied with life on the ranch. After the twins are born, she abandons the family to become a prostitute in the nearby town of Salinas, California. When Adam realizes Cathy is not the woman that he had imagined, he goes into a severe emotional shock, which takes time to fade. Lee, a Chinese-American man who is a family servant and a philosopher, raises the boys, Aron and Cal.

As the boys grow up, Aron develops a crush on his childhood friend Abra, while Cal is dark and brooding. Adam clearly favors Aron, who is naïve and sensitive, just as he had been as a boy. Aron is unable to face the unpleasant realities of life, and seems not to care that his father favors him. Meanwhile, Cal loves his father and craves his attention. Although Adam has told his sons that their mother, Cathy, is dead, Cal learns the truth about her but conceals it from his brother.

When Adam suffers severe financial losses in a failed lettuce transport business, Cal decides to get the money back to earn his father’s love. He succeeds in getting the money by speculating on the price of beans shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. When his brother Aron comes home from college, Cal gives his father the money that he has received from the speculation. While Cal eagerly expects Adam to be pleased, he does not react the way that Cal hopes. He is not pleased, but ashamed and appalled that Cal obtained the money by acting as a war profiteer while young men are being drafted to serve and die in the conflict. While Adam has been serving on the draft board, feeling terrible guilt about sending young men away to die in the war, Cal has profited from it. This reminds Adam of his own father’s corrupt dealings during the Civil War.

Cal is devastated by his father’s rejection of his gift. All this means to Cal is that his father still loves Aron more. He decides to hurt Aron by taking him to visit their mother, Cathy, who is operating a house of prostitution after secretly murdering the previous owner. Aron’s reaction to Cal’s revelations about their mother is to drop out of college and volunteer for the army, knowing that he will be sent to the European field of war.

As soon as Cal has taken his revenge by hurting his brother with the revelation about their mother, he is tormented with guilt. Cal never sees his brother again. Aron is killed in the war, and Adam is paralyzed from the effects of a stroke that he suffers after the news of Aron’s death. It is Lee, the philosophical family servant who has raised Adam and Cal since their mother abandoned them, who makes sure that Cal receives Adam’s blessing despite his cruelty toward Aron. The blessing consists of two words: “thou mayest.” The phrase is found in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. In the story, God knows that Cain is jealous of his brother, Abel, and contemplates killing him. God uses the word Timshel (“thou mayest”) to tell Cain that he must choose between good and evil.

The central theme of the novel is the choice between good and evil with which all humans struggle, symbolized by the word Timshel from the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck presents characters in contrasting pairs of good and evil, and their choices shape the story. In a further reference to the Cain and Abel story, each major character in East of Eden has the first initials of C or A, to indicate their good or evil tendencies.

After the publication of East of Eden in September 1952, the book rose to number one on the fiction best-seller list, and it has remained in print ever since. East of Eden was adapted for the stage, and was also made into a movie starring James Dean, which became a classic.