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John Steinbeck Wrote East Of Eden English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3384 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden for his two young sons to tell them about the greatest story of all the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness( JOURNAL p.4) Because of the fundamental ideas, Steinbeck believed the novel to be his magnum opus, and said that his other works had just been a practice for writing this. (Bloom 66). East of Eden is an epic story set in the narrow Salinas Valley, North California and tells the tale of the entwined destinies of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. One of the major themes in the novel is mankinds consistent struggle between the paths of good and evil. Steinbeck regards the struggle between good and evil to be of utmost gravity in the world, since it is interminable. Every human being, regardless of if others before him have succeeded or not, must deal with the struggle. Humans will remain humans, and this means that they are inclined to feel tempted by sinful hungers and desires. Temptations are innate in every one of us. In East of Eden, Steinbeck has both depicted the inevitable fight between good and evil, which takes place within the society and the struggle that takes place deep within every person. The thing that fascinated me the most about the struggle between good and evil was how much it is actually part of our everyday life. Even though, not all people are in direct confrontation with evil forces every other day, we all still must make choices between good and evil daily. The purpose of this essay is to analyse how the struggle between good and evil is depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden.


Steinbeck has already in the opening of the novel established the natural status of good and evil with the vivid description of the setting. The perpetual and simultaneous presence of both good and evil is emphasised by using stark contrast to describe Steinbeck’s home village, Salinas Valley. The Valley is situated between two entirely contrasting ranges of mountains.

‘I remember the Gabilan mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother’

( Steinbeck, East of Eden 7)

‘The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding ‘ unfriendly and dangerous.’ (Steinbeck, East of Eden 7)

The landscape and the environment described symbolise the world as a whole, which does comprise of both the good and the evil. The good and the evil exist close by, like the light and the dark mountains, which are separated only by the small Salinas valley. And the fact that the characters of East of Eden live exactly in between the two complete opposites, demonstrates how people in the real world constantly find themselves facing the choice between good and evil. It also proves that all the characters in East of Eden have the opportunity to choose either way.

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The changing weather in the valley also illustrates the constant struggle between the two extremes. It is said that there were rich years, when the waterfall was plentiful. In these years the land was fertile giving ample harvest and the nature was colourful and beautiful. But there were also dry years, which put a terror on the valley. (Steinbeck 10) The land dried up and the nature lost its lushness. People were having a hard time feeding themselves and their animals. This demonstrates the natural order in the world, which means that good and evil triumph in turn. There are times when good prevails, but they also alternate with times when evil has the upper hand.


In ‘East of Eden’ the general struggle between the pure good and pure evil forces is mainly depicted through the character of Adam Trask. It is not direct. All characters of the novel fall into the dichotomy of good and evil, but the two characters closest to Adam represent the absolute margins of the scale. When there are instances where other characters show tendencies completely opposite to their character, then the actions of these two always derive from their essential qualities. Cathy Ames is the main antagonist of the novel and can be considered to be the epitome of evilness. She is the mother of the Trask twins, Aron and Caleb, and the wife of Adam Trask. She puts her skill of manipulation and deceit into use innumerable times, and cold-bloodedly makes her way through life never caring about anyone beside herself. Even going as far as killing her parents, when they are unfortunate enough to get into her way. In the chapter, which introduces her character, Steinbeck already, without even giving the reader a glimpse of the character, adjudges Cathy to be a soulless monster.

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents . . . The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”

It is also said that she is lacking certain qualities that make a human. In sharp contrast to her characteristics, Cathy is very innocent looking and physically attractive. At the beginning of the novel, Steinbeck mentions that vice always has to have a fresh young face to appeal to people.(Steinbeck) This is a clear reference to Cathy, as she mostly uses her looks to get her own way.

Samuel Hamilton is the head of the household neighbouring the Trasks. His character provides rivalry to Cathy’s as he is the pure embodiment of good. The patriarch of the Hamilton family is very wise, and never turns down an opportunity to help someone in need. Similarly to Cathy’s evilness, Samuel’s goodness is emphasised right from his introduction.

‘And just as there was cleanness about his body, so there was cleanness in his thinking. Men coming to his blacksmith shop to talk and listen dropped their cursing for a while, not from any kind of restraint but automatically, as though this were not the place for it’

Samuel’s good nature has such a powerful impact that just his presence influences people around him to act better than they usually do.

In the case of Adam Trask, external forces mainly determine his”’. He is pulled to one side or the other, due to the characters of Samuel and Cathy. With her attractive appearance and masterful manipulation, Cathy has made Adam fall deep in love with her. Love is what blinds Adam, and makes it unable for him to see the true character of Cathy.

Adam’s infatuation with Cathy also makes him distance himself more from Samuel, as he only wishes to spend time with Cathy. Samuel on the other hand can be considered to be the person Adam look up to the most, but being under the influence of Cathy, he fails to see’.

Even though Adam is in complete subservience to Cathy, when they are living together, Cathy influences him the most after her departure. When she runs away after the birth of their twins, Adam is left depressed and despairing. The usually good-natured Adam turns into a completely different man. He simply stops caring about things that mattered to him so much before. He even shows little to no interest in his sons, since they remind him of the loss of their mother. His lack of concern about them is also the reason why the twins do not have names throughout their first year of life.

The comeback of Samuel in Adam’s life signifies the return of the good Adam. When Samuel finds out about Adam’s indifference towards his sons, he immediately goes to his help. Expectantly, Adam shows his reluctance to accept his help. When it is clear that Samuel is not going to succumb to his orders to leave him alone, Adam resorts to violence. In order to lead Adam to the right track again, Samuel has no choice but to fight with the evilness, that Cathy has cultivated inside Adam. The physical fray, which takes place between Adam and Samuel symbolises the struggle of good trying to overpower evil. In this case, good succeeds and the fight truly acts as a wake-up call for Adam. Even though their confrontation is violent, contact with Samuel manages to resurface some of the old Adam. He eyes are described’ and he immediately expresses his gratitude to Samuel. H

Samuel is also the person who helps Adam to break loose from Cathy’s spell for good. On his deathbed, Samuel reveals to Adam that ever since Cathy ran away from him, she has been working at a brothel in the town. The revelation opens Adam’s eyes to the true nature of Cathy, and he finally finds in himself the power to accost her. Their final confrontation is another example of the direct struggle between good and evil. Cathy is clearly struggling to maintain her hold on Adam, and TEMALE KOHASELT tries to entice him into sleeping with her.

But her old tricks do not grant her success

do not work on Adam anymore, and the only feeling Cathy manages to arouse in him is repulsion

His triumph over Cathy marks the beginning of a new life for Adam and his family.

the He is now able to go on with his life with newfound optimism, and promises firstly to be a better father for his sons.


The more they have to deal with real adult issues; the boys’ real nature is revealed. Their initially so established roles begin to change. Gradually the reader begins to see some fatal qualities of Aron. When Adam’s business plan goes downhill, and the family becomes the laughing stock of the town, Aron feels ashamed of his father.

After their father loses most of his money, Adam feels ashamed of him, and believes others to be mocking him. he wants to leave the town, and go to college. Aron doesn’t support him, and says that he is ashamed of him. (QUOTE).

But still on his father’s money. He runs away from problems, and in hides from evil, so to speak. He also believes that his mother’s evilness affects him.

They are both affected by the news that their mother works in a brothel. And is evil. Both the boys believe that because of Cathy, they are also inevitably evil.


The internal struggle of good and evil within a human being is depicted through the character of Caleb Trask. His life and destiny give answers to one of the most important questions explored in the novel: Are people born with innate inclinations towards good or evil or does everyone have equal opportunity to choose between the two paths?

To prove his point, Steinbeck has used many ways to insinuate that Caleb was born to become an evil person. To then show that even if a completely flawed person like him who was quite destined to become evil could choose the right path, everyone has the opportunity.

The blunt usage of the allusion of Cain and Abel reinforces the notion that Caleb is destined to be evil. Initially Samuel Hamilton proposes the boys to be named after Adam’s Bible namesake’s firstborn sons Cain and Abel. Although this marks the first time the allusion of the two brothers in the Bible is mentioned in relation to Aron and Caleb, it is previously also used with the first generation of the Trask brothers, Adam and Charles. Not only do both generations of Trask brothers have corresponding initials to Cain and Abel, but their lives also share many parallels with the famous tale of sibling rivalry. Most obvious parallel being the father figure’s preference of one brother over the other. During the course of the novel, it becomes apparent that the brothers of the first generation, Adam and Charles, truly correspond to Abel and Cain respectively. This and the fact that the brothers of the second generation similarly to the first share initials with the Biblical characters leads to believe that their dynamics are also going to be similar; the twin whose initial is ‘C’ would be the bad twin and the twin with the initial ‘A’ would be the good one. This is also reinforced by the blatant usage of the allusion of Cain and Abel, when thinking about names for the twins.

Caleb’s and his brother Aron’s characteristics are also constantly juxtaposed. Caleb is said to have dark brown hair and eyes and be the manipulative and wary twin. Aron on the other hand is described to be angelic-looking and being kind and good-hearted.

The apparent obtrusion of Caleb’s actions and characteristics is used by Steinbeck to further the notion that Caleb is going to end up as an evil person, much like his uncle Charles before him.

The more they have to deal with real adult issues; the boys’ real nature is revealed. Their initially so established roles begin to change. Gradually the reader begins to see some fatal qualities of Aron. When Adam’s business plan goes downhill, and the family becomes the laughing stock of the town, Aron feels ashamed of his father.

After their father loses most of his money, Adam feels ashamed of him, and believes others to be mocking him. he wants to leave the town, and go to college. Aron doesn’t support him, and says that he is ashamed of him. (QUOTE).

But still on his father’s money. He runs away from problems, and in hides from evil, so to speak. He also believes that his mother’s evilness affects him.

They are both affected by the news that their mother works in a brothel. And is evil. Both the boys believe that because of Cathy, they are also inevitably evil.

Caleb is the one of the twins, who actually realises his freedom of choice, and actually battles with his hidden evil.

When in the first generation much of the story is told through the eyes of the so to say good brother, Adam, then in the subsequent generation the protagonist is the Cain prototype Caleb. And he as well constantly compares himself to his brother like many others.

When Caleb finds out who his mother is, he believes that he has received her evilness. But the housemaid, Lee, vigorously disputes him, by saying that he is the only one who can control and decide over his life. Lee believes that it would be too easy to excuse yourself for being evil just because of your ancestry. (Steinbeck, East of Eden 544) Lee’s wise words make Caleb strive even more towards a virtuous life, but unfortunately like the rest of people; he finds it hard to deny temptations.

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Caleb is the character whose struggle between good and evil is the most explicit in the novel. Caleb is certainly good at heart, since there are a number of times when he is helping his close ones. When his father’s new business goes downhill, Caleb is the son who tries to help him through the problem. Compared to Aron, who feels ashamed of his father, and tries to not be associated with him, Caleb puts a lot of effort into earning his father enough money to get him out of the predicament. Although Caleb had good intentions, he has chosen the wrong way to carry them out, and thus fails to help his father. And in order to save his brother from finding out the truth about their mother, he insists Aron to go to study in Stanford. On the other hand, he also shows his immoral side. He admits to sleeping with prostitutes and agrees to take part in a scheme to make money.

The two sides of him are incessantly in a ‘tug of war’, there are occasions when the good side in him is prevalent, and there instances where evilness gains the upper hand.

Although he was also predestined to become evil Unlike his predecessors, Caleb manages to fight his evil tendencies and find the path to goodness.

The character Lee, who is the maid of the Trask household, can be considered the most educated of the characters. After the twins are born, Lee takes up the discussion of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which is hard to be understood by most of the men at that time. But after years of studying and examining the text of Genesis word for word with the help of Chinese scholars, Lee discovers the true meaning of God’s homily to Cain. The Hebrew word Timshel, which was used by God, has been mistranslated in the English translations of the Bible, and has caused it to lose its true meaning and value. It has even misled people into thinking that they are not the masters of their life and future. This one word has led humans to think that they truly don’t have the power to change the route of their life and that it all depends on something greater. The American Standard translation of ‘Do thou’ orders men to triumph over sin(p.369). The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the original word Timshel actually means ‘Thou mayest’, which gives the choice to men themselves. In reality it is not God’s or anyone else’s demand, or promise which determines the path of a human being. Timshel offers humans free hands to decide about their destiny and leaves all doors open. Nothing in this world is predestined. Every person is in charge of his/her own life, and responsible for the way they turn out to be. The discovery is of great importance to the human kind.

Caleb is the character in the novel who completely embraces the concept of Timshel. His desire to be good is so huge, that he even prays that he could be more like his brother, who is portrayed as the embodiment of all that is good( Steinbeck, East of Eden 462) The difference between Caleb and other counterparts of Cain in the novel, is that he realizes there is always chance of redemption. Caleb becomes aware that it is him who determines his future, not anyone else. With the help of Lee, Caleb realises that it is perfectly normal for human beings to be flawed, and making mistakes does not make them evil monsters. It is quite inevitable to not give into temptation and follow the impulse towards evil rather than good. But what really matters is how the person decides to lead his life from that point forward.

Caleb’s brother Aron also has to deal with the difficulties of life, but goes about it in a wrong way. Afraid of submitting to temptation, Aron completely withdraws himself from the world. He believes that to be the only way to actually save himself. The cowardly behaviour is condemned by many other characters, especially his ex-girlfriend, Abra, who now confesses to Caleb that he loves him not his brother. And that partly because Caleb was strong and willful enough to handle his moral struggles. People have to face their problems, and the deal with them. Avoiding temptations does not make a person good. Rather facing temptations and handling them is what makes a good person. Since Caleb is strong enough to deal with the struggle inside him, he completely embraces the idea of timshel. Much like his Biblical counterpart, Caleb is given the chance to redeem himself.

When God fins out that Cain had killed his brother Abel, he punishes him by placing a mark on his forehead to warn others that the act of murder will be severely punished. Though Cain was banished from the Garden of Eden and had to live in the East of Eden, he still was granted the permission to continue to cultivate the land. The mark seems to be a sign of mercy from God, and gives Cain a chance to redeem himself. In the novel, Adam’s final blessing of Cal symbolizes the redemption of Cal, who is finally shed of his guilt.

“We all have the potential for good and evil, but being evil is a choice,” states Lee, a servant who acts like the philosopher in the novel and who, perhaps expresses Steinbecks views on the subject.

After all, salvation, in this book, is tied to a concept that’s central to the human experience: Choice.


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