Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

East of Eden (novel)

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
1 Ratings
Rate This

Rate This


Publication date
September 1952

Originally published
September 1952

Oprah's Book Club


United States

The Viking Press


John Steinbeck

Novel, Romance novel

East of Eden (novel) t3gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcSaWAciCL2Y2mYe

Cathy Ames, Adam Trask, Cal Trask, Aron Trask, Charles Trask, Will Hamilton, Sam the Sheriff, Lee, Liza Hamilton

East of Eden (1955), East of Eden, East of Eden (1981)

John Steinbeck books, Oprah's Book Club winners, Novels

East of Eden is a novel by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, published in September 1952. Often described as Steinbeck's most ambitious novel, East of Eden brings to life the intricate details of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their interwoven stories. The novel was originally addressed to Steinbeck's young sons, Thom and John (then 6½ and 4½ years old, respectively). Steinbeck wanted to describe the Salinas Valley for them in detail: the sights, sounds, smells, and colors.


The Hamilton family in the novel is said to be based on the real-life family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck's maternal grandfather. A young John Steinbeck also appears briefly in the novel as a minor character.

According to his third and last wife, Elaine, Steinbeck considered it his magnum opus. Steinbeck stated about East of Eden: "It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years." He further claimed: "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."

Plot summary

The story is primarily set in the Salinas Valley, California, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of World War I, though some chapters are set in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the story goes as far back as the American Civil War.

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.

Then he outlines the story of the warmhearted inventor and farmer Samuel Hamilton and his wife Liza, immigrants from Ireland. He describes how they raise their nine children on a rough, infertile piece of land. As the Hamilton children begin to grow up and leave the nest, a wealthy stranger, Adam Trask, purchases the best ranch in the Valley.

Adam's life is seen in a long, intricate flashback. We see his tumultuous childhood on a farm in Connecticut and the brutal treatment he endured from his younger but stronger half-brother, Charles. Adam and Charles's father, Cyrus, was a Union Civil War veteran who was wounded in his very first battle and unable (or perhaps unwilling) to return to service; he nonetheless becomes an expert "armchair general" who uses his intellectual knowledge of military affairs and wounded-veteran status to become a military adviser in Washington, D.C. As a young man, Adam spent his time first in the military and then wandering the country. He was caught for vagrancy, escaped from a chain gang, and burgled a store for clothing to use as a disguise. Later he wires Charles for $100 to pay for the clothes he stole. After Adam finally makes his way home to their farm, Charles reveals that Cyrus had died and left them an inheritance of $50,000 each. Charles is torn with fear that Cyrus did not come by the money honestly.

A parallel story introduces a girl named Cathy Ames, who grows up in a town not far from the brothers' family farm. Cathy is described as having a "malformed soul"; she is an evil woman who delights in using and destroying people. She leaves home one evening after setting fire to her family's home, killing both of her parents. She becomes a whoremaster's mistress, but he beats her viciously upon realizing that she is using him, and leaves her to die on Adam and Charles's doorstep. Although Charles is repulsed by her, Adam, unaware of her past, falls in love with and marries her. However, unbeknownst to Adam, Cathy seduces Charles at the time of her marriage and the beginning of Cathy's pregnancy with twins, leaving open the question of whether Adam or Charles is the twins' father.

Adam – newly wed and newly rich – now arrives in California and settles with the pregnant Cathy in the Salinas Valley, near the Hamilton family ranch. Cathy does not want to be a mother or to stay in California, but Adam is so happy with his new life that he does not realize there is any problem. Shortly after Cathy gives birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam in the shoulder and flees. Adam recovers, but falls into a deep depression. He is roused out of it enough to name and raise his sons with the help of his Cantonese cook, Lee, and Samuel.

Lee becomes a good friend and adopted family member. Lee, Adam, and Samuel have long philosophical talks, particularly about the story of Cain and Abel, which Lee maintains has been incorrectly translated in English-language Bibles. Lee tells about how his relatives in San Francisco, a group of Chinese scholars, spent two years studying Hebrew so they might discover what the moral of the Cain and Abel story actually was. Their discovery that the Hebrew word "Timshel" means "thou mayest" becomes an important symbol in the novel, meaning that mankind is neither compelled to pursue sainthood nor doomed to sin, but rather has the power to choose.

Meanwhile, Cathy has become a prostitute at the most respectable brothel in the city of Salinas. She renames herself "Kate Albey" and embarks on a devious – and successful – plan to ingratiate herself with the madam, murder her, and inherit the business. She makes her new brothel infamous as a den of sexual sadism. After Charles dies of natural causes, Adam goes to see her to give her money Charles left her. Kate renounces him and the entire human race, and shows him pictures of the brothel's customers, all pillars of the community. Adam finally sees her for what she is, and pities her, leaving Kate to hate him.

Adam's sons, Caleb "Cal" and 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 a very early age, Aron meets a girl, Abra Bacon, who is 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.

Samuel finally dies of old age and is mourned by the entire town. 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 laughingstock.

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 that they are just alike. Cal replies that she is simply afraid, and leaves.

Cal decides to "buy his father's love" by going into business with Samuel's son Will, who is now a successful automobile dealer. Cal's plan is to make his father's money back, capitalizing on World War I by selling beans grown in the Salinas Valley to nations in Europe for a considerable premium. 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 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. Adam explains by saying,

I would have been so happy if you could have given me – well, what your brother has – pride in the thing he's doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn't stack up with that.

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

The novel ends with Lee pleading with a bedridden and dying Adam to forgive his only remaining son. Adam responds by giving Cal his blessing in the form of the word Timshel.

Major themes

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

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. The title, East of Eden, was chosen by Steinbeck 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).

Steinbeck's allusion to Cain and Abel is furthered by the naming of various characters; the first letters of the names of the main characters start with C, A, or both (Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy Ames and Abra).

Other biblical parallels in the novel include:


  • 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
  • Writing East of Eden

    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." (22.4.30)

    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.


    Upon its release in September 1952, the general reading public took East of Eden to its 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."

    However, literary critics were not as gracious. The novel was not well received by critics, who found it heavy-handed and unconvincing, especially in its use of Biblical allusion. 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. Others found Steinbeck's philosophy to be too strong in the novel, and claimed that he was a moralist. According to critics, Steinbeck's portrayal of good and evil was both hyperbolic and oversimplified, especially in the character of Cathy.

    Besides critiquing the major themes of the novel, others attacked his construction and narrative. For example, critics were perplexed at lack of unity in the novel as Steinbeck attempted to incorporate the stories of two families. It is often thought that Steinbeck began writing East of Eden with the goal of telling the story of his maternal family, the Hamiltons, to his sons John and Thom. However, many critics did not consider the Hamilton family very significant, aside from the character of Samuel. In fact, some often claimed that the novel should be separated into two, due to its structural imbalance. Many found the first-person narrator distracting, as it appears inconsistently throughout the novel. The obvious symbolism, seemingly disorganized nature of the narrative, and unrealistic characters contributed to the poor critical reception.

    Ironically, these aspects are what the reading public loved, and what is widely acclaimed now by literary critics. 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. About 50,000 copies of the novel are sold each year, yet its popularity skyrocketed once again in 2003 after being named Oprah's Book Club pick. It gained the second spot on the best-seller list and remains exceedingly popular with the general reading public.


  • The book was adapted for cinema in the 1955 film East of Eden by director Elia Kazan, and starring James Dean, Julie Harris, Richard Davalos, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, and Burl Ives. The movie deals with the second half of the book; hence Dean acts the part of Adam's son Cal, while Davalos plays Aron, Cal's twin brother.
  • In 1981, ABC produced a miniseries adaptation of the novel. It aired in three installments and starred Karen Allen, Anne Baxter, Timothy Bottoms, Bruce Boxleitner, Lloyd Bridges, Howard Duff, Warren Oates, and Jane Seymour.
  • Universal Pictures has scheduled production on another film adaptation based on the novel. The film will be directed by Tom Hooper from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton. Previously, Ron Howard and Paul Attanasio were attached to the project. As of 2013, Jennifer Lawrence had been cast in the role of Cathy Ames. In April 2014 writer-director Gary Ross said that the film will be split into two.
  • References

    East of Eden (novel) Wikipedia

    Similar Topics