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A Thematic Analysis of John Steinbeck's East of Eden

Updated on July 21, 2017
Elyse Thomas profile image

Elyse has taught middle school for three years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

East of Eden

When listing classic American authors, it is almost impossible to leave out John Steinbeck. A famous mid-century author, he wrote a collection of well-known stories and collected much notoriety along the way, not to mention a Nobel Prize for literature. One of his most widely read novels, East of Eden has not only been revived in popularity through its inclusion in Oprah’s book list, but it is often included in the high school curriculum for upper level students. However, this novel has come under fire before for its reputation as a classic, for there are many that consider the storyline to be too much like a soap opera to be considered something so archetypal. The themes portrayed in this story, however, are incredibly timeless and universal, and the value they carry, especially for young readers, is truly unquestionable.

Human Nature

One of these themes is that of human nature, and surely nothing is quite so universal as that. Steinbeck sets it up by describing the human struggle between good and evil. Everyone has the potential for good and evil, as is their nature, and therefore everyone has a little of both within them. Steinbeck shows this through basically every prominent character in the novel, as they struggle with this sort of moral tug-of-war. Even Cathy, who is arguably one of the most evil characters conceivable to the imagination, is not purely so. She is, in fact, a very dynamic character who falls to the mercy of her human nature more than anyone else. Cathy, who goes by the name Kate for part of the novel, is born to a set of parents that are described to be pretty much as normal and average as possible. Despite the normalcy of her childhood and upbringing, however, Cathy soon begins to demonstrate a sort of motiveless behavior that is decidedly and eerily weird. Her father, Mr. Ames, was one of the first to recognize it. “Mr. Ames came in contact with other children away from his home and he felt that Cathy was not like other children. It was a matter more felt than known. He was uneasy about his daughter but he could not have said why”(74). Cathy grew up a bizarrely natural liar, and a seductress from a disturbingly young age, both talents seemingly part of her nature, as she could not have learned them anywhere. Before running away from her hometown forever, she burned her childhood home to the ground, with her parents asleep inside of it. From there, she goes on to become a talented prostitute who makes her pimp fall in love with her for her own personal gain, a wife who bears twins and then shoots their father in the shoulder as he attempts to keep her from leaving, a prostitute again who murders the owner of the house and takes it over and, finally, the madam of a whorehouse that keeps explicit pictures of her more distinguished customers as blackmail. She is cold, calculating, and manipulative without a purpose, utterly inhuman in her actions. Steinbeck himself first describes her as a sort of monster, a fluke of humanity. “There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community”(72). Steinbeck openly admits to the presence of evil in Cathy, and alludes to an absence of conscience, yet much later it is shown that even within Cathy there is the struggle between good and evil. Towards the end of the novel, when one of the twin sons she abandoned, Cal, confronts her, she is shaken and seems to display something other than the pure evil that had characterized her before. Upon learning that the other twin, Aron, looks very similar to her, she seems to regret not knowing him. “Suddenly she knew that she did not want Aron to know about her. Maybe he could come to her in New York. He would think that she had always lived in an elegant little house on the East Side”(510). Where previously Cathy’s actions had aimed toward nothing but the destruction of others, here she displays a desire for her son to know her without knowing her occupation, which is knowledge that would certainly destroy him. Here the reader sees a flicker of good, alluding to the idea that Cathy isn’t quite inhuman after all, and that she, too, has the potential for both good and evil. Other characters displaying this paradox within themselves are Charles, Adam, and the twins. Charles tries to murder Adam in a fit of jealous rage, and yet only does so because of the deep and adoring love he feels for his father. Adam is expected by the reader to be the “good” brother, yet he abandons both his father and brother in his youth and neglects his newborn twins in his self-absorbed preoccupation over his wife leaving him. His twins, Cal and Aron, are seemingly set up by Steinbeck to represent Cain and Abel, respectively. Where Cal feels the evil inside of himself, and feels doomed by it, as Cathy is his mother, he, like Charles, feels great love for his father and strives to do only good. Aron, who is more likeable for his angelic appearance and attempts to enter priesthood, demonstrates nonetheless very selfish qualities, and ends up running away because he feels that everyone in his life is too flawed. Each of these characters seem to have more of a balance between good and evil than Cathy does, but both are obviously present. Through his characters, Steinbeck comments on the presence of good and evil in everyone, and the fact that this is human nature.

Choice in East of Eden

Perhaps the most obvious theme of all those that weave throughout the novel is that of choice. Good and evil, mentioned above are accepted to exist in everyone in the story, though one side often dominated over the other, especially in the case of Cathy. Steinbeck is quick to point out, however, that no one is a victim to their fate or their disposition. When Samuel visits the ranch to force Adam to name his sons, who, by this time, are already toddlers, he brings with him a Bible. He begins by asking Adam if he would consider his own name in the christening of his twins by calling them Cain and Abel. Adam shivered and waved aside the idea, saying that they couldn’t. “I know we can’t,” replied Samuel, “That would be tempting whatever fate there is. But isn’t it odd that Cain is maybe the best-known name in the whole world and as far as I know only one man has ever born it?”(264). In this quote, Samuel acknowledges the existence of some sort of fate, and comments that it should not be tempted. He also points out that no one else he knows has named their child Cain for the same fear. The name itself is like the mark Cain himself received in Genesis, and, as such, carries evil with it. At this point in the novel, it seems as though no one has any real control over their fate aside from abstaining to tempt it. Later on, when Samuel comes back for what will be his final visit at the ranch, they speak of that day, and Lee brings forth some new information that he has gathered from studying Hebrew with four old Chinese men. He brings up timshel as a word of hope that is omitted from most of the English versions of the Bible. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not’ (301). Here, Lee’s translation states that the difference between good and evil is the choice of the person that is capable of both. This is not the only time Lee would teach this lesson, however. Later on, Cal, one of the twins, comes to believe that he is predestined for evil, due to the differences between him and his angel-faced brother, as well as his discovery that his mother is somewhat of a monster, though not quite as flat of a character as that, as explained in the previous paragraph. Lee is quick to correct him by saying that he is much more than the evil inside of him—he has the choice to be good, too. “You’ve got the other too. Listen to me! You wouldn’t even be wondering if you didn’t have it. Don’t you dare take the lazy way. It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don’t let me catch you doing it! Now—look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother”(445). His words do not seem to take root in Cal until he visits his mother for himself. In her, he recognizes fear, and comes to realize that, while she was too afraid to choose anything but evil, he had the power to make a different choice. “I’m my own. I don’t have to be you,”(462) he tells her. This scene even more transparently describes the theme than the one before it, in which Lee explains his theory in detail. It is a passage of redemption, and one of power as well. Cal, who had, even from a young age, believed himself to be nothing but bad, discovers in himself the freedom of choice. As is shown by the word timshel, while good and bad both exist and conflict within him, he has the choice to make good triumph over the evil. It is a remedy to predestination, and a light of hope to a young boy who considered himself doomed to original sin. With this freedom comes also the freedom to triumph over evil through forgiveness, as is illustrated by the very end of the novel, in which Adam forgives Cal for his brief and destructive moment of wickedness. This choice, made possible and clear to them by the Hebrew word, timshel, creates a pivotal point in the novel, and is a recurring theme throughout the entire plotline.

Change in East of Eden

Another theme, which is perhaps present in all novels, is that of change. Obviously, the presence of a plot means that there is conflict, which is what causes change, but Steinbeck goes beyond this simplicity to introduce change into the very backstory of the novel. The book contains several different plotlines, as each prominent character comes with their own background which Steinbeck explains in detail. As a result, the book spans several generations as well as three different wars across American history. In such an extensive amount of time, change is to be expected, but Steinbeck doesn’t just acknowledge the change so much as he comments on it and, at times, laments it. Perhaps the most transparent instance of this is when Adam Trask decides to buy a Ford. He had been getting along fine without one before, but, when Samuel dies, the incident seems to spur Adam to draw a line between that era and the years without Samuel by investing in this new form of technology. Even Will Hamilton, who Adam buys the car from, says in surprise, “I would have said you’d be the last man in the valley to get a car,” (325). Steinbeck makes it clear, however, that the change is not only taking place within Adam. After the mildly comical episode depicting Adam being taught how to work the vehicle, he takes it out for a drive to the post office, and has a fairly hostile conversation with the postmaster about his car. “They’ll change the face of the countryside. They get their clatter into everything,” the postmaster went on. “We even feel it here. Man used to come for his mail once a week. Now he comes every day, sometimes twice a day. He just can’t wait for his damn catalogue. Running around. Always running around,” (367). Here the postmaster is commenting upon the changes coming not only to the countryside or the individuals themselves, but to American culture as a whole. Where a person was much more content to wait for things like mail beforehand, now, with the introduction of a motorized vehicle, there is more of a demand for instant gratification. Rebecca L. Atkinson, in her article in the Explicator, comments on this as well, and on Steinbeck’s motives behind the inclusion of the story of the Ford. Keeping with the biblical theme of the novel, she claims that Steinbeck is attempting to portray the vehicles as something akin to a god or, at the very least, something that gave men a godlike power. “As with the prophesied Second Coming of the Bible, when the Ford comes, the lives and values of men are changed forever,” (Explicator). While the introduction of the Ford is certainly described as a sort of life-altering second coming, however, Steinbeck is quick to mention that the power comes at a price. The man who comes to teach Adam how to start the car, Roy, is revered by Cal and Aron for having the knowledge and skill of how to work it. Steinbeck makes the man ridiculous in his behavior, however, hinting that anyone could have that sort of power, even people not qualified to hold that position. Roy also shows an enormous contempt for the power of the mind. “Went to automobile school in Chicago. That’s a real school—not like no college” (363). This represents the shift from the importance of broad and extensive knowledge to specialized areas. No more would men with a vast amount of skills, like Samuel, be seen as vital. The coming days would reduce men to narrow areas of expertise, a radical shift from the cultural emphases of days prior. In this way, through a seemingly simple and almost comical episode, Steinbeck shows how drastically culture and values are changing within the valley and the country, and hints at how much more they will change in the future.

Strength and Weakness

Another strong theme portrayed throughout this novel is that of strength and weakness. While the main characters all pretty much struggle between good and evil, they also have an intense battle going between strength and its opposite, with some fairly surprising results. If strength is the ability to trudge on and stand firm in one’s beliefs in the face of adversity, then there are only a few truly strong characters within this novel. Beginning with the central family, there is the assumption that Adam Trask, the main character for most of the story, would have strength. He is, in fact, one of the weakest characters in the whole book. As a child, instead of standing up to his father and going his own way, Adam submits and joins the army. Later, when Cathy shoots him in the shoulder on the way out the door, Adam falls into such a depressed stupor that he does not even name his newly born twins, and they come to respond to only Lee’s Chinese commands, so little does he even talk to them. Adam gives up, until Samuel comes to visit and literally has to punch Adam in the face before he will come out of his daze. Much later, when Aron runs away to the army, Adam has a stroke from the very shock of the news, and does not recover. There does not seem to be a moment of adversity that Adam doesn’t cower from. Even his later confrontations with Cathy, where he walked away the victor, he often went through at least a little intoxicated. Likewise, his son, Aron, who mirrors him the most, is delicate from the very beginning. Initially bullied by his stronger brother, Cal, it soon becomes clear that everyone in his life is in a sort of conspiracy to protect him. No one tells him about his mother, certain that he couldn’t take that sort of information in stride. When Cal brings Aron to Cathy, he breaks, and runs away to the army, breaking his father in the process. Perhaps the only truly strong characters within the novel are Abra and Lee. Abra, originally Aron’s girlfriend, certainly did her part to keep him innocent. When he went away to college, however, she became disturbed by his letters to her, and strongly protested being loved for anything other than who she really was. She wanted him to know that she wasn’t as pure and good as he thought she was, even at the risk of losing his love. “’I’d rather take a chance on that,’ she said, ‘I’d rather be myself’” (493). She is the only character that is strong enough to face who she is. The other character who demonstrates consistent strength is Lee. Not only does he care for the twins when Adam is in his self-absorbed stupor, but he also carries the secrets and troubles of the family on his shoulders. When Adam has his stroke for the first time, Lee secretly studies neurology and puts Adam through strengthening exercises without him even realizing it. It is he who discovers the word timshel and he who helps the family to use it to their advantage in their own lives. He is a consistent friend, caregiver, and an overall pillar of strength that the family rallies around somewhat unknowingly. Steinbeck consistently praises Abra and Lee for their strength, and the reader comes to admire them for this.

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