The story is told by an intrusive narrator, the son of one of Samuel Hamilton’s daughters, who lyrically describes the Salinas Valley during the early 20th century. The primary themes are those of jealousy and betrayal as well as loyalty and love set in the contexts of familial relationships. Steinbeck is particularly interested in the Cain and Abel myth, as he explores the interactions between two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles Trask and Adam’s twin sons, Cal and Aron.
The novel begins with the difficult relationship between Adam and Charles, who grow up on a farm in Connecticut. Like the biblical Cain, Charles tries to kill Adam out of jealousy, and, when Adam falls in love and marries the amoral Cathy, Charles sleeps with her. After Cathy and Adam move to the Salinas Valley to begin a dynasty, Cathy gives birth to twin boys, Cal and Aron, but deserts Adam and her newborn sons to become madam of a house of prostitution in the growing city of Salinas.
In this rich, extraordinary novel, Steinbeck explores a variety of themes. One is the civilizing of the American West, especially California, which begins with honest and hardworking homesteaders, such as the Irishman Samuel Hamilton who represents self-sufficiency, inventiveness, and goodwill. The wealthy Adam Trask, on the other hand, represents the decadent East. Although basically benevolent, Adam has difficulty making moral judgments and must buy the services of men such as Hamilton and his faithful and philosophical Chinese servant, Lee, to survive.
Steinbeck also explores the theme of inherited dispositions by creating innately immoral characters, such as Cathy and Charles, as well as naturally benevolent characters, such as Hamilton and his children, most of whom, in different ways, become successes. Instead of moral condemnation, Steinbeck treats all characters with respect and dignity, suggesting that humans, good and evil, interact to construct a complex social and moral tapestry.
Steinbeck’s central message in this moralistic novel is the necessity of forgiveness and acceptance. Given that the human character can be formed for good and evil, humans must be willing to accept and to understand both.
Etheridge, Charles L., Jr. “Changing Attitudes Toward Steinbeck’s Naturalism and the Changing Reputation of East of Eden: A Survey of Criticism Since 1974.” In The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald R. Noble. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1993. Discusses the novel’s disastrous reception in 1952 and its improving critical reputation since.
Gladstein, Mimi R. “The Strong Female Principle of Good—or Evil: The Women of East of Eden.” Steinbeck Quarterly 24, nos. 1/2 (Winter/Spring, 1991): 30-40. This significant discussion of women in the novel divides the female characters into the Trask women and the Hamilton women. Calls Abra the principle of good, the second Eve, and the mother of future generations.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro. “The ‘Chinese Servant’ in East of Eden.” San Jose Studies 18, no. 1 (Winter, 1992): 52-60. On one level, Lee, an ignored, often invisible character, is a stereotypical servant, but he also provides a bridge between the spiritual and material worlds and offers an objective, transcendent view of life. Praises Lee’s multifaceted role as servant, manager, surrogate parent, preacher, and scholar.
Steinbeck, John. Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters. New York: Viking, 1969. Steinbeck used this journal, in the form of a letter to his friend and editor Pascal Covici, to work out problems with plot and subject matter. It is an indispensable companion to the novel.
Timmerman, John H. John Steinbeck’s Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. The chapter on East of Eden argues that Cathy is the thematic and structural center of the novel, a Satan figure against whom all others are measured.