Study Guide

East of Eden

by John Steinbeck

East of Eden Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Salinas Valley

*Salinas Valley (sah-LEE-nas). Long narrow depression between Northern California’s Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges. The Salinas River winds its way up the center of the valley and empties into Monterey Bay. In the novel, the Gabilan Mountains to the east are described as lovely and full of light, presenting to the residents of the valley warm and beckoning foothills. The Santa Lucias to the west, standing between the valley and the sea, are dark, brooding, and dangerous. This contrasting setting enhances the conflicts of the plot—between Adam and his half-brother Charles; between Adam and Cathy, the evil mother of the twins; between Cal and his twin brother, Aron; and between Cal and his father. Biblical parallels with Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel, reinforced by the setting, are made explicit in the second part of the novel, in which Samuel Hamilton reads aloud to a despondent Adam Trask the first sixteen verses of Genesis: 4. Steinbeck, himself, was born in Salinas and spent much of his life in nearby Monterey, which he used as a setting in other novels.

Trask ranch

Trask ranch. Family ranch located in the richest part of the Salinas Valley, where the land is lush and fertile. The opposition of good and evil, light and dark—the overt theme of the novel—is further reflected in the contrast between the Trask ranch and the Hamilton farm, which is located in an arid, barren section of the valley.

The Trask ranch parallels the biblical Garden of Eden in that all is not perfect within it. Adam Trask’s wife, Cathy, who is born with a sinful nature, is restive. To get away, she shoots Adam, wounding him both physically and spiritually. A subsequent alteration of the setting represents a reversal of fortune as well. Samuel Hamilton’s introduction of a windmill changes his wasteland into a productive farm. Adam, on the other hand, fails disastrously in his effort to ship lettuce packed in ice by rail to the East Coast. His ranch deteriorates, his house becomes derelict, and his fields, gardens, and orchards are left unattended. The Trasks are metaphorically expelled from the Garden of Eden.

*Salinas

*Salinas. Major urban center in the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck uses a wealth of naturalistic detail in describing this community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its original settlers, the Mexicans, are succeeded by Americans from the East and, still later, by Irish and Chinese immigrants. Exciting and sometimes troubling new inventions—the windmill, the motorcar, refrigeration—are introduced into the town and its environs. Steinbeck shows how the economy and the very character of the community are altered by the advent of World War I. Salinas also is the place where Cathy Trask, after abandoning her husband and infant sons and changing her name to Kate, eventually becomes rich as the proprietress of a notorious brothel.

Connecticut farm

Connecticut farm. Place where Adam and his half-brother Charles grow up before coming to California; its location is identified only as being on the outskirts of a small town that was near a big town. As a boy, Adam hates his father, who is passionately loved by Charles. Conflicts between father and son and between brother and brother that are treated more fully later in the novel are introduced here. Much of the first quarter of the narrative, up until Adam marries Cathy in the West takes place in this setting. Adam goes to California hoping to find the happiness that has eluded him in the East. Steinbeck traces the history of this deteriorating New England family along with that of Samuel Hamilton’s Irish immigrant family, thereby revealing the diversity among those who came to California to make a new start.

Massachusetts town

Massachusetts town. Unnamed place in which Adam’s future wife, Cathy Ames, grows up. She appears to be innocent but is actually a manipulative sociopath. After her parents thwart her first attempt to leave home, she burns down their house, killing them and faking her own death. Afterward she becomes the mistress of a Boston man who operates a string of brothels and later the wife of the unsuspecting Adam. In California she becomes a terrible corrupting Eve figure—or perhaps the serpent—in the Eden of the Salinas Valley.

East of Eden Historical Context

The Development of California
California became the thirty-first state in 1850, when its population, boosted by the gold rush,...

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East of Eden Literary Style

Symbolism
The battle between good and evil is foreshadowed in the third paragraph of the first chapter, in the description of...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

East of Eden Compare and Contrast

1860s: The American Civil War is fought, and when it ends in 1865 there are 620,000 dead soldiers.

1910s: World War...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

East of Eden Topics for Further Study

World War I is an important part of the background to the last part of the novel. Why did America enter World War I, and what contribution...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

East of Eden Media Adaptations

East of Eden was made into a film by Elia Kazan in 1954. It features James Dean as Caleb, in Dean’s first starring role.

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East of Eden What Do I Read Next?

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered his finest work. It describes the plight of migrant workers in California in...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

East of Eden Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Gurko, Leo, “Steinbeck’s Later Fiction,” in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R....

(The entire section is 389 words.)

East of Eden Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

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.