Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*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. 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...
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The Development of California
California became the thirty-first state in 1850, when its population, boosted by the gold rush, numbered over 100,000. This population included many Chinese immigrants. In 1852, 10 percent of Californian residents were Chinese. After the Civil War, more settlers moved west, attracted by high wages and cheap land. The first transcontinental railroad system, begun in 1863 and finished in 1869, linked Sacramento to the Eastern states. Many Chinese laborers were brought in to work on the railroads (including Lee’s parents in the novel). They built the railroad through the foothills and over the high Sierra Nevada. The work was hard and dangerous, and many lives were lost. But there was prejudice against the Chinese. For example, Chinese children were banned from attending public schools, according to a California law passed in 1860.
By 1870 California’s population had risen to 560,000. But an economic depression during the next decade produced high unemployment. The depression was caused by the influx of cheap manufactured goods from well established industries on the East Coast, with which California’s newer manufacturing companies could not compete. The unemployment was exacerbated by the arrival by railroad of thousands of European immigrants from the East Coast. Some Californians blamed their unemployment on Chinese laborers, who were willing to work for low wages. There were anti-Chinese riots in Los...
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The battle between good and evil is foreshadowed in the third paragraph of the first chapter, in the description of the mountain ranges that lie on each side of the Salinas Valley. The Galiban Mountains to the east are associated with light, sun, and warmth. The narrator associates them with a mother’s love. To the west are the Santa Lucia mountains, which are “dark and brooding— unfriendly and dangerous.” In his childhood, the narrator says, he dreaded the west and loved the east. Thus the dualistic framework of the novel is established symbolically on the first page.
That symbolism is developed through many biblical allusions (an allusion is a reference to a famous historical event or person, or to a literary work—in this case, the Bible). In addition to the Cain and Abel story, biblical symbolism is associated with two of the major characters. The first of these is Adam. Although at first he represents Abel in the Cain and Abel story, when he moves to the Salinas Valley he becomes like Adam, the first man in Genesis. In his innocence, he wants to create the garden of Eden on his land. Unfortunately, he is married to Cathy, who in this aspect of the novel plays the role of Eve, who first brought sin into the world by yielding to the temptations of the devil, in the form of a serpent. In the physical descriptions of Cathy, the serpent imagery cannot be missed. She has wide-set eyes and her upper eyelids droop, giving her...
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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 I is fought. Between April 1917 and November 1918, 116,708 American servicemen die.
Today: The United States fights wars against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. The modern war involves more advanced tactics supported by advanced technology in the areas of weaponry and defense, and fewer American lives are lost as a result.
1860s: The great railroads are built across the United States.
1910s: The aviation era begins. In 1919 the first transatlantic flight takes place, from Newfoundland to Ireland. The flight takes sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes.
Today: The commercial airplane is the way most people prefer to travel from city to city within the United States. Unlike Europe, which has a thriving rail network, the use of the railroad system in the United States is in decline.
1860s: Large numbers of Chinese and French Canadian immigrants arrive in the United States during this decade.
1910s: This decade marks the middle of peak U.S. immigration years. The pattern of immigration has changed over the past fifty years, and most new immigrants are from eastern and southern Europe. The first large wave of Mexicans arrives during this time period.
Today: Immigration patterns change once more. The...
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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 did it make in the war effort?
Analyze the character of Charles Trask and the role he plays in the novel. What are some of the many parallels between Charles and the biblical figure of Cain?
The theme of the novel is that humans can choose good over evil. Discuss this in the context of social problems in America today. Do all criminals, for example, freely choose to commit antisocial acts, or does the environment in which they are born and raised also contribute to their actions? Provide an example of a twentieth-century criminal you believe supports your answer.
Steinbeck said that all the anecdotes of the Hamilton family were true. Read over several of these (Mary wanting to be a boy in chapter 23 and Olive in the airplane in chapter 14 are just two examples), as well as the way Steinbeck describes each member of the family when he first introduces them. Then write an anecdote about a member of your own family.
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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.
In 1981 East of Eden was made into a miniseries starring Timothy Bottoms as Adam Trask, Jane Seymour as Cathy Ames, and Bruce Boxleitner as Charles Trask.
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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 1930s through the story of one family that makes its way to California from Oklahoma.
Like Steinbeck, English romantic poet Lord Byron was inspired by the story of Cain. His dramatic poem “Cain: A Dramatic Mystery in Three Acts” is an attack on Christianity as well as on political and social institutions in nineteenth century England. It can be found in the Oxford World’s Classics series volume edited by Jerome J. McGann and titled Lord Byron: The Major Works (2000).
Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 (1986) by Kevin Starr describes the emergence of Californian culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Starr discusses the California dream from a social, psychological, and symbolic point of view, as well as some of its fallacies and contradictions.
John Steinbeck: A Biography (1994), by Jay Parini, is a thorough, sympathetic biography of the author. Parini conducted many interviews with people who knew Steinbeck, and he also made use of published and unpublished letters, diaries, and manuscripts.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gurko, Leo, “Steinbeck’s Later Fiction,” in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 385–86; originally published in Nation, September 20, 1952.
Levant, Howard, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 234–58.
Prescott, Orville, “Books of the Times,” in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 383; originally published in New York Times, September 19, 1952.
Schorer, Mark, “A Dark and Violent Steinbeck Novel,” in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 391; originally published in New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1952.
Steinbeck, John, Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters, Viking Press, 1969, pp. 4, 112, 115–16, 132, 146.
West, Anthony, “California Moonshine,” in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 389; originally published in New Yorker, September 20, 1952.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
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