In East of Eden, what is the lesson that Adam Trask learns that frees him from Kate and allows him to love his sons?
After Samuel Hamilton dies, Adam attends his funeral in Salinas, and after a few drinks in a bar he decides to visit Kate’s brothel. Upon arriving, he finds that he can see her for the first time: he notes her “wide-set eyes narrowed with cruelty” and “protruding belly,” physical changes that seem to symbolize her evil nature coming to the surface. All around him is Kate’s domain, and what a place it is—the girls are manipulated by drugs supplied by Kate, and the men who come are humiliated and blackmailed. Under the influence of alcohol, Kate toys with him; she simultaneously degrades him and makes promises that Adam would have once been susceptible to. When Adam appears to be unmoved and only smiles despite her best efforts, she plays her trump card: that she had slept with Charles, and so the twins might not be Adam’s sons. Ironically, this effort to break Adam only prompts an epiphany:
“‘It wouldn’t matter—even if it were true,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t matter at all.’”
To this, Kate is enraged. She orders her bodyguard to beat Adam and screams at him:
“‘I hate you. I hate you now for the first time. I hate you! Adam, are you listening? I hate you!’”
Her childish response of fear and loathing only cements Adam’s newfound resolution.
This visit has laid one of Adam’s greatest fears to rest: he had worried that he could not love his sons, only to realize that he will love them even if they are not his. Samuel’s concept of timshel, the idea that a man has a right to choose his path, doubtlessly influenced his realization.
As far as freeing him from Kate, that is more complex. Adam has overcome many of his obstacles: he has seen Kate for who she is and rejected her, an action that allows him to move forward. And yet he never refers to her as Kate in this scene, only as Cathy, the name that he knew and loved her by. That Adam “smiled at her as one might smile at a memory” as he took his leave implies that he still sees Cathy as a person separate from Kate. Adam’s freedom, as such, is limited to Kate; whether he has escaped his idealistic view of Cathy is less certain.