A key passage in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden discusses the importance of the Hebrew word timshel, which is used in the Bible in the story of Cain. Lee explains that the word has been translated and understood in different ways:
“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 man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”
Timshel, in other words, emphasizes free will and the responsibility of humans for their choices and actions.
Cal, Aron, and Samuel are presented in specific ways in relation to this theme.
CAL. Although Cal is capable of dishonesty, as the early incident with the rabbit shows, he also tries to resist dishonest or evil impulses. As an eNotes summary of his character (see link below) reports,
He knows that his mother is a prostitute, for example, but at first he protects Aron by shielding him from this knowledge.
Cal’s moral behavior, however, is not always consistent – a clear indication of the truth of the idea of free will.
ARON. Aron is so good and virtuous that his morality almost seems predestined. He finds shocking the way his mother has used her free will. As a result, he uses his own free will to choose to enlist in the army – a choice that proves fatal.
SAMUEL. Samuel uses his free will to move to California and to try to create a prosperous life there for himself and his family. He also uses his free will to try to help others. Thus, an eNotes summary of his character (see link below) reports that
He can . . . take charge in a crisis, as when he delivers Cathy’s twins.
Throughout the book, various characters exercise their free will in ways that sometimes admirable, sometimes unappealing, and sometimes both.