Places Discussed

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*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. 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...

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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.

Historical Context

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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 Angeles in 1871, and anti-Chinese prejudice was written into law. Chinese people were denied U.S. citizenship, which meant they were not allowed to vote or hold government office. They were even disallowed from testifying in court against whites. A hint of the white prejudice against the Chinese occurs in East of Eden when Lee tells Samuel he always speaks in pidgin English to whites because that is what they expect. If he were to speak grammatical English that would show he was an educated man, and whites would not understand him.

Because the Chinese in California often faced discrimination, they took to setting up their own laundry businesses, where there was little competition from whites. (In East of Eden when Lee says he is going to move to San Francisco, Samuel’s first thought is that Lee must want to start a laundry business.)

America’s Industrial Growth
The period covered by the novel was a time of growth in all areas for the United States. The population of the country increased by 140 percent between 1860 and 1900. There was a huge expansion in the production of coal, petroleum, pig iron, and crude steel. A system of railroads that crisscrossed the country supported this industrial expansion and allowed westward movement for farmers and immigrants. By 1890 all large American cities were linked by rail. One-third of all railroad tracks in the world were in the United States. It was also an inventive period. Between 1860 and 1890, 440,400 patents were issued. In every field the old ways were giving way to the new. In Chicago, for example, Gustavus Swift shipped meat under refrigeration and built refrigerator cars (thus making possible what Adam in East of Eden tries, but fails, to do when he ships lettuce to the East Coast packed in ice).

The period between the 1870s and 1890s is often known as the Gilded Age, during which aggressive individualism and the spirit of optimism fueled national growth, producing industrial growth through the exploitation of natural resources. There was a belief in the inevitability of progress. However, the ruthlessness of the leading industrialists of the era gained them a reputation as “robber barons.” These were men such as Andrew Carnegie (steel industry) and John D. Rockefeller (oil industry). Such men amassed huge fortunes, but the lot of the ordinary worker was often dire, toiling long hours for low wages. This was an unfortunate age for Native Americans as well, as they endured two decades of wars with whites, from 1864 to the mid-1880s (these are the wars in which Adam fights as a young man in East of Eden).

By the beginning of the century, America was becoming the foremost industrial power in the world, and for those who could afford it, there was an abundance of consumer goods available. One of the newest inventions was the automobile. In 1900 there were only about 8,000 automobiles in the entire country, and they were only for the wealthy, but in the following decade Henry Ford began to build affordable cars (like the one Adam buys in the novel sometime in the 1910s).

Literary Style

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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 a mysterious sleepy appearance. Samuel comments that her eyes are not human. Cathy has tiny ears, no more than “thin flaps” pressed close to her head, and “Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs.” The scar on Cathy’s forehead following her beating by Edwards corresponds to the bruise on the head of the serpent recorded in Genesis, chapter 3. And when Cathy has to drag herself along the ground to the Trask farm, she resembles the cursed serpent that crawls on its belly, as Genesis relates.

The theme of good against evil, and the biblical symbolism, all function within the context of an allegory. An allegory is like a metaphor in which characters in a narrative are equated with meanings or other characters that are not present in the narrative itself. In East of Eden, for example, many of the main characters are linked by way of allegory to the Cain and Abel story in the Bible. Thus Cathy becomes a personification of the abstract quality of evil, which is associated with Cain in the biblical story. In this way the actions of the characters in the novel gain significance and interest because they are linked to ideas that occur in interpretations of the Cain and Abel story.

Compare and Contrast

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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 majority of immigrants now come not from Europe but from Asia and Latin America.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
French, Warren, John Steinbeck, 2d ed., Twayne’s United States Authors Series, No. 2, Twayne Publishers, 1975. French discusses the novel in terms of Steinbeck’s attempt to write about the evolution of a higher consciousness. The author holds that Steinbeck was not successful in this attempt because he remained essentially a naturalistic writer.

Lisca, Peter, John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978. Lisca gives a generally negative assessment of the novel, describing it as deficient in characterization, invention, style, and discipline. Lisca also faults Steinbeck for contradictions in his theme of good and evil.

Owens, Louis, “East of Eden,” in A New Study Guide to Steinbeck’s Major Works, with Critical Explications, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 66–89. This work contains a background section, a synopsis of the novel, and a critical explication in which Owens describes the novel as one of the most misunderstood of all Steinbeck’s works, contending that the real subject is not the biblical allegory but the creative consciousness.

Timmerman, John H., John Steinbeck’s Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. Timmerman examines Cathy’s role as the structural and thematic center of the novel, including her relationship with several other characters (Horace Quinn, Charles, Caleb, Lee and Samuel Hamilton) on the issue of good and evil.


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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.




Critical Essays