East of Eden is the most uncharacteristic novel in the Steinbeck canon. It is a complicated—at times convoluted—book that tries to accomplish more than it finally can. In his attempt to juggle three themes, Steinbeck at times fumbles, leaving his readers confused.
On one hand, Steinbeck is attempting to write a documentary about the Salinas Valley, which comes to represent the United States as a whole. He seeks to accomplish this by directing his attention to two complicated families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Upon this situation, he superimposes, quite heavy-handedly, a modern redaction of the biblical story of Cain and Abel—Caleb and Aron—in the novel.
Adam Trask and his half brother, Charles, live together in Connecticut as the story opens. They are compatible, but some rivalries exist. Adam detests his father, although he gets along with his stepmother, Charles’s mother. The father has a strong militaristic bent and dreams of having a son in the Army. He handpicks Adam for this honor, leaving Charles, who adores his father, feeling rejected. In frustration, Charles beats Adam badly. After spending five miserable years in the service, Adam reenlists for another tour of duty. When it ends, he returns home to find that his father is dead. He and Charles inherit enough to make them rich. They live together in a harmony that is sometimes disturbed by violent fights.
Meanwhile, Cathy Ames is coming of age in Massachusetts. She is a confusing woman, beautiful and lovable on the surface but inherently evil in ways that few people can see. She sets fire to her parents’ house, and both of them are killed in the blaze, leaving Cathy free to escape from a home she has found oppressive. She plants clues to suggest that she, too, died in the fire and runs away, becoming mistress to a man who operates a brothel.
When their relationship sours, he takes Cathy into the wilderness and beats her, leaving her there to die. She manages to get to the nearest house, which is where the Trask brothers live. They take her in and nurse her back to health. Charles divines the evil that lurks beneath Cathy’s prepossessing exterior. Adam is innocent of such feelings, and he marries Cathy. She drugs him on their wedding night and steals into Charles’s room, where she seduces him.
The brothers’ relationship is strained by Cathy’s presence, although Adam is not aware of his wife’s duplicity. He decides, over his wife’s protests, to go to the Salinas Valley to...
(The entire section is 1032 words.)