East of Eden Themes
by John Steinbeck

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East of Eden Themes

(Novels for Students)

Good versus Evil
The main theme is the perpetual battle between good and evil. This battle may be between a good and an evil person, or between good and evil impulses within one individual. God has given humans free will, and they are able to choose good over evil, if they so decide.

The framework for this theme is the Cain and Abel story in the biblical book of Genesis, chapter 4, verses 1 to 16. Cain and Abel are the first offspring of Adam and Eve. Cain cultivated the ground while Abel was a shepherd. When they made sacrifices to God, God rejected Cain’s gift of agricultural produce and accepted Abel’s gift of the firstlings of his flock. Cain was angry and murdered his brother. God then cursed him, telling him he would be a wanderer on the face of the earth. Cain despaired because he feared he would be murdered. But God put a mark on him to protect him. Cain went to live in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

The Cain and Abel theme is carried forward in the novel through the initial letters of the characters. Charles and Adam Trask represent Cain and Abel, respectively. This is shown when their father Cyrus rejects Charles’s gift of a knife but accepts Adam’s gift of a puppy. Charles reacts just as Cain did. He is angry, and he beats his brother severely. He would have killed Adam had he been able to find him when he returned with a weapon. Charles also suffers a wound on his forehead that leaves a prominent scar—just as God left a mark on Cain.

The allegory is continued in the third generation of Trasks. Caleb has the legacy of Cain, whereas Aron possesses the innocence of Abel. Just as Charles was angry and would take revenge whenever Adam beat him in sports, so Caleb is angry at Aron’s greater popularity. He always seeks a way of undermining Aron by playing some kind of trick on the person who likes Aron better, as he does with Abra when Aron gives her a dead rabbit.

The Cain and Abel pattern continues into the boys’ teenage years. Caleb’s gift of money to his father is rejected, but his father approves of Aron’s scholastic achievements and his desire to go to college. Caleb is distressed by his father’s rejection and then symbolically murders his brother by taking him to see Cathy, their mother, which so shocks Aron that he joins the army and is killed in battle.

The initial letter symbolism is notable also in the characters of Abra and Cathy, good and evil, respectively, and, to a lesser degree, in Cyrus and his wife Alice. Cathy, like Charles, has a scar on her forehead, a sign of her identification with the evil of Cain.

The use to which Steinbeck puts the Cain and Abel story is brought out when Lee explains his interpretation of the story to Samuel and Adam. The crux of the matter is in the interpretation of the Hebrew word timshel. The word occurs in the story where God promises Cain “thou shalt” (timshel) rule over sin. Another translation reads “Do thou” rather than “thou shalt.” Lee is intrigued by the difference in the translations. “Thou shalt” is a promise that Cain would triumph over sin, which has not been borne out in his offspring. “Do thou,” on the other hand, is an order. Lee consults a group of old Chinese...

(The entire section is 898 words.)