East of Eden Summary
by John Steinbeck

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East of Eden Summary

East of Eden is a novel by John Steinbeck in which the Trask family contends with guilt, jealousy, and the nature of evil.

  • Adam and Charles Trask live on their father's farm. The manipulative Cathy Ames seduces Adam after being beaten by her ex-lover.

  • Cathy gives birth to twins Aron and Caleb before abandoning her family to work in a brothel.

  • Years later, Caleb discovers his mother's identity, and reveals it to the intensely idealistic Aron in a bout of jealousy. Aron then enlists in the army and dies.
  • Caleb admits his role in the death to his dying father and receives Adam's forgiveness.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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The soil of the Salinas Valley in California is rich, although the surrounding foothills are poor and life shrivels during the long dry spells. The Irish-born Hamiltons, arriving after American settlers displaced the Mexicans, settle on the barren hillside. Sam Hamilton, full of talk, glory, and improvident inventions, and Liza, his dourly religious wife, bring up their nine children there.

In Connecticut, Adam Trask and his half brother Charles grow up in harmony despite the differences in their natures. Adam is gentle and good; Charles is roughly handsome and has a streak of wild violence. After Adam’s mother commits suicide, his father marries the docile woman who becomes Charles’s mother. Adam loves his stepmother but hates his father, a rigid disciplinarian whose fanatic militarism begins with a fictitious account of his own war career and whose dream is to have a son in the army. He hopes to fulfill his dream through Adam. Charles, whose passionate love for his father goes continually unnoticed, cannot understand this rejection of himself. In despair, he beats Adam almost to death.

Adam serves in the cavalry for five years. Then, although he hates regimentation and violence, he reenlists, for he can neither accept help from his father, who became an important figure in Washington, nor return to the farm Charles now runs alone. Afterward, Adam wanders through the West and the South, serving time for vagrancy, and finally comes home to find that his father has died, making him and Charles rich. In the years that follow, the two brothers live together on the farm. Their bickering and inbred solitude drives Adam to periodic wanderings. Feeling that their life is one of pointless industry, he talks of moving west but he does not do anything about it.

Meanwhile, Cathy Ames is growing up in Massachusetts. She is born unable to comprehend goodness, but she has a sublimely innocent face and a consummate knowledge of how to manipulate and deceive others to serve her own ends. After a thwarted attempt to leave home, she burns down her parents’ house, killing them, and leaves evidence to indicate that she was murdered. She becomes the mistress of a man who runs a string of brothels and uses his love for her against him. When he realizes her true nature, he takes her to a deserted spot and beats her savagely. Near death, she crawls to the nearest house—the Trasks’—where Adam and Charles care for her. Adam thinks her innocent and beautiful; Charles, who has an empathetic knowledge of evil, wants her to leave. Cathy, who knows she temporarily needs protection, entices Adam into marrying her. On their wedding night, she gives him a sleeping draught and goes to Charles.

Aware that Charles disapproves of Cathy, Adam decides to carry out his dream of going west. He is so transfigured by his happiness that he ignores Cathy’s protests; since she is his ideal of love and purity, he thinks that she cannot disagree with him. Adam buys a ranch in the richest part of the Salinas Valley and works hard to prepare it for his wife and the child she expects. Cathy hates her pregnancy and tries unsuccessfully to abort the child. After giving birth to twin boys, she recuperates for a week; she then shoots Adam, wounding him, and leaves, abandoning her sons.

Changing her name to Kate, Cathy goes to work in a Salinas brothel. Her beauty and seeming...

(The entire section is 2,608 words.)