The Troubling Concept of Timshel in East of Eden by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a heavy book. Not simply in terms of form, as the book is some 600 pages long, but also in terms of content. When reading the book, the reader is taken on an extended journey through time and place, from ancient Israel, and Old-World Europe, to America and the American Civil War, all echoed through the dusty hills of the Salinas Valley. East of Eden is an intricate book of folklore –a new Book of Genesis that runs parallel to the story of Cain and Abel. It tells the story of family patriarchs, and their powerful decisions which yield long lasting fruit, either bitter or sweet, extending well beyond their own lifetimes, as their children ultimately ‘bear their iniquities’. The two families we encounter are the Trasks and the Hamiltons.

First, the Hamiltons. The Hamiltons are a warm-hearted Irish family with nine children. Their father, Sam Hamilton, is a fruitless inventor, incapable of financial success during his lifetime, and living off a dry and barren piece of land in the Salinas Valley. Sam Hamilton is wise and caring, a well-read farmer and a friendly person. He is a good and virtuous man, with a stern and devout wife, Liza. The Hamiltons soon grow interested in their new neighbors, the Trask family.

Adam Trask’s story is given considerable attention during the main portion of the novel. We are introduced to his father, Cyrus, a Civil War soldier of little note (he also bears the name of the celebrated ancient Persian emperor found in the Biblical texts, as well as in the writings of Herodotus and Xenophon). Cyrus eventually assumes the role of an old war hero. In his old age, he is honored and celebrated at the highest forms of government, despite his lack of heroism in his youth. He was wounded during the Civil War immediately in his first battle and he returned home to his family farm in Connecticut. Cyrus, who is “something of a devil” contracts gonorrhea while in the army and gives it to his young wife, who promptly commits suicide after giving birth to young Adam Trask. Cyrus quickly remarries and births a second son, Charles. As they grow up, Charles is more of a violent and envious child than Adam. Eventually, at Cyrus’s urging, Adam joins the military, though it is not a good fit since he is the more gentle and good-natured son. Adam spends time wandering throughout the country after serving two terms in the army, and he is jailed for vagrancy. He escapes from a chain gang and makes a dramatic return to Connecticut. At this time, he discovers his father’s inheritance of $100,000 left for both sons. One day, they encounter a young woman on the doorstep, Cathy, a prostitute from Massachusetts unbeknownst to them, who has been badly beaten. Adam cares for her and falls in love with her, while Charles sees through her, and knows of her more villainous ways. She is described as having a “malformed soul.” Like Cyrus and Charles, she is more of a devil. One night, after recovering from her abuse, she drugs Adam to sleep and she crawls into bed with his brother, Charles. Shortly thereafter, Adam moves with Cathy, against her objections, to the Salinas Valley in California where they can build a new “Eden”. After arriving, she gives birth to twin boys, Caleb or “Cal” and Aron, though she does not love Adam or her life in Salinas. One day, she picks up a gun and promptly shoots Adam and abandons her family. Adam survives the gun blast, and while recovering, he falls into a dark pit of depression, relying on his Chinese servant, Lee, to raise the children.

As they grow, the boys become resentful of one another and they yearn for the good graces of their father. Meanwhile, Adam and Lee and Sam Hamilton spend hours discussing the Old Testament and the concept of “Timshel” –a Hebrew word meaning “Thou Mayest,” in reference to the implication that people have the option to choose between acting good or evil, not that God has pre-determined the moral will of man. Meanwhile Cathy has changed her name to “Kate” and she has secretly worked her way into a well-known and debauched brothel in Salinas. Eventually she murders the lady in charge and takes over the business. Finally, as time heals all wounds, when Adam takes a greater interest in raising his boys and Sam Hamilton dies, Adam decides to buy a house in Salinas so the boys can receive a proper education. Upon their arrival in Salinas, Cal soon discovers the horrible secret –that their mother is a whore– but he does not reveal it to Aron, as Aron is a gentle soul. Meanwhile, Adam takes on a fool-hearty business enterprise based on sending fresh food by train from the Salinas Valley to the East Coast, but it fails miserably and Adam loses much of the family fortune. Thus, Cal tries to win Adam’s favor by making money and he enters into business with Sam Hamilton’s son growing beans for the soldiers in the growing conflict in Europe (World War I). The enterprise earns $15,000. However, when he finally presents his business to his father, hoping to garner his favor, Adam is shocked and he rejects the gift suggesting that Cal try to be more like his brother who is now studying to be a priest. Hurt and jealous, Cal recoils and reveals to Aron the horrible secret of their mother. In shock, Aron runs away and joins the army and he is promptly killed in battle causing Adam to fall into another depression. Meanwhile, Cal falls in love with Abra Bacon, Aron’s young love interest before he had initially abandoned her for the priesthood. Adam grows old and he becomes forgetful, aloof, and he eventually has a stroke. Cal burns the $15,000 he earned in his business venture and he apologizes to his nearly mute father on his deathbed. Lee begs Adam to bless his last remaining son, Cal, and his offspring. In his last words Adam Trask musters up the strength to simply say: “Timshel”.

Throughout the novel we encounter the recurring theme of “timshel”, or the power of human beings to choose between good and evil. It is a heavy burden that is by no means always clear. In fact, we also see the impossibility of this choice. Everywhere, sons are bound up by the fate and sins of their forefathers. In other words, no man is entirely self-actualized or self-determined; all men depend on the moral compass of their fathers. Genealogy is primary. The jealous resentment and the devious machinations of sons have a tendency to play out again and again in new ways. I was reminded of the Furies who plague Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, taunting Orestes with his past, and never allowing him a moment’s rest from his family’s troubles. In Aeschylus, the goddess Athena steps in as a deus ex machina. However in Steinbeck, there is no redemption. Charles is evil. Cal is cursed. In the novel, “timshel” suggests that God offers the opportunity for people to make choices, but human beings are necessarily bound by the iniquities of their forefathers. Fathers merely provide life to their offspring, and everything a father does thereafter is a delicate balance, causing a rippling effect far greater than he can predict. The problem of “timshel” is complicated by the desire for men to find Eden, a place without sin and without knowledge, good and evil. No matter how far Adam can go, he can never outrun the sins of his father, nor his nature –he will never return to the fabled land of Eden. Natural law replaces human will, in a torturous and gritty corner of the Salinas Valley. In Steinbeck, we can taste the tears, smell the fertile soil, and feel the pains of violence as people are divided between two categories: gentle, good-natured characters who are ultimately at the mercy of others (like Adam, Aron, or Sam Hamilton); and on the other hand, capricious “devils” who are successful survivalists (like Cyrus, Charles, and Cal). One is either virtuous, poor, and bearing of much suffering; or vicious, wealthy, and conniving. In East of Eden there is no purgatory, only hell. Yet there is great beauty in suffering.

The title of Steinbeck’s epic novel is naturally a reference to the Book of Genesis, wherein Cain is banished by God to the land “east of Eden” in “Nod” (Hebrew for “wandering”) for the sin of killing his brother, Abel. Recall, Cain was resentful of being overlooked by God for his brother’s burnt offering so Cain killed him and as a result he was forever scarred with a mark by God, and his descendants were also cursed.

Steinbeck initially intended to write the novel for his two sons, Thom and John (then age 6 1/2 and 4 /12 respectively) in order to offer them a picture of the people and places of the Salinas Valley. Personally, I live near the headwaters of the Salinas River and I have often driven through the Salinas Valley reflecting on Steinbeck’s literary compass. To me, the passage that has stuck with me the most from East of Eden is the opening chapter describing the Salinas Valley (faithfully copied in full below):


“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons smell like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the ranges of mountains. 

From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winer of west years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer. The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acre down; it toplled banrs and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away. It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea. Then when the late spring came, the river drew in from its edges and the sand banks appeared. And in the summer the river didn’t run at all above ground. Some pools would be left in the river didn’t run at all above ground. Some pools would be left in the deep swirls places under a high bank. The tules and grasses grew back, and willows straightened up with the flood debris in their upper branches. The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it under ground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it – how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a hot summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast. 

The floor of the Salinas Valley, between the ranges and below the foothills, is level because this valley used to be the bottom of a hundred-mile inlet from the sea. The river mouth at Moss Landing was centuries ago the entrance to this long inland of water. Once, fifty miles down the valley, my father bored a well. The drill came up first with topsoil and then with gravel and then with white sea full of shells and even pieces of whalebone. There were twenty feet of sand and then black earth again, and even a piece of redwood, that imperishable wood that does not rot. Before the inland sea the valley must have been a forest. And those things had happened right under our feet. And it seemed to me sometimes at night that I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest before it. 

On the wide level acres of the valley the topsoil lay deep and fertile. It required only a rich winter of rain to make it break forth in grass and flowers. The spring flowers in wet year were unbelievable. The whole valley floor, and the foothills too, would be carpeted with lupins and poppies. Once a woman told me that colored flowers would seem more bright if you added a few white flowers to give the colors definition. Ever petal of blue lupine is edged with white, so that a field of blue lupins is more blue than you can imagine. And mixed with these were splashes of California poppies. These too are of a burning color – not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of poppies. When their season was over the yellow mustard came up and grew to a great height. When my grandfather came into the valley the mustard was so tall that a man on horseback showed only his head above the yellow flowers. On the uplands the grass would be strewn with buttercups, with hen-and-chickens, with black-centered yellow violets. And a little later in the season there would be red and yellow stands of Indian paintbrush. These were the flowers of the open places exposed to the sun. 

Under the live oaks, shaded and dusky, the maidenhair flourished and gave a good smell, and under the mossy banks of the water courses whole clumps of five-fingered ferns and goldy-backs hung down. Then there were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long. 

When June came the grasses head out and turned brown, and the hills turned a brown which was not brown but a gold and saffron and red – an indescribable color. And from then on until the next rains the earth dried and the streams stopped. Cracks appeared on the level ground. The Salinas River sank under its sand. The wind blew down the valley, picking up dust and straws, and grew stronger and harsher as it went south. It stopped in the evening. It was a rasping nervous wind, and the dust particles cut into a man’s and burned his eyes. Men working in the fields wore goggles and tied handkerchiefs around their noses to keep the dirt out. 

The valley land was deep and rich, but the foothills wore only a skin of topsoil no deeper than the grass roots; and the farther up the hills you went, the thinner grew the soil, with flints sticking through, until at the brush line it was a kind of dry flinty gravel that reflected the hot sun blindingly. 

I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen or twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley. The live oaks got a crusty look and the sage-brush was gray. The land was cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way. 


And that was the long Salinas Valley. Its history was like that of the rest of the state. First there were the Indians, an inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture, a people that lived on grubs and grasshoppers and shellfish, too lazy to hunt or fish. They ate what they could pick up  and planted nothing. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime. 

Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold or God. They collected souls as they collected jewels. They gathered mountains and valleys, rivers and whole horizons, the way a man might now gain title to building lots. These tough, dried-up men moved restlessly up the coast and down. Some of them stayed on grants as large as principalities, given to them by Spanish kings who had not the faintest idea of the gift. These first owners lived in poor feudal settlements, and their cattle ranged freely and multiplied. Periodically the owners killed the cattle for their hides and tallow and left the meat to the vultures and coyotes. 

When the Spaniards came they had to give everything they saw a name. This is the first duty of any explorer – a duty and a privilege. You must name a thing before you can note it on your hand-drawn map. Of course they were religious people, and the men who could read and write, who kept the records and drew the maps, were the tough untiring priests who traveled with the soldiers. Thus the first names of places were saints’ names or religious holidays celebrated at stopping places. There are many saints, but they are not inexhaustible, so that we find repetitions in first namings. We have San Miguel, St. Michael, San Ardo, San Bernardo, San Benito, San Lorenzo, San Carlos, San Francisquito. And then the holidays – Natividad, the Nativity; Nacimiente, the Birth; Soledad, the Solitude. But places were also named from the way the expedition felt at the time: Buena Esperanza, good hope; Buena Vista because the view was beautiful; and Chualar because it was pretty. The descriptive names followed: Paso de Robles because of the oak trees; Los Laureles for the laurels; Tularcitos because of the reeds in the swamp; and Salinas for the alkali which was white as salt. 

Then places were named for animals and birds seen – Gabilanes for the hawks which flew in those mountains; Topo for the mole; Los Gatos for the wild cats. The suggestions sometimes came from th nature of the place itself: Tassajara, a cup and saucer; Laguna Seca, a dry lake; Corral de Tierra for a fence of earth; Paraiso because it was like Heaven.

Then the Americans came – more greedy because there were more of them. They took the lands, remade the laws to make their titles good. And farmholds spread over the land, first in the valleys and then up the foothill slopes, small wooden houses roofed with redwood shakes, corrals of split poles. Wherever a trickle of water came out of the ground a house sprang up and a family began to grow and multiply. Cuttings of red geraniums and rosebushes were planted in the dooryard. Wheel tracks of buckboards replaced the trails, and fields of corn and barley and wheat squared out of the yellow mustard. Every ten miles along the traveled routes a general store and blacksmith shop happened, and these became the nuclei of little towns, Bradley, King City, Greenfield. 

The Americans had a greater tendency to name places for people than had the Spanish. After the valleys were settled the names of places refer more to things which happened there, and these to me are the most fascinating of all the names because each name suggests a story that has been forgotten. I think of Bolsa Nueva, a new purse; Morocojo, a lame Moor (who was he and how did he get there?); Wild Horse Canyon and Mustang Grade and Shirt Tail Canyon. The names of places carry a charge of the people who named them, reverent or irreverent, descriptive, either poetic or disparaging. You can name anything San Lorenzo, but Shirt Tail Canyon or the Lame Moor is something quite different. 

The wind whistled over the settlements in the afternoon, and the farmers began to set out mile-long windbreaks of eucalyptus to keep the plowed topsoil from blowing away. And this was about the way the Salinas Valley was when my grandfather brought his wife and settled in the foothills to the east of King City.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. Viking; Later prt. edition, June 16, 2003.

5 thoughts on “The Troubling Concept of Timshel in East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  1. I have been wanting to reread this for quite some time, and your most excellent review only where that appetite. I read it decades ago, in college, but now I would like to reread it with the idea of “timshel” in mind; fascinating about our ability to choose between good and evil. So many times we fail at that. Should I reread it, as I suspect I will, I’ll be back to discuss this further. And, thank you for the follow.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mayest. The ability of a person to choose…not be commanded. Free will is a great gift to bestow on your children.


  3. Don’t agree with your concept of Timshel…and I think Steinbeck would agree. Thou mayest implies free will without God having anything to do with it…because there no God.
    It is FREE WILL. Let us not blame our forebears for our own acts.


    • Yes. Steinbeck’s point (one of them, anyway) is that it’s a cop out to simply say that where we come from is necessarily our destiny. Buck up and choose. You don’t have to be trapped.


    • I hope you don’t really believe there is no GOD, because there certainly is. This creation gives evidence with each moment of life. Those who choose to be blinded by deceit will face the truth whether they wish to or not.


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