Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a heavy book. Not simply in terms of size, 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 the time and place, though we ultimately know the final setting of the novel to be the Salinas Valley.
It is an intricate book of folklore -a kind of new Book of Genesis with a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. It tells the story of notable family patriarchs, and powerful choices between good or evil which yield powerful consequences in the future for both their own livelihoods and their progeny. The two families we encounter are the Trasks and the Hamiltons.
First the Hamiltons: a warm-hearted Irish family with nine children. Father, Sam Hamilton, is a fruitless inventor, incapable of financial success during his lifetime, 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 grow interested in a new family that has bought a nearby property, the Trasks.
Adam Trask’s story is given considerable attention as the main portion of the book. We see his father, Cyrus, a Civil War soldier of little note during the war, but who eventually becomes an old war hero and is celebrated at the highest forms of government in his old age. He was wounded in his first battle in the Civil War and returned home. The Trasks live in Connecticut on a farm. 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 violent towards Adam, especially as his envy toward Adam grows. Eventually, at Cyrus’s urging, Adam joins the military, though he is the more gentle and good-natured son. Adam spends time wandering the country after serving two terms in the army, and he is jailed for vagrancy, and 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 the two sons. One day, they encounter a young woman, Cathy, a prostitute from Massachusetts unbeknownst to them, who is badly beaten. Adam cares for her and falls in love with her, while Charles sees through her deeper, 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, she drugs Adam to sleep and crawls into bed to sleep 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 two twin boys, Caleb or “Cal” and Aron, and then promptly shoots Adam and abandons the family. Adam falls into a depressed stupor, relying on his Chinese servant, Lee, to raise the children.
As they grow, the boys become resentful and long 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”, implying that men have the option to choose between acting good or evil. Meanwhile Cathy has changed her name to “Kate” and has secretly worked her way into a well-know and debauched brothel in Salinas, and she eventually murders the head lady and takes over the business. Eventually, when Adam takes a greater interest in raising his boys and Sam Hamilton dies, they decide to buy a house in Salinas so the boys can get a proper education in Salinas. Cal soon discovers the horrible secret that their mother is a whore, but he does not reveal it to Aron, as he is the gentler brother. Adam takes on a foolish business enterprise of sending fresh food grown in the Salinas Valley by train to the East Coast, but it fails miserably and Adam loses much of the family fortune. Thus, Cal tries to win his favor and goes into business with Sam Hamilton’s son growing beans for the soldiers in the growing conflict in Europe (World War I) and he earns $15,000. However, when he finally presents it to his father, Adam is shocked and denies 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 shows Aron the horrible secret of their mother. In shock Aron runs away and joins the army and is promptly killed in battle causing Adam to fall into a deep slump. Meanwhile, Cal falls in love with Abra Bacon, Aron’s young love interest before he abandoned her for the priesthood. Adam becomes forgetful, aloof, starts fainting and eventually has a stroke. Cal burns the $15,000 and 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 say: “Timshel”.
Throughout the novel we encounter the recurring theme of “timshel”, or the power to choose between good and evil. Yet, we also see the impossibility of this notion. Everywhere, sons are bound up by the fate and sins of their forefathers. The jealous resentment and the devious machinations of the sons play themselves out again and again in new ways. We recall the Furies that chase Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, taunting him with his past, and never allowing him a moment’s rest from his family’s troubles. In Aeschylus, the goddess Athena steps in as deus ex machina. In Steinbeck, there is no redemption. Charles is evil. Cal is cursed. The problem of Timshel is complicated by the need for men to find an Eden, a place without sin, but no matter how far Adam can go, he cannot outrun the sins of his father, nor his nature. 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 humans are divided between good-natured people who are ultimately taken advantage of, like Adam and Aron and Sam Hamilton, and devils who are successful and ultimately survive, like Cyrus, Charles, and Cal. One is either virtuous, poor, and bearing of much suffering, or vicious, wealthy, and conniving to get what they want. In East of Eden there is no purgatory, only hell. Yet there is great beauty in the pits of hell.