East of Eden
Analysis of Major Characters
Cal is perhaps the most complex character in East of Eden and the one who embodies the concept of timshel most directly. Whereas Adam is the protagonist of the early parts of novel, the focus shifts to Cal in the later chapters. At first, it appears that Cal has inherited the evil tendencies of his mother, Cathy, and that he is destined to fulfill the role of Cain in his generation. Indeed, Cal does display the characteristics of a Cain figure: he becomes fiercely jealous of Aron because of Adam’s obvious preference for him, and ultimately sets in motion the events that lead to Aron’s death, even uttering a parallel of the biblical Cain’s retort to God about being his “brother’s keeper.” Although Cal is seemingly “born” into an evil path, he struggles against what he sees as his inherited evil—the evil of his mother, Cathy—and prays to God to put him on the path toward good. Although Cal does make several poor moral choices as he is growing up, he ultimately takes Lee’s advice and recognizes the validity of timshel, the idea that each individual has the power to choose between good and evil in life. Thus, while Cal is indeed a Cain figure, he demonstrates the ability to break out of inherited sin and act for good instead.
Aron, as the Abel figure of his generation, is goodhearted and trusting like his father, Adam. Although Aron is likable and kind, his innate moral sensitivity is extreme, and it makes him fragile and easily susceptible to hurt. The sheltered Aron has a great deal of trouble facing the reality of human evil in the world, and Steinbeck builds a great deal of suspense in the second half of East of Eden regarding whether or not Aron will ever meet his mother, Cathy, and whether or not he will survive such an encounter. Gradually, Aron retreats into the shelter of the church, rejecting the love of Abra in favor of religious laws of chastity and devotion. For a time, Aron also uses higher education as an escape, as he flees to Stanford University but then returns home a short time later, miserable. As the second half of the novel progresses, Aron becomes less likable, as we sense that the shelters he seeks are hollow and that his pursuits are driven neither by true religious belief nor a desire for intellectual education. Ultimately, Aron is destroyed by the revelation that Cathy is his mother. He retreats into a final escape—enlistment in the army—and is killed in World War I. Aron’s death is foreshadowed not only by his role as an Abel figure, but also by Samuel Hamilton’s musing that Aron’s namesake, the biblical Aaron, did not make it to the Promised Land of Canaan.
The protagonist of the first half of the novel, Adam is a kind but flawed man who makes a number of bad decisions at crucial points of the story. Adam’s biggest flaws are his tendency to be too trusting and his failure to see people for who they really are. It is these characteristics that make him blind to his father’s corruption and to Cathy’s, scheming and manipulation. Adam’s trusting and goodhearted nature sets him up as an Abel figure in the first generation of the Trask family, as he is his father’s favorite and inadvertently incites the jealousy of his brother, Charles. As Adam grows older and has his own sons, his symbolic role changes and he becomes a parallel to the biblical Adam, Cain and Abel’s father. For much of the boys’ childhood, Adam proves a less than ideal father, distant from his sons and unable to see his own favoritism for Aron over Cal—a repetition of his own father’s favoritism, which proves damaging to the family once again. Adam lavishes all of his love and attention on the anemic and aloof Aron while largely writing off the more loving and thoughtful Cal. Ultimately, however, Lee causes Adam to realize Cal’s potential, and Adam redeems Cal by blessing him at the end of the novel.
The parasitic, manipulative Cathy is the embodiment of evil in the novel and the most static of the main characters. Her evil seems to be innate and all-consuming, as she displays murderous and sexually perverse tendencies from an early age. A figure of infertility and destruction who kills her parents and attempts to kill her own unborn children, Cathy is a debased version of the biblical Eve, whom the Christian tradition sees as the mother of all humankind. Like Eve, Cathy is associated with sin, but whereas Eve is deceived into committing sin, Cathy embraces it wholeheartedly and commits evil simply for its own sake. Cathy has an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of humankind: she believes that there is only evil in the world and therefore surrenders herself to it fully. All the while, she fails to understand the good in other characters and instead uses their trusting natures to achieve her own predatory ends. Notably, we never get any sense that Cathy is using her evil acts to reach any sort of ultimate goal or aim. For this reason, some critics have dismissed Cathy as an implausible character and a major weak link in Steinbeck’s novel. The narrator of East of Eden himself is somewhat confounded by Cathy, as he struggles to understand her and revises his opinion of her throughout the novel. In any case, Cathy is a symbol of the human evil that will always be present in the world, and her loss of power over Adam and Cal bolsters the novel’s message that individuals have the choice to reject evil in favor of good.
As the gentle, selfless patriarch of the Hamilton family, Samuel stands in sharp contrast to Cyrus, the dishonest patriarch of the Trask family. Whereas Cyrus introduces a legacy of sin into his family by passing down a stolen inheritance, the good-natured Samuel—who, notably, never is wealthy—passes down an inheritance of close familial love and devotion. Like the biblical Samuel, who was a prophet, Samuel Hamilton displays intuition and foresight and often tells Adam Trask truths that are difficult to hear. Samuel sees through Cathy immediately and is chilled by her inhumanity and Adam’s ignorance of it. After the twins are born and Cathy flees, Samuel counsels Adam and helps him overcome his melancholy. Although Samuel is not a violent man, he reluctantly resorts to force in order to jolt Adam out of his stupor and to convince Adam to give the boys names, which they go without for more than a year. Later, shortly before he dies of old age, Samuel tells Adam the difficult truth that Cathy is still living in Salinas and working at a brothel. Although this revelation causes Adam pain, it ultimately enables him to confront the reality of Cathy’s evil and escape from her power.
by Clarinetmast, September 06, 2012
The narrator is actually John Hamilton, the grandson of Samuel Hamilton and the son of Olive Hamilton.
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by readereaterheater, November 19, 2012
Actually, the narrator is John Steinbeck. Olive Hamilton is married to a Steinbeck and the novel often mentions the "Steinbeck House" and her husband and children. It's supposed to be an ironic little pun he puts in there.
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