The Trask Family
patriarch of the Trask family and the father of Adam and Charles.
The imposing Cyrus lies so convincingly about his military heroics
during the Civil War that the government appoints him to a powerful position
in the Army administration. In fact, Cyrus was wounded in the very
first hour of his battlefield experience in the Civil War and lost
his leg to amputation. Cyrus leaves his (probably stolen) fortune of
more than $100
first wife of Cyrus Trask and the mother of Adam. Cyrus’s wife,
whose name we do not learn, is a deeply pious woman. She contracts
syphilis from Cyrus after he sleeps with a black prostitute in the
South during the Civil War. Mrs. Trask commits suicide shortly thereafter.
second wife and the mother of Charles. Alice is a quiet, deferential
woman who almost never shows emotion. One day, however, Adam catches
her smiling mysteriously to herself when she thinks no one is watching.
Alice dies while Adam is away in the Army, fighting Indian tribes
in the west.
son of Cyrus Trask and the father of Aron and Cal. Adam is a goodhearted
but somewhat impractical man, and his innocence leads him to fall
in love with the novel’s most evil character, Cathy Ames. In the novel’s
retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Adam plays the
Abel role in the first generation of the Trask family; in the second
generation, he plays the Adam role befitting his name. Adam’s benediction
to Cal at the end of the novel validates timshel,
idea that individuals are free to choose their own moral paths.
in-depth analysis of Adam Trask.
son of Cyrus Trask and the half-brother of Adam. Charles is a violent,
cynical, manipulative man who works his father’s farm and greedily
amasses a large fortune. Although Charles is deeply jealous of his brother,
he also needs Adam and misses him terribly when he is not at home.
Charles plays the Cain role in the first generation of the Trasks.
He is one of the only characters capable of inspiring fear in the
thoroughly evil Cathy Ames.
son of Adam and Cathy and the twin brother of Cal. Aron is a goodhearted,
trusting boy whose deep, innate morality makes it painful for him
to hear about or witness evil. As a result, Aron weakens and increasingly
retreats into the church as a protection from the harsh realities
of the world. Aron plays the Abel role in the second generation
of the Trask family. When Cal (the corresponding Cain) reveals to
Aron that their mother, Cathy, is a prostitute, Aron is so devastated
that he leaves Stanford and joins the army, and soon dies in World
in-depth analysis of Aron Trask.
son of Adam and Cathy and the twin brother of Aron. Cal is a manipulative,
tempestuous boy who is fiercely jealous of his more likable brother,
Aron. Cal struggles throughout the second half of the novel to control
his temptations and to lead a moral life. Ultimately, he accepts
the idea of timshel,
that every individual is free
to choose his own moral path in life. This acceptance enables Cal
to overcome his fear that his mother’s evil has been passed down
to him. At the end of the novel, Cal is the character who most directly embodies
this central idea of timshel.
Cal plays the Cain
role in the second generation of the Trask family, indirectly killing
Aron (the corresponding Abel) by revealing to Aron that their mother
is a prostitute, which leads Aron to join the army and die in World War
I. When his father confronts him about Aron’s whereabouts, Cal sneers,
“Am I supposed to look after him?”—an echo of Cain’s famous retort
to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Hamilton Family
The patriarch of the Hamilton family. Samuel is a
joyous, self-educated Irishman who moves his family to the Salinas
Valley in California. Although he is never a rich man, he is well
respected in the community. Against the wishes of his wife, Liza, Samuel
befriends Adam Trask. Samuel remains a youthful, vigorous man until
the death of his daughter Una, which hurts him deeply.
in-depth analysis of Samuel Hamilton.
wife and the mother of their nine children. The tiny Liza is a strict,
moral woman who loves her husband and her family very much. The narrator
marvels at Liza’s ability to have so many children, feed them, make
their clothes, and instill “good manners and iron morals” in them
all at the same time.
The eldest son of Samuel and Liza. George, who is
a very minor character in the novel, is bland but has an aura of
courtliness about him.
second son of Samuel and Liza. The practical and conservative Will
has a Midas touch in business dealings. He becomes wealthy and powerful
in the Salinas community, but his business success alienates him
from his family somewhat.
third son of Samuel and Liza. Tom is ardent and passionate, in stark
contrast to his brother Will. After Tom indirectly causes the death
of his sister Dessie by giving her stomach-soothing salts that aggravate
her severe illness, he kills himself out of guilt and grief.
youngest son of Samuel and Liza. Joe, a dreamer and academic by
nature, attends Stanford University and then moves to the east,
where he has great success in the emerging field of advertising.
The eldest daughter of Samuel and Liza. Lizzie, a
very minor character, essentially leaves the Hamilton family and
chooses instead to associate herself with her husband’s family.
She has a capacity for hatred and bitterness that the rest of the
Hamiltons do not share.
second daughter of Samuel and Liza. The dark and brooding Una marries,
moves with her husband to a remote area on the Oregon border, and dies
not long after the move. Her death crushes Samuel and ages him considerably.
The third daughter of Samuel and Liza. Dessie, who
runs a dressmaking shop in Salinas, is not beautiful but has a lovely
personality that makes everyone enjoy her company. She dies when
Tom gives her salts to soothe her stomach, accidentally aggravating
fourth daughter of Samuel and Liza. Olive becomes a teacher, which
makes her family proud. She is the mother of the narrator of the
novel (and indeed, in real life, the mother of John Steinbeck).
The youngest daughter of Samuel and Liza. Mollie
is the lovely one, the sweetheart of the family. She marries and
moves to an apartment in San Francisco.
moral monster, the most evil character in the novel. Cathy acts
out of a perverse love of debasement, destruction, and control.
As a young girl, she murders her parents by arson and then commences
a life of prostitution. She later marries and then shoots Adam Trask,
abandoning her newborn twin sons in order to return to prostitution.
After murdering the brothel owner, Faye, Cathy becomes the madam
of the brothel, using drugs to control and manipulate her whores.
She takes photographs of powerful men involved in sadomasochistic
sex acts in order to blackmail them. Aron’s discovery that Cathy
is his mother shatters him and spurs the chain of events that leads
to his death. Cathy represents Eve in the Cain and Abel story of
the novel, introducing sin and evil into the world. She commits
suicide after enduring Aron’s response to her. (For the sake of
consistency, this SparkNote refers to her as Cathy throughout, though
at various points in the novel she goes by the name Catherine or
Kate as she attempts to cover her identity.)
in-depth analysis of Cathy Ames.
Trask’s dutiful cook and housekeeper, an educated man whose parents
emigrated to America from China. Lee often affects a Chinese pidgin
accent to play into Americans’ expectations of him. A philosophical
man, he frequently gives voice to the novel’s themes, including
the crucial idea of timshel.
Throughout the novel,
Lee serves as a stabilizing force in the Trask household.
daughter of the corrupt county supervisor in Salinas. Abra, who
is as goodhearted as Cathy is evil, offers compassion and common
sense to the tumultuous Trask family. Abra falls in love with Aron, but
after his cowardly withdrawal into the church, she shifts her affections
to Cal. Like Cal, Abra worries that her father’s corruption—the
narrator implies that he steals money and that he is one of the
men whom Cathy blackmails—will taint her. However, with Cal, Abra learns
the lesson of timshel
—that she is free to choose her
own moral destiny.
man who runs a prostitution ring throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Mr. Edwards has a highly moral wife and a pair of sons who attend
the prestigious Groton School, and he leads a largely respectable
life despite his base profession. After employing Cathy as a prostitute,
Mr. Edwards falls in love with her. Upon discovering her involvement
in the murder of her parents, he beats her nearly to death, and she
crawls away to the nearest farm—that owned by Charles and Adam Trask.
madam at the Salinas whorehouse where Cathy works as a prostitute.
Cathy poisons Faye gradually, and after Faye finally dies, takes
over the brothel.
prostitute at Faye’s brothel who obtains proof that Cathy murdered
Faye. Ethel tries to blackmail Cathy for a payment of $100
month but is later discovered to have drowned.
escaped convict who is employed as a bouncer at Cathy’s brothel.
As Cathy degenerates, Joe assumes increasing influence and control
over her brothel. Before Cathy kills herself, she informs the police
about Joe’s earlier jailbreak. Just as Joe is about to leave town with
Cathy’s money, he is found and gunned down by a deputy as he tries