Skip over navigation

East of Eden

John Steinbeck

Part Two, Chapters 18–22

Part Two, Chapters 12–17

Part Three, Chapters 23–26

Summary: Chapter 18

Adam tells Horace Quinn, the local deputy sheriff, that he got his gunshot wound by accidentally shooting himself while cleaning his gun. Quinn, however, sees through Adam’s story immediately. Adam begins to weep when Quinn asks about Cathy. Quinn confers with the sheriff, who says that Faye, the proprietress of a local brothel, recently asked the sheriff about a runaway who closely matches Cathy’s description. Quinn and the sheriff agree to keep the news from Adam so that the twins will not know that their mother is a prostitute.

In the meantime, Samuel counsels the miserable Adam that if he acts as though he is happy and alive, eventually he will feel that way. Samuel reminds Adam that his children need his strength.

Summary: Chapter 19

The narrator says that there are three houses of prostitution in the Salinas Valley, and that the valley residents accept these houses as an essential but undiscussed part of their society. Faye’s brothel is the newest, and Cathy—now calling herself Kate—thrives there, having earned Faye’s trust to quickly become an indispensable part of Faye’s operation. When the sheriff finds Cathy, he tells her that as long as she agrees never to contact her sons, he will never make her background and her shooting of Adam a public matter. The sheriff also tells Cathy that he will never let his son come to Faye’s, for he does not want his son ever to meet Cathy.

Summary: Chapter 20

Faye is impressed by the fact that Cathy lectures the brothel’s piano player, Cotton Eye, about his opium habit. Faye tells Cathy that Cathy has become like a daughter to her. She urges Cathy to give up prostitution, but Cathy says she needs the money.

Faye invites Cathy into her room for an elaborate ceremony in which she presents Cathy with her will. The will gives all of Faye’s worldly possessions to Cathy upon Faye’s death—an incredible sum, as the brothel does very well financially. Cathy is thrilled, but when she drinks a bit of Faye’s celebratory champagne, she loses her inhibitions and begins to say cruel things to Faye. Cathy even confesses brazenly that she makes more money than Faye realizes, as she uses whips and razors and other sadomasochistic devices on her clients.

Faye screams in horror, and Cathy, panicking, gives her a drink to put her to sleep. Horrified by what she has revealed to Faye in her drunkenness, Cathy knocks Faye out with ammonia and pokes her with sharp instruments to make her believe that she is having a horrible nightmare. The other prostitutes believe that Cathy is caring tenderly for Faye, and when Faye wakes, she believes the same thing. Faye believes that everything Cathy told her during the night was part of her nightmare, and she is grateful for Cathy’s care and sweetness.

Summary: Chapter 21

Over time, Cathy begins to assume more and more control over Faye’s house. She takes advantage of the local doctor’s absentmindedness to begin slowly poisoning Faye with drugs. All the while, Cathy makes certain that the other girls believe her to be slavishly devoted to Faye. When Faye finally dies, Cathy pretends to be insensible with grief.

Summary: Chapter 22

Adam’s depression over Cathy’s departure does not lift. Lee confides to Samuel that Adam still has not named his infant sons, even though they are more than a year old. Samuel finds this abominable and lectures Adam for his melancholy. The two men argue, and the typically nonviolent Samuel strikes Adam with his fist in an attempt to jolt him out of his stupor. The tactic appears to work, and Samuel tells Adam that they must sit down and name the two infant boys.

The men look over the baby boys and discuss possible names for them. Samuel brings up the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Then, looking in a Bible, he suggests Joshua and Caleb as names for the boys. One of the boys cries when he hears the word Caleb, which Adam takes as a sign. The first boy, therefore, is named Caleb. Adam dislikes the name Joshua because Joshua was a warrior, so he chooses the name Aaron for his second boy. This choice pleases Samuel, even though he knows that the biblical Aaron never made it to the Promised Land (Canaan, or modern Israel). The second child cries out when he hears the name Aaron, which Adam takes as another sign, so the second boy is named Aaron.

Analysis: Chapters 18–22

The discussion of Cain and Abel during the naming of the twins explicitly invokes the biblical story that underlies all of East of Eden and its exploration of the struggle between good and evil. While naming the boys, Samuel, Lee, and Adam discuss the conflict between good and evil that exists throughout human civilization and within every individual. Adam remarks that the first time he read the story of Cain and Abel, he remembers feeling “a little outraged at God” because of the arbitrariness of God’s decision to favor Abel over Cain. Adam fails to see, however, the similarity between the story and his own life, especially Cyrus’s seemingly arbitrary favoring of Adam over Charles. Adam’s failure to make the connection is striking, as he clearly is aware that the Cain and Abel story has played itself out repeatedly in the countless generations of human history. Later, we see that Adam’s unawareness continues, as he himself favors one of his boys over the other in the same manner as his father.

In the whorehouse, not far away, Cathy takes her scheming to an unprecedented level as she engineers Faye’s demise. We learn that Cathy practices sadomasochism on her clients, using knives and whips to debase the human body further and to give vent to the uncontrollable evil inside her. We see once again, as we see earlier in her interactions with Mr. Edwards, that alcohol strips Cathy of her control, inducing her to confess her true feelings as she reveals her schemes to Faye. Perhaps the most appalling part of this section is the lengths to which Cathy goes to convince Faye—after drugging Faye, abusing her sleeping body, poisoning her with ammonia, and poking her with sharp objects in her sleep—that it was all just a nightmare. When the business finally becomes hers, Cathy runs it with an iron fist, keeping the prostitutes in constant fear of her rather than cultivating the somewhat motherly dynamic that Faye had established.

Cathy’s evil is so thorough and unrelenting that at times it may come across as implausible, especially since it does not appear that Cathy uses her evil acts to attain any sort of ultimate goal or aim. Indeed, many literary critics have taken Steinbeck to task in his portrayal of Cathy, claiming that the seeming totality of her evil undermines her believability as a character. When a family friend wrote to Steinbeck that he did not believe Cathy “because she was all bad,” Steinbeck replied, “I don’t know whether I believe her either but I know she exists.” Early in the novel, Steinbeck writes that Cathy is “indecipherable,” and to a large degree he does not attempt to explain her aside from his theory he advances that she was “born” evil. Most critics to this day, however, have not accepted Steinbeck’s vagueness in the matter, and the bulk of critics of East of Eden focus on Cathy as the novel’s major flaw.

More Help

Previous Next
Narrator

by Clarinetmast, September 06, 2012

The narrator is actually John Hamilton, the grandson of Samuel Hamilton and the son of Olive Hamilton.

3 Comments

17 out of 94 people found this helpful

Narrator

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.

0 Comments

9 out of 11 people found this helpful

Narrator

by Captain_Saucy, December 19, 2012

Come on people, John Steinbeck is the narrator and Olive Hamilton is his mother. Samuel is his grandfather.

0 Comments

2 out of 4 people found this helpful

See all 9 readers' notes   →

Follow Us