In 1911, Samuel is stricken with grief after his favorite daughter, Una, dies shortly after moving to a remote area of Oregon with her husband. When the Hamilton children visit Samuel and Liza for Thanksgiving, they notice that the previously youthful Samuel has suddenly aged significantly. The children devise a plan get their parents off the ranch by taking turns hosting them for long periods of time. Tom disapproves of the plan, saying it indicates to the aged Samuel that his life is essentially over. The other children, however, like the plan and present the idea to Samuel as though it were a vacation. Samuel accepts the plan but confides to Tom that he sees through it and realizes that his children are helping him transition into old age.
“[T]he Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open”
Before he leaves his farm to stay with his children, Samuel goes to see Adam Trask. Samuel talks to the twins, now eleven years old, and reflects upon the fact that the easygoing Aron (he has dropped the first A in Aaron) reminds him of Abel and the closemouthed Caleb reminds him of Cain.
Samuel, Adam, and Lee discuss the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Lee says that he has been troubled by a discrepancy in the story that arises from two different translations of the Bible—according to one translation, God promises Cain that he will overcome sin; in another translation, God orders Cain to overcome sin. According to Lee, the Hebrew word in question is timshel. After researching the matter for several years, Lee has determined that timshel means “thou mayest.” Lee considers this translation of timshel to be an extraordinary revelation, as it implies that God has given human beings the choice of whether or not to overcome sin—essentially giving humans the freedom to choose their course in life.
The men go for a walk, and Samuel asks Adam if he is happy. Adam does not answer. Samuel, hoping to force Adam to forget about Cathy, reveals to Adam that Cathy runs the most depraved whorehouse in the entire valley. Overcome with shock, Adam hurries away.
Samuel Hamilton dies of old age. After the funeral, Adam goes to Cathy’s brothel. As soon as he sees that Cathy is no longer beautiful and that she is actually a monster, Adam realizes that he finally can put her out of his mind. When he tells her as much, she responds that he is wrong to condemn her for her views, for there is nothing but depravity and evil in the world.
Cathy shows Adam photos of some of the most powerful and important men of the Salinas Valley performing sadomasochistic sex acts with her whores, and she brazenly admits to blackmailing the men with the pictures. As Adam rises to leave, Cathy suddenly panics, feeling him slip away—she even offers to sleep with him. When Adam shudders in disgust, Cathy cruelly claims that Charles is the twins’ real father, for she slept with Charles on the night of her marriage to Adam. Adam says that he does not believe her and that it does not matter anyway, even if she is telling the truth.
Cathy screams, and the brothel’s bouncer comes in and knocks Adam down. Even so, Adam leaves with a serene smile on his face, realizing that he is finally free of the burden of Cathy that has been on his mind for so many years.
Adam rides the train back from Salinas. Happy about his encounter with Cathy, he stops in at Will Hamilton’s car dealership and tells Will he would like to buy a car. At home, Adam tells Lee that he now plans to make something of his land and to strengthen his relationship with his sons. Lee confesses that he hopes to leave the valley soon to start a bookstore in San Francisco but agrees to stay in Salinas to help Adam for the time being.
One of the most important moments in the novel occurs during Samuel’s second visit to Adam’s home, when the men discuss the Cain and Abel story again, and Lee introduces the concept of timshel. Timshel is the Hebrew word—meaning “thou mayest”—that God speaks to Cain about overcoming sin; it suggests that it is Cain’s choice whether to embrace goodness or evil. Lee considers timshel to be a powerful idea about human free will, something that gives people the freedom to forge their own moral destinies. The question of the validity of this idea of timshel, or freedom to choose between good and evil, recurs throughout the novel. Ultimately, Steinbeck offers hope that no one is predestined to evil, despite the evil and sin in the world. No individual is simply doomed to inherit the sins of his or her parents—as a number of characters, most notably Cal fear—but instead have the power to choose their own actions.
Samuel’s final gift to Adam is the revelation of the truth about Cathy. When Adam visits Cathy at the brothel after Samuel’s death, their conversation takes the form of a direct confrontation between good and evil. Cathy insists that there is only evil in the world; as evidence, she shows Adam pictures of seemingly righteous senators and ministers she has photographed committing demeaning sexual acts. Adam, however, now sees through Cathy, and her perverse attitude no longer threatens him. The idea of timshel liberates him, and after seeing her depravity, he suddenly feels that he no longer needs her. As Cathy feels her control of Adam slipping away, she becomes increasingly desperate, as though her loss of control over Adam measures the failure of her decision to live for sin and evil. Cathy resorts to an attempt to use sex to control Adam, but he no longer finds her beautiful, and the idea of sleeping with her actually disgusts him. Even Cathy’s claim that Charles is the twins’ real father—a possibility that the novel leaves open—does not faze Adam or hurt him. Ultimately, Cathy is wholly powerless over Adam, who leaves with a peaceful smile on his face. This scene represents an important turning point in the novel, as it marks the first time that good (represented by Adam) confronts evil (represented by Cathy) without fear. Notably, this episode is also the first time that good emerges in triumph. Evil needs good—as evidenced by Charles’s desperate need to have Adam around, and here in Cathy’s need to control Adam—but the converse does not hold true: when liberated by the idea of timshel, good does not need evil.
The narrator is actually John Hamilton, the grandson of Samuel Hamilton and the son of Olive Hamilton.
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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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Come on people, John Steinbeck is the narrator and Olive Hamilton is his mother. Samuel is his grandfather.
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