I believe that there is one story in the world. . . . Humans are caught . . . in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story.
The narrator discusses the struggle between good and evil, which he says is the one recurring narrative of human history. He says that people can be measured by the world’s reaction to their deaths. He remembers one man who made a fortune on the backs of others but then attempted to make it up later by becoming a philanthropist; people took that man’s death with quiet relief. He remembers a second man who had always been immoral, manipulating others under the pretense of virtue; people greeted his death with joy. Finally, the narrator remembers a third man who made many errors but who devoted his life to giving others strength in a time of great need; when he died, people burst into incredible grief.
The Trasks move to Salinas proper, buying the house in which Dessie Hamilton lived before she moved to the ranch with Tom. Lee leaves to open his bookstore in San Francisco. Aron and Cal discuss Lee’s departure, and Aron bets Cal ten cents that Lee will come back. Aron wins the bet, as Lee returns only six days later. Lee tells Adam that he was lonesome, that he realized he really did not want to run a bookstore, and that he is very glad to be home.
Aron and Cal begin school in Salinas and are assigned to the seventh grade. They quickly prove themselves to be bright, popular students. Aron is well liked, whereas Cal bullies his way into respect on the playground.
After the first day of school, Aron follows Abra Bacon to her house and asks her to marry him someday. She takes him to a secret place—a canopy of leaves beneath a willow tree—where she says they can practice being married. Abra asks Aron about his mother and pretends to be his mother herself by laying his head in her lap. He begins to cry. Abra tells Aron that she overheard her parents saying that Aron’s mother is still alive. Aron does not believe her because it would mean that Adam and Lee have lied to him. Abra gives Aron a kiss before she leaves.
In 1915, Lee buys an icebox for the family, which starts Adam thinking about a possible way to make money: packing produce in ice and shipping it in refrigerated train cars to areas of the country that normally cannot get perishable produce during the winter. Will Hamilton tells Adam that his idea is foolish, but Adam tries it anyway. The scheme is a disaster, as the train is delayed at every turn, and the Salinas lettuce that Adam ships arrives rotten and late in the east, just as the skeptics predicted.
After the shipping boondoggle, Adam’s once-sizable fortune is depleted to the point that he only has $9,000 to his name. Aron and Cal become the butt of jokes at school, and Adam is the laughing stock of the town. Only Abra stands by Aron, promising never to desert him. Cal, increasingly jealous of the time Abra and Aron spend together, becomes frustrated and restless. Because Adam is no longer universally respected in town, rumors begin to spread about Cathy and about Adam’s past. Abra overhears one such rumor and advises Aron to ask his father about his mother, but Aron nervously declines.
Cal becomes increasingly restless and starts to wander outdoors at night. On one such excursion, a drunken farmer named Rabbit Holman tells Cal about his mother’s brothel and even takes Cal there. Appalled, Cal returns home and tells Lee what he has seen, and Lee tells Cal the full truth about Cathy. Lee says that Cal’s mother is almost inhumanly evil. Cal worries that he has inherited this evil, but Lee urges Cal to remember that he has free will in all his behavior—that he, not his mother, will determine his path in life.
Cal tries to dedicate himself to a moral life, but temptation consistently causes him to stray. He does not tell Aron about their mother, as he fears that the news would destroy the good and trusting Aron. Aron, in the meantime, has discovered religion and says he has decided to become a minister. He even tells Abra that he wishes to remain celibate. Abra humors him, for she assumes that he will change his mind by the time she is ready to marry him.
A wave of moral reform sweeps Salinas—as the narrator notes, this occurs every few years—and organized gambling comes under fire within the town. Cal likes to watch the gambling during his nocturnal wanderings, and one night he is arrested during a police raid. When Adam retrieves Cal from the prison, the father and son have a long, heartfelt talk. Adam confesses that he thinks he is a bad father to the boys, and Cal confesses that he knows the truth about Cathy. Adam and Cal discuss Aron. Cal thinks that Aron’s deep, innate goodness makes him fragile and that therefore he needs to be protected. Cal promises never to tell Aron about their mother.
Cal feels much closer to his father after their talk. He begins to spy on the brothel to learn about Cathy and gradually notices that she follows exactly the same schedule every Monday. Cal begins to follow Cathy around. She gives no sign that she notices him until she suddenly confronts him one Monday and asks why he has been following her. Cal tells Cathy that he is her son, and she takes him inside the brothel to talk.
In her room, Cathy keeps the light off, for she says that it hurts her eyes. She also wears bandages on her hands because of her severe arthritis. Cathy asks Cal about his brother and his father. Cal refuses to talk about Adam but says that Aron is doing well. Enraged to see how much Cal loves his brother and his father, Cathy brags to Cal about her ability to manipulate and control people. She insinuates that she and Cal are very much alike. Cal asks his mother whether, when she was a child, she ever felt that everyone else understood something that she did not. A strange look passes over Cathy’s face, and Cal suddenly realizes that he does not have to be like his mother. He tells her that he knows the light does not hurt her eyes—rather, the light makes her afraid.
One day, Cathy receives a visit from a woman named Ethel, who was a prostitute at the brothel when Faye was still in charge. Ethel implies that she found the discarded bottles of poison that Cathy used to kill Faye and tries to blackmail Cathy for $100 a month to keep the secret. Cathy, however, uses her influence to have Ethel arrested and sent out of the county for theft. Nevertheless, Cathy begins to feel increasingly nervous that Ethel will turn her in. She also begins to sense the presence of Charles Trask around her. She feels increasingly paranoid and restless.
Here, Steinbeck returns his focus to the Trask family, specifically to Aron and Cal, who have become the main characters of the second half of the novel. The perception that Cal is the bad child and Aron is the good child—that they are the Cain and Abel of their generation—still exists, but Cal continually undermines this assumption as we see him struggle to be good. Cal’s conversation with his father after his arrest underscores the boy’s capacity for love, which is in some ways to blame for his belief in his own evil. Indeed, Cal loves those around him so much that he believes he cannot be worthy of them; when he sees that other people like Aron better than him, it makes him hate Aron and hate himself—seeming to confirm Cal’s fear that he is unworthy. However, Cal’s conversation with Adam is a step in the right direction, and it brings father and son closer together.
Cal shows his newfound strength and moral compass when he stands up to Cathy in their climactic first meeting. Despite his mother’s questioning, Cal refuses to talk to her about Adam. Moreover, Cal displays considerable intuition in recognizing the fear that lies behind Cathy’s façade of bragging and flattery. In part, Cal’s strength stems from the fact that he understands what it is like to be both good and evil: he is tormented by the same demons that haunt Cathy but is able to overcome them as Cathy cannot. As a result, Cal is able to withstand the knowledge that his mother is a prostitute—a revelation that would likely crush the sensitive Aron, who would have no means of understanding or enduring his mother. Later in the novel, Abra is the first character to recognize this struggling aspect of Cal’s personality, and she tells Cal that she loves him because of it.
Aron forfeits some of his standing in our eyes in this section, as his decision to join the church and his declaration to Abra that he intends to remain celibate strike jarring notes. We sense that Aron, rather than face the realities of the world, wants only to build a barrier around himself to hide from these realities. Both Cal and Adam perceive that Aron’s goodness makes him fragile, as he is unable to endure the knowledge of the evil in the world. Aron’s newfound religious fervor comes across as false and affected, a thinly disguised attempt to steep himself in an unthreatening fantasy world. Steinbeck portrays Abra, meanwhile, as a likable and appealing girl, full of love and common sense. In this light, Aron’s rejection of her appears both cowardly and foolish. At the same time, Aron also distances himself from his father: Adam’s failed business venture shames Aron, who is embarrassed to be associated with it. Cal, on the other hand, rallies to support his father and even becomes determined to earn back all the money Adam has lost. Although Aron is still largely the Abel figure and Cal the Cain figure, Steinbeck does a great deal in these chapters to confound our expectations of those associations. As East of Eden progresses, he pins the moral hopes of the novel squarely on Cain.
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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