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Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Perpetual Contest between Good and Evil

In Chapter 34 of East of Eden, the narrator articulates his belief that the struggle between good and evil is the one recurring narrative of human history. In fact, he goes so far as to state that there “is no other story.” Writing from the perspective of the Christian tradition, the narrator contends that every human individual since Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel has struggled with the choice between good and evil. The narrator writes that each person, when looking back on his or her life, “will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” Because the struggle is an individual one, the narrator implies that no progress is made through the generations—each person must reenact the same ancient story and grapple with the same ancient problems.

East of Eden dramatizes this perpetual conflict between good and evil in the society of the Salinas Valley as a whole and within the individuals of the Trask and Hamilton families in particular. The main characters of the novel, generation after generation, wrestle with the problem of evil. Cyrus, the patriarch of the Trask family, apparently chooses evil by stealing money during his term as a U.S. Army administrator. Charles succumbs to jealousy of his brother, Adam. Cathy takes the path of evil at every turn, manipulating and wounding others for her own benefit. Cal, worried that he has inherited a legacy of sin from his mother, struggles perhaps the hardest of all the characters. Ultimately, the novel ends on a positive note, as Cal accepts the possibility and responsibility of free will—of free choice between good and evil. This optimistic ending is tempered, however, by our knowledge that future generations will endlessly replay the same struggle that Cal and his ancestors have endured.

The Freedom to Overcome Evil

Although one of the fundamental ideas in East of Eden is that evil is an innate and inescapable human problem, the novel also sets forth hope that each individual has the freedom to overcome evil by his or her own choice. This idea of free choice is encapsulated in the Hebrew word timshel, the meaning of which Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, has researched. The word, which translates to “thou mayest,” appears in the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible, when God tells Cain that he has the freedom to choose to overcome sin. Lee sees this idea of free will as central to the human condition—in fact, he says that timshel might be the “most important word in the world.”

The other characters in East of Eden have different opinions regarding whether or not individuals can truly overcome evil by free choice. Cathy, for instance, insists that there is only evil in the world, so she immerses herself in it and exploits other people’s human weaknesses to her own advantage. Aron, meanwhile, is only able to face the good in the world, and the evil that his mother embodies ultimately proves too much for him to handle. Cal struggles to find a middle road between these two extremes. Ultimately, he is successful, as he accepts Lee’s belief that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice, regardless of the fact that all humans are imperfect, sinful beings. With this newfound knowledge, Cal is able to go forward into a new life with Abra, confident that he controls his own moral destiny.

The Pain of Paternal Rejection

The dynamics of father-son relationships, especially the issue of a father’s preference for one son over another, are central to the story told in East of Eden. In the first generation of the Trask family covered in the novel, Cyrus displays a clear preference for Adam over Charles, for no discernible reason. Charles, who seems to love his father far more than Adam does, senses this disapproval from his father and resents it deeply. Charles’s resentment comes to a head when Cyrus prefers the birthday gift Adam gives him (a stray puppy, to which Adam gives hardly any thought) to the gift Charles gives him (a knife for which Charles works hard to save money in order to buy). Once again, Cyrus’s preference for the puppy over the knife appears to be completely arbitrary, and the disapproval enrages Charles. Later, Adam displays the same kind of arbitrary favoritism in his relationships with his own sons, Aron and Cal. Aron grows up to be somewhat cowardly and fragile, while Cal courageously struggles to stay on the path of good amid numerous temptations toward evil. Nonetheless, Adam perceives Aron as ambitious and promising but dismisses Cal as shiftless and directionless.

Steinbeck patterns these father-son relationships in the Trask family on an example in the Bible—the relationships that the brothers Cain and Abel have with God, who represents a father figure to both of them. When Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God (mirrored in Steinbeck’s novel by Charles’s and Adam’s birthday gifts to Cyrus), God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. Conspicuously, neither God nor the narrator of the story in the Bible offers any reason or justification for God’s preference. In East of Eden, Adam mentions that, upon reading the story of Cain and Abel, he felt “a little outraged at God” for favoring Abel so arbitrarily. However, as we see, Adam favors Aron over Cal just as arbitrarily as God favors Abel over Cain. Adam does not realize the depth of his favoritism until he is on his deathbed, when he acknowledges the mistake he has made and grants his final blessing to Cal.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Story of Cain and Abel

Throughout the course of East of Eden, different members of the Trask family correspond to the biblical Cain and Abel at different times. In the first Trask generation, Charles and Adam correspond to Cain and Abel, respectively. Like the biblical Cain, Charles grows jealous of his brother, Adam, and attacks him in rage—Charles does not, however, cause his brother’s death. As the novel progresses, Adam relinquishes his role as an Abel figure and takes on the role of his biblical namesake, Adam, the first human. Adam’s sons, Cal and Aron, become the respective parallels to Cain and Abel in the new generation of the Trask family. Again, Cal, the Cain figure, becomes jealous of his brother, Aron. In this iteration of the story, Cal’s hurtful actions indirectly cause Aron’s enlistment in the army and subsequent death in World War I. When Adam asks Cal where Aron has gone, Cal sneers, “Am I supposed to look out for him?”—a parallel to Cain’s famous retort to God after murdering Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In indirectly causing Aron’s death, Cal succumbs, like Cain, to his evil instincts. However, unlike Cain, Cal ultimately understands that he has free will to overcome sin and, on the final page of the novel, is redeemed by his father’s blessing.

Fortunes and Inheritances

The Trask family fortune is an emblem of the idea of original sin—the sin that, by the Christian tradition, has been passed down through every human generation since the fall of the biblical Adam and Eve. In East of Eden, Cyrus leaves his fortune, likely earned through corruption, to Charles and Adam. When Charles dies, he passes on his share to Adam and Cathy. Adam subsequently squanders his share on a failed business venture, while Cathy increases it through her work at the brothel and then passes it on solely to Aron. In blowing the inheritance on his failed business, Adam essentially sidesteps its moral taint. Aron, however, is forced to bear the full burden of it himself. This symbolic burden of sin proves too much for Adam and ultimately leads to his death. Cal, meanwhile, is left out of the Trask inheritance and escapes untainted. Through this turn of events, Cal avoids his family’s legacy of sin and evil and realizes he has the freedom to choose his own moral path.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Salinas Valley

Although the Salinas Valley in northern California provides the setting for several of Steinbeck’s works, its role is arguably greatest in East of Eden. In fact, The Salinas Valley was one of Steinbeck’s working titles for the novel, which Steinbeck described as “a sort of autobiography of the Salinas Valley.” The narrator opens East of Eden with a nostalgic, lyrical description of the valley, recalling the sights, smells, and other memories of his Salinas childhood. He also establishes the valley as a symbolic arena for the struggle between good and evil: the valley is enclosed by the inviting Gabilan Mountains to the east—“light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness”—and the “dark and brooding” Santa Lucia Mountains to the west. Described in such a manner, the mountains symbolize the human struggle to navigate between good and evil. The Salinas Valley between them can be seen as a representation of the lands where the biblical Adam and Eve live after God banishes them from Eden. After being driven from Eden, Adam and Eve are forced to live in a world in which the dangers and temptations of evil are ever-present. Likewise, the main characters in East of Eden struggle to exercise free will in the face of the inherited evils of their ancestors.

Charles’s Scar

Early in the novel, Charles Trask loses his temper while struggling to move a large boulder from his yard and, in the process, cuts his forehead badly with the crowbar he is using to pry out the rock. The wound heals but leaves a large, ugly scar that, unlike most scars, is darker than the skin that surrounds it. Charles’s scar corresponds to the “mark of Cain” in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. After God discovers Cain’s murder of Abel, he banishes Cain to the lands east of Eden and puts a mark on Cain so that no one who encounters him will kill him. In this regard, the mark is not a curse but a form of protection. In East of Eden, Charles’s own words highlight this symbolic connection. In a letter to his brother, Adam, Charles writes about the scar: “I don’t know why it bothers me. I got plenty other scars. It just seems like I was marked.” Charles’s words make the symbolic connection unmistakable and reinforce the relationship between Charles and Adam as a surrogate for the relationship between Cain and Abel—a relationship that Cal and Aron repeat in the next generation.

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, & Symbols Quiz



What is the symbolism of Salinas, California?
Located between mountains
It is barren
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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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by Captain_Saucy, December 19, 2012

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


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