The 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 $100,000 to his sons.
The 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.
Cyrus’s 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.
The 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, the idea that individuals are free to choose their own moral paths.
The 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.
The 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 War I.
The 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 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.
Samuel’s 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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 her illness.
The 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.
A 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.)
Adam 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.
The 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.
A 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.
The madam at the Salinas whorehouse where Cathy works as a prostitute. Cathy poisons Faye gradually, and after Faye finally dies, takes over the brothel.
A prostitute at Faye’s brothel who obtains proof that Cathy murdered Faye. Ethel tries to blackmail Cathy for a payment of $100 each month but is later discovered to have drowned.
An 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 to escape.