full title East of Eden
author John Steinbeck
type of work Novel
genre Allegorical novel; epic
time and place written January–November 1951; New York City, Nantucket
date of first publication 1952
narrator The story is told by a third-person narrator who is not omniscient and who greatly resembles John Steinbeck himself. In this sense, the narrator may or may not be a direct mouthpiece for the author. In addition to conveying the events of the novel, the narrator provides commentary and interrupts the story frequently to discuss human history and the human condition more broadly.
point of view The narrator speaks in the third person and shifts viewpoints among various characters, including Adam Trask, Cal Trask, Samuel Hamilton, Cathy Ames, Joe Valery, and others. The narrator’s authorial intrusions into the story often include musings in the first person.
tone Philosophical; foreboding; nostalgic; hopeful
setting (time) 1862–1918
setting (place) The Salinas Valley in northern California, with several episodes in Connecticut and Massachusetts
protagonists Adam Trask; Cal Trask
major conflict Aware of the legacy of evil that he has inherited from his mother, Cal Trask struggles with the question of whether he is destined to be evil himself or whether he can overcome this evil by free choice.
rising action While his sons are still boys, Cyrus Trask works as an army administrator and amasses a fortune, probably through embezzlement. Cathy Ames arrives on the Trasks’ doorstep, and Adam falls in love with her and marries her. Adam and Cathy then move to the California, where Adam meets Samuel Hamilton and Cathy unsuccessfully attempts to abort her unborn children. Cathy gives birth to Aron and Cal and promptly deserts the family. The crushed Adam does not know Cathy’s fate until Samuel reveals one day that Cathy is working at a nearby brothel. Although the revelation hurts Adam, he eventually confronts Cathy, recognizes her evil, and rejects her. Later, Cal too finds out about his mother’s profession. He struggles with this knowledge but keeps it from the fragile Aron. When Cathy confronts Cal one day, he stands up to her attempts at intimidation. The increasingly withdrawn Aron, meanwhile, retreats into the shelter of the church.
climax Cal, enraged and jealous when his father rejects Cal’s gift of $15,000, takes out his anger on Aron by telling him about their mother’s life as a prostitute. Cal then takes Aron to see Cathy at her brothel, fully aware that the revelation will destroy Aron.
falling action Shocked by the revelation about his mother, Aron enlists in the army, while Cal gradually wins the love of Abra Bacon. Aron is killed in World War I, and Adam, on his deathbed, finally gives his blessing to Cal.
themes The perpetual contest between good and evil; the freedom to overcome evil; the pain of paternal rejection
motifs The story of Cain and Abel; fortunes and inheritances
symbols The Salinas Valley; Charles’s scar
foreshadowing The names of characters foreshadow the roles they play in reenacting the biblical story of Cain and Abel; the narrator’s introduction of Cathy as a “monster” foreshadows her numerous evil deeds; the narrator’s musings on the importance of the individual in shaping human history foreshadow the idea of timshel and the ultimately hopeful message of the novel; Samuel’s mention that the biblical Aaron did not make it to the Promised Land foreshadows Aron’s death.