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Allegorical novel; epic
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.
Philosophical; foreboding; nostalgic; hopeful
The Salinas Valley in northern California, with several episodes in Connecticut and Massachusetts, between 1862 and 1918.
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.
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.
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 The increasingly withdrawn Aron, meanwhile, retreats into the shelter of the church.
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.
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.