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.

Light and Dark Imagery

Repeated references to light and darkness throughout the novel work to emphasize the contest between good and evil playing out between characters and across generations. Through these visual cues, Steinbeck can foreshadow the direction of each character’s moral compass and remind the reader of the underlying cause of the novel’s primary conflicts. He first hints at the omnipresent nature of good and evil by describing the Gabilan Mountains as “light gay mountains full of sun” and the Santa Lucius Mountains as “dark and brooding” in the opening page. Using this contrasting imagery in relation to the setting suggests that the characters’ entire world is rooted in such competing forces. Throughout the remainder of the novel, the pull of good and evil manifests itself within each individual either physically or through their behavior. Charles and Cathy both have scars which appear to darken over time, signifying their capacity for evil. Meanwhile, Adam mistakenly views Cathy as a source of metaphorical light in his life, and this perspective emphasizes his impulse to trust those around him. Cal and Aron’s arrival in the novel introduces even more light and dark imagery, first during their birth as Cathy refuses to let any light in through the windows and later through their contrasting appearances. Aron’s light-colored hair gives him an angelic appearance, and Cal has darker features which symbolize his mischievous nature. By continuing this motif in the next generation of Trasks, Steinbeck is able to highlight the timelessness of man’s moral struggles.