Steinbeck’s East of Eden is, at its core, a meditation on the nature of good and evil and a reflection of man’s never-ending moral struggles. By covering over a half-century’s worth of Trask family history throughout the novel, Steinbeck demonstrates how each generation must confront their ancestors’ legacies in order to effectively navigate the world on their own terms. He explores these ethical dilemmas, which love often complicates, through a biblical lens, drawing from the story of Adam and Eve as well as Cain and Abel. From introducing the concept of original sin to highlighting the pain of paternal rejection, these narratives serve as the primary structuring principle of the novel. Making these frequent allusions to the Bible brings a degree of universality to what otherwise is a novel featuring very specific characters and scenarios, allowing the reader to see the broader moral forces impacting the Trask family. While Charles and Cal each seek approval from their fathers and Adam and Aron struggle to make sense of Cathy’s dark nature, the internal battle that Cal wages between good and evil ultimately serves as the novel’s central conflict. As an embodiment of Cain, Cal’s jealousy drives him to hurt his innocent brother. Unlike his biblical counterpart, however, he desperately yearns for redemption and must fight to free himself from his mother’s dark legacy.

In order to emphasize how the forces of good and evil impact each generation of Trasks, Steinbeck divides the novel into four parts, the first of which features Charles and Adam as young men struggling to make sense of their father’s complicated identity. Before diving into the Trasks’ world, however, Steinbeck begins by establishing the Salinas Valley as a setting symbolic of the moral dilemmas which the characters will inevitably face. The valley, which rests in between two contrasting mountain ranges and fluctuates between dry and wet seasons, serves as a stand-in for the biblical lands located east of Eden where Cain wanders. Steinbeck follows this opening by introducing the Hamilton family, a move which works to establish an honest presence in the valley. Although Samuel, Liza, and their children are not the narrative’s most central characters, they often serve as foils to the Trasks. Once the world of the valley is clearly established, Steinbeck begins to pursue the central plot of the novel. The inciting incident occurs when Cyrus Trask’s first wife gives birth to their son, Adam. He grows up to be gentle and kindhearted, but his half-brother, Charles, has a darker side which often drives him to act out. The tension that develops between these two brothers, especially once it becomes clear to them that Cyrus arbitrarily favors Adam, renders them the first iteration of Cain and Abel figures in the novel.

The rising action develops across the remainder of Part One as well as Parts Two and Three and highlights the impact that the introduction of evil has on the Trask family. The dishonestly-earned wealth that Cyrus leaves to his two sons acts as a symbol for original sin, tainting the family’s legacy and adding to the moral strain that both sons feel as they enter into adulthood. Cathy’s arrival on the Trask’s doorstep at the end of Part One, however, introduces an even greater evil into their lives. Part Two essentially becomes a retelling of the biblical Adam and Eve story as Adam takes Cathy, whom he blindly loves, to the Salinas Valley and vows to create an Edenic home for them. As an embodiment of the sins that Eve unknowingly commits, Cathy’s heartless abandonment of Adam and their infant sons leaves him in a hopeless daze. By alluding to this creation story in the middle of the novel, Steinbeck emphasizes that each generation experiences its own fall from grace and therefore has the power to respond to it in their own way. Adam allows his suffering to take over his life until Samuel Hamilton and Lee help him to refocus his energy on raising his own sons, Cal and Aron. Part Three follows the journey of the young Trasks as they develop contrasting personalities just like their father and uncle, turning them into a second iteration of Cain and Abel figures.

The final part of the novel is when the central conflict comes to the forefront of the plot, although its powerful resonance would not be possible without understanding the years of struggle and suffering that preceded it. Adam moves out of the valley with his boys to the town of Salinas proper, and this new, more social environment begins to challenge Cal and Aron’s worldviews. While the rumors that the town spreads about the Trask family weighs on both boys, Cal vows to learn the truth about his mother and discovers Cathy’s true identity. This information sparks his awareness of the moral contest between good and evil that characterizes his life, and he fears that he is not strong enough to resist the legacy of sinfulness within his family. When Adam rejects the money that Cal made for him by going into business with Will Hamilton, he feels so hurt and unloved that he gives in to his dark impulses and takes Aron to meet Cathy knowing full well that the experience will destroy his brother. This moment, which serves as the climax of the novel, parallels both Cain and Abel’s story as well as Charles and Adams’. Cal fails in his mission to live an upstanding life, but he refuses to let this transgression dictate his future. In the novel’s falling action, Cal expresses deep regret and feels responsible for Aron’s death in the war as well as Adam’s stroke. With Lee’s reassurance, however, Cal begs for and ultimately earns his father’s forgiveness. This conclusion emphasizes the key concept of timshel, or the power to choose between a life of good or evil, and allows Cal to move forward with a sense of hope.