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The narrator begins by describing his childhood in California’s Salinas Valley, where he learned to tell east from west by looking at the mountains—the bright Gabilan Mountains to the east and the dark Santa Lucia Mountains to the west. The valley’s weather comes in thirty-year cycles: five or six years of heavy rainfall, six or seven years of moderate rainfall, and then many years of dryness. The valley was settled by three peoples: first, the Indians, whom the narrator derides as lazy; next, the Spanish, whom the narrator calls greedy; and finally, the Americans, who the narrator says are even greedier than the Spanish.
In 1870, Samuel and Liza Hamilton—the narrator’s grandparents—arrive in the Salinas Valley from Ireland. The Hamiltons are forced to settle on the driest and most barren land in the valley, as all the better lots are already taken. To support his nine children, Samuel works as a blacksmith, a well-digger, and an unlicensed doctor.
Some time after Samuel Hamilton arrives, a man named Adam Trask settles a fertile corner of the Salinas Valley for himself and lives as a wealthy man. After introducing Adam, the narrator jumps back in time to tell the story of Adam’s childhood.
Adam is the son of Cyrus Trask, a conniving Connecticut farmer who loses a leg in the Civil War and then passes on syphilis to his wife after contracting it from a black prostitute in the South. Cyrus’s pious wife commits suicide shortly after discovering her illness. Cyrus needs help with the children, so he marries a young woman named Alice, who lives in fear of her husband and even hides her tuberculosis from him out of worry that he might impose a harsh medical treatment upon her. In his spare time, Cyrus studies military history and strategy so that he might create convincing lies about his time in the Army. His lies about his alleged heroics in the Civil War gain him widespread respect and ultimately an appointment as Secretary of the Army.
As a boy, Adam Trask is kind and good-natured, but his half-brother, Charles, is boisterous and aggressive. One day, Charles beats Adam severely simply because Adam defeats him in a game. Adam loves his stepmother, Alice, and anonymously leaves her secret gifts in order to make her smile.
When Adam is a young man, Cyrus tries to convince him to go into the Army. When Adam asks his father why he does not want Charles to go into the army instead, Cyrus responds that the army would cultivate a part of Charles’s nature that needs to be suppressed. In addition, Cyrus says that he loves Adam better.
Later, Charles asks Adam about his conversation with their father. Adam learns that Charles is resentful about Cyrus’s recent birthday: Cyrus was completely indifferent to the expensive German knife Charles gave him as a gift, yet deeply appreciated the stray puppy Adam gave him. Suddenly, the jealous Charles beats Adam severely and leaves him in a ditch on the side of the road.
Adam limps home much later and weakly tells Cyrus that Charles thinks Cyrus does not love him. Cyrus leaves with a shotgun in search of Charles. Alice tends to Adam and tells him that Charles has a kind streak as well. It turns out that Alice mistakenly believes that Charles, not Adam, is the one who has been leaving her secret gifts for years.
Charles wisely stays away from home for two weeks. When he returns, Cyrus is over his rage and puts him to work.
Samuel Hamilton educated himself in Ireland by borrowing books from a wealthy family. In America, his gentle good nature wins him the respect of everyone he meets. The Hamiltons never become rich but live comfortably nonetheless. They have four sons: George, who is bland and moral; Will, who is lucky and grows up to be wealthy; Tom, who is ardent and passionate; and Joe, who is lazy but likable and intelligent. Samuel and Liza also have five daughters: Lizzie, who does not associate with the family very much; Una, who is dark and brooding; Dessie, whose lovely personality makes her well-loved; Olive, the narrator’s mother, who becomes a teacher; and Mollie, the baby and beauty of the family.
Liza Hamilton, like her husband, is highly respected in the Salinas valley. She strictly disapproves of alcoholic beverages until the age of seventy, when her doctor tells her to take port wine for medical reasons. From that day forward, the old woman drinks lustily.
The central concern of East of Eden is the struggle between good and evil within individuals and in society as a whole, and Steinbeck explores this struggle through a number of sets of contrasts. He opens the novel with a description of the Salinas Valley where he grew up, establishing an important early metaphor for the conflict between good and evil—the contrast between the dark, foreboding Santa Lucia Mountains to the west and the bright, welcoming Gabilan Mountains to the east. The narrator, whose voice is essentially that of Steinbeck, says that he learned to tell east from west by looking at these mountains. This role of the mountains symbolizes the human predicament of having to navigate between light and darkness, goodness and evil. Additionally, the opening chapters reveal the narrator’s tendency to meditate on history in violent and dramatic terms. In the opening chapter, we see that he tends to view the events of the past as inspired by greed and brutality. Later in the novel, he says that there is “only one story in the world”—the human struggle between good and evil.
Perhaps the most important contrast explored in this first section is that between the large, loving Hamilton family and the small, tension-ridden Trask family. In his portrayals of the patriarchs of these two families—Samuel Hamilton and Cyrus Trask, respectively—Steinbeck quickly establishes the different moral environments in which the children of the two families later develop. Samuel Hamilton is a powerful force of good and familial strength throughout the novel, whereas Cyrus Trask is a menacing figure of corruption and familial divisiveness. This initial contrast between the heads of the two families persists in the subsequent generations, as the Hamiltons remain close and loving while the Trasks are fraught with strife and hostility. We see this strife played out immediately in the next generation of the Trask family, as the good-natured and kind Adam frequently comes into conflict with the violent and manipulative Charles.
The biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, provides the basic template for many of the relationships in East of Eden—in the early parts of the novel, the relationship between. Charles and Adam. According to the Bible, Cain is a farmer, Abel a shepherd. When the two brothers bring sacrifices to God one day, Cain offers grain from his fields, while Abel offers the fattest portion of his flocks. God, seemingly arbitrarily, favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Cain then murders Abel out of jealousy. As punishment, God banishes Cain to the land of Nod, which lies “on the east of Eden”—hence the title of Steinbeck’s novel. In East of Eden, Charles and Adam mirror this biblical gift-giving in their birthday gifts to their father, Cyrus. Charles diligently saves money to buy Cyrus a German knife, while Adam, who hardly gives the gift a thought, presents Cyrus with a stray puppy he has found. Cyrus far prefers Adam’s gift to Charles’s, favors Adam in general, and even admits that he loves Adam more. Like Cain, Charles becomes intensely jealous and takes out his frustration on Adam, beating him brutally. But Charles, unlike Cain, does not kill his brother; for the moment, evil (Cain/Charles) and good (Abel/Adam) are locked in a struggle in which it seems that evil has the upper hand.