Summary: Chapter 51

Adam asked, “Do you know where your brother is?”

“No, I don’t,” said Cal. . . .

“He hasn’t been home for two nights. Where is he?”

“How do I know?” said Cal. “Am I supposed to look after him?”

See Important Quotations Explained

Horace Quinn, who has been promoted to sheriff, tells Adam about Cathy’s death. Adam weeps and wants to hide Cathy’s will from Aron. The sheriff convinces Adam to tell Aron, but no one seems to know where Aron is. When Adam asks Cal about Aron’s whereabouts, Cal snarls and asks, “Am I supposed to look after him?” Adam is overcome with a numb shock.

Lee looks through a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and remembers that long ago he stole the book from Samuel Hamilton, who likely knew Lee stole the book but said nothing. Lee goes to see Cal, who has been drinking heavily to cope with his guilt. Cal also has burned the $15,000 cash that his father rejected. Lee tells Cal that he needs to understand that he is simply a normal, flawed human being rather than an abstract and uncontrollable force of evil. This reminder soothes Cal’s spirit. On his way out, Lee finds Adam leaning against the wall as if in shock. In his hand is a postcard from Aron informing his father that he has joined the army.

Summary: Chapter 52

As the war takes a hard turn for American troops in Europe, Adam’s health takes a similar turn for the worse. He begins to experience numbness and pain in his hand and obsessively wonders and worries about Aron.

Cal speaks with Abra, who tells him that she no longer loves Aron, as he seems to live in a fantasy world of extreme moral contrasts. Cal tells Abra that Aron now knows the truth about Cathy, and Abra confesses that she learned about Cathy long ago. Abra tells Cal that she has fallen in love with him. Cal claims that he is not worthy of her, but Abra implies that she loves Cal precisely because of the moral struggles he undergoes.

At home, Abra’s father has withdrawn into seclusion and refuses to return phone calls from a local judge. Abra knows that her father is not sick, as her mother claims, but she is not sure what is wrong with him. Abra gathers up Aron’s love letters and burns them.

Summary: Chapter 53

One day, Adam tells Lee that he believes that the fortune his father, Cyrus, amassed was stolen from the Army. Lee contemplates the irony: the honest Adam Trask living his life on a stolen fortune, just as the good Aron Trask might live his life on a fortune made through prostitution.

Abra visits Lee, who is thrilled to see her and says that he wishes he were her father. Abra and Cal talk about the military and agree that Cal is not well suited to life as a soldier. Cal decides to take flowers to Cathy’s grave.

Summary: Chapter 54

Adam slowly starts to regain his health. When spring comes, Cal and Abra have a picnic in an azalea grove, where Abra takes Cal’s hand and tells him that he must never feel guilty about anything—not even about Aron. Lee looks through a seed catalogue and thinks of the garden he will plant in the spring.

A man comes to the door with a telegram announcing that Aron has been killed in the war. Lee, cursing Aron as a coward, enters Adam’s room to tell him the news of his son’s death.

Summary: Chapter 55

Adam has a stroke upon hearing the news and lies near death when Cal returns to the house. When Lee tells Cal what has happened, the boy is sick with grief and guilt. Cal goes to Abra, who does her best to comfort him. She takes him back to his house, where Lee tells Cal and Abra emphatically that they must always remember that they are in control of their lives and that they are not automatically doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes.

Lee takes Cal and Abra to see the dying Adam. Lee tells Adam that Cal, in informing Aron about his mother, committed a grave sin out of hurt he felt when he believed that Adam did not love him. Lee asks Adam to bless Cal before he dies. As Cal gazes down at him, Adam, with great effort, mouths the single word timshel, and then his eyes close in sleep.

Analysis: Chapters 51–55

In the final chapters of the novel, the turnarounds that Cal and Aron experience become complete, as Cal embraces the idea of timshel and Aron finalizes his withdrawal from the world by enlisting in the Army. Lee, who is so often the voice of sense and reason in the novel, cements Aron’s estrangement from us and from the other characters when he calls Aron a “coward” upon learning of his death. By calling the upright Aron a coward, Lee indicates that he thinks the same way that Abra does—namely, that Aron has retreated into a fantasy world to avoid dealing with the hard moral choices and temptations of the world.

Aron’s death completes the Cain-Abel story for Cal and Aron and leaves Cal in a misery of guilt and self-recrimination. Lee, however, advises Cal with a message of sense and optimism, saying that Cal should remember that he is simply a flawed human being, not a monster of evil like his mother. By giving this advice, Lee gently works to undermine the sense of moral determinism that has pervaded the novel and the Trask family since the start—the idea that people are doomed to act out the characteristics with which they are born. Lee’s advice to Cal provides a load-lightening affirmation that timshel, the freedom to choose between good and evil, really exists.

Adam’s final blessing of Cal represents a supreme moment of redemption both for Cal, who can now move beyond his guilt into a happier life with Abra, and for Adam, who makes up for the hurt he has caused Cal by preferring Aron. With Cathy and Aron gone, moral extremism—toward evil in Cathy’s case, toward good in Aron’s case—no longer dominates the Trask family. Rather than having a choice between only two extreme paths, Cal now has the freedom to resolve his inner moral conflict by taking a middle road. The optimism of the novel’s conclusion—as spring approaches and Lee plans to plant a garden—leads us to believe that Cal at last fully understands what timshel means and that he can overcome the agony of the past. Just as Cain kills Abel in the Bible, Cal commits sin and indirectly causes Aron’s death—but this time, with his father’s blessing, Cain confronts the sins of his fathers and is redeemed.