Summary: Chapter 12

The narrator discusses his view of history. He believes that the human capacity for nostalgia causes most unpleasant events to be glossed over or forgotten. He chalks up the entire nineteenth century, including the Civil War, to a great upwelling of greed and brutality. As the twentieth century began, he says, people had to forget the previous century in order to move into the next.

Summary: Chapter 13

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.

See Important Quotations Explained

The narrator writes that it is individuals, not groups, who accomplish great and inspired deeds. In light of this belief, he worries that the twentieth century’s move toward automation and mass production will dampen the creative faculties of humankind.

Adam Trask moves Cathy, his newfound creative inspiration, to the Salinas Valley in California, despite her wishes to the contrary. The day Adam and Cathy leave, Charles drinks himself into a stupor, visits a prostitute, and weeps when he finds that the alcohol has made him impotent.

Adam meets many of the Salinas Valley locals, immediately fits in with them, and begins his search for a good plot of land to buy. Returning home one day, he finds Cathy unconscious and nearly dead of blood loss in the bedroom. Adam fetches a doctor, who quickly realizes that Cathy is pregnant and that she has tried to abort her baby with a knitting needle. The furious doctor scolds Cathy for attempting to destroy life, but she placates him by lying that her family has a history of epilepsy and that she was afraid she would pass on her epilepsy on to her unborn child. The doctor believes Cathy and reassures her that epilepsy is not hereditary. He tells Adam that Cathy is pregnant.

Adam drives out to speak to Samuel Hamilton to get advice about a plot of land, as Adam has heard that Samuel is very knowledgeable about the valley. The two men discuss their plans for the future. The next day, Adam decides to buy an old ranch halfway between the towns of King City and San Lucas.

Summary: Chapter 14

Olive Hamilton, one of Samuel’s daughters (and the mother of the novel’s narrator), becomes a teacher in order to avoid life as a ranch wife. Determined to live in a town, she refuses to marry a farmer of any kind. Finally, she marries the owner of the King City flourmill and has four children. The narrator remembers his mother as a strict, loving woman who hammered a fear of debt into her children and who nursed her son through a severe case of pneumonia.

During World War I, Olive sold Liberty bonds to support the war effort, and she did so well that the government awarded her its grandest prize—a ride in an airplane. Terrified at the thought of flying, Olive went through with the flight only for the sake of her excited children. Once in the air, the pilot misunderstood Olive’s wishes and performed a number of aeronautic stunts. Dizzied and sickened after landing, Olive stayed in bed for two days.

Summary: Chapter 15

Adam becomes deeply happy in his life in California with Cathy. He hires a Chinese-American man named Lee as a cook and housekeeper. Lee makes Cathy nervous, but she enjoys the relatively luxury of her existence nonetheless. One day, while giving Samuel a ride to the Trasks, Lee confides in Samuel that he likes being a servant because it enables him to control his master. Lee says that, although he has lived in America all his life, he uses pidgin English—sentences such as “Me talkee Chinese talk”—to play into Americans’ stereotypes and expectations of him.

Adam asks Samuel to help him search for water on his land to determine if it will be good for farming. Adam tells Samuel about his past in Connecticut. Later, at dinner at the Trask house, Samuel finds himself virtually ignored by his hosts. Adam dotes on Cathy, while Cathy appears completely withdrawn into herself. After Samuel leaves, Cathy shocks Adam by telling him that she never wanted to come to California and that she plans to leave as soon as she is able. Adam tells her that things will change for her when her child is born.

Summary: Chapter 16

Samuel likes Adam but is chilled by the inhumanity he senses in Cathy. Samuel agrees to help Adam renovate the old, decrepit house on the ranch Adam has bought. Liza, however, disapproves, for she thinks that the Trasks’ wealth and idleness are marks of immorality.

Summary: Chapter 17

One day, while Samuel is working at the Trask house, Lee appears and reports that Cathy is in labor. Lee comments that there is something unpleasant about Cathy, and Samuel agrees. Despite Cathy’s overt hostility—she even bites Samuel on the hand as he attempts to help her deliver—Samuel helps her through labor, and she gives birth to twin boys. Cathy refuses to look at the infants, which prompts Samuel to tell her outright that he does not like her.

Liza goes to the Trasks’ to help with the infants, and Lee also cares for the twins, despite his growing sense of foreboding about Cathy. After Cathy has rested for a week, Adam knocks on her door, and she appears at the door dressed for travel. She tells Adam that she is leaving and that she does not care what he does with the infants. Adam locks Cathy in her room. When he opens the door later, she has a gun pointed at him and shoots him in the shoulder. Adam falls to the floor and lies helplessly as the twins wail in the background.

Analysis: Chapters 12–17

Steinbeck opens Part Two of East of Eden with a meditation on the power of the individual that foreshadows some of the novel’s later developments. Thus far in the novel, we have seen the characters encounter the choice between good and evil—some are clearly on the path of good, while others are on the path of evil. However, it is unclear at this point whether these characters truly have the ability to choose between good and evil. Charles’s and Adam’s personalities seem to have been determined from the time they were young boys; likewise, Steinbeck speculates that Cathy was “born” a “monster.” Here, however, despite these seeming instances of predetermination, Steinbeck argues that there is nothing more valuable in the world than the “free exploring mind of the individual human.” He implies a power of individual choice that is similar to the biblical idea of timshel that surfaces in the upcoming chapters.

The news of Cathy’s pregnancy comes hand in hand with the revelation that she has attempted an abortion on her own unborn infants, which further establishes her as a demonic anti-mother figure, a perversion of the biblical Eve. In a household that should be a bed of fertility—a husband and wife living on a ranch in a particularly fertile corner of the Salinas Valley—Cathy is a cancer and a parasite. Cathy’s evil constitutes more than just cunning self-interest, for it appears that some part of her actually craves debasement. Unlike the biblical Eve, who is tricked into committing sin, Cathy revels in sin for its own sake. Her inability to trust anyone puts her in a position of longing for control—specifically, the kind of control she can achieve through manipulation and deceit, guarding her true motivations while exploiting other people’s trust.

Although the chapter about Olive Hamilton may at first seem out of place, its position directly following the chapter about Cathy’s abortion attempt highlights the contrast between the Trask and Hamilton families. Whereas Cathy is evil to the core and actively tries to destroy her unborn children, Olive is a loving and nurturing figure. A teacher by profession, she has four children of her own, whom she raises sternly but with clear, loving concern for their character and well being. The story of Olive’s terrifying flight in a government plane indicates the depth of her love for her family, as she undergoes the ordeal of the flight simply to please her children. Throughout East of Eden, Steinbeck employs such alternating chapters between the Trasks and the Hamiltons to maintain the Hamiltons as a point of contrast, even though they are not the main focus of the story.

Likewise, the personable and astute Lee provides a counterbalance to Cathy’s nastiness throughout the novel. Lee provides a much-needed note of humor to the novel, as he revels that he has duped Adam and others with a thick Chinese accent even though he has grown up in America and has gone to college. More important, Lee is wise, not only on an intellectual level—he shares Samuel’s love of books and philosophy—but also on an intuitive level, as we see in his justifiable distrust of Cathy. Like Charles, Lee makes Cathy nervous because he always seems to see through her schemes. The honesty and good nature that Lee exhibits infuse the otherwise barren Trask household with a sense of goodness and love, balancing the evil that emanates from Cathy. In this sense, the dynamic between Lee and Cathy is yet another microcosmic arena for the human struggle between good and evil.