East of Eden

John Steinbeck
  • Study Guide

Part Two, Chapters 18–22

Summary Part Two, Chapters 18–22

Summary: Chapter 21

Over time, Cathy begins to assume more and more control over Faye’s house. She takes advantage of the local doctor’s absentmindedness to begin slowly poisoning Faye with drugs. All the while, Cathy makes certain that the other girls believe her to be slavishly devoted to Faye. When Faye finally dies, Cathy pretends to be insensible with grief.

Summary: Chapter 22

Adam’s depression over Cathy’s departure does not lift. Lee confides to Samuel that Adam still has not named his infant sons, even though they are more than a year old. Samuel finds this abominable and lectures Adam for his melancholy. The two men argue, and the typically nonviolent Samuel strikes Adam with his fist in an attempt to jolt him out of his stupor. The tactic appears to work, and Samuel tells Adam that they must sit down and name the two infant boys.

The men look over the baby boys and discuss possible names for them. Samuel brings up the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Then, looking in a Bible, he suggests Joshua and Caleb as names for the boys. One of the boys cries when he hears the word Caleb, which Adam takes as a sign. The first boy, therefore, is named Caleb. Adam dislikes the name Joshua because Joshua was a warrior, so he chooses the name Aaron for his second boy. This choice pleases Samuel, even though he knows that the biblical Aaron never made it to the Promised Land (Canaan, or modern Israel). The second child cries out when he hears the name Aaron, which Adam takes as another sign, so the second boy is named Aaron.

Analysis: Chapters 18–22

The discussion of Cain and Abel during the naming of the twins explicitly invokes the biblical story that underlies all of East of Eden and its exploration of the struggle between good and evil. While naming the boys, Samuel, Lee, and Adam discuss the conflict between good and evil that exists throughout human civilization and within every individual. Adam remarks that the first time he read the story of Cain and Abel, he remembers feeling “a little outraged at God” because of the arbitrariness of God’s decision to favor Abel over Cain. Adam fails to see, however, the similarity between the story and his own life, especially Cyrus’s seemingly arbitrary favoring of Adam over Charles. Adam’s failure to make the connection is striking, as he clearly is aware that the Cain and Abel story has played itself out repeatedly in the countless generations of human history. Later, we see that Adam’s unawareness continues, as he himself favors one of his boys over the other in the same manner as his father.

In the whorehouse, not far away, Cathy takes her scheming to an unprecedented level as she engineers Faye’s demise. We learn that Cathy practices sadomasochism on her clients, using knives and whips to debase the human body further and to give vent to the uncontrollable evil inside her. We see once again, as we see earlier in her interactions with Mr. Edwards, that alcohol strips Cathy of her control, inducing her to confess her true feelings as she reveals her schemes to Faye. Perhaps the most appalling part of this section is the lengths to which Cathy goes to convince Faye—after drugging Faye, abusing her sleeping body, poisoning her with ammonia, and poking her with sharp objects in her sleep—that it was all just a nightmare. When the business finally becomes hers, Cathy runs it with an iron fist, keeping the prostitutes in constant fear of her rather than cultivating the somewhat motherly dynamic that Faye had established.

Cathy’s evil is so thorough and unrelenting that at times it may come across as implausible, especially since it does not appear that Cathy uses her evil acts to attain any sort of ultimate goal or aim. Indeed, many literary critics have taken Steinbeck to task in his portrayal of Cathy, claiming that the seeming totality of her evil undermines her believability as a character. When a family friend wrote to Steinbeck that he did not believe Cathy “because she was all bad,” Steinbeck replied, “I don’t know whether I believe her either but I know she exists.” Early in the novel, Steinbeck writes that Cathy is “indecipherable,” and to a large degree he does not attempt to explain her aside from his theory he advances that she was “born” evil. Most critics to this day, however, have not accepted Steinbeck’s vagueness in the matter, and the bulk of critics of East of Eden focus on Cathy as the novel’s major flaw.