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Aron and Cal (the nickname he has taken for Caleb) play outside, hunting rabbits. The narrator discusses the differences between them: Aron is good-natured and handsome, while Cal is manipulative and vague. The boys discuss their mother. Cal says that he has heard rumors that their mother is in Salinas, not in heaven, as Adam has told them. Enraged, Aron attacks Cal, who realizes that he has found something that gives him power over Aron—Aron’s feelings for their mother.
At home, the boys discover that they have visitors, the Bacons, who were passing by and have been caught in a sudden downpour. Mr. Bacon suggests to Adam that he rent out his farm and move to town if he does not intend to farm the land. Adam, lost in his own stream of thought, ponders taking the boys to visit his brother, Charles, whom they have never met.
Outside, the boys play with the Bacons’ daughter, Abra, who is kind to Aron, much to Cal’s annoyance. Cal offers to give Abra the rabbit he shot that day; Aron replies that it is his rabbit, but that Abra may take it home to bury it if she likes. Abra agrees. When Aron leaves, Cal makes up lies to upset Abra. Cal says that Lee beats Aron and that Aron is going to put a snake in the box rather than the dead rabbit.
As the Bacons drive away, Abra throws the box out of their buggy, which hurts Aron’s feelings—he has put a love note inside the box for her. Cal offers to give Aron his rifle if he wants to shoot Abra, but Aron points out that Cal does not have a rifle.
That night at dinner, the normally distant Adam surprises the boys by suddenly asking them questions, showing interest in them, and treating them with kindness. Cal asks where their mother is buried, and Adam lies that she was sent back to her home in the east.
Later, Lee tells Adam not to lie to the boys, for they will discover the truth one day, and in lying, Adam risks injuring their trust. Lee then talks about his own childhood. His mother and father worked on the railroads, his pregnant mother having disguised herself as a man so she could join her husband on the voyage to the United States. After she gave birth to Lee, a mob of the other (all male) railroad workers, shocked that she was a woman, raped and killed her. But then, feeling instant remorse and revulsion at their deed, the railroad workers raised Lee as one of their own.
Adam writes a loving letter to Charles asking him to visit California. He worries about how Charles will interpret the letter and impatiently waits for a reply.
Will Hamilton arrives at the Trask house with Adam’s new car, but neither Will nor the mechanic who comes the next day seems to understand how the car works.
Adam finally figures out the car and drives the boys into town in order to check his mail. In the mail is a letter from attorneys in Connecticut announcing that Charles has died and left a fortune of $100,000 to be split between Adam and Cathy.
Adam consults Lee about the inheritance, unable to understand why Charles would leave money to someone he despised. Cal eavesdrops on Adam and Lee’s conversation. Lee observes that Cathy is not likely to claim the money, but he notes that his advice is probably irrelevant because he is sure that Adam will give Cathy the money anyway.
Lee announces that he is feeling old and that he wants to go to San Francisco to open a bookstore. The overheard conversation makes Cal sad, and he prays to God to become more like Aron. Trying to be kind, Cal tells Aron that Adam plans to send a wreath to their mother’s grave. Cal gets into bed and continues to pray to God to make him better.
Adam goes to see Cathy at the brothel to inform her about Charles’s death and about her share of the fortune. Cathy is skeptical about Adam’s motives for telling her about the money, for she knows full well that he could have kept it for himself and never told her. Adam confronts Cathy, telling her that she is only “part of a human” and that she simply is incapable of believing that there is any good in the world. This touches a nerve with Cathy, who shakes in rage as Adam leaves.
On an impulse, Adam then goes to visit Liza Hamilton, who is currently staying in Salinas with her daughter Olive, who is married to a man named Ernest Steinbeck (the narrator’s father). Adam tells Liza that he is thinking of moving the twins into town.
After his father’s death, Tom Hamilton lives in the old ranch house and secretly writes melancholy poetry. After a time, his sister Dessie decides to come live with him, and he happily tells her that they will rejuvenate the old house. Tom paints the house and cleans everything thoroughly, but Dessie begins to suffer from intense stomach pains, the severity of which she attempts to hide from Tom.
Tom and Dessie decide to raise money for a trip abroad, and Tom hits upon the idea of making money by raising young pigs. When he returns from a trip into town to see Will about borrowing money for the pig business, however, he finds Dessie doubled over with pain. Tom gives her salts to drink—a traditional remedy—and calls a doctor. The doctor curses Tom, telling him that giving her salts was a mistake that likely has made Dessie’s ailment even worse. As the doctor steps out his door, he tells his wife to call Will Hamilton and inform him that he must drive the doctor to Tom’s house, as his sister is dying.
Dessie dies. Tom, sick with grief and guilt that he may have inadvertently caused her death, deliriously tells his father’s spirit that he wants to commit suicide. Tom writes a letter to his mother, telling her that he has decided to try to break in a wild new horse that he bought. He then writes a letter to Will instructing him to say, for their mother’s sake, that Tom was killed by a fall from a horse. After posting the letters, Tom shoots himself with his revolver and dies.
The Trask family strengthens as Cathy’s hold over Adam weakens. Now that Adam is free from Cathy’s spell, he emerges with a burst of enthusiasm and vitality, buying a car, writing to Charles, and committing himself to becoming a better father in an attempt to avoid the mistakes of his own father, Cyrus. Adam’s determination not to repeat his father’s mistakes is evidence that Adam believes in the idea of timshel. At first, the twins can hardly believe that their reserved, melancholy father is suddenly interested and excited about their lives. However, once they realize that a permanent change seems to have come over Adam, they respond by talking with him and loving him more.
Aron and Cal, respectively, bear striking similarities to the young Adam and Charles we see early in the novel. Aron has a light complexion and is kind, trusting, and open; Cal has a dark complexion and is manipulative, suspicious, and conflicted. Cal is deeply jealous of Aron and intentionally tries to hurt anyone who seems to love Aron more than him, as we see in Cal’s tormenting of Abra. Additionally, we see that the twins are old enough to wonder about their mother, and Steinbeck slowly builds suspense as Cal accumulates evidence that Cathy is still alive. Much of the dramatic tension in this portion of the novel stems from the sense of foreboding Steinbeck creates and our trepidation that either or both of the twins will one day meet their mother.
The relationship between Cal and Aron is the most powerful and complete retelling of the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden—with the key difference that Cal, the Cain character, seems open to the idea of timshel and thus may be able to overcome his mother’s legacy and live morally. So far, every major character in East of Eden has fit into the dichotomy of good and evil, with Adam, Samuel, and Lee falling in the former, and Cathy, Charles, and Cyrus in the latter. Aron appears destined to be good like his father, whereas Cal appears destined for evil like his mother and uncle. Cal’s prayers to God to make him kinder and better, however, differentiate him from his predecessors, as he recognizes his evil ways and fights to control them.
Although most of the main ideas and themes of East of Eden play themselves out within the Trask family, the Hamiltons continue to be of crucial importance to the novel. Steinbeck uses the Hamiltons not only to portray the world in which he himself was brought up and to contrast with the Trasks, but also to portray his idea of historical evolution. In one key passage, Steinbeck reflects on the origin of prostitution by remarking that a new frontier is always settled first by brave, wild, innocent men, who are soon followed by bankers, lawyers, and businessmen. The first generation of Hamiltons, represented by Samuel and Liza, is clearly in the category of brave innocents. The second generation of Hamiltons appears split between the passion and goodness handed down by Samuel and Liza and the commercial spirit of the bankers, lawyers, and businessmen, which Will clearly embodies. In this section, Dessie and Tom—the Hamiltons who most embody the spirit of their parents—come to tragic ends, leaving the overly business-minded and conservative Will as the main representative of the Hamiltons in the later parts of the novel.
The circumstances of Dessie’s death and Tom’s suicide add a faint, ironic echo to the story of Cain and Abel as it recurs throughout East of Eden. Tom plays a part in killing his sibling by giving her salts when he should not have done so. But unlike Cain, who tries to deny responsibility for Abel’s death, Tom takes too much responsibility, blaming himself for Dessie’s death when he really only committed an innocent and well-meaning mistake. Tom represents a sort of anti-Cain, whose essential goodness leads him to blame himself for being evil when he is not evil. This reversal also echoes the story of Cyrus Trask’s first wife—Adam’s mother—who committed suicide after contracting syphilis and left a suicide note confessing to sins that she had not committed. However, in the moral judgment of the novel, Tom’s suicide clearly represents a tragic error; as Lee tells Cal later, it is important for guilty people to realize that they are simply normal, flawed human beings, not abstract abominations of evil. Although the idea of timshel might have enabled Tom to grieve for Dessie but then go on with his life, Tom does not accept or recognize this idea and instead takes his penance to a tragic extreme.