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The narrator introduces us to a man named Joe Valery, an ex-convict who escaped from San Quentin and who now works as a pimp and bouncer for Cathy. He has looked for weaknesses in her but can find none. As a result, Joe has developed an admiration for Cathy that stems from fear.
The arthritis pain in Cathy’s hands has become so severe that she begins to rely heavily on Joe to run the brothel. Because she knows the secret about his convict past, she believes that she be able to control him. Nonetheless, he continues to constantly search for a way to manipulate and outwit her. Cathy sends Joe to find Ethel in the hopes that he will bring the prostitute back to Salinas and kill her before she can tell anyone about the bottles of poison Cathy used to murder Faye. Joe asks around about Ethel in the surrounding towns and counties and discovers that she is dead already. He tells Cathy, however, that he heard a rumor that Ethel is returning to Salinas in secret. The news terrifies Cathy.
The people of Salinas are in a patriotic fever over the war. One day, a crowd, including the narrator and his sister, torments the local tailor because he has a German accent; they even set fire to the man’s shop.
Adam is appointed to the local draft board, but he experiences intense guilt for sending young men away, possibly to their deaths. Lee reminds Adam of the concept of timshel: it is Adam’s choice, Lee implies, whether or not to work for the draft board. Adam is excited for Aron to come home from Stanford for Thanksgiving; he has decided that Aron is smarter and better than Cal, unaware of the fact that Aron is miserable at Stanford.
Joe Valery continues to scheme to manipulate Cathy with the specter of Ethel and her blackmail. Cathy, meanwhile, schemes to uncover Joe’s attempt to betray her. The pain in Cathy’s hands has become so severe that she wears a vial of morphine capsules around her neck in case she ever wants to commit suicide.
When Aron arrives in Salinas, he is depressed and unhappy about his father’s doting expectations for him. Cal, meanwhile, wraps up the $15,000 he plans to give to his father. He is nervous about Adam’s response to the gift and wants desperately for his father to like it. When Adam opens the gift at Thanksgiving and sees the money, he is shocked and asks Cal how he earned it. When Adam learns about the bean-reselling operation, he becomes angry and tells Cal to return the money to the farmers he robbed in his war profiteering.
Cal turns away and runs to his room, full of anger and jealousy for Aron. Lee tells Cal to control his reaction, and Cal does finally recognize that it is within his power to control himself. He apologizes to his father and goes to see Aron, who is on his way back from Abra’s house. Still roiling with jealousy, Cal tells Aron that he has something to show him. He takes Aron to see Cathy at her brothel. The next morning, Aron signs up for the army, too sickened by the truth to want to live.
The next day, Cathy is practically catatonic with the memory of Aron’s visit and his horror upon learning the truth about her. She sends a note to the sheriff advising him to check Joe Valery’s fingerprints and then writes a will in which she leaves all her worldly possessions to Aron. Cathy remembers her childhood, when she used to fantasize about forming a friendship with Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Cathy takes the morphine pill and imagines herself shrinking like Alice until she dies.
Joe Valery discovers Cathy’s body the next morning and finds the will she has written. He takes the keys to Cathy’s safe deposit box at the bank, as well as the photographs of the men she blackmails. However, just as Joe is about to leave the house, the sheriff’s deputy arrives and says that he has to bring Joe in to see the sheriff about something—the sheriff has read Cathy’s letter. Joe suddenly breaks away and tries to run, but the deputy guns him down as he flees.
On a biblical level, Adam’s rejection of Cal’s money parallels God’s rejection of Cain’s offering of grain—the act that prompts Cain to kill Abel out of jealousy. Furthermore, Adam’s rejection of Cal’s gift parallels Cyrus’s rejection of Charles’s gift earlier in the novel. In both cases, a father ignores the intentions of a loving son in order to focus on the son he has chosen to love better. In the early parts of the novel, Adam shows no love for Cyrus, while Charles loves Cyrus deeply; nonetheless, Cyrus idealizes Adam as the perfect son and prefers him to Charles. Similarly, Cal loves Adam more completely and selflessly than the anemic Aron, but Adam is so pleased with Aron’s matriculation at Stanford that he decides Aron can do no wrong. His strict sense of morality prevents Adam from accepting the money from Cal; he does not take the time to realize that Cal means well by giving him the money and that Cal merely has not thought about the moral complications of the way he earned it. Similarly, when Aron learns the truth about Cathy, his despair stems largely from the fact that his father lied to him so many years by claiming his mother was dead. Aron, who lives in a world of moral simplicity and extremity, is unable to understand that Adam lied to him in order to protect him and to shield his feelings.
When Cal takes Aron to Cathy’s brothel, he at least temporary loses his struggle with evil. In doing so, Cal fulfills his role in the Cain-Abel story, causing Aron to join the army and ship off to die in the war. Indeed, Cal brings Aron to their mother out of anger and a desire to inflict pain on his brother, not out of a desire to help Aron confront the ghosts of their family’s past. As expected, the revelation about Cathy shatters Aron: Cathy describes Aron’s horrible screaming when he sees her and Cal’s bitter laughter at the sight. However, although Cal has chosen evil once again, it is significant that East of Eden does not end with Aron’s disappearance: there is still time left for Cal to come to grips with his sin and make a decision about how he will direct his life. Cal must decide whether to choose goodness and strength or to give into the example of Cathy, whose spirit he feels inside him.
Cathy’s downfall, meanwhile, is precipitous. She becomes increasingly paranoid and suspicious until the point where she actually feels Charles Trask’s spirit inside her. Mirroring the emotional and psychological decay wrought by her life’s commitment to evil, her body degenerates as well. Her hands are ravaged by arthritis, she suffers from insomnia, and she fears exposure to light. The extraordinary pain she has inflicted on others simply for the sake of doing so now begins to come back to haunt her. As Cathy deteriorates, she relies upon increasingly desperate means to control those around her. As she realizes that she has no control over Cal, just as she has no control over Adam, she escapes in the only manner available—a morphine overdose. A vestige of her remains, however, in the form of the inheritance that she passes to Aron.
The fortune that Cathy leaves to Aron, the third such inheritance in the novel, is a symbol of the sin that has run through the Trask family ever since Cyrus’s original dishonesty and embezzlement. Cyrus leaves his tainted inheritance to Charles and Adam, and then Charles leaves an inheritance to Adam and Cathy. As a result, Cyrus’s fortune forms the core of Charles’s, and Charles’s then forms the core of Cathy’s. This family money represents an extraordinary legacy of dishonesty and evil passed down through the generations—Cyrus’s was likely earned through theft, and Cathy’s was earned through theft, extortion, and prostitution. The inheritance thus becomes a symbol of the idea that the sin of one generation is passed onto the next—the idea of original sin that came about when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. In this light, Adam, in a way, proves his essential goodness by squandering his own fortune; Cyrus, Charles, and Cathy, on the other hand, come across as evil by virtue of the fact that they increase their own fortunes. This idea of inherited sin is what makes Aron unable to stand the sight of his mother as a prostitute. Aron believes, as Cal has throughout the novel, that Cathy’s wickedness taints him morally and inevitably dooms him to evil.
In every prior instance of an inheritance in East of Eden, the money is divided evenly between two people, diffusing the legacy of sin that the money represents. In the case of Cathy’s fortune, however, Aron is the sole inheritor. Because Aron so fully accepts the idea of hereditary sin when the sight of Cathy crushes him, it is appropriate that the symbolic legacy of sin—the inheritance—should fall squarely upon his shoulders and his alone. Cal, on the other hand, receives no part of his mother’s legacy and thus is symbolically free from the tainted inheritance that has been passed down through the Trask generations.