East of Eden

John Steinbeck
Further Study

Study Questions

Further Study Study Questions

What symbolic roles do wealth and inheritance play in the novel? How is Adam able to sidestep the moral taint of Cyrus’s fortune? How is Cal able to do so?

There are three large inheritances in the Trask family in East of Eden, each worth about $100,000: Cyrus’s fortune, which he splits between Adam and Charles; Charles’s fortune, which he splits between Adam and Cathy; and Cathy’s fortune, which she gives solely to Aron. Each fortune is made up of part of the fortune before it: Cyrus’s fortune is the core of Charles’s, Charles’s the core of Cathy’s. All of this money is ill-gotten—earned through theft, blackmail, bad faith, and prostitution. In this light, it symbolizes the biblical idea of original sin, the inherently human evil that is passed down through the generations. Cyrus’s evil afflicts Charles, and Charles’s evil afflicts Cathy. Aron’s psychological breakdown when he realizes the truth about his mother largely stems from his worry about this idea of inherited sin. Aron fears that Cathy’s evil makes him inherently evil, and this fear is what shatters him. When Cathy leaves her entire fortune to Aron upon her death, an enormous symbolic burden is placed on his shoulders. Adam effectively sidesteps the taint of inheritance by losing the money in a poorly executed business venture. Ultimately, Steinbeck rejects the idea of inherited moral determinism by replacing it with the idea of timshel, that each individual is free to choose his own moral destiny. Because Cal is the character who finally comes to embody the idea of timshel, it is appropriate that he should not inherit a cent of Cathy’s fortune.

What role does the story of Cain and Abel play in East of Eden? What is the significance of the novel’s title?

The biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, provides the narrative framework of Steinbeck’s novel. In the Bible, Cain, jealous that God approves of Abel’s sacrificial offering over Cain’s, kills Abel and then lies to God about it. East of Eden explores the fundamental conflict of good and evil in human life and essentially retells the story of Cain and Abel twice, once with Adam and Charles and once with Aron and Cal. The latter is the more direct retelling, as Cal’s revelation of the truth about their mother to Aron indirectly causes Aron’s death. Furthermore, when Adam asks Cal where Aron has gone, Cal’s snarling response—“Am I supposed to look out for him?”—mirrors Cain’s famous retort to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A discrepancy between two different translated versions of the story of Cain and Abel illuminates the idea of timshel, the notion that each individual is free to choose his or her own moral path. Timshel becomes the central thematic idea in East of Eden, as it enables Cal and Adam to be redeemed from guilt for Aron’s death. The Cain and Abel story also gives the novel its title: after disobeying God, Cain is exiled to the land of Nod, which lies “on the east of Eden.” Additionally, the title implies that the novel’s characters, like the first biblical family, have been expelled from moral paradise and are forced to contend with the world of human evil and sin, embodied by Cathy.

What role does Lee play in the novel? How would you characterize Steinbeck’s portrayal of him?

Though he may initially appear to be merely a secondary character, Lee is one of the most important figures in the novel. Despite his humorous introduction—of Chinese origin and American birth, he mimics a Chinese accent to play into the expectations of white Americans, outsmarting them all the while—Lee ultimately becomes the voice of wisdom and reason in the novel and often articulates some of the novel’s most important themes. It is Lee who researches and explains the idea of timshel and discovers the true meaning of the word. Furthermore, it is Lee who reassures Cal that he is a normal, flawed human being, not a monstrous force of evil simply because his mother, Cathy, is evil. Throughout the novel, Lee proves to be a subtle, intelligent man who continually thwarts the expectations both we and the other characters hold for him. Acting as a force of stability and constancy within the Trask household, Lee exposes the racial prejudices of some of the other characters—the deputy who calls him “Ching Chong,” for instance—in their ridiculousness and irrelevance.