Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Salinas Valley

Although the Salinas Valley in northern California provides the setting for several of Steinbeck’s works, its role is arguably greatest in East of Eden. In fact, The Salinas Valley was one of Steinbeck’s working titles for the novel, which Steinbeck described as “a sort of autobiography of the Salinas Valley.” The narrator opens East of Eden with a nostalgic, lyrical description of the valley, recalling the sights, smells, and other memories of his Salinas childhood. He also establishes the valley as a symbolic arena for the struggle between good and evil: the valley is enclosed by the inviting Gabilan Mountains to the east—“light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness”—and the “dark and brooding” Santa Lucia Mountains to the west. Described in such a manner, the mountains symbolize the human struggle to navigate between good and evil. The Salinas Valley between them can be seen as a representation of the lands where the biblical Adam and Eve live after God banishes them from Eden. After being driven from Eden, Adam and Eve are forced to live in a world in which the dangers and temptations of evil are ever-present. Likewise, the main characters in East of Eden struggle to exercise free will in the face of the inherited evils of their ancestors.

Charles’s Scar

Early in the novel, Charles Trask loses his temper while struggling to move a large boulder from his yard and, in the process, cuts his forehead badly with the crowbar he is using to pry out the rock. The wound heals but leaves a large, ugly scar that, unlike most scars, is darker than the skin that surrounds it. Charles’s scar corresponds to the “mark of Cain” in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. After God discovers Cain’s murder of Abel, he banishes Cain to the lands east of Eden and puts a mark on Cain so that no one who encounters him will kill him. In this regard, the mark is not a curse but a form of protection. In East of Eden, Charles’s own words highlight this symbolic connection. In a letter to his brother, Adam, Charles writes about the scar: “I don’t know why it bothers me. I got plenty other scars. It just seems like I was marked.” Charles’s words make the symbolic connection unmistakable and reinforce the relationship between Charles and Adam as a surrogate for the relationship between Cain and Abel—a relationship that Cal and Aron repeat in the next generation.

Cathy’s Arthritis

As Cathy ages, she develops severe arthritis in her hands, and this condition serves as a physical manifestation of her wickedness. The pain she suffers as a result emphasizes the significant toll that her life of wrongdoing begins to have on her conscience, especially as she feels her grip on power weakening. Cathy first notices the onset of arthritis not long after collecting the money that Charles left to her in his will. This inheritance, already tainted by the lies of his father Cyrus, brings her even deeper into the Trasks’ morally ambiguous world and sets her on a path toward self-destruction. Cathy’s arthritis worsens as she fears that a former prostitute from the brothel will report her to the authorities for murdering Faye, and when Cal meets her for the first time, he quickly takes note of her crooked and bandaged fingers. The fact that the arthritis begins in her hands is significant in and of itself given that hands can act as a symbol for manipulation and control, two elements which are central to Cathy’s villainous behavior throughout the novel. As the progression of her disease indicates, however, these same qualities lead to her downfall as she grows paranoid about whether or not others believed her lies. The spread of her arthritis into other areas of her body emphasizes the increased weight that her dark past has on her conscience, and her decision to take her life by overdosing on morphine, a drug intended to relieve her pain, indicates that her mental and physical suffering became too much to bear.