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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
In Chapter 34 of East of
Eden, the narrator articulates his belief that the struggle
between good and evil is the one recurring narrative of human history.
In fact, he goes so far as to state that there “is no other story.”
Writing from the perspective of the Christian tradition, the narrator
contends that every human individual since Adam and Eve and Cain
and Abel has struggled with the choice between good and evil. The
narrator writes that each person, when looking back on his or her
life, “will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good
or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” Because the struggle is
an individual one, the narrator implies that no progress is made
through the generations—each person must reenact the same ancient
story and grapple with the same ancient problems.
East of Eden dramatizes this perpetual
conflict between good and evil in the society of the Salinas Valley
as a whole and within the individuals of the Trask and Hamilton
families in particular. The main characters of the novel, generation
after generation, wrestle with the problem of evil.
Cyrus, the patriarch of the Trask family, apparently chooses evil
by stealing money during his term as a U.S. Army administrator.
Charles succumbs to jealousy of his brother, Adam. Cathy takes the
path of evil at every turn, manipulating and wounding others for
her own benefit. Cal, worried that he has inherited a legacy of
sin from his mother, struggles perhaps the hardest of all the characters.
Ultimately, the novel ends on a positive note, as Cal accepts the
possibility and responsibility of free will—of free choice between
good and evil. This optimistic ending is tempered, however, by our
knowledge that future generations will endlessly replay the same
struggle that Cal and his ancestors have endured.
Although one of the fundamental ideas in East
of Eden is that evil is an innate and inescapable human
problem, the novel also sets forth hope that each individual has
the freedom to overcome evil by his or her own choice. This idea
of free choice is encapsulated in the Hebrew word timshel, the
meaning of which Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, has researched. The word,
which translates to “thou mayest,” appears in the story of Cain
and Abel in the Bible, when God tells Cain that he has the freedom
to choose to overcome sin. Lee sees this idea of
free will as central to the human condition—in fact, he says that timshel might
be the “most important word in the world.”
The other characters in East of Eden have
different opinions regarding whether or not individuals can truly
overcome evil by free choice. Cathy, for instance, insists that
there is only evil in the world, so she immerses herself in it and
exploits other people’s human weaknesses to her own advantage. Aron,
meanwhile, is only able to face the good in the world, and the evil
that his mother embodies ultimately proves too much for him to handle.
Cal struggles to find a middle road between these two extremes.
Ultimately, he is successful, as he accepts Lee’s belief that evil
can be overcome and that morality is a free choice, regardless of
the fact that all humans are imperfect, sinful beings. With this
newfound knowledge, Cal is able to go forward into a new life with
Abra, confident that he controls his own moral destiny.
The dynamics of father-son relationships, especially the
issue of a father’s preference for one son over another, are central
to the story told in East of Eden. In the first
generation of the Trask family covered in the novel, Cyrus displays
a clear preference for Adam over Charles, for no discernible reason.
Charles, who seems to love his father far more than Adam does, senses
this disapproval from his father and resents it deeply. Charles’s
resentment comes to a head when Cyrus prefers the birthday gift
Adam gives him (a stray puppy, to which Adam gives hardly any thought)
to the gift Charles gives him (a knife for which Charles works hard
to save money in order to buy). Once again, Cyrus’s preference for
the puppy over the knife appears to be completely arbitrary, and
the disapproval enrages Charles. Later, Adam displays the same kind
of arbitrary favoritism in his relationships with his own sons,
Aron and Cal. Aron grows up to be somewhat cowardly and fragile,
while Cal courageously struggles to stay on the path of good amid
numerous temptations toward evil. Nonetheless, Adam perceives Aron
as ambitious and promising but dismisses Cal as shiftless and directionless.
Steinbeck patterns these father-son relationships in the
Trask family on an example in the Bible—the relationships that the
brothers Cain and Abel have with God, who represents a father figure
to both of them. When Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God
(mirrored in Steinbeck’s novel by Charles’s and Adam’s birthday
gifts to Cyrus), God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. Conspicuously,
neither God nor the narrator of the story in the Bible offers any
reason or justification for God’s preference. In East of
Eden, Adam mentions that, upon reading the story of Cain
and Abel, he felt “a little outraged at God” for favoring Abel so
arbitrarily. However, as we see, Adam favors Aron over Cal just
as arbitrarily as God favors Abel over Cain. Adam does not realize
the depth of his favoritism until he is on his deathbed, when he
acknowledges the mistake he has made and grants his final blessing