Published in 1952, “East of Eden” plays itself as biographical. The narrator, Steinbeck is telling the story of two families; the Trasks and his own family, the Hamiltons. Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, is one of the main characters in the book. Steinbeck’s original attempt was to share the Salinas Valley in California, where his family settled after leaving Ireland.
Samuel and Liza Hamilton raise their nine children in the Valley, but the interesting story is the other family in the novel, the Trasks. Their stories are rift with lies, theft, and murder. Cyrus, the patriarch, loses his leg in the Civil War and uses his military studies to embellish his time in the war. He becomes the Secretary of the Army and steals money from the Army, leaving it to his sons in his will. The story moves on to Adam and Charles, his sons. Adam’s wife, Cathy, becomes the villain of the story, while their sons, Aron and Cal add more turmoil.
East of Eden uses the characters of the Trask family to pay homage to the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis. Cathy, Adam’s wife becomes Eve, and uses sex to control people. Aron and Cal become Cain and Abel. Their tumultuous relationship hearkens to the jealousies of from the Bible. Cal tells his brother the truth about their mother which prompts Aron to join the army planning to die in battle, which he does.
In the end Lee, the prophet, asks Adam to bless his son, Cal who feels guilty for causing his brother’s death. He says, “Timshel,” which is Hebrew for “thou mayest.”
In the Salinas Valley of California the weather falls into thirty year cycles. There will be five or six years of the rain coming in heavily, followed by six or seven years with the rain falling moderately. Then the rest of the thirty years are dry. The Gabilan Mountains are to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains are to the west. Originally the valley was settled by the Native Americans who were replaced by the Spanish. Finally the Americans settled the valley.
By looking at old photographs and listening to stories the narrator begins to weave the tale of his families history. It begins with his grandparents, Samuel and Liza Hamilton. The settled in the Salinas Valley in 1870. They were late to the valley and the best plots were already taken, so they built their home in the driest plot. Since the land would not support his family of nine children, Samuel takes on work as a blacksmith, digging wells and even a doctor, but without a license. He built his home with his hands. He developed a tool for digging wells that would have made him wealthy but he was not a good businessman.
Liza kept her house scrupulously clean. She gave birth to nine large children and thought “idleness was a sin.” “She was suspicious of fun whether is involved dancing or singing or even laughter.”
Although most families settling the area were penniless, but not Adam Trask. He buys a plot of fertile land and settles into a life of plenty. Adam Trask was the son of a farmer from Connecticut, Cyrus Trask. Cyrus had fought in the Civil War. There he lost a leg and contracted syphilis from a prostitute that he brought home for his wife. When his wife realizes she had the disease she killed herself.
Cyrus soon finds a young woman, Alice to marry and take care of his children. He terrifies her to the point that she hides her illness from him. She fears the medical treatments he might use. Cyrus spends his free time studying military tactics and history so he can make up believable stories about his time in the war. Because of his many lies Cyrus is appointed Secretary of the Army.
Adam and his half brother, Charles are often at odds. Charles is aggressive and beats Adam severely once because he won a game against him. Adam tries to be kind to his stepmother, Alice. Cyrus tries to convince Adam to join the army. Cyrus doesn’t think Charles should join the army because they would bring out a part of his personality that should be suppressed. Cyrus tells Adam that he loves him more.
After Cyrus likes the present Adam gave him for his birthday better than the one given to him by Charles, Charles realizes that Adam is the favored son. Charles beats Adam almost to death and throws him in a ditch. After Adam makes his way home and tells his father what happened, Cyrus takes his gun and goes after Charles while Alice tends Adam’s wounds. Charles doesn’t come home for two weeks and when he does his father is over his anger and instead of killing him, Cyrus finds a job for Charles. Adam is enlisted into the Army while laying in bed recovering from his injuries.
While growing up in Ireland, Samuel Hamilton received his education by borrowing books from a neighboring family. Although he never gets wealthy, Samuel achieves the respect of his neighbors in America because of his kind nature. Samuel and Liza have four sons. Their oldest George is very moral but also boring.
The next son, Will becomes wealthy as an adult. Then there is Tom the passionate one and Joe the lazy one. Although he is well liked and intelligent. There five daughters, Lizzie, Una, Dessie, Olive and Mollie rarely associate with the family after they leave home. Olive, the mother of the narrator becomes a teacher. Liza lives her whole life abstaining from alcohol until the age of seventy when the doctor tells her to drink wine and she stays drunk the rest of her life.
By the time Cyrus moves to Washington as the Secretary of the Army, Adam is settled into life in the military. Meanwhile, Charles is running the farm in Connecticut. He visits prostitutes until he hurts his face leaving a scar that makes him feel uncomfortable with the women. Charles begins to miss Adam.
In 1885 Adam is discharged and travels to Washington to visit his father who is successful in his position. Adam misses the Army and plans to reenlist even though his father offers him a position at West Point. Charles is sad because he wants Adam to come home, but the brothers continue to correspond and grow closer.
Five years pass by with Adam fighting the Native Americans. Adam is discharged again and Cyrus dies leaving his sons a large inheritance of over a hundred thousand dollars to split between them. Charles begins to wonder if his father came by the money honestly. Adam has been slowly traveling back to the valley at one time being arrested for vagrancy and put on a chain gang. After some time Adam sends a telegram to Charles asking for a loan of a hundred dollars to go home.
After arriving Adam is kind of surprised to learn that he is no longer intimidated by his brother. As the brothers discuss their father, Charles tells him that Cyrus made up all the stories about his military career. He also thinks their father stole the fortune he is leaving them. Adam doesn’t agree but thinks they should take the money and move to California.
Chapter eight begins the story of Cathy Ames. “And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?” Cathy is such a monster. Although she is pretty, she is manipulative and morally bankrupt. She uses sex to hurt people. There were the boys who were caught with her in the barn and the Latin teacher who committed suicide.
At sixteen Cathy runs away from home. She made it as far as Boston when her father had the police pick her up. He brought her back home and whipped her for the first time in her life. After that she seemed to be more respectful. It was an act.
One evening Cathy arranges her escape. By 3 A.M. Cathy had spread chicken blood on the floor, stolen all the money from her father’s safe, lit a fire that burned the house down after she had locked the door from the outside trapping her parents inside. The blood on the floor led everyone to assume she had been murdered before the house was burned down killing her parents. Cathy went on to Boston using the name Catherine Amesbury. There she meets Mr. Edwards. He runs whorehouses throughout New England, but instead of putting her to work as one on his prostitutes he decides to keep her. Quickly she begins to manipulate him and he begins to fear her.
Their relationship becomes more and more toxic. Finally, after learning some of her previous actions, Mr. Edward takes her to the woods, beats her and leaves her hurt. Mr. Edwards goes home to his wife horrified at his actions and Cathy, who happens to be on the Trask farm, crawls to their house. Although Adam and Charles get along better, they still have a lot of arguments. Adam doesn’t like getting up early to work on the farm and takes frequent trips. Charles criticizes his brother frequently for his laziness while Adam tries to convince Charles to spend some of their money traveling.
He suggests Europe and Egypt. During one of these arguments they hear what they think may be a cat at the doorstep only to discover a bloody Cathy. The call for a doctor and the sheriff. Since her jaw is broken Cathy writes a note telling the sheriff she doesn’t remember anything. Adam wants her to stay and takes care of her while Charles wants her to go in order to save his reputation.
Instead of getting accustomed to Cathy with her long stay at the farm, Charles doesn’t like her there. One day while Adam has gone into town, Charles confronts her. He accuses her of lying about losing her memory. He tells her that while she was drugged by the doctor, she revealed her secrets in her sleep. She was worried. After that Charles feels better because she is so gullible.
Cathy is afraid of Charles so when Adam asks her to marry him, she agrees. She asks him not to tell his brother. But Charles becomes more suspicious especially after a neighbor finds a suitcase full of money and clothes near where she had been beaten. After Adam and Cathy go into town and elope, Charles is furious. Then when Adam tells Cathy they are going to move to California. This angers her, so in retaliation she tells Adam she is too injured to consummate their marriage. She drugs him and sneaks into Charles’ bed. They have sex.
“You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900.”
Adam and Cathy move to the Salinas Valley in California even though she doesn’t want to go. Charles is very unhappy and starts to drink which makes him impotent. He dives into his work on the farm, expanding it. He becomes “rich without pleasure and respected without friends.” Adam is happy with the valley and makes friends. Although the narrator points out that Cathy was a “monster” she made Adam happy. One day he comes home to find that Cathy had tried to abort her baby. Adam buys a ranch and 900 acres halfway between King City and San Lucas. Other ranchers tell him he needs to find Samuel Hamilton who knows everything about wells.
“The daughters of Samuel Hamilton were not destined to become work – destroyed farm wives. They were handsome girls and the carried with them the glow of the descent from the kings of Ireland.” So Olive Hamilton, the narrator’s mother, married the owner of the King City flour mill. Samuel Hamilton gave all his children a love of learning, and Olive became a teacher at eighteen. The school house was the center of the town, Olive was in charge of all the social activities in the town. As was usual for young school teachers she was sought after as a wife. But Olive did not want to become a rancher’s wife. So she waited for the King City flour mill owner.
Adam was like a “contented cat.” He doted on Cathy. Although she liked the luxury she lived in, she hated living in the Valley and she hated being pregnant. The had a Chinese American cook and housekeeper named Lee. Although he spoke perfect English he would use “Chinese talk.” With it he was able to control Adam and Cathy who was afraid of him because she couldn’t control him.
Adam hires Samuel to dig his well and work on his house. Samuel likes Adam but not Cathy. Samuel promises Adam he will help out when Cathy gives birth. So when she goes into labor, Lee comes after him. Adam is terrified and of no help so Samuel delivers their twins. Cathy is so terrible that Samuel finally tells her he doesn’t like her. She refuses to even look at her children.
Liza comes to help care for the children and Lee also cares for them, but not Cathy. A week after the children are born Cathy packs her bags and tries to leave. When Adam tries to lock her in her room she pulls a gun on him and shoots him in the shoulder. She tosses the pistol on the floor and steps over him then walks out the door. Adam bleeds on the floor while the twins cry for their food.
Adam tells the sheriff that he shot himself accidentally, but he knows that’s not the truth. He discovers that Cathy has moved into the brothel and is now a prostitute. They decide to keep the news from Adam and the twins. Cathy is now going by the name Kate. She is thriving. The owner of the brothel, Faye begins to love Cathy like a daughter.
Faye shows Cathy her will which leaves everything to Cathy. While they are celebrating, Cathy gets drunk and tells Faye off. Then she tells her about some of the extras she does for clients that Faye doesn’t know about. Including whips, razors and boots. As she keeps talking Faye gets more and more agitated. Cathy gives her some drugs to knock her out. Every time Faye regains consciousness Cathy convinces her it was all a nightmare and Cathy is taking good care of her. While Cathy keeps her drugged, she takes over the brothel. Everyone thinks she is kindly caring for the woman while she is slowly poisoning her. After Faye dies Cathy convinces everyone she is devastated.
Adam is in a deep depression after Cathy leaves him. He doesn’t even name his twins. Then when they are a year old Samuel makes Adam take an interest in his children. The two men decide to name the boys Caleb and Aaron.
Shortly after her marriage Samuel’s daughter, Una dies. Samuel is devastated and ages quickly. His children decide to get their parents off the farm more often for their health, so they make plans to have them visit their homes. He knows his children are helping into his old age. Before leaving Samuel drops by to see Adam. His sons are eleven years old. Aaron has dropped one of the a’s and is now Aron and Caleb goes by Cal. When Samuel asks Adam if he is happy, he doesn’t answer so Samuel says that he should move on after Cathy. He finally tells him where Cathy is in hopes it will make him get over her. It upsets Adam.
On a cold wintry day Tom, Samuel’s son and the one who is running the farm, gets a telegram telling him Samuel was dead. The funeral was packed because Samuel was well liked in the community. After the funeral Adam goes to seek Cathy at the brothel. When he sees how ugly she is after a life of depravity, he finally is able to walk away. Angry she tries to get back at him by telling him that she slept with Charles and he is the father of their children. Adam says he doesn’t believe her and it doesn’t matter anyway.
Adam considers taking the boys to visit Charles in the new car he bought, but before he can a letter arrives letting him know Charles was dead and had left a hundred thousand dollars to be split equally between he and Cathy. Adam has told his sons their mother was dead, so when Cal overhears Adam and Lee talking about Adam taking the money to Cathy, he is sad and wishes to be more heartless like Aron.
Liza Hamilton is staying with her daughter, Olive who is married to Ernest Steinbeck, the narrator’s father. Adam comes to visit and tells her he is considering moving into town. The Hamilton’s son Tom is still living at the farm and writing depressing poetry. His sister, Dessi moves back. They decide to rehab the farm house. Dessi dies and Tom thinks it is his fault. He decides to kill himself. He writes a letter to his mother telling her he has bought a new horse. Then he writes to Will telling him to tell their mother he died from falling off the horse. Then he shoots himself.
Adam and his sons move into town, while Lee goes to San Francisco to open a bookstore. After six days Lee comes back and tells Adam he didn’t want to run a bookstore after all. Adam invests a lot of his money into refrigerated train cars. He loses almost all his money. Adam and his sons become the fodder for jokes. When word gets out that Cathy is still alive Aron decides to deny it and Cal actually sees her. He decides to keep the truth from Aron. Cal tries to distance himself from Cathy’s evil by leading a moral life and Aron decides to become a minister.
Cal begins to follow his mother until he finally confronts her. She tries to convince him he is like her, but he denies it and tells her the light hurts her because she is evil. Afterwards, Cathy begins to feel she is haunted by Charles Trask and worries her poisoning of Faye will be found out. She becomes more and more paranoid.
During World War I Aron goes college. Cal and Lee pay for it. Lee uses the money he has saved. And Cal joins with Will Hamilton to raise beans and export them. Aron’s childhood sweetheart, Abra, thinks that Aron will decide not to marry her after he becomes a minister. Cal makes enough money to repay Lee for Aron’s tuition and help his father to rebuild his wealth.
Joe Valery is an escaped convict who has gone to work for Cathy as her bouncer. She thinks she can manipulate him and he thinks he can manipulate her. She tells him to find Ethel, the woman who tried to blackmail her after finding out about the poisoning. Cathy wants Joe to kill her. Joe finds out she is already dead, but tell Cathy the woman is coming back to Salinas.
Aron feels the pressure of Adam’s expectations and when Cal tries to give the money to Adam he becomes angry. He tells Cal to give the money back to the farmers he thinks he cheated. Cal becomes jealous of Aron. Although he calms down and apologizes to his father, he is still jealous of Aron. Finally Cal takes Aron to see Cathy. The next day Aron signs up for the army because he is too disgusted by the truth to live.
Cathy is devastated at Aron finding out about her. She sends a note to the sheriff to check Joe Valery’s fingerprints. She writes her will leaving everything to Aron and kills herself. Joe finds her body, will, keys to her safe deposit box and photos of all the prominent men she blackmails with their proclivities in her brothel. Before he can leave, the sheriff arrives and tries to arrest him. When Joe tries to run he is shot.
Adam is saddened by Cathy’s death. When the sheriff insists he tell Aron that he is in her will. They realize they don’t know where he is. They ask Cal and he says the line that is like the biblical, “Am I my brothers keeper?” Genesis 4:9. Cal says, “Am I supposed to look after him?”
Adam is is shock and Cal is overcome with guilt. Cal burns the money he tried to give Adam. Adam receives a postcard telling him Aron joined the army.
As the War progresses, Adam worries about Aron and his health fails. Abra says she isn’t in love with Aron anymore and is in love with Cal.
Adam tells Lee that he thinks his father’s fortune was stolen from the G.A.R. Lee thinks it is funny that the moral Adam lived off a stolen fortune, and the moral Aron will inherit his fortune from a brothel.
Abra spends more time at Cal’s house. She loves Lee and wishes he was her father. One summer afternoon Abra and Cal are having a picnic lunch and Lee is dreaming about the garden he will plant. A telegram arrives telling them Aron died in the war. Lee takes the news to Adam who has a stroke. Cal goes to see Adam on his death bed and Lee asks Adam to bless Cal and prove to him that he loves him. He touches Cal and says, “Timshel.”
Samuel Hamilton – an Irishman who settles with his large family in the Salinas Valley in California. He is self educated and friendly. He invents a well digger that should have made him rich, but didn’t. Although he never becomes rich, he is happy and has a loving family. He becomes friends with Adam Trask and helps deliver his twins. After the death of his daughter, Una he begins to age and finally turns his farm over to his son Tom. He and his wife, Liza travel between the homes of their grown children.
Liza Hamilton – Liza is the wife of Samuel and the mother of his nine children. While caring for her family she still manages to put manners and morals into her children. She is a tiny woman and strict with her children and husband.
Cyrus Trask – Adam’s father. After a minor stint in the Civil War, Cyrus studies military stories and tactics. Then he uses those stories to embellish his stint to make him seem a military hero. He is appointed the Secretary of the Army in Washington, D.C. During this time Cyrus accumulates a fortune that he leaves to his sons on his death. Adam believes he stole the money from the Army.
Adam Trask – Adam is a dreamer. He doesn’t want to settle down on the farm in Connecticut. He joins the Army and does two tours before he comes back to the farm. While he tries to talk his brother, Charles into relocating with him to California, they meet Cathy. She manipulates Adam into marrying her but sleeps with Charles on the night of her wedding. The book ends with the death of Adam and he says the last line, “Timshel” which is Hebrew for “thou mayest” or free will. He tells his son to choose his own path of morality.
Charles Trask – half brother of Adam and son of Cyrus. Charles begins as an angry, jealous child and becomes a grumpy, cynical and sometimes violent old man. Although he is very jealous of his brother, Charles misses him when he is gone. He doesn’t want to leave the farm in Connecticut. He never marries, but seeks prostitutes. Charles miserly builds up his fortune and leaves it to Adam and Cathy in his will. He never trusts Cathy, but sleeps with her anyway. He is the only person who frightens Cathy.
Cathy Ames – as a child Cathy learns to manipulate people. She is evil and ruins the lives of everyone in her life. Four young men who are caught in the barn with her are brutally whipped and punished when she lies about them. Her Latin teacher commits suicide. As a teenager she burns her house down killing her parents and staging her death. She becomes a prostitute and is beaten and left for dead by the owner of the brothels after she ruins his life. Adam and Charles find her and nurse her back to health. Adam asks her to marry him and then reveals after the wedding that they are moving to California. As punishment she drugs Adam on their wedding night and sleeps with Charles, who knows she is evil.
Cathy becomes pregnant with twins. After they are born she plans to leave them and Adam. When he tries to stop her, she shoots him. Leaving him bleeding on the floor, and the babies wailing, she goes into the city and starts work in the brothel. She begins to manipulate the brothel owner, Faye, and then kills her with poison. Cathy becomes the owner of the brothel where she runs a back room for sadomasochistic acts and uses photographs to blackmail the powerful men who participate. In the end she commits suicide and leaves her fortune to her son Aron.
John Steinbeck Biography
John Ernst Steinbeck was an American novelist and short-story writer, who described in his work the unending struggle of people who depend on working in the soil for their livelihood. Steinbeck was born on February 27th, 1902 in Salinas, California and educated at Stanford University. As a young man, Steinbeck worked on a ranch as a fruit picker.
In 1925, when he was in his early twenties, Steinbeck moved to New York City and began trying to form a career as a writer. He was unsuccessful, and 3 years later moved back to California to work as a tour guide at Lake Tahoe. It was there that he met his first wife, Carol Henning and the two married two years later in 1930. He soon moved into a cottage owned by his father and began writing with the gift of paper from older family members.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Steinbeck later claimed that he and his wife survived off of fish that he caught himself and vegetables from his own garden.
In 1929, Steinbeck’s first novel “Cup of Gold” was published. It is a novel based on the life of privateer Henry Morgan. In the early 1930’s, Steinbeck produced several shorter novels and in 1935 he produced his first successful novel called, “Tortilla Flat.” The novel won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Metal and in 1942 the book was adapted into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr.
It was also during this time that Steinbeck began writing a series of so-called “California novels” and Dust Bowl fiction that were set among normal, salt of the earth people during the time of the Great Depression. These included, “In Dubious Battle” (1936), “Of Mice and Men” (1937) and, Steinbeck’s most famous work, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939). “The Grapes of Wrath” became the best-selling novel of 1939 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among other esteemed awards. Both ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were also adapted into Academy-Award winning films.
Throughout the 1940’s, Steinbeck continued to write while also serving as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and working with the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Steinbeck befriended many soldiers and commanders during World War II and was present for many actual battles in Italy and Germany. After the war, Steinbeck returned with some psychological trauma and shrapnel wounds and began writing again.
By this point, Steinbeck had divorced Carol Henning and his second wife, Gwyn Conger with whom he had two sons, and married Elaine Scott, his third and final wife. In 1952 “East of Eden”, Steinbeck’s longest novel was published it was also made into a movie which became the famous actor James Dean’s film debut. In 1961, Steinbeck published his last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent” which was not a success as the public felt that the tone differed too much from his earlier work.
However, the next year, 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature. John Steinbeck died on December 20th 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66 year old. He was cremated and interred near his parents and grandparents graves in Salinas, California. To this day he remains a literary icon and many of his books are still considered classic literature.