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East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Context


Biblical Allegory

As an allegorical story, East of Eden is a modern-day retelling of the first four chapters of the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible. Steinbeck's story explores universal feelings such as jealousy and the theme of what characters inherit from past generations.

Adam Trask is a clear Adam figure—the biblical first man who means to build a fruitful life for future generations in the Eden of California, the state where he takes up residence after moving from Connecticut: "Look, Samuel, I mean to make a garden of my land. Remember my name is Adam." However, as an Eve figure—the biblical first woman—Cathy represents an evil extreme, perhaps closer to the serpent or devil figure who leads Adam and Eve to commit the first sin and thereby be cast by God from Eden. The biblical Eve bites into the forbidden apple out of curiosity or, at worst, temptation, but not out of evil. In Steinbeck's story, Cathy, a character disgusted by human hypocrisy or the inability to align belief with action, chooses to abandon Adam's attempt to recreate Eden in favor of a life that relishes carnal desire—the knowledge of which is the result of the first sin.

East of Eden is also rooted in the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the elder, becomes a farmer and Abel, a shepherd. When they make an offering to God, Cain offers produce from his fields, and Abel offers young lambs. God prefers Abel's gift of true sacrifice, incurring Cain's anger and jealousy. God tells Cain to take control of his sinful nature, introducing the concept of timshel, or the ability to avoid sin through choice. However, he refuses and lures his brother to the fields where he kills him.

The character of Samuel Hamilton claims that humanity is haunted by these two stories—original sin and Cain and Abel. Both are stories of human response to fear—the fear of not knowing and the fear of rejection, which often cause people to act with anger, hatred, or violence. The stories and their themes are the inheritance of humanity, and each new generation much choose how to respond—with anger and violence or with something new. Charles's unfinished killing of Adam transfers to Cal and Aron for resolution. And, although Cal destroys Aron, he cannot blame his actions on Cathy's evil bloodline. This destruction is not the inevitable fate of humanity. Each generation is given the choice to resolve the story differently.

The Salinas Valley

John Steinbeck's novels are frequently set in the Salinas Valley where he grew up. Known for his observations of the natural world and its connection to the human condition, Steinbeck begins East of Eden, his most autobiographical work of fiction, with a detailed description of the landscape. The Salinas Valley is so named because its location, close to the ocean, makes some of the bodies of water in the area brackish or salty. Salina is the Spanish word for "salt marsh" or "salt pans."

Also referred to as the "Salad Bowl of the World," the Salinas Valley is a land of agricultural riches but only for those who can afford good farmland that contains water. With increased farming, field workers and servants from China and Japan began to arrive in this area in the late 19th century. Lee, Adam's servant, represents the influx of that population and the racist treatment often inflicted on Asian immigrants as well as Asian Americans.

A Close Friendship

It would be difficult to talk about the development of John Steinbeck, the novelist, without mentioning John Steinbeck, the amateur marine biologist, and his close friendship with Edward Ricketts, founder of the Pacific Biological Laboratory in Monterey, California. In the preface to his memoir, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), Steinbeck describes his time at sea: "I grew to depend on his knowledge and on his patience in research." Ricketts's approach to observation and social acceptance reflects his belief that one must take whatever is there as it is.

This theory became Steinbeck's mantra, and each of his novels features a character who is able to stand back and view the larger picture, accepting what he sees and making the most of it. In East of Eden, Samuel Hamilton and Lee fulfill this role. The characters' observational skills combine those of Steinbeck and Ricketts, who served for 18 years as Steinbeck's sounding board, reality checker, role model, and spiritual healer. The calm Ricketts could temper the emotional Steinbeck, and this bond of male friendship became an integral part of much of Steinbeck's work.

In East of Eden the friendship between respected community member Samuel Hamilton and caring but impractical Adam Trask, as well as Samuel's friendship with Lee, gives Adam stability and direction he would otherwise lack, including a willingness to take emotional risks after being hurt. Samuel is creative, enthusiastic, and loving—a much-needed father figure and friend to Adam after Cathy gives birth and leaves. Lee and Samuel are a natural pair, both readers and intellectuals, both dedicated to Adam's recovery. When Samuel dies, Lee takes over the complete care of Adam. In these ways, Samuel and Lee each reflect aspects of Ricketts that Steinbeck admired.

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