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East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the significance of the detailed descriptions of flowers, land, and historic names in the Salinas Valley at the beginning of East of Eden?

The narrator, who is the author, John Steinbeck, gives a detailed description of the landscape and the history of names because he wants to give readers an idea of what the Salinas Valley was like at the time his grandparents, Samuel and Liza Hamilton, settled there. By describing the differences in soil quality as the valley rises to the top of the foothills, the narrator shows readers the differences between the ranches of poorer and richer people. By describing the plant life, he describes the beauty of the valley and his deep love for it and, by extension, the love his ancestors had for it as well. He relates the history of place names to allow readers to understand the mix of cultures and languages that made up the population at the time of his story. In addition, the narrator emphasizes the importance of water both in its abundance or lack because of rainfall and its presence on a farmer's or rancher's land. Land with little water on it had little value, and dry years caused severe hardship. The narrator's knowledge and memory of such details reveal how the land directs the lives of the people who live in the Salinas Valley.

At the end of Chapter 2 of East of Eden, why does Adam close his eyes when Alice smiles at him?

Adam closes his eyes in sadness because not only does Charles get the credit for leaving presents but also Alice thinks Charles's rough exterior partially hides his essential goodness. Adam has secretly loved Alice, because he has seen her rare smiles, which she keeps to herself. Adam loves Charles as well but knows his brother is a jealous and violent person with a short temper. Not a perceptive judge of people, Adam knows Charles's character well, for Adam frequently has been on the receiving end of Charles's rage. If Charles knew Adam was the one leaving presents, he would try to kill Adam again, so Adam can only close his eyes, demoralized but unable to tell Alice he is the one who has given her these gifts.

In East of Eden why does Adam, now in the cavalry, keep the one letter Charles did not intend to send?

Adam keeps the one letter Charles did not intend to send because it explains how Cyrus's rejection of the birthday present from Charles has continued to hurt him. It also explains how Charles feels about Adam's being in the military while he is on the farm and shows Adam why Charles acts the way he does. Charles knows Adam would have been happier on the farm and he would have been happier in the military, but it is Cyrus's love, or lack of love, that has put them where they are. Charles also writes that something has been left unfinished. This statement gives Adam the chills—maybe from fear of Charles attacking him again or fear that Charles is right about Alice's ghost visiting the house to remind Charles to reconcile face to face with his brother and to confront his father. Charles comes to this thought after having written to Adam many times, but he doesn't specify what he needs to do because he still does not know. He is at the very dangerous point of feeling as though he "had to go after" Adam, and Adam keeps the knowledge of that deadly jealousy in the forefront of his mind by keeping the letter.

In Chapter 2 of East of Eden, how do descriptions of Samuel Hamilton's hands and voice reflect his character?

The narrator describes Samuel Hamilton as having hands "so good and gentle that neighbors from twenty miles away would call on him to help with a birth." The narrator also describes Samuel as "a man of love," affectionate and extremely good at "soothing hysteria and bringing quiet to a frightened child." Samuel has an appealing deep voice, both for speaking and for singing; when he tells stories, everyone listens. He can make people laugh even when they don't feel like laughing, and he has a way of telling a story that no one can imitate. Steinbeck says Samuel is a "laughing man," and contrasts him with his wife, Liza, by using descriptions of her stern facial expressions and her grandchildren's fear of her.

In East of Eden which Hamilton son is most like Samuel Hamilton, and how does this similarity affect the novel's plot?

Tom Hamilton is the son who is most like Samuel because he is, as the narrator describes, "a giant in joy and enthusiasms." Like Samuel, Tom is a reader of books and full of big ideas he starts but doesn't finish, wearing himself out with the huge effort he puts into everything. With considerable sexual energy and a family grounded in religion, he feels shame, so he goes to extremes by splurging in brothels and then staying away from women altogether. As a result, he never marries. He is also a person who experiences "huge sorrow," which leads to his demise later in the novel. He is inventive, like Samuel, but he dares to try things Samuel would never consider. His personality dictates that he remain at the ranch as an adult, still living with his parents, and then alone, because he never quite reaches the greatness his father knows he carries. Nor does he have the capacity to function well in life, as his father does. He takes care of Dessie through her heartbreak, but when Dessie dies, Tom's great capacity for sadness and guilt overwhelms him, and he kills himself.

In East of Eden how does Charles Trask's scar link his relationship with his brother to the Cain and Abel story?

Charles Trask's scar is a source of shame for him, having acquired it accidentally by smashing himself in the head while moving boulders. He tries to move the boulder by using the same fury he has inflicted on Adam, and it, literally, marks him for life. In the Cain and Abel story, Cain is marked by God after he kills Abel; it is not a mark of shame, but of protection. Charles uses it as a mark of protection because he is so upset when people look at it and talk about it when they think he can't hear them that he doesn't want to go into town. The mark becomes a further excuse to isolate himself at the farm. He even goes so far as to say to Adam in a letter that he is "marked," a word Steinbeck chooses to link Charles to Cain in the biblical story.

What is the secret Charles Trask reveals to Adam about their father in Chapter 7 of East of Eden, and how does it affect each man?

Charles wants to tell Adam about the money they have inherited from their father, along with the information that their father wasn't at all the battles he said he fought in. Charles has the discharge papers for Cyrus Trask, and none of the battles appear on it. Nor did Cyrus earn enough at the G.A.R. to warrant the amount of money in his bank account. Charles's theory is that Cyrus stole the money, and now he, Charles, is ashamed to take it. He is ashamed that the man he loved so much is a liar and probably a thief. However, Adam, who didn't love Cyrus but feared him, has faith his father was not lying about his battles and did not steal the money. Adam says Charles's love for Cyrus makes him able to be suspicious of Cyrus and lose faith in him, whereas Adam, from more of an emotional distance, is able to believe Cyrus didn't lie. Adam reminds Charles he tried to kill him (Adam) and says he knows now that Charles was fighting for Cyrus's love. Charles remains confused and upset, but Adam feels relieved and unafraid.

In Chapter 8 of East of Eden, how does Steinbeck reveal that Cathy is the person who caused James Grew to commit suicide?

The narrator describes James Grew as unreasonably happy and optimistic when Cathy enters high school. He is singing to himself and trying to get back into divinity school. Then he suddenly becomes dejected, feverish, and twitchy. He calls in sick but is actually wandering around late at night by himself and spending considerable time praying in church. The first clue that Cathy is manipulating him is his showing up at the Ames house at night, frantic, and needing to speak with Cathy's father. Unable to explain himself inside the house, he wants Mr. Ames to come outside to talk with him. Mr. Ames knows something is different about Cathy and might believe she is manipulating people, but he sends Mr. Grew away and then thinks he sees Cathy's bedroom door close quietly. Steinbeck uses Mr. Grew's shrieking and his phrase "I can't wait" to illustrate his desperation. The next morning, Mr. Grew is found dead, having shot himself without leaving a note. When Mr. Ames lies at the dinner table about Mr. Grew's coming to the door, Cathy wipes her mouth and smiles, a telling gesture. She then makes up a lie about Mr. Grew's having had trouble in Boston, and the lie becomes truth. With her gestures and her lie, Steinbeck implies she made Mr. Grew fall in love with her and then rejected him, at which point he didn't want to live.

In Chapter 8 of East of Eden, how do the events leading to the house fire show Cathy has a criminal mind?

In the events leading to the house fire, Cathy tries to go to Boston, which later is revealed as the location of Mr. Edwards, the whoremaster she seeks when she returns after killing her parents. When she doesn't get what she wants and is whipped for trying to run away, she realizes she needs a different modus operandi and reveals just how fine a criminal mind she has: she waits for opportunities and seizes them, all the while looking as though she is doing nothing wrong. She pretends to be a perfect child at school and at home, cleaning and helping her mother. She takes care to ensure there are no cracks in the basement walls and stuffs them with paper. In addition, she endears herself to her father, who begins to trust her enough to explain the accounts at the tannery and show her how to open the safe. She remembers the combination right away. The big can of kerosene in the basement is not just for cleaning the chimneys, as she takes charge of it herself. She always has a smile on her face, which makes people not notice anything except how good and pretty she is. The day her mother asks her to get the payroll money from the bank, she has her opportunity to fill a jar with chicken blood (having unflinchingly cut the chicken's head off herself) and stash it for later. By the time the authorities discover the house fire, the open safe at the tannery with papers scattered, and the blood on the carriage house floor near a hair ribbon belonging to Cathy, she has headed for Boston, having patiently planned the perfect crime and executed it flawlessly.

In Chapter 9 of East of Eden, what is Cathy's one mistake with Mr. Edwards, and how does this mistake repeat throughout the novel?

Cathy's mistake is getting drunk when Mr. Edwards forces her to drink champagne, and her initial unwillingness to drink implies her knowledge of how she reacts to alcohol. When she drinks the champagne, she is unable to pretend she loves Mr. Edwards, insulting him and telling him she has manipulated him as she has manipulated many others. Cathy also gets violent when she drinks, and her attack on Mr. Edwards makes him understand he has made a mistake in keeping her as a mistress. This knowledge directly leads to his violent attack on her. When she is drunk, Cathy becomes too talkative, abusive, and violent, making her vulnerable to physical harm and disgust. Cathy's inability to drink without turning verbally and physically abusive returns when she drinks with Faye. As she usually does, however, she quickly comes up with a plan to cover her tracks and keeps up the manipulation. Faye is no match for Cathy. Cathy also drinks too much with Adam when he goes to see her. She is vicious to him, but he gets through it by not caring what she says or does.

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