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East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Chapter 20 of East of Eden, how does Cathy (Kate) handle the drunkenness that nearly ruins her plans?

When Cathy (Kate) drinks even very little, she is apt to lose control of her emotions, talk too much, and become violent. Generally cautious, she knows her chemistry changes and remembers what happened when she attacked Mr. Edwards; losing control is something Cathy does not want to happen to her again. When she drinks champagne with Faye, Cathy reveals herself. All of her evil surfaces, her voice is "chill," and her mouth is a thin line of hatred. Steinbeck writes, "Her wide-set eyes slitted and grew watchful and sardonic." She tells Faye of the torture she inflicts on her regular clients. Horrified, disgusted, and completely deceived, Faye orders her to leave, but Cathy forces her to drink a sedative to make her sleep. Realizing that by her boastful confessions she has destroyed Faye's long-cultivated trust in just a few minutes, Cathy panics momentarily. Even drunk, she maintains a certain clear-headedness, refusing to let anything get the better of her. To clear her mind she forces herself to vomit the wine and during the night stays with Faye, waking her up by jabbing her, and then putting her back to sleep again to make her think what she heard was all part of a nightmare. Cathy quickly gets into a nightgown and convinces the others that Faye's shouts are part of a nightmare, to which Cathy can attest because as a loving "daughter," she has stayed with her "mother" throughout the night. With her pose of kindness and regard for Faye, Cathy is successful once again.

In East of Eden how do Cathy's (Kate's) qualities of patience and careful planning allow her to poison Faye without getting caught?

Cathy uses the daily routines of the house to start her plan, and takes advantage of every personality and resource she can to keep it moving smoothly. In this way no one ever suspects she is inflicting harm on Faye. Cathy pretends to be sick and gets access to Dr. Wilde's dispensary, taking home with her bottles of concoctions to make Faye ill. She finds out from Dr. Wilde that Faye has had stomach ailments before, so she knows where Faye is weak. Then she gradually makes everyone in the house feel good about themselves, and about her, by giving them gifts and compliments. Because she is Faye's daughter, she controls Faye's medications. She serves a meal to Faye by herself once a week, thereby allowing her access to the kitchen and the opportunity to put the poisons in Faye's food. Cathy accelerates her plan by getting the house to start growing and canning their own vegetables. She gives Faye a fatal dose of poison and herself a dose of nux vomica to make herself sick, so the doctor will believe she and Faye have contracted food poisoning. Faye never recovers, being subjected to more poison while Cathy gets better. Cathy finally administers the fatal dose in warm milk, disguised as a new medicine, and buries the medicine bottles in the yard. She pretends to lose her mind when Faye dies, so no one suspects her. This is such a long, drawn-out plan, put into action over a year, so no one can trace events back to her, and she remains patient enough to work the plan slowly.

In Chapter 22 of East of Eden, how is Samuel Hamilton's character revealed in his reaction to Adam's not naming the twins?

Samuel Hamilton has been staying away from Adam because Liza has told him he comes home morbid and depressed, and his mood affects his family negatively. However, when Lee comes into Will Hamilton's store and sees Samuel, Samuel takes him for a beer and finds out, more than a year after their births, that Adam hasn't yet named his twins. At first, Samuel doesn't believe it. His loving instincts make him an attentive father who not only carefully chose his children's names but also cultivated their interests and raised them well. Samuel would never dream of neglecting a child. To hear that Adam, his friend, hasn't even named his children and doesn't pay attention to them makes him angry and reveals what is most important to him in life: children. At this point, Samuel's fatherly, protective nature takes over, and he is determined to take care of this problem immediately. Samuel is so devoted to children being taken care of he is willing to fight physically with Adam, if necessary, to get him to do the right thing for his children.

In Chapter 23 of East of Eden, how does Liza Hamilton reverse a decision, and how does this reversal show her character?

Liza Hamilton listens to Samuel tell her he is going to the Trask ranch to tell Adam to name the babies. Until this point she has forbidden him to go there. However, she is moved by Samuel's reasoning for going and by the fact that he is willing to disobey her and suffer to get this necessary task accomplished for the sake of the children. Liza is thorough about making sure this trip happens in the correct manner: the way she would do it. First, she makes sure his reasons for going are sound, and when his explanation satisfies her, she warns him that if Adam doesn't name the babies, Samuel can't come back home. She believes Samuel will not be forceful enough to get Adam to do his job as a father, but Samuel's determination impresses Liza. She hands him a Bible to use for naming and insists Samuel take it and stop being "contentious." When he agrees with her, she tells him to stop agreeing with her because his agreement is insincere. Liza actually loves Samuel's personality because it gives her someone to take care of and guide. Underneath the stern figure she presents, Steinbeck shows that through her actions she values her husband's gentle nature and supports his views on taking care of children and doing the right thing.

In Chapter 23 of East of Eden, how does Lee use the Cain and Abel motif to express the theme of rejection?

Lee explains the Cain and Abel story in terms of its being a universal story that represents a feeling all humans, especially children, hate to feel: rejection. The conversation starts with the two obvious names for children of a man named Adam, which would be Cain and Abel, but all agree these names are inappropriate. After Samuel reads the Cain and Abel story, Lee says it is "the story of mankind": that rejection leads to anger, which leads to crimes against people we love, which leads to guilt and more anger. He says it is the big secret of our souls and notices that Adam remembers something when he says he didn't kill his brother. Adam doesn't reveal what that memory is, but readers can infer he is remembering that his brother represents Cain and he is Abel. Charles, after all, did try to kill him years ago out of jealousy and their father's rejection of Charles's love. Lee feels humanity would solve all its problems if rejection did not exist. Adam's rejection of his twins is on Lee's mind as well but is unspoken, and the conversation pushes Adam to ask for help in finding names in the Bible.

Why does Una Hamilton's death in East of Eden affect Samuel Hamilton more than it seems to affect Liza Hamilton?

When Una Hamilton's body is shipped home to be buried, it is clear from the state of her torn and scarred hands and feet that she has lived in extreme poverty. Her condition cuts directly to Samuel Hamilton's heart. Samuel blames himself for Una's death, because he didn't interfere and pay attention to how she was living with her strange husband. He feels his "negligence" caused her death, and Samuel cannot tolerate neglect of a child. This feeling that he could have prevented her death makes him age immediately, diminishing his resistance to life's stresses. Steinbeck says Samuel has had a "laughing wall" up against difficult things that happen in life, including death, but this particular death "breached his battlements." On the other hand, Liza Hamilton has an accepting nature as well as a belief that people will be better off in heaven. Therefore, while she is affected as a mother by the death of her child, she is able to recover more easily despite her sorrow. Samuel, however, takes guilt and sorrow on his shoulders and loses much of what kept him young.

In Chapter 23 of East of Eden, what character trait in Tom Hamilton makes him pull back from greatness, and how does it limit him?

The narrator says Tom Hamilton has a darkness about him that makes him assume responsibility for the happiness of everyone around him, a quality that Samuel Hamilton does not see as much as the narrator saw when he spent time with his Uncle Tom. Steinbeck could see Tom was hit hard by the loss of his niece Mary's trust. He wanted to make her happy but knew he could not because her childish wish wasn't possible. Tom has the warmth and loving nature of his father, as well as the daring and urge to read and create. But he goes so deeply into everything he does and it affects him so much that he can't function in society. He feels he is not worthy of a woman's love and gets no joy from going to brothels, though he goes through periods of doing just that and feeling guilty about it. He goes on a dark tear through the mountains when he hears Dessie, his favorite sibling, has a broken heart. He can't take on the professions his brothers have taken on because they give him no joy. He is still searching for the one thing that will be as dramatic as "birth and death, joy and sorrow." This darkness and desire for intensity that never lasts limits him because he can never follow through with his ideas without succumbing to the dark feelings he has about his unworthiness.

In Chapter 24 of East of Eden, how does Lee explain his discovery of the word timshel, and how does it change his view of sin?

Lee tells of having learned Hebrew as a child and of learning the words of God to Cain about sin outside his door. Lee later looks in his American Standard translation of the Bible to explore the Cain and Abel story that he, Adam, and Samuel discussed 10 years earlier. He realized the translation used a different term for how to triumph over sin. Lee says the translation orders people to triumph over sin; if they don't, it is because of their "ignorance." However, in Hebrew, timshel actually means "thou mayest," rather than the American "thou shalt," thus giving people the choice to triumph or not. No matter what a person is going through, the choice to do better is always there. Lee includes Cain in this equation, saying even after the murder of Abel, he still has "the great choice." The difference, he says, is that other creatures have no choice, and this revelation makes him love the human soul for its potential to reject sin.

How might Samuel Hamilton's character in East of Eden represent the figure of God in the Cain and Abel story?

In Chapter 24, Samuel's reference to Cain's being marked for protection by God is reminiscent of the protection he has given his own children regardless of their mistakes in life. Earlier in the story when Tom gets drunk, Samuel tells him he is just "jolly," rather than berate him for his slip in character. Samuel sees people as they are, but he also sees the concept of timshel in them, knowing everyone can make a choice to do better even after they have done something wrong. In the Cain and Abel story, that forgiving role, along with the belief that people have the choice to sin or not to sin, represents Samuel's attitude. He knows individuals make their own choices, and he is forgiving when they make mistakes and admit to them. He is particularly impressed with Adam's admission that he didn't have Lee teach the children Chinese because he was jealous. He feels this confession allows Adam to go forward and choose not to be jealous, as well as choose not to pass on jealousy to his children.

How is the concept of timshel related to Samuel Hamilton's telling Adam Trask the truth about Cathy in East of Eden?

Samuel Hamilton tells Lee the idea of timshel is what made him tell Adam about Cathy. He knows Adam will find out sooner or later, and it is better to get it over with now and let him deal with the pain. Samuel knows Adam has a choice about what to do, and he has to exercise that choice. Lee tells Samuel he has never seen him take a strong stand on something that might hurt someone else. Samuel then says he cannot have the truth on his conscience, and he has the choice of coming to the end of his life in sorrow or in happiness and freedom, and he has chosen the latter by clearing the secret. In doing so, he has also forced Adam to "live or get off the pot," meaning Adam, too, has to make a choice to do something about the emotional weight of Cathy in his mind if he is to live and give his children a good life. It is Samuel's last act as Adam's father figure, and an act of love.

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