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East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Motifs



The concept of timshel runs through most of East of Eden. The word is Hebrew for "thou mayest," and the complete biblical phrase is "thou mayest rule over sin." Lee points out if thou mayest, it is possible thou mayest not. In other words, people have the choice to act or not, to be evil or not, to be good or not. Charles chooses not to be good and not to act when he is left alone on the farm with his miserliness and his violent temper. His choice causes him to lose Adam.

By enlisting in the army, Aron chooses to run from Cal and from the knowledge his mother is the infamous madam Kate. Cal's choice to try not to emulate his mother is difficult for him. To take revenge on Aron for being the favored son, Cal shows Aron their mother, a choice he makes but which leads to his losing Aron to the war.

Abra chooses to leave her family and join Cal's, discovering that she and Cal are alike and realizing she does not want to be someone who exists only in Aron's imagination. At the end of the novel Lee and Abra urge Adam to bless Cal, who is guilt-ridden about Aron's death and Adam's stroke. Adam's response, "Timshel," invites Cal back into the family regardless of what he has done.

Father-Son Relationships

Father-son relationships dominate this novel, whether the relationships show love or rejection. Samuel, the dominant father figure, is concerned for all of his sons and daughters and does his best to ensure they succeed on their own terms. He is a gentle man, who deeply loves his children and can show his emotions. On the other hand, Cyrus is the opposite, trying to make Adam into something he is not, but something Cyrus already is and wants to expand on. Cyrus succeeds only in alienating and frightening his son as well as rejecting outright his second son, Charles, causing a rift between the brothers that has detrimental and long-lasting effects on the next generation.

Adam's relationship with his sons is almost nonexistent until Samuel and Lee force the issue by making Adam participate in choosing names for the boys. Samuel has vast experience delivering and fathering children; Lee has none but shows strong parental instincts nonetheless. Through Samuel and Lee, Adam learns to be a father to his boys but still has trouble being sensitive to their desire for his approval. His rejection of Cal's gift of money may be a noble expression of social responsibility, but Adam's principles show no regard for Cal's feelings, nor for the work he did, nor for the initiative he took to help his father. His lies to Aron about the boys' mother also return to haunt him, because if Aron had known all along about Kate, he would not have rushed off to join the army and meet his death. Father-son relationships inform everything the boys do and everything their father and uncle have done as well.

Cain and Abel

The story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve's sons, is retold in several ways in East of Eden. Steinbeck purposely gives Cyrus and Alice the same initials as Cain and Abel, as Cyrus (the Cain figure) saps energy from Alice (the Abel figure) until she dies of consumption. Then Adam and Charles (A and C initials again) replay the hatred Cain has for Abel, leading to Abel's death and Cain's being marked by God for protection. This time, however, Charles does not kill Adam, but Charles lives unhappily, never continuing his line.

The relationship between Cal and Aron is another retelling of the Cain and Abel story, with a twist—Cal's impulse to be good and wanting his brother's love. Although jealous of Aron, Cal knows if he lets his jealousy go too far, Aron is capable of harming him, and he will lose Aron. This twist is exactly what happens, even after Cal tries to avoid his basic tendencies. His difficulty controlling his anger and jealousy dictates his actions, leading to Aron's enlistment in the army, similar to Adam's accepting his enlistment to escape from Charles. This time, however, the Abel character, Aron, does die, and Cal, with Lee pushing him to do it, asks for the mark of protection from his father.

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