Literature Study GuidesEast Of EdenPart 1 Chapters 1 3 Summary

East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 1

The narrator describes the natural world encapsulated in the Salinas Valley in California, recalling images from his childhood. These surroundings are what his grandparents, Samuel and Liza Hamilton, would have seen when they moved to the valley from Ireland about 1870.

Part 1, Chapter 2

Samuel Hamilton is a loud, loving, well-read, and intelligent man whose emotions are nearly always on display. A poor businessman who bought dry land that could not be farmed, he helps others find water on their property and helps them with their farming. Water is synonymous with wealth in the Salinas Valley, and Samuel has no financial wealth. However, he has a knack for finding water when others cannot and a talent for making people love and respect him. He sets up a smithy and does work for neighbors but rarely asks for payment when they forget it. Had he been a better businessman, Samuel could have been rich from well-rigging, hard work, and clever inventions, but Samuel, his wife, and nine children barely make ends meet. Liza Hamilton is the opposite of her husband; she is a tiny, unemotional woman, "humorless as a chicken," who runs a tight ship, guided by her religious faith, God, and her ability to stretch a dollar. Despite their lack of financial wealth, the family is rich in love, whether the obvious, jovial kind Samuel showers on his family and friends or the dour, all-business kind Liza gives to ensure her family stays on the right path.

Part 1, Chapter 3

Adam Trask is the son of a Civil War veteran who likely has stolen the money that Adam eventually inherits. In the backstory Adam's mother, Mrs. Trask, contracts gonorrhea from Cyrus Trask, Adam's father, when he comes home from the war. Cyrus has lost his leg, and Mrs. Trask proceeds to punish herself by drowning herself in a nearby shallow pond. The second Mrs. Trask, Alice, is a wife of convenience: quiet, obedient, and available in a matter of only two weeks. She gives birth to Adam's half-brother, Charles. As the boys grow up, Cyrus so rejects Charles in favor of Adam that Charles begins to beat up Adam out of jealousy when he does things well. Adam tries to please his stepmother by leaving her little gifts, which she thinks come from Charles.

The situation continues for years, with little change. Alice treats the boys equally, although she suspects Charles of having a kinder heart than he actually has, and Cyrus continues to favor Adam. When the boys are young men, Cyrus decides Adam should join the cavalry and Charles should take care of the farm, believing the army would strengthen Adam and be dangerous for Charles's temperament.

One year Cyrus's reaction to the boys' birthday gifts enrages Charles; his father prefers Adam's gift of a stray dog to Charles's gift of an expensive knife, which he saved his money to buy. In a rage Charles beats Adam so severely he can barely move. When Charles returns to kill him, he cannot find him because Adam has hauled his broken body into a ditch. When he finally drags himself home, Adam tells his father and Alice that Charles's jealousy comes from thinking his father does not love him. Although Charles loves Adam, his deep resentment at his brother's unwitting ability to gain his father's love with no effort at all results in uncontrolled rage.

Analysis

This section introduces the two families who figure prominently in the novel— the Hamiltons and the Trasks—and the theme of good versus evil. Samuel Hamilton's family may be somewhat scruffy and rough around the edges, but the Hamiltons instill their children with values of hard work and education. As Samuel and his wife are well respected in the community, they represent the good that develops from kindness to one's neighbor, a policy with roots in the Golden Rule, Liza's Bible verses, and Samuel's upright and generous nature. This policy also has its drawbacks in the family's precarious finances, but it does not affect Samuel's ability to be present when someone needs him.

The theme of evil goes hand in hand with the motif of the Cain and Abel story in which Cain kills Abel in a fit of anger. Charles nearly does the same to his brother, a result of violent urges he gets when Adam receives more attention than he does. Charles loves his father, but his father rejects this love and instead showers Adam with attention. After the boys give him birthday presents, Cyrus clearly and demonstrably prefers Adam's gift of the dog to Charles's knife. This rejection echoes the biblical rejection of Cain's offering to God, who preferred the gift Abel offered, and it hurts Charles so deeply that the pain continues throughout his life. The brothers love each other, but the war between good and evil that occurs when one sibling is rejected is being won by evil in this family. Adam is afraid of his father and has no desire to join the army, but he feels he must do what his father tells him. Leaving home will also save him from his brother's attacks, a solution he will rely on heavily in future chapters.

Father-son relationships are also highlighted in this section, with communicative, loving relationships between Samuel and his sons, even with Tom, the son who does not know how he will get along in life. The negative father-son relationships are twofold: Cyrus treats Charles poorly, ignoring him as though he were not even there; this rejection of his second son has detrimental effects. Cyrus also lets Adam know he is better loved, thereby placing a heavy burden on this child. While getting the approval of one's father may feel good, it is less fulfilling to gain it at the expense of a brother one loves. As a result of such behavior, Adam loses respect for Cyrus.

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