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Literature Study GuidesEast Of EdenPart 4 Chapters 37 39 Summary

East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Part 4: Chapters 37–39 | Summary



Part 4, Chapter 37

Adam Trask decides to explore a business venture and test a theory. After buying an icebox to use at home, he believes refrigeration can be used to transport vegetables like lettuce, and he buys the ice company in Salinas to try it out, against Will Hamilton's advice. The buildup of the operation is huge and costly. Through a series of unfortunate events and delays, the lettuce arrives in New York more than a week later and is nothing but "slop." Adam has to pay for its disposal.

As a result, the boys are teased in school and called names that are variations on a theme of lettuce. Abra defends Aron in front of the others, who tease her too, but she is very public about her love for Aron. Aron, however, is embarrassed. The whole town talks about how Adam has lost his fortune, though Adam still has several thousand dollars and the farm, so he is not completely wiped out. Nevertheless the downswing in Adam's fortune makes Mr. and Mrs. Bacon tell Abra to find someone else. When she tells her parents she and Aron are engaged, they are horrified that the children have made such a decision.

Part 4, Chapter 38

Tall and dark, Cal has becomes a night wanderer, and the inevitable happens—he goes to Kate's and is horrified not so much by what goes on as by the men who enjoy watching. He confesses to Lee he knows about Kate and asks about Adam and his role in the marriage and Kate's life. Lee explains that his mother has no kindness in her, but Adam has so much it becomes a fault. Cal, choked up, tells Lee he loves his father. Lee tells Cal he loves Adam too, and his love is why he stays. As Cal abruptly tries to leave, Lee makes sure he has not told Aron and won't but will support Aron if he does find out. Cal is desperately sad because he now knows where he gets his evil streak. Angrily Lee tells him genetics are no excuse for cruelty, as he has his father's kindness in him as well.

Aron has begun to explore religion, drawn to the Episcopal Church, which he attends regularly and in which he is confirmed. Deciding he will become a minister, he informs Abra they will have to live a life of celibacy. Abra goes along with it, though she believes they will have children one day. Aron tries to impart his religious views to Cal, who finds his brother smug, and loses interest quickly. Reacting to Aron's self-righteousness about his triumph over sins he never committed, Cal thinks sardonically about revealing to Aron what he knows about their mother. But he reasons that if Aron can't handle the idea of sex, he certainly can't handle knowing about Kate, and Cal says nothing.

Part 4, Chapter 39

During a sweep of gambling places, Cal is arrested—he likes to observe rather than gamble—and Adam, although not angry with Cal, must confront him about his night wandering. Adam says he is a bad father, like his father was, for not getting to know the boys better. As the two talk at length, Adam tells Cal about his own jail time, and Cal tells him that he and Aron don't think Adam is a bad father. Cal reveals he, but not Aron, knows about Kate. Cal stays home from school to talk further with Adam and confesses to treating Aron badly, but Aron never retaliates. Cal thinks Aron is too sensitive, too good, to face the truth about their mother, basing his judgment on Aron's reaction—physical sickness—to Abra's anger at Aron's choice of religious isolation.

The conversation brings Adam and Cal closer, as Cal determines not to be like his mother and starts following her to learn more about her. After eight weeks, Kate, now arthritic, confronts him and takes him inside to her dark room (claiming the light hurts her eyes) to talk about Aron and Adam. When Cal tells Kate he loves Adam, she flinches. At first she thinks Cal is like her when he talks about being mean to Aron, and she calls him Charles. He corrects her and asks if she ever thought something was missing that other people knew about. She shuts down, and Cal realizes he is not a model of her but his own self, and tells her the light that hurts her eyes is really her own fear.


The sense of exploration and invention Adam suddenly feels is a direct inheritance from father figure Samuel Hamilton. The failure does not devastate Adam, who actually wants to try again—another inheritance from Samuel being a sense of bravery. Lee is the voice of reason, though, in telling Adam to be more careful with how much he spends, for the venture has been costly.

The effect of this disaster on the boys is immediate, and sensitive Aron, in particular, is ashamed of his father's failure. His relationship with his father becomes somewhat strained because of it, and Steinbeck uses Aron's embarrassment about Abra's public displays of affection to foreshadow the inevitable slide into religion, the ministry, and celibacy. Abra's dislike of Mr. Rolf, Aron's mentor in the church, reveals a darker side of Abra than what Aron sees. The relationship between Abra and Aron can't continue if Aron keeps deciding Abra's life for her in unrealistic ways. Aron's inability to take Abra's real character and desires into account is his inheritance from his father, who did the same with Cathy. The difference is that Abra is actually a good person, who desires a relationship with someone who loves her for who she is, rather from a warped desire to inflict evil on others.

Timshel is the motif in the conversation between Lee and Cal once Cal has seen Kate at work. Steinbeck's vivid description of the ''circus'' itself mimics the swirl of confusion Cal experiences in seeing all of this for the first time, although the author avoids graphic details. Cal seems to think emotional inheritance is written in stone, but Lee chastises him and reminds him both sides exist in him, the good and the bad. Lee knows a person can choose to be kind, parentage not being the determining factor in behavior, and he tries to educate Cal to remove that excuse for meanness.

Steinbeck uses Cal's conversation with his mother to reveal her evil and its repellent effect on him. The description of Kate's physical appearance, the crooked hands and sharp teeth, reinforce her corrupted spirit as well as her body, and reader knows she remains who she always has been. When Cal talks about his meanness, she knows exactly what he is talking about but takes it further and then calls him Charles. His response is a defense against her—"Caleb got to the Promised Land." Kate completely shuts down when he starts talking about something missing, and that something is the love of someone else. When Cal realizes he has this good in him, he knows Lee is right about being his own person and making choices. Cal's realization that Kate is actually afraid of him because he is good makes him glad and reveals the effects of the new closeness with his father, an example of positive father-son relationships.

In these chapters the distinctions between Cal's and Aron's behavior is noteworthy. Aron, who resembles his mother physically, is becoming smug and intolerant, a negative exaggeration of what is considered goodness. Cal, on the other hand, dark and brooding, is becoming "enlightened," moving away from cruelty to acceptance of goodness. Furthermore, unlike Aron, Cal understands the weakness that exaggerated sensibilities can cause.

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