East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Plot Summary

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Summary

A novel in four parts, East of Eden chronicles two families: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Each generation of the Trask family contends with the balance between love and hatred illustrated in the biblical story of Cain and Abel; the Hamilton family patriarch, Samuel, is a version of the biblical patriarch, Abraham. The struggle between God and human beings—between good and evil—is a theme in this epic tale. Steinbeck also uses the strong bond between people and their land to scaffold the story. Access to water and agricultural bounty determine who gains wealth but not necessarily who gains happiness or emotional peace.

Part 1

East of Eden opens with the narrator's first-person description of the Salinas Valley and its natural beauty. This is the land on which the narrator's grandparents, Samuel and Liza Hamilton, both from Ireland, settle. The Hamiltons purchase land with almost no water, and thus no real farming potential, so Samuel makes a living by drilling wells for others, blacksmithing, and acting as a self-taught doctor. However, he rarely demands payment, so the Hamiltons, who arrived poor, live with little to spare.

The Trasks—Cyrus and his first wife—live in Connecticut and have one child, Adam. After his wife commits suicide as a result of contracting gonorrhea from her husband, Cyrus takes two weeks to find Alice, who becomes the second Mrs. Trask and mother of Charles. Adam and Charles love each other deeply, but Charles is a boy who can be full of love one minute and full of hatred the next if he thinks he is being bested by Adam. On one occasion, he beats Adam so severely that Adam learns it is safer never to do better than Charles at anything. However, the one thing Adam does better through no fault of his own is gain his father's love, which Charles badly wants. When Charles learns Cyrus is sending Adam into the military, Charles beats Adam again and tries to kill him.

Cyrus sends Adam to be a soldier although Adam doesn't want to go; Charles stays home to keep the farm going. Time passes, and Charles writes to Adam to tell him Alice has died and Cyrus has gone to Washington to take a job. Charles hopes Adam will return soon, but Adam re-enlists instead to avoid reuniting with Charles. When he is discharged as a sergeant and says he is coming home, he wanders instead and is picked up twice and jailed for vagrancy. He escapes and walks home, showing up at Charles's doorstep. He and Charles re-establish a better relationship because Cyrus has died; Charles's reason for jealousy is gone. In addition, Cyrus has left the boys enough money so they are now rich. Adam travels periodically to avoid conflicts with Charles.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, Cathy Ames, a pretty young girl whom the narrator describes frequently as "a monster," grows to be a sexually precocious teenager, who decides not to return to school after having made her teacher fall in love with her and kill himself. Her father beats her to punish her, and she pretends to reform her ways until one day she packs her things, steals money from her father, makes her action look like theft, and sets fire to the house, killing her parents. She scatters chicken blood and a few of her possessions on the carriage house to fool others into thinking she was murdered.

Cathy goes to Boston and becomes a prostitute. The whoremaster, Mr. Edwards, falls in love with her and becomes so infatuated as to allow her to steal from him without retribution. But when he makes her drink champagne one evening, the alcohol causes her to lose her inhibitions. She reveals her vicious thoughts and attacks him with a broken champagne glass. Finding out about the burning of Cathy's parents' house and their deaths, Mr. Edwards takes Cathy to the Connecticut countryside where he beats her unconscious. Thinking he has killed her, he leaves her body there, along with the quirt (a whip) he used and her oak box of money.

Barely alive, Cathy drags herself to the nearby Trask farmhouse. Adam takes her in, takes care of her, and falls in love with her. However, Charles sees her for what she is, having heard that neighbors found the box of money, the whip, and a man's clothes. When Cathy is nearly well, Charles tells Adam to get her out. Adam, deluded about her nature, marries her and decides to take her to California, even though she does not want to go. On their wedding night, Cathy has sex with Charles after she slips her sleeping medication into Adam's tea.

Part 2

Adam moves to California with Cathy, who is pregnant. He meets Samuel, whom he has enlisted to find water on a property he wants to buy. Cathy bides her time, telling no one of her plans and trusting no one. She rides out the pregnancy and plans to do the same with the marriage.

The narrator then describes Samuel's daughter, Olive, the narrator's mother. Olive becomes a teacher and rejects many suitors until she meets a man who can offer her the city life she wants. They move to Salinas and start a family, three girls and the narrator, a boy. Olive is handsome, headstrong, insistent her children obey her, terrified of debt, courageous, and unstoppable when angry.

When Samuel comes to the Trask property to drill wells, he meets Lee, Adam's Chinese housekeeper and cook. Samuel rapidly discerns that Lee's broken English is a front, and Lee, American born and college educated, begins to talk with Samuel in fluent English. He and Samuel become confidants. Samuel finds water on the property and stays for a meal with the Trasks, getting a cold feeling from Cathy. On the way home, Samuel remembers a boyhood experience of seeing a criminal being hanged and realizes he sees the same look in Cathy's eyes that he saw in the criminal's. Meanwhile, Cathy tells Adam she is going to leave as soon as she has the baby, but Adam doesn't believe her.

Samuel and two of his boys go to work for Adam. After several months, when Cathy is about to give birth, Lee asks Samuel to help because he doesn't want to help Cathy, Lee being another person who senses her evil. When Samuel goes in to help her, she bites him, causing him to become extremely ill. After she gives birth to twins, she doesn't want to see them and makes Samuel take them away. Lee nurses Samuel's wound and says he wants to leave. Samuel asks him to get Liza, who takes care of Cathy and sends Samuel to the hospital. Lee takes care of the infants. After a week, Cathy packs her bags and says she's leaving. Adam tries to stop her by locking her in her room. She apologizes through the door, but when he opens it, she shoots him and leaves. A while later, Deputy Sheriff Horace Quinn, along with his friend Julius Euskadi, comes to the Trask house to question Adam, and Quinn finally gets Adam to admit Cathy shot him. When Quinn consults the sheriff for guidance, he learns Cathy, now calling herself Kate, is a prostitute at Faye's brothel in Salinas. Over time, Kate gets Faye to trust her like a daughter and poisons her once she agrees to leave Kate the business in her will. Kate even gets sick herself to make the poisoning look more believable, and she takes over the brothel.

Samuel and Lee get Adam to pull himself together and take care of the twins. Adam is afraid they will be like Cathy or Charles, but Samuel says they will be what Adam teaches them to be. They discuss the Cain and Abel story and the idea of timshel, the notion that human beings can make their own choices. The three men name the babies Caleb and Aron.

Part 3

The narrator describes Samuel's favorite daughter, Una, married to an intense man who took her away to the north and shipped her body home when she died soon after. Samuel is devastated by Una's death. Then the narrator describes the other Hamilton children—George, Will, Joe, Mollie, Lizzie, Dessie, and Tom. John, the narrator and son of Olive, and his sister Mary spend time with their Uncle Tom. At Thanksgiving, the Hamilton children discover Samuel has finally become an old man in need of care himself. They suggest he and Liza go on a trip to visit the children and their families, and Tom can take care of the ranch while he is gone. Samuel visits Lee and Adam before he leaves, and Lee tells them both he is staying to take care of the boys and Adam. Samuel informs Adam that Cathy owns a brothel in Salinas, an establishment at which the most depraved acts take place. Lee and Samuel discuss timshel, which means "Thou mayest," the concept that people have freedom to choose good or evil.

While away, Samuel dies. After the funeral, Adam decides to visit Cathy, now called Kate. She drinks with him, and the alcohol again makes her lose control. Kate tries to convince Adam she could get him back, revealing how she has manipulated men since she was a child because they all wanted to sleep with her. Kate says the entire world is evil and shows Adam photos of well-respected men of the community willingly abused by her prostitutes. She says she will leave in a few years and mail those photos to expose the men. Adam gets up to leave, and Kate tries to convince him to stay and sleep with her. She reveals she slept with his brother and the twins are likely Charles's sons. Adam decides it doesn't matter, and Kate tries to have her guard, Ralph, beat Adam. Ralph won't do it because Adam isn't fighting back. Kate tells Adam she hates him but realizes her words have no effect on him.

At age 11 Aron and Cal now hunt together. When they kill a rabbit, Cal tries to share credit with Aron. Aron accuses Cal of always trying to start fights with him. Cal tells Aron he heard their mother actually ran away, and Aron starts to cry, saying Lee told him his mother is in heaven. Cal uses this information about their mother as an emotional weapon to taunt, while Aron is more of a physical fighter. They make up, and Cal promises not to say such things again. When they get home, they meet Mr. and Mrs. Bacon and their daughter, Abra, who have stopped in to avoid the rain. Abra begins to fall for Aron. Aron decides he wants to marry her and tries to give her the rabbit he and Cal killed, but she won't take it, having been secretly discouraged by Cal. After the Bacons leave, Adam informs the boys he wants to move the family to Salinas. Lee tells Adam about his childhood—born in a railroad camp and raised by the men in the camp who killed his mother. The story pushes Adam to write Charles a letter, inviting him to visit.

Adam buys a car, which he and the boys learn to drive. While Aron and Cal play in the car, Aron tells Cal he doesn't understand why Cal does mean things on purpose. Cal feels dirty for planning ways to hurt his brother and wants Aron to continue loving him. Adam learns Charles died before receiving the letter and has left money to be divided between Adam and Kate. Adam takes Kate the letter from the lawyer and tells her she has inherited $50,000. She doesn't believe him, convinced it's a trick. Adam tells Kate she sees only ugliness in people and doesn't understand anything good. As he leaves, she is enraged, but in tears.

Dessie, ordinarily full of laughter, goes through a difficult marital breakup and becomes depressed. She decides to leave her failing dress shop in Salinas and stay with Tom, who is not doing well alone at the ranch. Although she has not discussed it with anyone, Dessie is suffering from a mysterious and recurring pain in her stomach. She and Tom decide they will travel together, and to get money they will raise pigs. When Tom returns from consulting with Will and being told the idea is crazy, he finds Dessie in pain and gives her a glass of salts, which makes her worse. He calls the doctor, who tells him he was foolish to give her salts, as it was the wrong treatment for Dessie's condition. Dessie dies, and Tom is convinced he killed her. He writes Liza a letter in which he mentions a new horse he has bought and his plans to visit her. Then he writes to Will, asking him to tell Liza he fell off a horse. Tom shoots himself and dies.

Part 4

Adam buys an ice company and starts a refrigeration business to transport lettuce, but the venture fails miserably. Having learned about Kate, Cal sneaks off to the brothel and discovers what kind of business his mother runs. He worries he is as bad as she is, but Lee assures him he has the ability to decide what he's going to be. Cal and Adam talk about Cal's difficult relationship with Aron, and Cal says he wants to stay at home and run the farm to make enough money to put Aron through college. He tells his father he will never treat Aron badly again and doesn't hate his mother. Adam realizes Cal knows his mother is alive and what she does.

Attracted to the church, Aron decides he wants to be a minister, pushing Abra away with his passion for this new calling. Cal begins to follow Kate around, wanting to learn more about her. When she catches him, she invites him for tea. He tells her that now he has seen her, he doesn't have to be like her. He thinks she is afraid of him, but he doesn't hate her.

Ethel, a prostitute who formerly worked at the brothel when Faye ran it, arrives in Salinas and tries to blackmail Kate, implying she knows Kate poisoned Faye. Kate gives Ethel some money and has her assistant, Joe, frame Ethel for theft. Ethel is transported to the next county and disappears. Kate begins to worry Ethel will tell the police what she knows.

As war approaches, Cal goes into business with Will, buying futures in beans to make a profit so he can give Adam back the money he lost in the lettuce disaster. Aron spends time with the pastor and passes his college exams but doesn't tell Adam. When Aron does go to college, Abra spends much of her time with Adam and Lee and discovers she loves Lee as a father. Aron writes her often from Stanford, where he is lonely, but his letters are to an idealized Abra he has created in his mind. Abra confides in Cal that Aron doesn't really know her and that she is more like Cal than Aron and his vision of her.

Kate relies on Joe to find Ethel again, and when he tries to get more money from her, she mentions his real last name, knowing he is wanted for a crime. Joe knows Ethel has been found dead but doesn't reveal this information to Kate. Instead Joe tells Kate he has spoken with a man who thinks he has seen Ethel. Kate tells Joe she wants Ethel back at the brothel, supposedly to offer her a home and security but really to keep an eye on her.

Aron comes home for Thanksgiving, not wanting to go back to school. Cal proudly presents Adam with $15,000 he has made on beans. Adam refuses it because it represents war profiteering, made on the backs of farmers who will not get their fair share of the higher price. Furious and deeply hurt by his father's rejection of the gift, Cal apologizes to Adam and takes the money back. Although he behaves calmly, he is still seething and goes out looking for Aron. As revenge, Cal takes him to Kate's, where Aron is traumatized by what he sees and that night enlists to go to war. Meanwhile Kate discovers Joe has been trying to con her and take her money. She writes a letter to expose Joe to the sheriff and has it mailed. Now old, arthritic, and depressed, Kate kills herself with the morphine she has been carrying. Joe finds her body and steals all the papers and photos he can find in the office, planning to blackmail Kate's clients. As he walks out of the office, Oscar Noble is there to take him to the sheriff's station. When Joe runs, Oscar shoots him dead.

Sheriff Horace Quinn calls on one of Kate's photo victims and shows him the incriminating photos. After they burn them and the negatives, the sheriff gives the man a list of people to tell that this has been done. Meanwhile, Cal, who has spent the last two days drunk, burns the money he tried to give Adam. Lee talks to Cal about the violence he inflicted on Aron by taking him to the brothel. Adam receives a letter informing him Aron has joined the army. Soon after, Adam begins showing symptoms of a brain bleed. Lee asks Cal to find Abra and invite her to their home, but Abra is avoiding Cal because he seems angry. When Cal finds her, they talk about Aron, who has broken off with Abra, saying he is not good enough for her. Abra says she has known about Kate for a long time and tells Cal she loves him. Later Abra discovers her father has stolen from his company. A telegram arrives informing Adam of Aron's death, whereupon Adam has a full stroke. Cal goes to get Abra and bring her to the house, and Lee and Abra bring Cal to Adam, asking him to forgive and bless his son. Adam forces out the word timshel as he dies.

East of Eden Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Cyrus and Mrs. Trask marry in Connecticut and have Adam.

Rising Action

2 Cyrus marries Alice after wife's death; Charles is born.

3 After Charles beats Adam, Cyrus has Adam join cavalry.

4 Cathy kills her parents and becomes a prostitute.

5 Adam nurses badly beaten Cathy and then marries her.

6 With inherited money, Adam and Cathy move to California.

7 Cathy gives birth to twin boys, abandoning them and Adam.

8 Samuel encourages Adam to name and care for his sons.

9 Cathy poisons Faye and takes over her brothel.

10 Charles dies, leaving money to Adam and Cathy.

Climax

11 Adam refuses Cal's gift; furious, Cal takes Aron to Cathy's.

Falling Action

12 Aron, shocked, leaves Stanford to enlist in the army.

13 Cal and Abra fall in love; Abra rejects Aron's piety.

14 Adam has a stroke after learning of Aron's death in battle.

Resolution

15 Lee and Abra encourage dying Adam to bless Cal.

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