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East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | Symbols



The presence or lack of water determines financial prosperity for a farmer in the Salinas Valley, one of the most fertile agricultural areas in California. However, the valley has its dry spots, and Samuel Hamilton bought one of these areas with the little money he had. Adam Trask, on the other hand, buys the best farmland. Yet Samuel Hamilton is a happy, untroubled, wise, and respected man with a large and loving family, despite his dry land. He also has the uncanny ability to find water on other people's properties.

The person who can find water is the person who is the most perceptive of all the characters at the beginning of the book. Adam Trask, who has water in abundance on his property, however, is the least perceptive, especially in recognizing human nature. He has a beautiful piece of land, but doesn't farm it, and he is devoted to a wife who doesn't love him, shoots him, abandons him and their newborn twins, and prefers being a prostitute. Unlimited access to water may signify financial prosperity, but it does not guarantee emotional prosperity.


When Charles Trask clears his land, he accidentally injures his head by trying to move a large boulder. It leaves a mark on his forehead that makes him self-conscious, as if he is "marked." Similarly in the Cain and Abel story, Cain is marked by God for protection, to prevent anyone from killing Cain. Although Charles has tried unsuccessfully to kill Adam, the scar links the relationship of Adam and Charles to the biblical story of jealousy, which in East of Eden passes to the next generation.

Cathy too has a scar from Mr. Edwards's attempt to kill her. She is also self-conscious of it because she knows it marks her wherever she goes and helps Horace Quinn identify her as Adam's wife and his shooter. This mark memorializes the first time Cathy feels fear; when Mr. Edwards turns on her and beats her, she knows her life is in danger. The next time she is accused of being afraid, her accuser is Cal, the next generation's version of Cain. Although his mother carries the mark, Cal is the person who acts out of jealousy and causes his brother to leave and join the army, a choice that leads to Aron's death. Lee refers to Cal at the end of the novel as "marked by guilt," and the blessing from Adam changes that mark to one of self-acceptance.

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