East of Eden: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson describes the most important themes at play in John Steinbeck's epic novel, ''East of Eden''. The lesson also presents a brief analysis of the novel and its significance.

East of Eden -- What It Is and Why It Matters

John Steinbeck considered his novel, East of Eden, to be his masterpiece, and when it comes to universal human themes, it explores all the biggies: love, lust, family legacy, sin, and free will.

East of Eden follows the lives of two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, across multiple generations, from the end of the 19th century to the close of World War I. Set primarily in California, but with chapters that span the US, it is often viewed as a love letter to Steinbeck's own beloved Salinas Valley, where he was born and raised.

At the heart of the story is Adam Trask, who moves in the early twentieth century from the east coast to the Salinas Valley to raise his twin sons, Aron and Caleb. Adam tells the boys that their mother is dead and he lives his own life as a widower; but in truth, the boys' mother, Cathy, is diabolically evil. She quickly grew to hate married life and motherhood, abandoning her boys in infancy and shooting her husband in the shoulder to get away from him. Greedy for money and motivated solely by self-interest, Cathy takes work in a neighboring town's brothel with the ultimate aim of taking over the establishment through any means necessary -- including murder.

As the boys grow, the Trask family is befriended by their neighbors, the Hamiltons, and especially by the patriarch, Samuel Hamilton. The Trasks are also guided by their live-in Chinese housekeeper, Lee. The Hamiltons, Lee, and Adam struggle to contend with the growing rivalry between the boys, even as Adam grapples with his own past, including his relationships with his late father and brother, the lies he has told his sons about their mother, and the growing realization that it is Adam's brother, Charles, who may be the father of one or both of the twins.

Important Themes

Biblical Motifs

Let's face it, East of Eden is rife with Biblical allusions, especially allusions to Cain and Abel. Just as Cain and Abel competed literally to the death over God's favor, so too, do Aron and Caleb vie for Adam's approval. As the more 'saintly' of the two, Aron, who ultimately aspires to become an Episcopal priest, frequently seems to win out, as Caleb's desperation and resentment grow.

Love and Lust

It's true what they say: love really is blind and lust ain't that much better. Throughout the novel, we see characters blinded by love and, yes, by lust. Love blinds Adam to Cathy's malevolence, even when she sleeps with Adam's own brother, Charles, and leaves the paternity of their children in question. Adam even continues to pine for Cathy after she abandons her family in such a violent way. Likewise, love blinds Aron to his fiancée's, Abra's, very human failings, leading him to construct an idealized image of her that no human woman can attain -- and when she fails to live up to this standard, as is inevitable, he hates her for it.

Destiny versus free will

The concept of destiny versus free will is encapsulated in the word timshel, a word which Lee, having studied both Judaic and Chinese philosophy, claims has been mistranslated from the Hebrew text of Genesis. Meaning 'thou mayest,' timshel functions in the novel as a reminder that human character, fate, and actions are not predestined.

Caleb struggles in particular with the nature of his fate and character, questioning whether he is predestined to play the role of the bad seed, to fall out of his father's favor and into wicked ways, much like his Uncle Charles. This fear is intensified for Caleb when, as a young man, he learns the truth of his mother, Cathy.

Generational curses

Much like the question of free will, this novel hinges upon the idea that our families leave a legacy from which it is nearly impossible to break completely free. We find in this epic novel misdeeds, failings, and woundings, which seem to repeat themselves generation after generation; the mistakes of fathers' falling like rain on the heads of innocent sons. And at the heart, then, is the question of how to break free of the inheritance of family pain, while continuing to maintain those bonds of love and blood that unite us.

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