Cains and Abels of the East of Eden

Title:  Cains and Abels of the East of Eden

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is considerably one of his best novels.  It is well-written as much as it is ambitious, with the author taking parallelisms from none other than the Bible, the most popular, most read, and best selling book of all time.  East of Eden more specifically alludes to the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel in Genesis’ chapter 4, even going so far as taking the title from the 16th verse of the chapter, where Cain “settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden”[1].

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Characters in the novel play key roles in driving the parallelisms.  There are two sets of main characters that are the parallels of Cain and Abel:  the sons of Cyrus Trask, Charles and Adam, and subsequently Adam’s twin sons Caleb and Aron.  We are already able to see a parallelism in the way the older of the two sets of sons names’ start with the letter “C” and the younger with the letter “A”, as do with Cain and Abel.

In the Bible story, Cain becomes “a tiller of the soil”, and Abel becomes “a keeper of flocks”.  In East of Eden, Caleb deals in the business of raising sprouts, an obvious allusion to “tiller of the soil” while Aron wants to become a priest, as priests are commonly referred to as shepherds of Christ’s flock.  These are direct parallelisms to Cain’s and Abel’s occupations.

When Cain and Abel both give gifts to God in the Bible story, Cain’s gift of produce is ill-favored, while Abel’s gift of a lamb is greatly favored upon.  As the story goes, Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel because of this and Cain attacks and kills his brother Abel.  We see this in our novel East of Eden in two instances.  The first instance involves Charles and Adam.  Cyrus, their father, appreciated Adam’s gift of a stray puppy more than Charles’ gift of a hard-earned expensive knife.  As in the Bible story, Charles becomes jealous of Adam and beats him up to almost the point of death.  Adam limps home, wherein Cyrus takes out his shotgun in anger and looks for Charles, who has for the moment disappeared.  The second instance of parallelism involves Caleb and Aron.  When Adam lost his money to a couple of business mistakes, Caleb set out doing his own business in an effort to reclaim the money his father had lost.  In one scene in the course of the novel, Caleb offers his father Adam his money back.  Adam rejects the money and shows Caleb his favor in Aron’s life of goodness.  Caleb becomes jealous of Aron for their father’s love.  He has since found out that he has control over Aron because of how Aron is affected by Aron’s love for their mother, and Caleb tells Aron that their mother’s involvement in prostitution.  Aron is deeply bothered, leaves Stanford and he joins the army off to World War I, where he dies in combat.  Through this incident, Caleb indirectly causes Aron’s death.

In the Bible, after Cain kills Abel, God leaves a mark on Cain.  In the novel, there are two instances this parallelism is shown.  The first one involves Charles when he is scarred when trying to move a huge rock from his fields.  The second one involves Caleb when a mark is instilled in him by Adam when he said “timshel”, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew.  It would be interesting to note this mark on Caleb by Adam leads Caleb to overcome his evil nature, in deep contrast to the Bible story where the mark is only so that no one tries to kill Cain outside of the Garden of Eden.

One more parallelism is regarding the continuation of Caleb and Aron’s bloodline.  In the Bible, Abel dies and Cain is the only one who has children.  In the novel, only Caleb lived on and was capable of having children.  Aron dies in the war, making it impossible to have children.

Caleb is shown by Steinbeck to most strikingly play the Cain role in the story when Adam asks Caleb where Aron is in Chapter 51.  He answers back with “Am I supposed to look after him?”.  This is a direct parallel to Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper?” when asked by God where Abel is after Cain has murdered him.

References:

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, (2002, December 9). Genesis Chapter 4. Retrieved September 4, 2007. from New American Bible Web site: http://www.nccbuscc,org/nab/bible/genesis/genesis4.htm

Steinbeck, J (1952). East of Eden. New York: The Viking Press.

[1] See New American Bible web page (2002), by the USCCB, Genesis chapter 4 http://www.nccbuscc,org/nab/bible/genesis/genesis4.htm, accessed September 24, 2007

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