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John Steinbeck’s Theme in East of Eden

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    The production of a first “major novel” is a pivotal point in the career of a writer. John Steinbeck’s first major book, East of Eden, is a story which is woven into human nature. Steinbeck’s theme in East of Eden displays human’s ability to triumph over evil and explores the choices they make to do so. In the novel East of Eden, Steinbeck uses strong characters to compliment his theme of Good vs. Evil.

    Steinbeck understands that good and evil is a battle which wages in every person. Even as Cathy plots Ethel’s murder, she realizes that she does not want her son Aron to know about her. However before committing suicide, she writes a note which says, “I leave everything I have to my son Aron Trask.” (553). While this might appear to be a glimmer of maternal protection, it really is her attempt to curse Aron with an inheritance, which is something Steinbeck uses throughout the book as a motif to original sin. Cathy embodies evil, and she is written purposefully in order to depict true evil. From youth Cathy has followed a life of perversion, violence, and prostitution.

    She corrupted young boys, instigated her Latin teacher’s suicide, burnt her parents to death in their house, shot her husband Adam, abandoned her twin sons for prostitution, and murdered Faye, who loved her like daughter and willed her brothel to her. Steinbeck creates Cathy’s character as the true embodiment of evil, which is picked up on by Louis Owens who says that, “If we pay close attention to the process taking place here, we should become aware that we are being allowed to watch as the character’s form rises quite clearly out of the artist’s conception of that character. At this point in the novel the implied author conceives of Cathy as predetermined to evil, inherently depraved.” (Owens, Louis)

    After he learns from Samuel that Cathy is in Salinas and that she is now a madam at a whorehouse, Adam gathers the courage to encounter her for the first time since she shot him and deserted her family. When he arrives at her brothel he finds that it is a direct contrast to Eden. “The path to the house is overgrown. The porch is dark, sagging, and dilapidated, and its steps are shaky. The paint had long disappeared from the clapboard walls and no work had ever been done on the garden.” (315).

    Images of darkness, decay, and shadows created by neglect provide a mirror to Cathy’s own mind. Her own room mirrors the emptiness of her life. There is “no picture on the wall, no photograph or personal thing of any kind,” “no bottle or vial” on the ebony top of her dressing table. Her desolate room serves as a reflection of her own life, where she is so calculatingly cold that she never develops an attachment to anything. This can be seen in the reflection by, “the authorial voice which declares its belief that not only are monsters born in the world but that “Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies or lack of them, which drove her all her life.”” (Owens, Louis)

    The narrator’s own voice also introduces some of the observations that give authenticity to Steinbeck’s exploration of the nature of good and evil. The narrator sometimes is used in function as someone who works “in direct variance with the action.” (Lisca, Peter) This enables Steinbeck to convey multiple views on the conflict between good and evil. One observation is that the narrator thinks about the similarities and differences of “the church and the whorehouse, which arrived in the Far West simultaneously.” (217). The narrator ironically relates the two, and he says that both accomplish “a different facet of the same thing, which is to take a man out of his bleakness for a time.” (217). But Steinbeck doesn’t view churches and whorehouses this simply.

    Steinbeck sees things in the church which reflect the battle between good and evil. The church has goodness, but it is flawed. Steinbeck is very aware about the destructive life which is led by whores, whose lives lack the relationships and continuity that the Hamilton women enjoy. An example of this is that Steinbeck uses the narrator’s directions for madams, where he says that madams “have to keep suicide at an absolute minimum.” (222) Even the madams of brothels have good in them, and Faye displays her good when she begins “to think of Cathy as her daughter, her natural morality took hold. She did not want her daughter to be a whore.” (223).

    Ultimately Cathy is important only because Adam has to liberate Cal from his fear that he is like his mom, and that their relation makes him more likely to be evil. In the last pages of the novel, Adam is bedridden and paralyzed by a stroke. In large part due to his friend Lee’s encouragement, including when he tells Adam that, “Cal will marry and his children will be the only remnant left of you.”(602). Adam summons the strength to speak one final word of instruction and forgiveness to Cal. He says the word Timshel, which translates to thou mayest, and is from God’s assurance to Cain in Genesis that he has the power to triumph over evil. This scene affirms the theme that has run throughout the book, which is that human beings can triumph over evil. Cathy’s evil has not lasted and in Steinbeck’s perspective, even though evil may at times seem overwhelming, it is inevitably empty. With his final word Adam has assured their son Cal that he is not bound by his mother’s evil nature, that he has the power to choose what is good. Just as timshel sets Cal free to choose to be good, it also allows his and Abra’s children to choose good for themselves.

    Steinbeck believes that humans do not need to be defeated by the evil they encounter, because there is greater strength in good than there is in evil. And they have the power of choice. Steinbeck’s belief in the human powers of choice can be seen in Adam’s final words to Cal. He tells him this to assure him that his choices, not predetermination or his wicked mother will determine his destiny. Joseph Fontenrose agrees with this and he says that, “In the “thou mayest” doctrine, evil can be rejected and good chosen.” (Fontenrose, Joseph) This is Steinbeck authenticating his own belief that human beings can overcome evil. Through the lives of his own characters, he defines the nature of good and evil. Closely related to the theme that “thou mayest rule over sin” is this thought that wants to figure out what goodness and evil is.

    Steinbeck creates several powerful characters in East of Eden, and most of them serve a purpose to accentuate his conflict between good and evil in the book. This struggle is a common one and is one of the oldest battles that people continue to fight everyday. He uses characters like Cathy Ames to portray absolute evil in the world, and Adam Trask to portray the naivety that often accompanies the belief in too much goodness. While Steinbeck believes that good will ultimately triumph over evil, he also believes that each person has the choice to reject evil for themselves.

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    John Steinbeck’s Theme in East of Eden. (2017, Nov 15). Retrieved from

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