John Steinbeck’s Theme in East of Eden

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The production of a writer’s first “major novel” marks a significant achievement in their career. John Steinbeck accomplished this milestone through his captivating novel East of Eden, which delves into the essence of human nature. In East of Eden, Steinbeck explores the profound concept of humanity’s capacity to conquer evil and the decisions they undertake to attain triumph over it. To effectively convey this theme, Steinbeck employs compelling characters that contribute to the overarching narrative of Good versus Evil within the book.

Steinbeck acknowledges the internal conflict between good and evil in every individual. Despite plotting to murder Ethel, Cathy is reluctant for her son Aron to be aware of her intentions. However, she leaves a note before taking her own life, bequeathing all her possessions to Aron Trask (553). While this gesture may initially seem like maternal protection, it is actually an effort to burden Aron with an inheritance, symbolizing the motif of original sin emphasized by Steinbeck throughout the novel. Cathy personifies evil and serves as a deliberate depiction of true wickedness. Since an early age, Cathy has embraced a life of corruption, violence, and prostitution.

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According to Louis Owens, Steinbeck creates an embodiment of evil in the character of Cathy. Owens suggests that by closely observing the process in the novel, we can see how the character’s form emerges from the author’s conception of her. At this point in the story, the implied author portrays Cathy as inherently depraved and destined for evil deeds. These include corrupting young boys, driving her Latin teacher to suicide, setting fire to her parents’ house resulting in their death, shooting her husband Adam, abandoning her twin sons for prostitution, and finally murdering Faye, who regarded her as a daughter and left her brothel in her will. (Owens, Louis)

After being informed by Samuel that Cathy is residing in Salinas and working as a madam in a brothel, Adam musters up the bravery to face her for the first time since she betrayed him and abandoned her family. Upon his arrival at her establishment, he discovers that it starkly contrasts with Eden. “The way leading to the house is overgrown, and the porch appears gloomy, run-down, and in a state of disrepair, with unstable steps. The clapboard walls are devoid of paint, and it seems as though no effort has ever been made to tend to the garden” (315).

Images of darkness, decay, and shadows resulting from neglect act as a mirror to Cathy’s internal thoughts. Her room also serves as a reflection of the emptiness she experiences in her life. It lacks any personal items or decorations, exemplified by the absence of pictures or mementos on the wall and the lack of bottles or vials on her dressing table. The desolation of her room reflects her detachment from everything in her life. This detachment is further emphasized by the authorial voice, which suggests that Cathy Ames was inherently inclined towards a cold and emotionless nature, lacking the ability to form attachments. This belief is highlighted by the statement, “Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies or lack of them, which drove her all her life.” (Owens, Louis)

In Steinbeck’s exploration of the nature of good and evil, the narrator’s own voice introduces observations that add authenticity to the narrative. The narrator sometimes functions as someone who contradicts the actions taking place, allowing for different perspectives on the conflict between good and evil. One observation involves the similarities and differences between the church and the whorehouse, which both emerged in the Far West at the same time. The narrator ironically connects the two, suggesting that they both offer an escape from despair. However, Steinbeck presents a more complex view of churches and whorehouses.

Steinbeck observes a dichotomy in the church, symbolizing good versus evil. While the church represents goodness, it is flawed. Steinbeck is keenly aware of the destructive lifestyles led by prostitutes, who lack the relationships and stability enjoyed by the Hamilton women. To illustrate this, Steinbeck uses the narrator’s instructions for madams, noting that they must minimize suicide. This shows that even the madams possess goodness within them. Faye demonstrates her innate goodness when she starts considering Cathy as her own daughter and becomes determined to save her from a life of prostitution.

Ultimately, the significance of Cathy in relation to Adam’s concern for Cal inheriting her evilness is that it creates a fear which Adam wants to free Cal from. As the novel nears its end, Adam suffers a stroke and becomes immobile and weakened. With encouragement from his friend Lee, however, Adam gains strength and manages to convey one final message to Cal – an instruction combined with forgiveness. This message is “Timshel,” a Hebrew term meaning “thou mayest.” It originates from God’s assurance to Cain in Genesis that he has the power to overcome evil. This particular scene reinforces the recurring theme of triumphing over evil present throughout the book. Despite Cathy’s malevolence, it does not prevail; according to Steinbeck, even when evil appears overwhelming, it ultimately lacks substance. Through his final word, Adam assures Cal that he is not bound by his mother’s wicked nature and possesses the ability to choose goodness. Just as “Timshel” liberates Cal and grants him freedom of choice towards virtue, it also empowers their children including Abra so they can independently make righteous decisions.

Steinbeck believes that humans have the power of choice and can overcome the evil they encounter. This belief is evident in Adam’s final words to Cal, reassuring him that his choices will determine his destiny. Joseph Fontenrose supports this idea, stating that “evil can be rejected and good chosen” in the “thou mayest” doctrine. Steinbeck uses his characters to explore the nature of good and evil, closely linking this theme to the exploration of what defines goodness and evil.

Steinbeck introduces various compelling characters in East of Eden, all of whom are significant in highlighting the author’s exploration of the clash between good and evil within the story. This conflict represents a timeless struggle that individuals encounter on a daily basis. Steinbeck utilizes characters such as Cathy Ames to epitomize the presence of absolute evil in society, contrasting with Adam Trask who symbolizes the naïveté often associated with an excessive belief in goodness. Although Steinbeck maintains the belief that good will ultimately prevail over evil, he also acknowledges that each individual possesses the autonomy 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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