Literature / East of Eden

"If you want to give me a present, give me a good life. That's something I can value."
Adam Trask

A 1952 novel by John Steinbeck, East of Eden was brought to the screen in 1955 by director Elia Kazan with a cast headed by James Dean (in the only one of his films to be released before his death).

The novel concerns two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, who live in Salinas Valley, California. The Hamiltons, headed by patriarch Samuel Hamilton and wife Liza, initially settle into the valley with their nine kids. When the kids set out to seek their fortunes, the land is settled by the wealthy Adam Trask. The Trask family grows, adding a wife, Cathy, a Devil in Plain Sight, and sons Cal and Aron. Just after the birth of the two sons, Cathy vanishes from their lives. Years later, the now-grown boys meet a girl named Abra, whose presence drives a wedge between the two.

The Elia Kazan film notably is a very loose adaptation, only covering the last part of the story with Aron and Cal as teenagers. This was approved by John Steinbeck

Not to be confused with Eden of the East nor Far East of Eden aka Tengai Makyou. Not related to the book West of Eden either.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Adam and/or Eve: The two brothers are named Cal and Aron and their father is named Adam. The brothers' uncle is Charles, and Adam's wife is named Cathy.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Director Elia Kazan decided to completely cut out the first two thirds of the book and just make the movie about the final third, which focuses on Adam's two sons as teenagers.
  • Adaptational Heroism: With the first two thirds of the novel cut out, Kate is far more sympathetic. In the novel, she's a murderess and arsonist as well as a Manipulative Bitch - who became the madam of the brothel by poisoning the original one. The film makes her seem more subtly tragic, even dropping hints that she regrets leaving her sons.
  • Alice Allusion: Alice in Wonderland was Cathy's favorite book as a child. She kills herself by taking poison, imagining the "Drink Me" bottle shrinking her into oblivion.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Subverted. Abra is initially put off by Cal's bad traits. It's not until she gets to know him that she takes an interest. She also loses interest in Aron once he starts showing that he's not as good as he seems.
  • Always Identical Twins: Subverted, at least in the film. Aron and Cal look alike but they're not identical. Aron is taller and has lighter hair.
  • Ambiguously Gay: In the book, Abra seems to suspect that Aron is gay, and his disinterest in Abra does develop along with his intense admiration of the pastor, Mr. Rolf.
  • Arc Words: Timshel.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Thoroughly subverted and deconstructed with Lee's entire character.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
    • Cathy until she inherits Faye's brothel and no longer has to hide her real personality.
    • Implied to be the case with Aron in the film. A Deleted Scene shows that his image as the good son comes from years of studying his father and imitating him.
  • Broken Pedestal: Aron had always imagined his mother as a saint or a wholesome woman in some way. Discovering that she's actually the madam of a brothel devastates him.
  • Cain and Abel: Charles and Adam, Cal and Aron.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Abra does this to Adam after he had a stroke for his treatment of Cal.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Aron and Abra make one. It doesn't work out.
  • The Clan: two for the price of one!
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Cathy in her early years.
  • Direct Line to the Author/Autobiographical Role: John Steinbeck himself as a young boy shows up in the novel as a minor character. Steinbeck is implied to have heard about and/or seen the events in the novel as he was growing up and simply wrote about them as an adult. The Hamiltons are indeed loosely based on author Steinbeck's own relatives but their lives are supposedly rather heavily fictionaluzed.
  • Elective Broken Language: Lee pretends to speak English in stereotypical Asian Speekee Engrish fashion.
  • Evil Twin: Deconstructed. Cal views himself as the bad twin and is convinced he'll never be anything else. In spite of this he still tries to change this perception of himself, and it's revealed that he's only this way because he's desperate for anyone to love him. It also shows the negative effect Parental Favouritism has by propping one twin up as good and the other as bad.
  • For the Evulz: Apparently why Charles sleeps with Cathy on her and Adam's wedding night (even though he had been suspicious about her and warned Adam). When she tells Charles she gave Adam her painkiller-spiked tea accidentally-on-purpose, he merely laughs and says "That poor bastard."
  • Funny Foreigner: Lee pretends to be one of these.
  • Generation Xerox
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Kate's place in the film is shown only as a saloon, with no mention of sex or depravity. But as the other characters talk about "what she is" and Aron's ultimate horror at discovering it leaves no doubt that she's the madam of a brothel.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Aron. In the movie, he smashes his head through the window of the train, laughing maniacally at Adam as it pulls away.
  • Good Twin: Deconstructed as well, though not the extent of Evil Twin. Aron is only considered good because he's "just like his father" and, while he shows kindness at various points, it's hinted that his image is all an act to win his father's approval (and outright confirmed in a deleted scene from the film).
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Abra is a redhead and has romantic attachments with both brothers.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Played straight with Faye (and others, to a lesser extent), but subverted with Cathy, who pretends to be one.
  • Meaningful Name: Naming the boys Caleb and Aaron was after the Bible characters. In a counterpoint to the Cain and Abel sequence, it was Caleb and not Aaron who lived to reach the Promised Land, but because Caleb was one who hadn't sinned.
  • Not Listening to Me, Are You?: As Sam reads Adam and Cathy a story, he throws in some nonsense lines. They fail to listen to them.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Lee, the Pidgin speaking Chinese cook, is actually the smartest character in the whole story.
  • Parental Favoritism: Cyrus prefers Adam over Charles - even though Charles loved his father while Adam did not. Adam prefers Aron.
  • Roman Clef: the Hamilton sections are based heavily on Steinbeck's maternal family history.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Cathy, in one of the most chilling scenes in the book.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Adam and Charles (who are actually described as having a relationship more similar to that of a sister and a brother), Aron and Cal.
  • Shout-Out: The title is taken from The Book of Genesis: "And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and took up residence in the Land of Nod, east of Eden."
  • Sibling Triangle: Cathy marries Adam, but sleeps with his brother Charles. Later, Aron's girlfriend Abra transfers her affections to Cal.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Members of the Hamilton clan. Sam is a Wide-Eyed Idealist, while Liza is a cynic. Of their children, Tom is another Wide-Eyed Idealist with "ideas coming out of his ears," even more so than his father, while Will is a cynic who "never had any ideas" and thus "the only one in the family who made any money." Others fall somewhere between Tom and Will. John loves his Uncle Tom but he doesn't seem to like Uncle Will much.
    • The Cal and Aron mirror Will and Tom to an extent. Will and Cal work well together, being both practical and business-minded. Both Aron and Tom wind up as Doomed Moral Victor of sorts.
  • The Sociopath: Cathy. She's a consummate liar and a master manipulator, she's completely self-centered and has no empathy or shame. The narrator claims that she was simply born this way; some children are born without arms, while Cathy was born without a conscience.
  • Son of a Whore: Cal and Aron.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Aron is definitely killed in World War I in the book, and that is what causes Adam's stroke. The film shows the stroke happening as he enlists, and his fate is left ambiguous. Kate likewise commits suicide in the book but her fate is never said in the film. To a lesser extent, Adam is definitely dying by the end of the novel, but appears to be recovering from his stroke by the end of the film.
  • Surprisingly Good English: Lee.
  • Theme Initials
  • Twice Told Tale: The tale of Cain and Abel. Repeatedly.
  • The Unfavorite: Charles and Cal.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Cyrus to Charles, and later, Adam to Cal.

Alternative Title(s): East Of Eden