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Literature / East of Eden

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"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 considered the author's most ambitious work. The Hamilton family in the novel is based off that of Steinbeck's maternal grandfather. He considered it his Magnum Opus.

The novel concerns two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, who live in the 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 book was adapted into a 1955 film, directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dean in his breakout role as Cal. The 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. For tropes exclusive to the film, go here. It was later adapted into a miniseries in 1981 featuring an All-Star Cast.

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.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: In spite of being The Sociopath who has done nothing but spread misery her entire life, Cathy is given a pitiable exit and a hinted moment of humanity. Seeing Cal return to her brothel only so that he could spite his brother by showing him the truth of their mother legitimately hurts her, particularly Aron's breakdown at the sight of her. The narration then goes on to explain that she's realized that she's nothing more than an Empty Shell, incapable of ever finding happiness in her life because she lacks the ability to love. So she decides to end her own life.
  • 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.
  • Alliterative Title: East of Eden
  • 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.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: The story revolves around this trope, but with love in the general sense: father/son and brother/brother in addition to romance.
  • Always Identical Twins: Averted. Aron and Cal look alike but they're not identical. Aron is taller and has lighter hair.
  • Ambiguously Gay: 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.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Charles, Cal, Abra, and especially Cathy are gifted at this, reading and manipulating the people around them to frightening effect.
  • Batman Gambit: Cathy has a gift for seeing people's weaknesses and the sociopathy needed to manipulate them. It's a repeated theme through the book that she'll mention an idea, it will spread and become other people's beliefs, but no one will remember it originated from her. (Ex:'s The minister who committed suicide had trouble in Boston, they should can their own vegetables at the whorehouse, etc.)
  • Berserker Tears: Discussed—one of Cal's favorite hobbies is to tease and taunt his twin brother Aron. But he always makes sure not to take it too far, for if Aron starts crying, he becomes violent and dangerous to deal with.
  • 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. It's suggested that his image as the good son comes from years of studying his father and imitating him rather than being genuine. Considering how Aron appears to care very little about how his actions to find shelter would effect those around him (ex. him breaking off his relationship with Abra to go into religion and going to fight in World War I), it might have some truth.
  • Bondage Is Bad: Kate, who works at a whorehouse, starts using chains and whips and razors on her "customers." This is coming from the same lady who killed both of her parents, shot her husband, and left her twin babies after telling her husband that he should throw them in a well.
  • 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.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Aron and Abra make one. It doesn't work out.
  • Chinese Laborer: Lee, a Chinese cook and valet (also a stereotype at one time in California), has a horrible backstory about how his mother disguised herself as a man so she could live and work alongside his father on the railroad, hiding her pregnancy when it came about, until the day she gave birth. Her husband wasn't nearby to help her, and when the other workers realized there was a woman in their midst they basically gang-raped her to death.
  • The Clan: Two for the price of one!
  • Creator Cameo: Given that the story is partly about his family, Steinbeck himself appears a few times in the book, mainly in one intercalary chapter explaining one of his Uncles. But it's most notable that he has a scene where Adam Trask shows up to his mother's house to speak with his Grandma, and they meet as John Steinbeck and his sister stand behind their mother.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: A character's mother get gangraped so brutally that she survives only long enough for someone to, quote, "claw (her son) from the mangled meat of his mother."
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Cathy walks out on Adam Trask and leaves him the parting gift of a bullet in the shoulder. When the sheriff questions him, he says that the gun went off while he was cleaning it. Since Adam is a cavalry officer and a really bad liar, neither the deputy sheriff nor the sheriff are convinced.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Cathy in her early years. Nearly everyone perceptive of people are able to at least tell something's off about her even before she shoots her husband in the shoulder and abandons her sons.
  • 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 fictionalized.
  • Dramatic Irony: Adam laments about Cal's lack of ambition compared to Aron who graduated early and is going to Stanford, even though the audience knows that Cal convinced Aron to graduate early, and Aron is only pursuing higher education as a way to escape reality. Not to mention that Cal is anything but lazy, as Lee points out to Adam when he hears the words.
  • Elective Broken Language: Lee pretends to speak English in stereotypical Asian Speekee Engrish fashion.
  • Empty Shell: Cathy loves no one, feels nothing for anyone, and has no desires, hobbies, or personal likes or dislikes of her own. Her only definable trait is her willingness to manipulate and hurt anyone in her way, either for personal gain or For the Evulz. When she runs away from home as a teenager, her parents note that her room has no personal possessions in it, and looks like no one has ever lived there. In her adulthood, she eventually comes to realize that there's something she doesn't have (i.e. the ability to feel love) that everyone else has, but is never able to understand what it is.
    The room was impersonal—nothing to indicate that a girl had grown up in it. There were no pictures, no mementos, none of the normal clutter of growing. Cathy had never played with dolls. The room had no Cathy imprint.
  • 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 (which eventually happens by the end). It also shows the negative effect Parental Favouritism has by propping one twin up as good and the other as bad.
  • A Family Affair: Catherine cheats on Adam Trask with his brother Charles.
  • Fauxreigner: When Lee first appears in the book, he speaks in stereotypical You No Take Candle fashion, but when a character comments he can't possibly talk like that all the time, he drops the act and speaks normally for the rest of the book.
  • Fille Fatale: Cathy tricks boys into tying her up and fooling around with her at the age of 10, only to practice her ability to manipulate people. And this is only the first in a long life of shocking deeds…
  • 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.
  • Garden of Eden: In addition to referencing the Garden in the title, the novel has a plot that parallels the story of Genesis. The book follows a guy named Adam, who starts a family with Cathy on the best ranch in Salinas, California. Cathy is an evil temptress and a parallel to Eve, who later leaves the garden (the ranch) to pursue various sinful ways. Adam has two sons, Cal and Aron, whose names and relationship parallels Cain and Abel.
  • Generational Trauma: The Trask family's hat is always displaying a Cain and Abel relationship of some sort. Adam and his brother Sam have a relationship so tense that Sam has once attempted to murder Adam. Sam also sleeps with Cathy, Adam's wife, on some occasions. Adam's sons, Caleb and Aaron, have a vicious rivalry that leads the former to reveal to the latter that their mother was a brothel madam, leading him to enlist in the military and die in war. Adam's last conscious words to his surviving son Caleb was to tell him "timshel", wishing him to overcome their family curse.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Aron runs off to enlist in the Army to get away from everyone.
  • 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.
  • Jacob and Esau: The story relies heavily on the Cain/Abel, Jacob/Esau motif throughout its entirety. There are two sets of brothers: Adam and Charles and then Aron and Cal (sons of Adam and a crazy maniacal whore named Cathy). Adam and Aron = Jacob/Abel, Charles and Cal = Esau/Cain. Adam and Aron are good boys who take after their dads. Charles and Cal are more...unstable and tend to flirt with evil, taking after their mothers.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Genesis 4:16.
  • Lost in Translation: Discussed. Lee while discussing the story of Cain and Abel with Adam and Samuel comments that different translations of the Bible change the tone of God's words to Cain involving overcoming sin. With some other scholars researching in the text's original Hebrew, Lee comes to the conclusion the more accurate word concerning how God tells Cain to face sin is timshel, or that God gives human beings the choice to dictate their lives.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Adam with Cathy at first. The narrator remarks how Adam could not have realized Cathy's true nature is because he was seeing her in an ideal person rather than the actual Cathy.
  • Loving a Shadow: Hinted to be the reason why Aron and Abra's relationship fails to work out. Aron puts her on a pedestal, causing her to feel alienated as he doesn't seem to want to see the real her. She ends up transferring her affections to Cal specifically because he interacts with her like an actual person.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Subverted and dissected. Lee is a graduate of UC Berkeley and a California native speaking fluent English, although he plays the role of an Asian Speekee Engrish much of the time. However, he is firm in belief that he is ultimately an American, not a Chinese, having found himself to be even more of stranger in China than in United States.
  • 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.
  • Miss Kitty: Cathy kills her mentor, who is one of these, and then takes over her brothel and becomes a completely vicious version of this trope.
  • 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.
  • Not Used to Freedom: Adam Trask speaks about his experience in the military, saying he grumbled during service but that, when his time came to the end, he reenlisted for a further four years. Plenty of soldiers in his unit are stated to suffering from this.
  • 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. Deconstructed by the second half of the novel. Adam's idealization of Aron leads him to not recognize Aron's moral sensitivity is preventing him from being able to properly develop mentally. Thus, Aron is unable to handle the truth of his mother being Cathy and that Adam had lied to him, leading him to his death in World War I.
  • Parental Substitute: To a downplayed extent, Lee is this toward Caleb due to his father preferring his brother Aron. He's the one who gives him advice throughout the novel and can see the better points of his character that Adam fails to recognize.
  • Playing Both Sides: Caleb takes part with his businessman friend Will in war profiteering, buying beans for two cents a pound over fair market value, establishing a monopoly, then selling those beans for more than ten cents a pound over market value several weeks later in the heat of World War One.
  • Predatory Prostitute: Cathy aka "Kate Albey", an elite prostitute who murdered the madam of her brothel and became the new madam, turning the brothel into a den of sexual sadism.
  • Red Right Hand: Cathy is a beautiful woman who has no problem charming people into doing what she wants. She happens to have small, round and stubby feet that have insteps "almost like little hooves."
  • Roman à Clef: The Hamilton sections are based heavily on Steinbeck's maternal family history.
  • Sad Clown: This is how Sam Hamilton (and through him, John Steinbeck) characterizes his people, the Irish.
    Lee: "But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes."
    Sam: "There's your pidgin and your qeue. They are not. They are a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It is said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they'd kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it's expected of them."
  • Satanic Archetype: Repeated serpentine imagery is used to describe Cathy, including one instance where "her tongue flicked around her lips, and that the eyes were flat and the mouth with its small up-curve at the corners was carven." In her youth, nearly everyone thought something was off about her behind the angelic looks, and the author even described her as a soulless monster who manipulates others For the Evulz. Her small, stubby feet have insteps that look almost like "little hooves."
  • 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), along with 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 due to her own realizations about Aron's character and how she and Cal aren't so different.
  • 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, more so for Tom as Aron's actions later in the novel can be viewed as selfishness.
  • 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.
  • Soulless Bedroom: Currently provides the page quote. When Cathy runs away from home, her parents notice that her room has no personal possessions in it, and looks like no one has ever lived there.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Deconstructed. Seeing Lee's struggles in trying to fit in, Sam Hamilton suggests perhaps he might go "back" to China. Lee reminds him that he was born in Grass Valley, CA, grew up in California, and went to University of California, and he DID try going to China, only to find that he fit in less there than he did in the States because things changed so much since his father's time.
  • Theme Initials: This is a Cain and Abel story where the brothers are named Caleb and Aaron, with their father and uncle respectively named Adam and Charles. Also, Adam's wife is named Cathy.
  • Theme Twin Naming: The story book depicts the relationship with two brothers (not twins) named Charles and Adam. When Adam's twin sons are born, he considers actually naming them Cain and Abel, but a neighbor tells him that would be asking for trouble. He goes with Caleb (Cal) and Aaron (Aron) instead. Of course, the relationship repeats anyway.
    • The original names suggested by Samuel for the twins were Caleb and Joshua, both whom were the only male Israelites of their generation permitted to enter Canaan. However, Adam didn't like the name Joshua due to the biblical Joshua being a warrior, so he changed it to Aaron instead. Samuel mentally notes how Aaron never made it to Canaan unlike Caleb.
  • The Triads and the Tongs: The Yellow Peril variant is referenced, and averted when Lee tells Adam and Samuel about going for help to his "family association".
    Samuel: "I have heard of them."
    Lee: "You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl? It's a little different from that, really."
    • How different? Well, it turns out that Lee and his Tong leaders have been studying ancient Hebrew in order to analyse a single word in The Bible that changes the meaning of the statement it is in.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Cal is an antisocial loner who believes himself to be the Evil Twin in comparison to his well-behaved brother Aron. Despite his oddness and mean-spirited attitude on occasion, all he wants is love from his father. This is reflected in Abra's attitude towards him; she at first finds him creepy, but then gets to spend time with him and sees he's not so different.
  • Twice-Told Tale: The tale of Cain and Abel. Repeatedly.
  • The Unfavorite: Charles and Cal.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Cathy goes to church to see her son be an altar boy, and reads Alice in Wonderland.
  • Walking the Earth: Adam walks the earth for several years after leaving the Army-he doesn't have much want or need to return home.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Cathy spends most of her life thinking of herself as superior to everyone else because she's so much smarter and prettier. After meeting Caleb, she realizes that none of that matters because everyone else around her can do something that she can't do. She never quite figures out what that thing is, but she still senses that nothing else is worth taking pride in without this one undefinable ability. She ends up killing herself because even though she can't figure out what it is she can't do, she still understands that it's the only thing that makes life worth living.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Cyrus to Charles, and later, Adam to Cal.
  • You No Take Candle: Lee speaks "Chinee" until a white man observes how very odd it is that no one Chinese ever speaks good English, whereupon he reveals it's intentional, for those who expect it. He was in fact born in the United States and has lived his entire life there. He only reveals his true fluency and personality to people he trusts. He switches to standard English with his employer while the employer is suffering Heroic BSoD.