East of Eden: An Interpretation Essay
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I. Cathy Ames – Cathy’s main motivation was her desperate and incessant need for money. This held true throughout most of the book; it was only at the very end of her life that she realized that she had been missing something her entire life. This is the reason she left everything that she had amassed to her youngest son, Aron. This act may have been a desperate attempt at making up for the love she was never privileged enough to have.
Cathy viewed herself as someone who could outwit most anyone she met — especially men. There were a few of those who she feared because she felt like their eyes could see into every one of her thoughts and emotions. Samuel Hamilton was one of these people, and so she despised him.
Whatever happened in Cathy at the end was responsible for her change in disposition. Her sudden “goodness” (if it can be called that) impelled her to leave everything she owned to Aron, her “good” son, and nothing to Cal, whom she felt was most like her in his devious personality and sinful motivation (from what she gathered of the few times they met).
Cathy saw nothing good or honest in any part of humanity. Even the men who she served disgusted her. She surrounded herself with the slime of civilization, and was blinded to everyone and everything else. I don’t know that Cathy ever truly liked anybody but herself, and in the end the fact that she didn’t even like herself frankly scared her. All of her past misdeeds finally came back to haunt her. After swallowing her “Drink Me,” she finally ceased to be, and in her mind, never was; and that was the way she wanted it.
Samuel Hamilton – Samuel Hamilton was a family man. He valued spending time with his family and found that even more important than making money. Even though he always complained about his extremely unprofitable and barren ranch, he made a lifetime of happy memories there and found it very hard to leave when he and Lisa moved to Salinas.
Samuel had a persistency about him. Nothing could ever wear him down, except of course, old age in the end. But no matter the number of failed inventions or patents that didn’t work out, he was always working on another one of his ideas. Samuel was loved throughout the entire county; everybody was his friend. He had one of those insightful and humorous personalities that everybody liked. Samuel loved life and ached for what each new day would bring. Although not as devout as Lisa in her views about religion and what is sinful, Samuel was a good, moral person who enjoyed life very much.
Samuel saw himself as nothing more than any other man he had ever met. He was constantly giving and doing his part to improve society as a whole. He cared for nearly everyone and everything. For his children, Samuel wanted nothing but success and greatness, but at the same time he wondered if it were a selfish and sinful thing to want greatness for his children, knowing that it would be a hard and lonely path. Perhaps this is the reason Samuel himself was so content with his own financial status. He was never alone, and always had the pleasure of family near.
Samuel Hamilton died a rich man – surrounded by friends and family.
Caleb Trask – Cal wanted desperately to be liked and loved the way Aron was. He loved his brother, but at the same time envied him to no end. It was his jealousy that drove Cal to do the mean things he did to his brother, but these cruel tactics were no relief from his inner strife. Afterward, Cal always beat himself up emotionally for wanting to hurt his brother. Cal was very smart and clever (like his mother I suppose) and emotionally strong, but he longed to be loved, especially by his father, Adam. Cal was once desperate enough to try to “buy” his fathers love (as Will Hamilton had asked quite frankly) with $15,000.
After Cal found out the truth about Cathy, what she had done to his father, and that she made a living as a whore, he felt like it was his responsibility to help protect Adam. His whole life, Cal never felt that Adam liked him very much, the way he loved Aron. It was when Cal saw his mother up close that he realized why his father loved Aron so much more than him; Aron looked like Cathy, whom Cal knew Adam still hopelessly loved.
Cal always referred to himself as being “bad,” by thinking bad thoughts and doing bad things. He also always confided in Lee that he longed to be good, like Aron. That’s all he wanted. But, unfortunately, he despised himself. He hated himself so much that Lee suspected he enjoyed wallowing in his self-pity. It was his only protection from the outside world; a world that Cal was sure would reject him for his brother, Aron.
Aron Trask – Aron was steadfast in his morality and was disgusted by the filth of society, very much like his mother. But unlike Cathy, Aron would not have surrounded himself with anyone or anything against his beliefs.
Aron’s brother, Cal could be described as Aron’s opposite. He was so much stronger than Aron in every way except maybe physically. Cal accepted things as they were, and suffered through them, as awful as the circumstances may have been. On the other hand, Aron, as Abra suggested, tore up reality for his own picture of how the world should be, and if that picture should become impure, his whole world would come crashing down around him.
In the beginning, Aron lived for the goodness in life, and so, naturally, he built his mother (whom he had never known) to be the most beautiful, kind, pure woman in the world. I don’t think his vision ever left him given his reaction when he discovered the truth. In the second half of his life, Aron was driven by his love for Abra. But it wasn’t really Abra that he loved. It was a completely pure and moral being wearing Abra’s skin and beauty. Nevertheless, it was this vision of Abra that got him through all of his hard times at school, and what he lived for at home.
After Adam rejected Cal at Thanksgiving, Cal took his anger and frustration out on his brother in the cruelest way he could imagine. Cal showed Cathy to Aron and he learned the truth; his mother was a whore, the most undignified thing a woman was capable of being. Aron’s picture of life was altered dramatically, and he couldn’t handle it. He had viewed himself as good and clean and moral. His life was destroyed in his mind and he would always feel impure and dirty. Aron enlisted in the Army and ultimately got himself killed.
Lee – Lee was a very wise intellectual. What motivated Lee through life was unclear. It had to have been his dreams that he often talked about and longed to accomplish. But what about after he had no dreams left? He had even said that after trying out life in his San Francisco bookstore that he had no more dreams left. From then on, Lee’s main motivation must have been his love for the Trask family. It’s obvious that he loved the boys very much and felt as though the Trasks were part of his own family.
Lee was very smart and clever. He valued the goodness in man, and found ignorance annoying, but very plentiful in society. He always craved a good debate or intelligent conversation. He always liked talking with Samuel Hamilton because he could provide this. Their long talks about the story of Cain and Abel excited Lee, because they always left him pondering, and wanting more. It was obvious that Lee enjoyed learning, and examining complex situations very much. Throughout all of East of Eden, it was Lee that offered the best advice; perhaps because he dissected each situation thoroughly enough to see what needed to be done.
Lee also accepted whatever life threw his way, but dealt with it intelligently and the best way he knew how. Lee was well liked, for a “chink.” He respected those that gave him respect. By the end of the book, he had grown very attached to Abra, who spent a lot of her time at the Trask place talking to Lee. In the very end, I think it was his need to see Cal and Aron (who eventually died) succeed in their own ways. This is why he stuck up for Cal to Adam on his deathbed; and, of course, Adam’s answer, “Timshel,” was the finest answer he could have given.
Charles Trask – Charles felt as though he was second best to his brother, Adam his entire life. He always felt that it was Adam who Cyrus, their father, loved more. I suppose Charles is a lot like Caleb Trask in that way. Charles had an abusive and violent temper when he was a teen, and at one time even tried to kill Adam. Charles loved his father, and just wanted his respect, but Cyrus moved away after sending Adam into the Army. And so, Charles was left alone on his farm to make his own living.
I don’t think Charles was ever happy with his life. He was always depressed because of his loneliness whenever Adam was away, and they didn’t get along for any length of time when they were together. He refused to sell the ranch whenever Adam suggested it, because it would be a waste in his mind. Charles was stubborn and insisted on spending no money on himself and was determined to stay where he was.
Charles probably felt inferior to his brother, because of their father’s favoritism toward Adam, but Charles always knew he could win in a fistfight. Charles intimidated most of the people in town because of his size and strength. In that way, I suppose, he probably felt superior to everyone else, especially after Cyrus, his father died and left him and Adam a sum of more than $93,000 to split. After Adam left with his share, Charles was the wealthiest farmer in the area and the most respected. Charles knew how to do one thing well: farm. He lived for farming, and he did it until the day he died. He made a considerable amount of money in his lifetime too, but never got around to enjoying it.
Charles was a loner. He didn’t have any close friends, and as far as we know was only married for a short time while Adam was in the Army. Other than that he was a homebody, and didn’t socialize much (except for his late night excursions to the local inn). He died never seeing any other part of the country, never living in any other house, never doing anything other than that which he had been doing his entire life. And while it never made him happy, it seemed to be enough for him.
Adam Trask – Adam was mistreated throughout most of his childhood by his father and brother. All Adam wanted was to be happy, in his own way. He didn’t want to live under the pressure of his father, always competing with his brother. He didn’t want to go into the Army, and he didn’t want to go back to the farm in Connecticut. I think Adam lived for the happiness that the next day would bring, not knowing what it would be, or from where it would come. That’s how he got through the first half of his life, and that’s how he came upon Cathy and how the second half began.
Adam lived for Cathy Ames and would have done anything for her. Like Steinbeck described, his first year with Cathy was the first time Adam really felt alive. She was his world. When she left, not even the twin boys she left behind were enough to keep Adam going. And so, he fell into a deep depression, melancholy for nearly eleven years. Secretly, during that time, I think he believed that Cathy would see the error of her ways and come back to him. I don’t think he ever really accepted her leaving him.
Nevertheless, he was the father of two boys, and eventually came around to caring for their best interests. He moved them to Salinas and enrolled them in school. He was open to the idea of Aron even going to college, which he finally did.
Adam always seemed a little scatterbrained; he was always prone to getting into situations a little over his head. He wasn’t very sensible in some of his endeavors (the nice farm he bought, but never capitalized on, the marriage that was doomed to begin with, the lettuce that never made it across the country), but he was as honest as a man could be. He was very friendly and was open to anyone and everyone being his friend if they so wished. He became popular in Salinas (except for the incident with the lettuce) very quickly.
Adam didn’t read people very well though. He understood his own emotions, but when it came time to be responsible for his sons, he had a hard time; it was Lee that actually raised Cal and Aron for the first decade of their lives. Adam never pitied himself; he simply resigned himself to the fact that he was raised by a father he didn’t love, a woman he didn’t know, and a violent brother whom he feared. But Adam grew to be a fine man, and at the end, a good father; one his children could respect.
Abra – Abra was an average teen girl who viewed life, in the beginning when we were first introduced to her, as a game. She wanted so much to be an adult, and to raise a family. She pretended to be Aron’s mother to him more than once in the story, as an example of her longing to raise a child. Abra fell in love with Aron at a very young age and stuck to her first love for most of her teen years. She wanted nothing but to raise a small family with the man with whom she was in love. But as the situation became more complicated between her and Aron, their relationship suffered, possibly without his complete understanding.
When Aron finally left for Stanford, after deciding to become a priest, Abra ended up spending a lot of time at the Trask house, and finding herself getting very close to Lee and Adam, more so than her own parents. It was during this time, with Aron gone, that she discovered that she really didn’t love Aron any more. Aron had transformed her (or wanted to anyway) into something she wasn’t and never could be. While she realized this, her confusion about her conflicting feelings (for she still liked Aron, and wasn’t 100% certain what she wanted) wouldn’t allow her to break up with him. It wasn’t until after Aron enlisted in the Army that she was sure she didn’t want to be with him.
Abra was a smart girl, who enjoyed many talks with her new friend Lee. She didn’t feel that she was somehow better than anyone, but at the same time, she didn’t feel any lower than anyone either. She fit in nicely with society, but was much brighter and wiser than most. Eventually she got together with Caleb, and I believe that those two together would have ended up very happy. Cal wouldn’t have expected Abra to be anything more than what she was, and could be happy with that. Abra saw Cal as a flawed individual, and found him to be very much like herself (she even compared their parents faults), especially after the close scrutiny she was under whenever Aron was around.
II. Steinbeck’s central message in the book is the seemingly endless struggle between good and evil in all of us, and the fated consequences of the choices we make. Those who felt the evil inside themselves felt that their fates were predestined and unavoidable (especially Cal who knew of his mother and could feel her blood flowing through his veins). This reveals the importance of “Timshel” in the end of the book to Caleb as he gets a chance at redemption by being able to choose his own fate.
Caleb had the gift (or enlightenment) of “Timshel” bestowed upon him by his father. “Timshel” or “thou mayest” was the key to freeing Caleb from his self-torture and releasing him from what he felt was a fated path to hell. Because of “Timshel,” Cal had a chance to make up for what he had done wrong because he knew that he wasn’t evil, and he knew he didn’t want to be evil, and with this inspiration he wouldn’t be evil.
III. As a theme I see the basic story of Cain and Abel reinvent itself within the Trask family generation after generation. It was interesting because all the characters whose name began with the letter “A” represented the good and benevolent son to Adam and Eve that is Abel. Examples of these are Adam, Aron, and Abra. And likewise, the characters whose name began with the letter “C” represented Abel’s jealous and flawed brother, Cain. These examples include Charles, Cathy, and Caleb.
Charles had become jealous at the fact that his father got more pleasure out of Adam’s gift than out of his own, and in a rage, tried to kill his brother. This was the first story line that followed that of Cain and Abel. The second would come later when Cal was rejected by Adam on thanksgiving and betrayed his brother in a way that ultimately got Aron killed. This was the second story line that followed that of Cain and Abel.
As a sub-message in the book I saw that it was the dishonorably acquired money that indirectly brought about the downfall of all of characters, hinting at the evils of destruction for which money is responsible. The specific examples that came to mind were Cyrus, who stole from the GAR; Charles, who began his fortune of the stolen money that his father left him; Cathy, who had amassed her fortune whoring; and Aron who was left the money Cathy made. Caleb came near destruction, but he found that burning the money his father had refused helped relieve him from his self-pity and a likely demise.
The only character who seemed untouched by the evils that came with the dollar was Adam. Adam squandered a lot of the money his father left him on an idea of his. This bad investment left him not rich any more. His money never had the chance to destroy him because he never found it valuable enough to cherish. In turning his son down on the money that was offered to him, Adam in a sense freed himself from the evils that came along with it. Likewise, Samuel and Lisa Hamilton lived very long and happy lives not having a dime to their name.
IV. There are many ideas and images that I see repeated throughout the book. As a list see the presence of the evil that money represents; the story of Cain and Abel reinventing itself through each of the generations of the Trask family; the cruelties perpetrated by characters whose names begin with C (Charles, Cathy, and Caleb) to the characters whose names begin with A (Adam, Aron, and Abra); the honest confusion and moralistic uncertainty of all of the characters whose names begin with the letter A; war that always negatively affects the lives of everyone; the good ideas that always came to Sam Hamilton and Adam Trask (but mostly Sam) that never turned out to be lucrative endeavors; the similar scars that Charles and Cathy shared that seemed to mark them as the devious people they were and condemn them to fall to their sins and evil doings.
V. “Timshel,” or “thou mayest” in hebrew changed the outcome of, and possibly ended, the repeating Cain and Abel retellings. In the versions of the Bible that everyone in East of Eden had ever known, the story of Cain and Abel included a decree by God ordering Cain to overcome sin, while in another version, God promised that Cain would overcome sin. Both of these versions seemed to condemn sinners to their misdeeds without hope of redemption. However, Lee discovered that in the original hebrew text, the significant word in the conflicting sentence was actually “timshel,” or “thou mayest.” This, of course, would allow each individual to be in charge of his own moral destiny. It was Cal who mainly feared that the sins of his mother would come back to condemn him because he reasoned that the same blood flowed through his veins, but “timshel” would relieve this.
The significant character blessed with this enlightenment was Cal. After Cal learned that Aron was dead, and knowing that it was his fault, he goes to his father where Lee speaks for him. Lee asks Adam to forgive his son and to free him from his sins. Adam’s response, “timshel,” symbolically freed Caleb as he was now free and in charge of his own destiny without having his past sins, or the sins of his parents holding him back.
VI. Beginning with my dislikes, I disliked the chapters that seemed to slant away from the rest of the story; the chapters of Olive Hamilton especially. These chapters seemed to have no effect on the Hamiltons or the Trasks. I found them pointless, but I also may have missed an underlying reason for their place in the book.
Regardless, I liked the book very much. I thought it was well-written and very well thought out. The action parts were the best, but it moved at an understandably slow pace to reveal every significant thing that happened, but moved fast enough to keep me, the reader, entertained. It shocks me how much research Steinbeck must have had to do simply to develop the concept for East of Eden, but I think his time was well spent. And it was obviously worth it, for now, almost 50 years later, it is still widely read. I thoroughly enjoyed the story.