Free Study Guide for East of Eden by John Steinbeck|
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Samuel is the
patriarch of the Hamilton family and the embodiment of the American spirit, as
Steinbeck conceives it. He is a man of all trades from carpentry to blacksmithing
to well digging to midwifery. He is also a man of all ideas. He reads in his spare
time, being sure to keep his reading from his anti-intellectual and Puritanical
wife. Comfortable with emotions, Samuel tends toward the humorous, laughing at
himself and playing the comic for othersí amusement, but he can also exercise
deeper feelings. When he meets Cathy Trask, he expresses great despair over her
inhumanity. He recognizes the problem with Cathy intuitively even before she shows
him her true colors when he is helping her give birth to her twins.
Hamilton is also a highly social person. He recognizes his place in the social
world, building friendships with his fellow farmers with his humor and help. He
is also a family man. He is tied by blood and duty to his family and recognizes
his wife Lizaís superior ability to maintain family cohesion with her strict moral
code. He submits to her strict rule and exercises his mercurial spirit on the
sly, as if he was a child and she was his mother. He recognizes the importance
of intervening when he sees that Adam Trask is sinking into despair to the detriment
of his sons. In truth, Samuel is the glue of his community. Everyone knows him
and regards him with great admiration and familiarity. Samuel also regards others
with the democratic assumption that all people are equal. This element of his
character is best brought out in his relationship with Lee. During their first
meeting, Samuel asks Lee why he uses pidgin if he has been living in the United
States all his life. He brings Lee to trust him by his straightforward questions
and unassuming curiosity. Lee begins to become himself around Samuel, finding
in him a fellow intellectual and an unwavering friend. Lee considers Samuel to
be one of the wisest and finest men he has ever known.
Charles begins as a simplistic character, an ideologue for the
Cain figure and the representative of evil or destruction in the family. He ends
with the same mean-spiritedness, for in his will he forces Adam to share his inheritance
with Cathy, his ex-wife turned prostitute.
At an early age, Charles realizes
that his father does not love him. He tries to win the love of Cyrus by being
totally devoted to his father; but Cyrus always loves Adam more. When Charles
gives his father a pocketknife as a gift, Cyrus barely acknowledges it; but Cyrus
loves the puppy that Adam gives him as a gift. Charlesí response to his fatherís
unequal love is to develop a jealousy and hatred of Adam. He wants to kill Adam,
just as Cain killed Abel.
The complexity of Charles character comes in
two aspects. Although he hates Adam, he also loves him and longs to be his friend.
Had it not been for Cyrusí favoritism, the brothers probably would have had a
normal sibling relationship. When Cyrus dies, Charles changes. He sinks into the
mundane reality of farming and hopes that his brother will return to live with
him. Since Charles is a good farmer, the community respects him. When Adam returns
and questions his unvarying schedule of work and sleep, Charles tells him if they
are to have a good farm they must work hard. He comes across as the stable brother,
while Adam seems immature. He wants to spend his inheritance on luxuries and travels
and encourages Charles to do the same.
Charlesí evil side appears two
more times in the novel, and both instances result from the jealousy he feels
for his brother. Charles totally violates Adamís trust when he allows him to be
seduced by Cathy on Adamís wedding night. He also shows his evil tendency in his
will, giving half of his fortune to Cathy Trask.
Sheriff Quinn calls Adam a man of such honesty that he cannot conceive
of anything but goodness and truth. For that reason, Adam cannot understand evil
or corruption and cannot fathom the likes of Charles or Cathy. When he is forced
to look evil in the face, he literally becomes sick or depressed, as when Cathy
shoots him and leaves and when Aaron is killed in the war.
is so good himself, he naturally favors Aaron, the light-headed twin who is the
picture of goodness, over Caleb, the dark, secretive twin. He is especially proud
of Aaron for going to college and studying to be a minister. He challenges Cal
to be as good a person as his brother.
Ironically, Aaron turns against
Adam when he finds out that he has lied. When he learns the truth about his mother,
Aaron is totally crushed about what she is; more importantly, he is crushed that
his father has perpetuated a lie about her throughout his life. Aaron is incapable
of understanding that Adam has lied to protect his children.
kind servant, is a constant testimony of Adamís honesty and goodness. He repeatedly
tells both Aaron and Caleb that their father is very special and can be totally
trusted. Even though Lee counsels Adam to tell the boys the truth about their
mother, he does not lose respect for him when he refuses; Lee understands that
Adam is trying to do what he thinks is best for his sons. When Lee counsels Adam
against giving Cathy half of Charlesí fortune, he knows that Adam is incapable
of doing anything other than what the will says. If his brother intended his money
to go to her, Adam will make certain that she gets her fair share.
has little sense of the importance of material possessions. When he inherits the
money from his father, he has no desire to hold it tightly. He would willingly
spend it all on traveling. When he loses the money on the lettuce venture, he
feels little disappointment. Even though his sons were crushed by the shame of
the loss, Adam merely thought of it as an interesting proposition that had failed.
Although the lettuce failure left him in a weak financial position, he did not
act to make more money, for he was simply not concerned about wealth. When Cal
gives him $15,000, Adam refuses to take it, for he feels it was not earned in
an honorable way.
Adam is clearly an Abel figure from the Cain and Abel
story. He is the one who gave his father a puppy -- a worthy gift in Cyrusí mind.
He is also the one who incurs his brotherís jealousy. Charles, like Cain, tries
to strike out at the goodness of his brother. He sleeps with Adamís wife on his
wedding night and wills to Cathy/Kate half of his fortune.
flaw is his inability to face the truth. Adam is so attached to the ideal that
he ignores the real. Catherine tells him over and over that she does not want
to go to California, yet he is convinced that she really does want to go since
he wants her to be there. In California, she says over and over that she does
not want to stay with him, but he does not hear her. He assumes she will settle
into a life he creates for her. Unfortunately, his inability to face the truth
blinds him to evil and sets him up for failure. He never fully accepts the reality
of Cathy and even calls her a "poor darling" when he hears she has committed
suicide. Adam is also blind about his sons. He sees Aaron as totally good and
constantly challenges Caleb to try and live up to his brother. He does not see
his favoritism as an imitation of what Cyrus had done to him and Charles. Once
again, he is blinded by the truth. Even when Aaron tells Adam that he is going
to quit college, Adam ignores his words and pushes his idealized vision onto his
In the end, Adam overcomes all of his weaknesses and flaws when he
is willing to give Caleb the blessing that he has sought throughout his life.
It is the ultimate act of generosity and goodness.
Catherine is a totally flat character - too predictably
evil to be believable. Her evil has no apparent origin, for she is bright and
was well taken care of in childhood. She simply suffers from an absence of goodness
in her moral makeup. She also cannot understand goodness in others, scorning it
as a weakness and taking advantage of it.
In the characterization of Cathy
Trask, Steinbeck has accumulated all the anti-feminist notions of the mid-twentieth
century. Cathyís primary manner of displaying her evil is in her sexuality. She
is sexually precocious as a child, luring boys and young men into sexual encounters
with her and then sacrificing them in order to remain safely within the good graces
of her parents. As an adult, she goes immediately into prostitution, both before
and after she is married to Adam. On her wedding night, she successfully seduces
Charles, the brother of her bridegroom. In her practice as a prostitute, Kate
is sexually active rather than a passive victim of menís predations. She brings
out all their secret wickedness with her circus shows and her sadomasochism. She
also photographs men in the sexual act and then extorts money from them.
Cathy is made to be more horrible when she expresses her lack of maternal extinct.
She openly states that she does not want to be a mother and tries to abort her
unborn child. When she goes into labor, she is so upset over the thought of giving
birth that she bites and wounds Samuel Hamilton, who is assisting her with the
birth. One of her most evil acts comes when she shoots her husband and abandons
her infants as they are crying for her in hunger.
Cathyís ultimate evil
is seen in her lack of respect for life. In order to be independent of her parents,
she burns them to death and takes their money. When Adam tries to force her to
stay with him as his wife, she shoots him. When she learns that Faye has willed
her all her possessions, Kate slowly kills her with poisons. When Caleb brings
Aaron to meet his mother, Kate laughs at his distress. When Ethel reveals that
she knows about Fayeís murder and blackmails Kate, Kate plans her murder. When
Kate learns that Joe is trying to double cross her, she turns him in to the sheriff,
causing his death. In the end, she reveals that she has no respect for her own
life, for she commits suicide.
In her reflections on the past, Cathy shows
some abnormalities of childhood. She always felt terribly lonely. As a result,
she fantasized that she could make herself small like Alice in Alice in
Wonderland. It was her way of escaping from the pain of her world.
Kate also has one tendency towards goodness. She felt strongly attached to Aaron
and his goodness; as a result, she wanted to keep him from learning about her.
When he finds out the truth about Kate, she cannot bear it and kills herself.
Kateís physical being becomes a reflection of her evil nature. Her painfully
arthritic hands are a symbol of her deformed and tortured soul. It is ironic that
she has often used her hands to inflict pain on others, and now her hands have
become twisted and inflict pain on her. Her sensitivity towards the light is symbolic
of her fear of the truth. Just as she hides from the world inside her house of
prostitution, she hides from the light by living in a dimly lit gray room, eyes
closed against the truth.
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