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Free Study Guide for East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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OVERALL ANALYSIS


CHARACTER ANALYSIS


Samuel Hamilton

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.

Samuel 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 Trask

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.

Adam 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.

Because Adam 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.

Lee, the 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.

Adam 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.

Adamís only 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 son.

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, Cathy, Kate

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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