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Free Study Guide for East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Rising above the stereotypic picture of a Chinese servant, Lee emerges as the strongest and most realistic character in the novel. He is the observer, philosopher, healer, and peacemaker of the book.

Steinbeck is remarkably progressive in his thinking about Chinese Americans. He recognizes the constant and unremitting racism of most Californians towards Orientals at mid century. He has various characters call Lee a "chink," "Ching Chong," and "Charley." In addition, Adamís nurse clearly states that she will not take orders from a Chinese man. Lee reacts by sometimes playing the role of a subservient oriental, resorting to talking in pidgin, wearing a queue, and acting like a well-trained monkey. He explains to Samuel Hamilton that if he does not act like an obsequious Chinaman, he will be threatened with violence.

Lee becomes the center of the Trask family, acting like a wife to Adam and mother to his sons. He decorates Adamís house, organizes Adamís finances, engages in long discussions with Adam over his emotional life and his obligations toward his sons, protects Adam from harm, nurse him back to health, and counsels him about telling Caleb and Aaron the truth. Similarly with Cal and Aaron, Lee acts as a parent, teaching them moral discipline, feeding them, clothing them, urging them on a path toward a good life. Lee even befriends Aaronís girlfriend, who will become Calebís wife.

Leeís ultimate gift is what he does for Cal at the end of the novel. Realizing that the boy is destroying himself with guilt after Aaronís death and Adamís stroke, he takes Caleb into his fatherís room and has Adam give him a blessing. The blessing, in turn, gives Cal the freedom to choose goodness over evil, insuring that he can lead a normal and happy life. At the end of the book, Cal stands as the symbol of hope and goodness for the future.

Caleb "Cal" Trask

Named after the Biblical character, Caleb, who finally gets to the Promised Land, Cal symbolically comes to the Promised Land at the end of the novel when he receives his fatherís blessing. It is what he has been searching for throughout his life.

Caleb is a Cain figure. Like Cain, he is jealous of his brother because he has received his fatherís blessings. It is clear to Cal that Aaron is the favorite son. As a result, he wants to strike out at Aaron and hurt him. Through most of the novel, he tries to hold himself back. In the end, however, when his father rejects his sacrificial offering of $15,000 and admonishes him to be good like his brother, Cal can hold back to longer. He retaliates by taking Aaron, the good son, to see their mother and accept the truth about her. He laughs as he watches Aaron scream in horror at Kate. Aaron reacts to the truth by retreating from it, much like his father has always done. He joins the military and goes to war. When he is killed, Cal blames himself. Lee becomes his savior by forcing Adam to speak a blessing to Cal. When Adam indicates to his remaining son that he has the choice of goodness over evil, Calís life is positively changed forever.

From the beginning, Cal and Aaron are very different. While Aaron is light-haired, Cal is dark-haired. While Aaron is innocent, Cal is clever and knowing. While Aaron is open and honest, Cal is secretive and manipulative. While Aaron is good, Cal is bad. Cal acts out his evil side by various means. The first time it comes out is when Cal and Aaron are out shooting rabbits. When Aaron shoots one, Cal tries to manipulate him into sharing the credit since it was his arrow that actually killed the rabbit. The second piece of meanness is what Cal does to Aaron and Abraís newfound friendship. He convinces Abra that Aaron will put a snake in the box instead of the rabbit; he also tells her she has wet her pants. When Aaron asks his brother why he is so mean, Cal promises to try harder to be good; however, it seems to be a constant struggle for him.

Calís salvation comes at the hands of Lee, who guides him morally and teaches him that he has freedom of choice in life. Appropriately, when Cal is avoiding goodness, he also avoids Lee. When he is striving for the good, he seeks Lee out. Lee always helps him get through his rage and shame and orchestrates the final reconciliation between Cal and Adam. Lee also helps to nurture the budding romance between Cal and Abra. At the end of the book, Cal has become the good son and the hope for the Trask future.

Aaron "Aron" Trask

Aaron is named after the Biblical character who did not get to the Promised Land. Just like the Biblical character, Aaron Trask dies before his time, killed during World War I. Aaron is also similar to the Biblical character of Abel. He is the fair-haired, good son who always tries to please his father. As a result, he is his fatherís favorite, just like Abel. The favoritism causes Cal to hate Aaron through much of the novel, just like Cain hated Abel.

Although Cal does not literally kill Aaron, he indirectly causes his death. When his father rejects his sacrificial offering of $15,000 and suggests that Cal become more like Aaron, Cal retaliates by taking his brother to meet their mother. Aaron is horrified to learn the truth. In order not to face it, he escapes by joining the military and going to war. When Aaron is killed, Cal blames himself.

Throughout the novel, Aaron is the handsome son, loved immediately by everyone who sees him. In the first part of his life, he represents the unaffected, natural goodness of mankind. By the end of the novel, he is so caught up in his image of goodness that he represents self-indulgent purity. He has joined the Episcopal Church, taken his minister, Mr. Rolfe, as his mentor, decided to become a pastor of a high church, and pledged to remain celibate.

His relationship with Abra reveals the direction of Aaronís moral life. He has adopted the element of Adamís character that opened him to the machinations of Cathy and made him blind to the needs of his sons. As Abra puts it, Aaron has created an idealized story for himself and refuses to leave it in order to embrace the realities of life. She feels that he has never grown up, for he constantly twists the world to fit his ideal image. In his relationship with her, he has put her on an unrealistic pedestal, making her a vision of perfect purity. When he writes love letters to her from college, he is obviously speaking to his ideal of Abra rather than the real girl who loves him. When college does not turn out to be the ideal place he had imagined it would be, Aaron immediately wants to give it up and retreat to the idealized life of a farmer. Finally, Adam is incapable of accepting the reality of his mother. Although he has heard rumors about her all his life, he has willfully denied them, consistently holding to the belief that she had died and gone to heaven. When he comes face to face with his mother, he still refuses to accept reality. He runs to war and gets himself killed, never reaching the Promised Land, just as his namesake never reached the Promised Land in the Bible.

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