The Power Of Ambiguity

1434 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

27/04/17 English Literature Reference this

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The ambiguity of someones actions can prove to be one of the strongest forces in other peoples lives. In the book, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, the character Caleb is a very morally ambiguous character. At one point his actions could be purely evil and at another point he could be purely good. Due to these abrupt changes in morals, Caleb proves to be a significant influence on the novel’s plot throughout and a great asset to the strength of the work as a whole.

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Around the midway point in the book, when the focus of the plot shifts from Cathy and Adam’s relations to Caleb and Aron’s, the common morality passed down through the Trask family seems to hold true in the brother’s lives. Much like the biblical Cain and Abel, Aron seems to be the purely good child and favored by his father Adam while Caleb, tainted by the jealousy of the love Adam expresses towards his brother, seems destined to be purely evil in his actions. Before Abra leaves their company one day, Caleb upsets her with lies about Aron, leaving her disgusted with the box Aron has gifted to her. “…Abra’s hand came up and the box went sailing backward into the road. Cal watched his brother’s faced and saw misery come into Aron’s eyes” (348). Both Cain and Abel expressed feelings for Abra upon her visit, yet almost immediately Abra connected with Aron instead of Caleb. Just like how Adam had favored Aron from the beginning no matter how hard Caleb tried to please Adam, Abra couldn’t care less about Caleb. Even after offering her gifts such as a dead rabbit he had killed from earlier that day, Abra was set on Aron as Adam had been and as his father had been with his brother Charles. Caleb took this opportunity to cause pain and “misery” on Aron by sabotaging the relationship he had been building up with Abra. This evil that Caleb shows towards his brother was too shared by Charles towards Adam, which in their case Charles beat Adam to a pulp. With the biblical Cain and Abel, this evil was again present with Cain toward Abel and thus caused him to murder Abel. Even more evil was present within the family with his mother Cathy being the pure definition of evil with her actions towards others. With all of these factors, it seemed that Caleb was truly destined for the path of evil and sin for life. However, later on in the book, Caleb begins to break away from his evil morality for a more good intentioned morality, as Caleb’s moral ambiguity begins to show.

Towards the end of the book, when Caleb and Aron begin to mature, the clash of morality the two brothers had between each other which closely resembles the biblical Cain and Abel begins to unwind. Caleb, though thought to be pure evil, begins to commit acts of good and starts to realize how to deal with his evil intentions and break away from them. An instance where Caleb shows his newfound sense of valor in his actions is after Adam loses most of his fortune in a failed marketing expedition, making him the fool of the town. In a conversation with Will Hamilton, Caleb says, “I want to make enough money to give him back what he lost” (475). This action marks one of the pivotal turning points in Caleb’s moral change from evil to good. Although the way he would make the money back would be considered somewhat sinful he realizes this and disregards it because it is all for the love of his father. Normally, Caleb would do anything to hurt those who show any love towards Aron out of his hatred toward him, as he did with Abra. However, Caleb realizes in himself that it is time to change those and so he supports his father because he knows that it is the right thing to do. This sense of somewhat freewill and motivation to do “good” in the family could also have been brought up by Aron’s somewhat withdrawal and seclusion from the family and his normal self. When Adam’s business venture fails, he shies away from helping him and is somewhat embarrassed to be associated with him. Caleb, the other hand, tries to help his father gain his reputation and wealth back. This further shows the transformation of Caleb as the biblical Cain figure to the Abel figure in the brotherhood and also shows the moral ambiguity of Caleb.

Caleb’s sense of moral ambiguity and his embracement in the idea of “timshel” gives the book a unique plot and added enjoyment to the reader that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. In fact, Caleb’s moral ambiguity may be why the book has been so well preserved in reader’s hearts today. His actions are especially significant by the book’s end, when the transformation of Caleb’s morals from the Cain figure to the Abel figure is finalized. When Caleb is grieving about his brother’s death, Lee enlightens him with hope and optimism around the situation. He says, “Maybe you’ll come to know that every man in every generation is refired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger to make a perfect cup-thin, strong, translucent?…All impurities burned out and ready for a glorious flux, and for that-more fire. And then either the slag heap or, perhaps what no one in the world ever quite gives up, perfection…Can you think that whatever made us-would stop trying?” (598). What Lee tries to convey to Caleb in this quote is that no one is perfect and no one has one set path for themselves in life. No person is set with one path to good or evil in life, and every individual has their own individual control over their life and how they treat others. Lee also reminds Caleb that he is not evil but simply an imperfect human being, which gives Caleb the confidence to realize that he is not a replica of his mother. Because of his determination, like the craftsman the Lee used as an example, Caleb is able to wipe away the Trask family moral stereotype that from birth everyone is set on a path to sin or good and prove to everyone that committing sin is merely an option that every man has the choice to triumph over. This advice Lee gives Caleb directly undermines the idea of “timshel” that has been a driving theme throughout the entire novel. Literally meaning, “thou mayest”, timshel is the idea that the path to man triumphing over evil or embracing it is open, which Caleb really brings to life through the novel. Without his influence, the novel wouldn’t have had as driving of a plot as it did and this overarching meaning would not have been realized by the book’s finish. Due to his moral ambiguity throughout, Caleb is able to bring a “light” to the end of the novel which provides a great significance to the work as a whole.

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The flavorful plot of the novel and the strength of the book as a whole is largely due to Caleb’s moral struggles and changes throughout. Caleb struggles with overcoming sin and its temptations as the book progresses and by the end he gains a new sense of hope because he realizes that has triumphed over it and that every man has an open path to valor in their actions. This can be put into real life perspectives today as many people try to grasp a hold of sin before they lose themselves in it. Many people commit sin and think that sin is their only path due to their upbringing or how much sin is around them. Caleb was in the same situation as young child with his mother and past family brotherhoods being sinful and the temptation to commit their same sins with the jealousy of the love towards his brother in their brotherhood. However, because he was determined to not fall down the same path as his ancestors, he was able to overcome sin. If other sinners were able to embrace idea of “timshel” as Caleb did, then they would to find that every person really does have an open path to good or evil and the choice to go down either path is solely within the choice of an individual.

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