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John Steinbeck was born into a middle class family that resided in Salinas, California. During his time at Stanford University Steinbeck worked and took classes he believed were beneficial before eventually dropping out. Steinbeck first widely known novel was Tortilla Flat written in 1935, about a series of humorous situations a group of "piasanos" get themselves into (John Steinbeck 1). In 1921, Steinbeck wrote East of Eden a novel that deals with the complex battle between good and evil. The story interweaves Steinbeck's actual family history with that of a second fictional family the Trask's. The multiple complications that arise in the story replicate those of the biblical story Cain and Abel. Steinbeck on countless occasions indicated that this novel was his most prized piece of writing, mainly due to its applicable significance.
The narrator's opinion in East of Eden goes so further than just to propose the story of Cain and Able is the "recurring narrative of human history," but affirms that there "is no other story" (411). The narrator continues stating that every individual since Adam and Eve has wrestled with the meticulous choice between good and evil. When looking back on his or her life, the narrator contests each person has one question to ask, "will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well-or ill" (411). Steinbeck's frank unveiling of his worldview roots itself deeper than just the narrator. Lee, in East of Eden, states that the story of Cain and Abel is the "symbol story of the human soul" (268). However, Steinbeck's kibitzing on humanity's symbol story is skewed by his conclusion. Steinbeck concludes that while life is a struggle between choosing good and evil, we make our own path. The symbol story of humanity is not just struggle of good and evil, but rather the struggle and defeat of evil.
All the characters in East of Eden act out this drama and become entangled with its dreadful outcomes. However, each character in East of Eden has different attitudes towards their free will throughout their entanglement with evil. Cathy persists that the world consists of only evil, so she decides to engross herself in it and employ it to her advantage. Cathy learns that she can use evil to exploit other character's human weaknesses to further benefit her own selfish desires. Aaron, on the other hand, is only able to see the good in the world and nothing else. After learning that his mother did not actually die but instead left the boys to be a brothel owner, Aaron is so inundated with emotion that he runs away. Lee is the only character in East of Eden that can be argued to have successfully distanced himself from the drama. However, even Lee's story of origin is plagued with immorality and appalling actions. His main role in this drama is to wade in the background quietly reminding the reader that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice, regardless of the fact that all humans are imperfect, sinful beings. Cal is a middle road between these two extreme characters. Throughout the story Cal struggles between being evil and good, this is directly seen by his request of Lee, "Don't let me be mean" (377). Fortunately by the conclusion of the book Cal is successful, as he learns to accept Lee's belief of freewill. Although we are never told, it is hoped that Cal later takes this belief with him following the conclusion of the book to live an honest life with Abra.
As in all of Steinbeck's novels, the character development is at the center of the story. In East of Eden Steinbeck presents characters in pairs: Aaron and Caleb, Abra and Cathy, Adam and Charles; using first initials to initially classify which characters are intrinsically good and which characters will wrestle with the seeds of evil within them. These classifications based on initials refer back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Each of the characters beginning with the letter "C" initially embody evil in the story, while those starting with "A" embody good. However, as the story progresses the definitive lines of good and evil are blurred by the characters arbitrary actions that go against their characterized name. Steinbeck does this to illustrate his two major points of the novel first that every person sets their own path in life and second that evil can always be overcome. East of Eden embellishes this eternal conflict between good and evil in the simplified set of the Salinas Valley as a whole and more specifically in the individuals of the Trask and Hamilton families. The main characters of the novel, generation after generation, wrestle with the problem of evil. Cyrus, the patriarch of the Trask family, chooses evil by stealing $10,000 throughout his employment at the U.S. War Board. Adam, the protagonist at establishment of the story, is a caring but imperfect character. Adam's largest flaws are his propensity to be too naive and his failure to observe evil characteristics in others. It is these flaws that blind him from observing his father's corruption and Cathy's manipulation. As the story progresses and Adam begins to age till finally becoming a father, his figurative character of Abel changes and he leans more towards a metaphorical character of biblical Adam. Adam, like biblical Adam, is incapable to notice his own preferential treatment for Aaron over Cal, which proves damaging to the family. Adam lavishes all of his love and attention on the weak and detached Aaron while largely writing off the more loving and thoughtful Cal. Ultimately, however, Lee causes Adam to realize Cal's potential, and Adam redeems Cal by blessing him at the end of the novel.
Cathy chooses the path of evil at every opportunity, hurting and manipulating others for her own benefit. Cathy is the personification of evil in East of Eden and the most stagnant of the main characters. A symbol of barrenness and destruction who kills her parents and attempts to abort her own unborn children, Cathy is a despoiled edition of the biblical Eve, seen in Christian society as the mother of all humankind. Eve is deceived into committing sin, whereas Cathy embraces it enthusiastically and commits evil simply for its own sake. Cathy has a crushingly gloomy outlook on humankind, as she believes that the world is made of evil and, therefore, the only way to live is to embrace it (Barnes 160). Consequently, she falls short in understanding the good in additional characters and instead uses their trusting natures to achieve her own predatory ends. There is never a sense throughout the story that Cathy is actually using her evil acts for an ultimate goal or aim. Due to this aimless evil, some critics have dismissed Cathy "as an implausible character and a major weak link in Steinbeck's novel" (Atkinson 210). No matter the analysis by some critics, Cathy is a "symbol of the human evil that will always be present in the world," and her loss of power over Adam and Cal strengthens East of Eden's message that individuals have the choice to reject evil in favor of good (Mazzeno 30).
While Adam is the protagonist throughout most of the novel, the spotlight shifts to Cal in the later chapters. Cal struggles the most of all the characters due to the moral connection he has with his mother. Early on it seems that Cal has inherited the evil tendencies of his mother, Cathy, and that his is destined to fulfill this generation's character role of Cain. Early on Cal does display the characteristics of a Cain figure. Cal becomes violently jealous of Aaron because of Adam's noticeable inclination towards him, and eventually sets in motion the proceedings that lead to Aaron's death, even uttering a parallel of the biblical Cain's response to God, "Am I my brother's keeper." Although Cal is apparently "born" into the gloomy role of a modern day Cain, he struggles against what he sees as his inherited evil, the evil of his mother, and even prays to God to put him on the path toward good. Even though Cal does make several pitiable moral choices as he wrestles with evil, in the end he takes Lee's counsel and recognizes the power of timshel, the idea that each individual "has the power to choose between good and evil in life" (Barnes 162). Thus, while Cal is indeed a Cain figure, he demonstrates the ability to break out of inherited sin and act for good instead.
Aaron, like his father, is bighearted and unquestioning. Although Aaron is kind and amiable, his instinctive moral sensitivity is excessive, making him delicate and without doubt vulnerable to being hurt. The protected Aaron encounters tremendous difficulty facing the "reality of human evil in the world," and Steinbeck builds a immense amount of suspense in the second half of East of Eden concerning whether or not Aaron will survive his first encounter with his mother. Gradually, Aaron retreats into the shelter of the church, rejecting the love of Abra in favor of religious laws of chastity and devotion. As the novel develops, Aaron becomes less likable, as the reader begins to see that the shelters he seeks are shallow and that his pursuits are driven neither "by true religious belief nor a desire for intellectual education" (Atkinson 216). Ultimately, Aaron is shattered by the disclosure that Cathy is his supposedly deceased mother. He runs from the evil reality, enlisting in the army, and later is killed in World War I.
While the story is plagued by an evil that is native and inevitable to human will, the novel also sets forth optimism that evil may be overcome. Lee, a Chinese servant, surprises and delights the reader with his wisdom and gentle nature. Cathy surpasses the conventional evil character, allowing the reader to feel empathy side by side with revulsion. This dual emotional response was planned by Steinbeck to show that no one person is all good or all evil (Gladstein 36). Steinbeck inculcates the reader that each individual has the freedom to choice evil or good no matter their circumstances. This essential idea of free choice is summarized by the Hebrew word timshel, the final word spoken by Adam in the book before passing away. The Hebrew word, which translates to "thou mayest," appears in the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible, and also at the conclusion of East of Eden. In the Genesis four, God instructions Cain to become a master over the evil he wrestles with. Timshel does not mean that he must overcome evil or assure Cain that he will; rather, it reminds Cain of the opportunity to overcome evil exists. Ironically, in the novel, Lee, the Chinese Presbyterian, petitions a group of Confucian scholars to explain the significance of timshel. The novel goes on to narrate that these scholars spent months of reading and studying Hebrew till finally they give Lee the answer: "Thou mayest." This single word evolves to become the vortex on which this novel perpetuates. Lee sees this notion of free will as vital to the fallen human condition; in fact, he says that timshel might be the "most important word in the world" (602). The philosophical discussion of timshel manipulates the psychological struggles of the novel. Through Steinbeck's narration of each character's struggle with evil and its affect on the human mind, the reader sees disturbing snapshots of the human soul's innate darkness. One example of this is the customers at Kate's house of prostitution, who exemplify the varieties of torment and perversion caused by the human mind. Timshel also reveals to the reader hope, in its final appearance in the novel. At the conclusion of the novel when Adam, bedridden by a stroke, murmurs the word to Caleb, following his confession of the evil he has committed by causing Aaron to meet his formerly thought dead mother. Ultimately, the novel ends on a positive note, as Cal accepts the possibility and responsibility of free will, of free choice between good and evil. This optimistic ending is tempered, however, by our knowledge that future generations will endlessly replay the same struggle that Cal and his ancestors have endured. The overriding message of East of Eden seems to be that mankind is free to choose their path regardless of inheritance or circumstances, in fact, perhaps in spite of them.