East of Eden: Essay Q&A

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1. How does the opening chapter's natural setting affect the novel?

 
Steinbeck carefully establishes the setting of East of Eden before introducing his characters with a description of the Salinas Valley in Northern California. As a youngster, the narrator learns to tell east with its sunlit Gabilan Mountains, which he favors, from the western dark and foreboding Santa Lucias Mountains. This sets in place one of the novel's primary themes: light vs. dark, or good vs. evil.
 
The initial setting also establishes the biblical motif of years of plenty and years of famine as seen in the Bible's "Book of Samuel." The narrator points out the rich years "when rainfall was plentiful," and the dry years "which put a terror on the valley." So, the characters repeatedly undergo episodes of good times balanced with bad times.  For instance, Adam will one day live as an escaped convict hobo scratching for food and the next day he will live as a highly regarded public official, the beneficiary of $50,000.
 
The setting also establishes the innate characteristics of the two major families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. In 1870, the narrator's grandparents, Samuel and Liza Hamilton, immigrated from the north of Ireland and settled in the driest land in California's Salinas Valley. Ironically, although their land was practically barren, "only a skin of topsoil," they successfully raised nine children. Samuel's good nature and hard work on near barren soil makes him sympathetic to the reader and establishes him as a force for good.
 
Ironically, Samuel's neighbors, the wealthy Adam and Cathy Trask, settle in a much more fertile part of the Salinas Valley after their move from New England. However, despite its rich soil and plentiful water, the farm remains uncultivated for decades. And, while they manage to produce one set of twins, Adam is a neglectful father, not even naming his children until they are in their second year, and Cathy is the antithesis of a nurturing mother. Her nipples are inverted, she cannot produce milk, she shoots the babies father and abandons them when they are a week old.
 
2. Steinbeck's character Cathy Ames has been criticized as unbelievable because she remains totally evil. Agree, or disagree. What is her significance inEast of Eden?
 
Cathy Ames, whose "aims" are pure evil, clearly represents Satan. Unfeeling, uncaring whatsoever, she tempts people sexually, and brings pain to everyone. As a prostitute, Cathy/Kate practices sadomasochism using knives and whips to degrade the human body. From birth she was "a monster," an extreme of evil and lacking that part that makes us human. She is also depicted as a witch, an instrument of Satan, and as cat, a familiar of a witch. She remains necessary to the novel to contrast the other characters and illustrate them, even though at times they "sin," as human beings.
 
Although she is golden-haired and possesses a face like an angel, Cathy also possesses a physical characteristic in line with the biblical Satan: "her feet were fat and round and stubby with fat insteps almost like little hoofs (p.73). Satan, similarly, can be recognized by his cloven hoof. Charles says to Cathy: "I don't think I'm half as man as you are under that nice skin. I think you're a devil" (p. 116). Thus, when he sleeps with her on the night of his brother's wedding night, Charles is in essence sleeping with the devil.
 
Cathy also possesses the characteristics of a witch, recognized in mythology as an instrument of the devil: her "nipples turned inward as a girl" (p.73). And, her feline physical appearance marks her as a witch. Besides the obvious "cat," in Cathy, she possesses certain feline physical characteristics. Her teeth are small and sharp. Cats are known to prefer dark enclosed spaces to deliver their young and when Samuel finds her laboring in her dark birthing room on the Trask farm, he immediately pulls down the curtains: "Her hostile eyes glared at him and her lips raised snarling from her little teeth (p. 191)." Later on, she prefers her small cave-like gray room dwelling.  
 
Cathy as abject evil provides a contrast for the other characters. Juxtaposed with her, other female characters like Liza Hamilton, Olive Hamilton, the narrator's mother, and Abra Bacon appear more maternal. And although the Cain-like Charles is certainly dark-natured, unlike Cathy he at times demonstrates human characteristics like love and guilt. Similarly, although the sometimes dark Cal is Cathy's son, he illustrates the concept of timshel. Despite his mother, Cal may live a moral, upstanding life. Thus, although Cathy has been criticized as an unreal character, she remains vitally necessary to the plot.
 
3. The biblical story of Cain and Abel plays a crucial role in East of Eden. Discuss the intergenerational significance of Cain and Abel.
 
In the biblical Book of "Genesis," the brothers Cain and Abel offer God "the father" a sacrifice. God favors the shepherd Abel's sacrifice of his best lamb over the farmer Cain's grain. Subsequently, in a jealous rage Cain kills his brother Abel, only to be marked by God and banished to wander the earth. The Trask brothers Charles and Adam (C&A) follow the Cain and Abel biblical model from the beginning. When their father Cyrus favors Adam's birthday gift of a puppy over Charles' expensive knife, Charles almost beats his brother Adam to death. Unlike Charles (Cain), however, it is Adam (Abel) who wanders the earth first in the army, then as a hobo all over the United States, to South America next, and eventually to the Salinas Valley. Charles remains on the farm, where like Cain he becomes marked with a dark brown scar. Jealousy causes Charles and Adam to remain at odds with each other throughout their entire lives despite their love for each other.
 
The next generation of Trask brothers, the dark-haired Cal and the fair-haired Aron (C&A) also carry out the dynamics of the Cain and Abel tale. As Samuel, Adam and Lee gather to name the children after the psychologically shattered Adam fails to carry out this obligation, the children sleep on the warm ground in a reference to the biblical brothers. Cain kills Abel in a field; God tells him his brother's blood cries out to him from the ground, and that he is cursed from the earth. Samuel suggests naming the children Cain and Abel, much to Adam's chagrin. For some reason, the near-sighted Adam favors Aron over Cal and when Cal offers his father Adam a birthday present of $15,000 to help him recover his financial losses, Adam spurns him for making the money during a war-time economy. At this point, Cal takes his bother Aron to visit their mother who lives as a notorious prostitute in Salinas. Aron, who believed his mother was dead, is psychologically shattered and rather than face the world, he runs away to the army during World War I, and dies soon after. Thus, the biblical tale plays out with Cal, albeit inadvertently, killing his brother.
 
However, the concept of timshel, which provides Cal with the choice to live a worthwhile moral life, will in effect disable the rage and jealousy that enabled the intergenerational conflict.
 
4. The concept of timshel is central to East of Eden. Discuss this idea and its pertinence to the novel.
 
Samuel visits Adam before he retires from his ranch and once more meets the twins he delivered into the world. Ten years earlier, on their naming day, he had discussed at great length the tale of Cain and Abel with Adam and Lee.  The three men puzzled over why God had favored Abel's gift of the lamb over Cain's gift of the grain and found no answer. Similarly, after reading the sixteen verses of the biblical account, they had discussed the story at length, attempting to figure out what indeed God had promised Cain when he cast him out. Was Cain predestined to everlasting damnation, or could he find redemption?
 
In the interim years, Lee took it upon himself to study the story at length, even going so far as to ask four Chinese scholars and a rabbi for help. And, during Samuel's visit, he shares his scholarly findings. One translation of the Bible, he argues, maintains that God promised Cain that he would in time overcome sin, but another translation argues instead that God ordered Cain to overcome sin. But, Lee happily assures the men that the scholars, after years of debate and research, found that each translation is in error and that the Hebrew word,timshel, the verb at issue, actually means "thou mayest." Lee considerstimshel to be a powerful idea about human free will, something that gives people the freedom to forge their own moral destinies. Thus, Cain actually has been imbued with the ability of free will, or free choice: God has given humans the power, or the ability, to choose goodness over evil.
 
In essence, Steinbeck offers his readers hope of redemption. No one, he insists, is predestined to choose evil despite the lives lived by their parents. The concept of timshel becomes particularly pertinent after Aron's death, for which Cal blames himself, and during the final scene when Adam, near-death, utters the Hebrew verb: timshel. Cal may be a descendant in a long familial line of thieves, murderers and prostitutes, but he has the ability to choose his own moral destiny.
 
5. Although he is not the protagonist, Samuel Hamilton deeply influences the novel. Of what significance is the character Samuel? How does he function in the novel? 
 
Samuel Hamilton represents the positive principle. He heightens other characters by providing contrast for the novel's protagonist Adam, the objectionable father Cyrus and the nefarious Cathy Ames.
 
When juxtaposed with Adam, Samuel is a symbol of life, of fertility. Ironically, he lives on barren soil, but he is the character who finds water so Adam's land can bear fruit: "he knows more about water than anybody around here. He's a water witch and a well-digger too" (p. 138). Constantly surrounded with water imagery, he digs the local wells and is always washing his hands or beard. He drinks whiskey, which he calls "the water of life." A life force, he delivers the twins Aron and Cal while their father Adam waits helplessly. God the Father personified, Samuel tells his wife he cannot rest in his mind while some other man suffers.
 
Samuel is also contrasted with Adam's father, Cyrus. He is the archetypal force for goodness-the good father to Cyrus' bad father. Samuel exhibit senormous physical strength and well-being while Cyrus is diseased with syphilis and hobbles on one leg. Each man is bearded in biblical patriarchal style. Samuel brushes his beard and washes it over and over: "he has a nice beard" (p. 141). Unlike Cyrus however, Samuel sets a good moral example for his sons, shows no favoritism, and attempts to make their individual attributes shine.

Samuel also knows things innately and senses evil like radar: "I can feel it. Sometimes on a white blinding day, I can feel it cutting off the sun and squeezing the light out of it like a sponge . . . I don't know what it is, but I can see it and feel it in the people here" (p. 146). He sees into Cathy Ames immediately and understands that she lacks a vital human component. At no time does Samuel ever waver from goodness. Cathy hates him immediately and reacts to him like a cornered animal. After he delivers her babies, she bites him so severely that he suffers a fever for three days. He is the lightness to her darkness. Thus, Samuel represents the good heavenly father and the good earthly father. After his death, Lee visits the grave of his "father."

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