Classic and Doorstopper of the Month: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)

Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.

Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.

The John Steinbeck House (his childhood home) in Salinas, CA. By Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.

This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.

Steinbeck with his third wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950. The character of Cathy may be based on his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who cheated on him on multiple occasions and asked for a divorce. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)

At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.

Page count: 602

My rating:


A few favorite passages:

“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”

“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”


During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.


“Salinas” by Laura Marling

When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins

With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder

Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]

Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”


“By the Skin of My Teeth” by Duke Special

My luck ran out just east of Eden

Oh, I proved you right

I’m a danger […]

I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure


26 responses

  1. It’s been such a long time since I’ve read this but I remember it being wonderful! Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Cathy. I’d also like to see the film — James Dean!


      1. The film is amazing. Long though, if I remember right.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That first quote under your favorite passages is one of my favorites, too. I read this for the first time a couple of years ago, and it was then I realized I love character-driven novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh, I might say this one was more theme-driven, with at least some of the characters as mere symbols.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am thinking in terms of plot vs characters, and which one carries the themes of the book most effectively (I tend to enjoy the latter more). Although I agree that the themes are what make this novel so spectacular, I think it’s the characters that drive them.


  3. I remember loving and being deeply disturbed by this in equal measure. Definitely time to revisit it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve read everything 😉 Can you remember what you found disturbing? Was it Cathy?


      1. YEP. There’s a scene with a knitting needle (I think) that really freaked me out.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Gotcha. I was going to mention that alongside Annie Ernaux’s Happening as one of my book serendipity moments, but decided it was probably a spoiler.


      1. Oh God does that happen in Happening?!


  4. I’ve been saying I’ll read this book for so long…. A selective skim through your review reinforces that I really must make it happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ahhh this book ❤❤❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath (but can’t remember it at all really) but not this one, although I have my inherited copy. One day, I will definitely keep it as it sounds amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s his other best one, at least of the six I’ve read. I also enjoyed Travels with Charley as something a bit different.


  7. WOO-HOO! You nailed it!! Thank you for mentioning me.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve just lightly scanned your post as I do intend to read this. When I was a teenager I saw the mini-series and loved it. But, then, I loved a lot of stories that I didn’t enjoy as much later on. Steinbeck always surprises me though: I think it’s going to be like reading Hemingway and, then, I end up loving it. (The Old Man and the Sea I enjoyed, but I haven’t taken to Hemingway overall – although a co-worker once convinced me to reread The Sun Also Rises, so I do feel as though I’ve given him a fair shake.)


    1. I didn’t know about a miniseries version.

      I don’t much care for Hemingway’s style in his fiction, though I did love A Moveable Feast.


  9. I remember loving this book. It’s so great that you read it with your mom!
    I also love the Grapes of Wrath.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She kept getting ahead of me (because she usually reads just one book at a time, whereas I read 10-20), but it pretty much worked! We exchanged e-mails every few days to discuss.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This […]


  11. […] Haruki Murakami The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld East of Eden by John Steinbeck The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese The Paying […]


  12. […] school – I’m lucky they didn’t put me off Steinbeck forever), whereas The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are masterful. It may also have something to do with the slight air of condescension towards […]


  13. I just finished rereading “East of Eden” two weeks ago. Read it the first time 20 years ago. It’s a phenomenal book. I ended up getting “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good” tattooed on my rib cage. I love this book so much. Lee and Samuel are two of the best characters ever written

    Liked by 1 person

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