East of Eden

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John Steinbeck Character Analysis

John Steinbeck is the son of Olive Hamilton and Ernest Steinbeck, and the grandson of Sam Hamilton. This character shares a name and much of a family history with the actual author of the novel. He occasionally narrates the story, but the novel also refers to John in third person.

John Steinbeck Quotes in East of Eden

The East of Eden quotes below are all either spoken by John Steinbeck or refer to John Steinbeck. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of East of Eden published in 1952.
Chapter 2 Quotes

They landed with no money, no equipment, no tools, no credit, and particularly with no knowledge of the new country and no technique for using it. I don’t know whether it was a divine stupidity or a great faith that let them do it. Surely such venture is nearly gone from the world

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes the Hamilton family, who came to America from Ireland with nothing and built a life in the Salinas Valley through hard work and persistence in the face of many obstacles. Sam Hamilton embodies the virtues of work. Hard work is, for him, an outlet for his curiosity and a source of connection to the world and to his community. Importantly, he does not work simply for money. He finds true joy in what he does, though the work is hard.

The narrator expresses confusion about whether the Hamiltons felt capable of building a life from nothing because of "divine stupidity or a great faith." Here, the narrator is gesturing towards the power of stories and myth. Clearly, faith has been the foundation of the Hamilton's decision to live in Salinas, and, though they have succeeded, the narrator is not sure whether this was a well-advised decision. Calling this into question brings to our attention that it was a story the Hamiltons told themselves (that God would protect them) rather than realistically hospitable conditions in the Salinas Valley that enabled them to survive and prevail. The importance of stories in guiding human choices and informing human identities will be central throughout the book.


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Chapter 8 Quotes

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Catherine Trask (Kate)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a description of Catherine, who will eventually become Adam's wife. She has no regard for others, and she causes harm to people in order to get her way. As this passage suggests, she is an embodiment of the evil extreme of human nature. For Steinbeck, good and evil are innate qualities, and, provocatively, they function best when they are in balance, rather than weighted towards one quality or the other. Kate, who is an example of pure evil, cannot love because she has no empathy for others.

But Adam, too, though he is supposedly an example of pure good, cannot truly love because he is incapable of recognizing others for who they really are. Thus extreme good and extreme evil are seen as almost akin. Steinbeck suggests that real human goodness lies in those who face the complex truth of humanity, who must struggle between good and bad impulses and make choices based on their own personal values and their feelings for others. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Catherine was clever, but even a clever woman misses some of the strange corridors of man.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Catherine Trask (Kate)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes in the midst of Catherine's manipulation of Mr. Edwards, the owner of a whorehouse whom Catherine has convinced to love and support her. As Catherine seemingly embodies evil, she moves through the world by reading people (rather than empathizing with them) and exploiting their weaknesses.

Steinbeck presents Mr. Edwards as being a simple and generous man who loves Catherine, but this passage points out that hardly anybody is so straightforward. Mr. Edwards' "strange corridors" come out when Catherine gets drunk and shows him her true cruelty.What had seemed before to be Mr. Edwards' straightforward love convolutes into a vengeful anger that leads him to try to murder Catherine. Steinbeck is here attempting to show that all human beings are complex mixtures of good and evil. He is also showing us the dual edges of love; on the one hand, love can lead to joy and kindness, but, on the other hand, it can produce jealousy and violence. Steinbeck wants us to understand how complicated the human character is; Catherine's downfall is that she misses this.

Chapter 12 Quotes

To hell with that rotten century! Let’s get it over and the door closed shut on it! Let’s close it like a book and go on reading! New chapter, new life. A man will have clean hands once we get the lid slammed shut on that stinking century. It’s a fair thing ahead. There’s no rot on this clean new hundred years. It’s not stacked, and any bastard who deals seconds from this new deck of years—why, we’ll crucify him head down over a privy. Oh but strawberries will never taste as good again and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

In this short chapter, Steinbeck meditates on the human relationship to time. He reflects that, at this point in the book, it is 1900, the dawn of a new century, and he details various reactions to this change. This passage embodies the boosterish enthusiasm for the supposed clean slate of a new century and the possibility for a better life implied therein. The last line, though, already gestures towards the nostalgia that such a milestone evokes--some people believe that perhaps the good times are already gone and things will only get worse.

Steinbeck, of course, is partly parodying the extreme emotions that the passage of time tends to evoke in people. 1900 is an arbitrary number--nothing will truly change between 1899 and 1900 more than in any other year, but the psychological effects of the date shift are profound. This chapter seems to advocate a more nuanced attitude towards the passage of time; all times are infused with good and bad, and things are neither getting better nor worse. This mirrors Steinbeck's thoughts on human nature, which he argues is mixed with good and bad. In general, Steinbeck rejects simplistic and reductive views of any phenomenon. Everything is complex and ambiguous. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Like Chapter 12, the opening of Chapter 13 is a meditation on human reactions to the passage of time. This quote in particular is referring to the rise of mass production in the 20th century and people's fears that this was inherently bad or even evil for society. Steinbeck is arguing that this kind of economic and social change is not inherently good or evil.

The fact that changes seem evil to some people is an illusion based on the tendency of change to alter the things we love, sometimes unfavorably. Steinbeck is a realist, though. He wants us to grapple with things as they are (much like Charles grapples with people as they are, while Catherine and Adam cannot). Steinbeck's point is that mass production is a reality of life by this point in the story, and the smart way to think about it is not in terms of hand-wringing or boosterism, but rather with an understanding that mass production will, like every other change, bring both good and bad. Nostalgic clinging to the past is a reductive way to view a phenomenon, and Steinbeck always insists on complexity.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Then a breeze would move her bright hair, or she would raise her eyes, and Adam would swell out in his stomach with a pressure of ecstasy that was close kin to grief.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Adam Trask, Catherine Trask (Kate)
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes Adam's feelings of love when he sees Cathy, who is pregnant with their child. Cathy has already been shown to be an amoral and even evil character She is using Adam's feelings to manipulate him and has even tried to have an illegal abortion without his knowledge. However, Adam's natural inclination towards goodness and non-confrontation does not allow him to see people as they truly are, even his own wife with whom he supposedly shares a life.

This passage shows his delusion, and also the tragedy of this delusion; Adam is vulnerable because of his inability to recognize Cathy's evil, and he is also mistaking something manipulative for love, which denies him one of the most powerful and good human experiences. It's telling that his "love" is described as an ecstasy that borders on grief. Steinbeck suggests that real love should not be only ecstatic, since it must acknowledge flaws and be tempered by complexity. Adam's naive and ecstatic feelings are volatile, and the grief that lurks in his feelings suggests the loneliness that is at the heart of his empty relationship.

Chapter 19 Quotes

The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

Steinbeck opens Chapter 19 with a meditation on the ways in which people coped with the hardships of frontier life. This controversial passage suggests that the church and prostitution both fulfilled the same purposes for frontiersmen (and maybe still fulfill the same purposes for contemporary people): communion with others and distraction from hardship. This is a telling statement in a novel that is itself a reworking of a Biblical story; it suggests that Steinbeck does not view religious truth as the singular truth, or religious morality as always being correct.

This points to Steinbeck's view of the Bible as a series of stories through which we interpret our lives, rather than a series of moral guidelines that must be strictly followed. Instead of condemning prostitution, as the church believes he should, Steinbeck frames prostitution as an activity that provides a necessary service because it has the potential to provide both escape and human connection. Throughout this book, Steinbeck argues for the rigorous examination of human assumptions and preconceptions in order to arrive at a nuanced and full appreciation for human life.

Chapter 22 Quotes

It seemed to Samuel that Adam might be pleasuring himself with sadness.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

By this point in the book, Cathy has left Adam with the twins and Adam is out of his mind with grief. When Sam learns that Adam has not yet bothered to even name the twins, Sam feels the need to intervene. However, this passage reveals that Sam does not simply feel compassion for Adam's grief; he feels an anger, too, born from suspicion. While Sam values hard work and overcoming obstacles, Adam (and his family in general) comes from a wealthier background and has had more idle time in his life, which Sam does not feel is morally good. Sam wonders if Adam is able to indulge his grief so fully because of his privilege, and if, furthermore, Adam is somehow luxuriating in it. If this is the case, then that grief is certainly immoral, since it is harming his children. This passage is another example of the complexity of love and the ways in which love can morph from something pure into something toxic.

One day Samuel strained his back lifting a bale of hay, and it hurt his feelings more than his back, for he could not imagine a life in which Sam Hamilton was not privileged to lift a bale of hay.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a chapter largely concerned with illness: Sam hurts his back, which interrupts his ability to work, and Adam grows mentally unstable after Cathy leaves him. Steinbeck draws a specific contrast between the two illnesses, though. Sam is upset about his injury, not because of the pain or even because of the financial loss of not working, but because he sees personal and moral value in labor. He calls lifting a bale of hay a "privilege," and he worries that Adam's grief is so all-consuming because Adam doesn't have that kind of work to uplift him. This passage also uses the two contrasting illnesses to talk about time. Here, time is the force that decays Sam's body, but with Adam, time is the force that could heal him. Steinbeck has always insisted that time passing brings both good and bad - it both gives and it takes away. This scene is a concrete example of this complex reality.

Chapter 23 Quotes

The door was closed to men. It was a sanctuary where women could be themselves—smelly, wanton, mystic, conceited, truthful, and interested…At Dessie’s they were women who went to the toilet and overate and scratched and farted. And from this freedom came laughter, roars of laughter.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Dessie Hamilton
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

Much as Steinbeck's elaboration of Lee's character provides insight into the effects of racism, Steinbeck's description of Dessie's shop illuminates the effects of sexism on women. Steinbeck recognizes that women do not, by nature, necessarily conform to norms of "femininity." While those norms are often seen as simply reflecting feminine nature, this passage points out that, in fact, gender norms often prevent women from being their true selves. Because men are not allowed in Dessie's shop, women are able to relax and stop their relentless performances of femininity. The ability to be who they truly are in Dessie's shop gives them joy and freedom. This passage points out that sexism reduces women to something less than they truly are, and it shows the joy that women experience when they are in a place that acknowledges that women share a complexity common to all human beings. Steinbeck suggests, too, that to engage this complexity is a moral obligation for us all, since thinking in stereotypes harms others. 

Chapter 34 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker)
Page Number: 415
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Steinbeck strays from the story to meditate on good, evil, and love. He states that he believes that the central contest of all human lives (and, therefore, all human stories) is the struggle between good and evil. He compares good and evil to the "warp and woof" (the foundation of a weaving) of consciousness, implying that good and evil literally comprise the fabric of existence. Steinbeck here suggests that this contest is not evenly weighted, though; humans gravitate towards goodness more than evil.

While Steinbeck remains committed to a picture of human nature that includes both good and bad as natural, he tips the scales here and suggests that humans have more good in them than bad. The statement about evil constantly re-spawning is ambiguous, but he seems to mean that we are always inventing new ways to exploit and manipulate one another, while kindness and virtue are much simpler. We never need to craft a new way to be kind, but since evil works best in disguise, we must always reinvent it. Steinbeck implies that this gives an inherent and lasting power to goodness, a power that evil lacks. 

Chapter 38 Quotes

Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Caleb “Cal” Trask, Aron Trask
Page Number: 444
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes in a series of paragraphs that explain the evolution of Cal's character, which was formed in reaction to the ease with which Aron has always won over others. Cal has felt implicitly rejected by the world's seeming preference for Aron over him, and, as a result, he has developed a darkness--a jealousy, secrecy, vengeance, and shyness that wasn't there naturally.

This echoes the Cain and Abel story. Like Cain and Abel, Cal and Aron made offerings (their personalities) and the world (like God) seemed to accept Aron's and reject Cal's. Because of that, Cal became bitter and it cast a pall over his choices, leading him towards vice. This is a compassionate and empathetic way of seeing Cal's personality, in that it describes how, through no fault of Cal's own, other peoples' reactions to Cal steered his personality towards being based in jealousy and vengeance. It also suggests that a powerful way to combat evil is through kindness and love. To make someone like Cal feel loved and accepted would be to negate the forces that push him towards sin. 

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John Steinbeck Character Timeline in East of Eden

The timeline below shows where the character John Steinbeck appears in East of Eden. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 8
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
The narrator tells us that, just as there are children born with monstrous physical deformities, there are... (full context)
Chapter 14
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon
...a man from King City and marries him, moving to the city of Salinas. The narrator says that Olive was an exceptional mother to him and his three sisters. She is... (full context)
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon
...comes for the flight, she bravely sits next to the pilot. From the ground, the narrator remembers seeing the plane do loops and rolls—an unusual thing for the pilot to do,... (full context)
Chapter 17
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon
The narrator muses about the nature of Cathy’s monstrosity. He notes it is easy to say that... (full context)
Chapter 23
Identity Theme Icon
The narrator recalls that his sister Mary wanted desperately to be a boy. She was always athletic,... (full context)
Family, Love, and Loneliness Theme Icon
One day, however, Dessie falls in love. The narrator only knows that the affair is gray and terrible, and it leaved a hole in... (full context)
Chapter 31
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon
...his way back from the house, Adam stops at the Steinbeck’s house. Little Mary and John peek out through the door at him—the reader now knows that the occasional first person... (full context)
Chapter 34
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon
Narrator John Steinbeck muses about the nature of all stories. He concludes that “All novels, all poetry,... (full context)
Chapter 46
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
John Steinbeck, the narrator, tells a story about how he and sister Mary, when hatred of... (full context)