East of Eden

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Sam Hamilton Character Analysis

Sam Hamilton is the larger-than-life patriarch of the massive Hamilton family. His land in California is dry, and though Sam is better than anyone at finding water in the ground, he has never been able to find any on his own land. He has made a living as a well-driller and a blacksmith, and enjoys making and inventing things for the fun of it. He is a humorous, deep, curious, and highly intelligent man who is admired by almost everyone in Salinas, and whose wisdom proves especially valuable to Adam. His eventual aging and death saddens many, though his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of most of the other characters.

Sam Hamilton Quotes in East of Eden

The East of Eden quotes below are all either spoken by Sam Hamilton or refer to Sam Hamilton. 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 15 Quotes

Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it…That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sam Hamilton has asked Lee why, after all this time in America, he still speaks pidgin English. Lee is one of the smartest and most complex characters in the book, and his simplistic speech turns out to be a part of his complexity. Lee explains (in perfect standard English) that he uses pidgin speech, paradoxically, in order to be understood. Most white Americans, Lee tells Sam, would be unwilling to accept Lee if his speech didn't match their preconceptions of him, and their preconceptions, based on his race, dictate that he should speak in simplistic Chinese-inflected English. Tellingly, Lee chooses only to reveal himself to Sam, who is a virtuous, curious, and observant friend. Lee feels that only Sam is capable of looking beyond preconception and seeing Lee for who he is.

While this passage is a direct indictment of racism and a poignant exposition of the corrosive effects of racism on those who experience it (Lee is forced to hide his true self to conform to the expectations of others), this passage also ties the issue of racism to other issues of the book. Steinbeck opposes any reductive and simplistic formulation that prevents people from seeing one another as complex and whole people. Racism functions, then, like Adam's blinding goodness; it prevents us from seeing and loving one another for who we are.

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.

“We are descended from this. This is our father. Some of our guilt is absorbed in our ancestry. What chance did we have? We are the children of our father. It means we aren’t the first.”

Related Characters: Adam Trask (speaker), Lee, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Sam, Adam, and Lee are discussing the story of Cain and Abel, the very story on which the novel is based. Because of this connection, this passage is key to the book overall. Here, Adam is excited because he realizes something from the story of Cain and Abel; all humans are the descendants of Cain, the bad brother, not Abel, the good one. (Although Judeo-Christian tradition has most people descended from Seth, Adam and Eve's third son.)

Adam, who has been consumed by virtue his whole life, thinks that this, in a sense, absolves humanity of our guilt. He sees that sin is not something that we invent as individuals, but rather something that was passed down to us by our nature. This passage shows clearly the ways in which stories are just as important as reality in terms of how our lives are structured. Believing that sin is natural (though to be avoided if possible) leads to a different lived reality (and different choices) than believing that sin is an evil that indicates personal failure. These characters are choosing the former story, which has a concrete effect on them. Ironically, this claiming of sin as part of our nature frees sin from being something that defines a person's character. Steinbeck suggests that what defines us is not our inclination to sin (which is universal), but rather our choices in the face of that reality.

“A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Lee is trying to account for the power of the Cain and Abel story. He suggests that a part of human nature is the inability to truly connect with anything that isn't deeply personal. "If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen," Lee says. Cain and Abel, Lee argues, is a lasting story because rejection, guilt, and revenge are common to all people, so Cain's story still strikes a nerve even after thousands of years.

This quote is especially relevant because of the metafictional nature of the novel's narration. Steinbeck repeatedly draws attention to the book itself as a story that is being told, not allowing it to masquerade as a reality that we, as readers, are experiencing. Because of this, Steinbeck's meditations on the purpose and power of stories are also statements about his own art. This quote comes almost 300 pages into the book--if the reader hadn't been sucked in by the story by now, he or she probably would have already put the book down. In light of this, Steinbeck is implicating readers and asking them to examine why they are captivated by the book. If they are fascinated by Steinbeck's own reworking of the Cain and Abel story, it's probably because they, too, have struggles in common with Cain.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man…why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

This complex passage is a meditation on human choice, a question that lies at the heart of the book. Steinbeck has already established that humanity is descended from Cain; we have sin in our blood and cannot escape that part of our nature. However, Steinbeck does not intend this to be a dark pronouncement. Here, he locates human goodness and hope not in the naive belief that people are naturally good and that sin is therefore unnatural, but rather in the notion that humans have a unique capacity to choose their own destiny and therefore we have the ability to overcome the sin that is in our own nature. Goodness would not be a virtue if it were innate (as it is in Adam); it only becomes a virtue when it is complicated by the knowledge of evil that makes true love possible. Lee suggests that our highest calling is to act out of love and choose goodness over evil. 

It's important to note that this passage (which contains some of the most nuanced thoughts in the entire book) is spoken by Lee, a Chinese American character who is seen by his community as being simple based on his race. This passage challenges that stereotype.

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Sam Hamilton Character Timeline in East of Eden

The timeline below shows where the character Sam Hamilton appears in East of Eden. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Money, Wealth, and the Value of Work Theme Icon
The first-person narrator introduces us to the Hamiltons. Sam Hamilton is an Irishman, descended of Irish kings, who left Ireland (rumors allege) because of... (full context)
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Some people in the Salinas Valley are not like Sam Hamilton. Sam came with nothing, determined to make a life for himself and his family—the... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Sam Hamilton’s family continues to grow. George is born, then Will, who even as a child... (full context)
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...her from the sheer impressiveness of her competence. Liza hates alcohol of all kinds, and Sam has to hide any alcohol he drinks from her or she will scold him horribly.... (full context)
Chapter 13
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
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...a large piece of property for sale along the river. He is told to see Sam Hamilton, who will knows if a well can be brought up on the property. Adam... (full context)
Chapter 15
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One day Adam sends Lee to the Hamilton house to fetch Sam. Lee obliges and as he and Sam are traveling back to Adam’s property, Sam asks... (full context)
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Sam asks Lee why is he content to be a servant. Lee says a man not... (full context)
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Sam and Adam wander around the property looking for water. Sam carries a stick with him... (full context)
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Adam invites Sam to dinner. Sam agrees, but finds dinner to be excruciatingly awkward. He sees something terrifying... (full context)
Chapter 16
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As Sam rides back from the Trask property he tries to understand why he is feeling so... (full context)
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The next day at breakfast Sam tells Liza about Adam Trask hiring him to dig three wells, as well as build... (full context)
Chapter 17
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...her size. She sits quietly watching the flurry of activity around her. One day while Sam is drilling, Lee comes running outside and insists that Sam come inside to help—Cathy has... (full context)
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Sam goes into the bedroom and Cathy looks furious. He manages to get her to tell... (full context)
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Lee tries to clean up Sam’s wound, and they talk about Cathy. Sam says he “feels a dreadfulness coming” and Lee... (full context)
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...a week, cleaning the house, washing the children and helping Adam adjust. When she returns, Sam asks her how it went. Liza remarks that, though she can find no fault with... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Sam comes to visit Adam, who sits alone on his porch with his arm and shoulder... (full context)
Chapter 22
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...Cathy’s departure has caused a great sickness in his mind. For a while Lee and Sam did their best to help him, but eventually gave up, for Adam could not be... (full context)
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Sam has to first convince Liza to let him visit Adam—she believes Adam is a bad... (full context)
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Sam arrives at Adam’s door, but Adam tells Sam he is unwelcome. Sam begins to shout... (full context)
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Sam and Adam go to look at the boys—Adam has never really looked into their faces... (full context)
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Adam, Lee and Sam sit down with dinner and begin to consult the Bible for names. Sam suggests that... (full context)
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Eventually, though, Sam and Adam agree that the names Cain and Abel carry too much darkness in them,... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Una Hamilton, one of Sam’s daughters, marries a man who becomes obsessed with developing color photography. He succeeds, but along... (full context)
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The difference between Sam and Tom is that Sam is able to find his way out of complex trains... (full context)
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...their father has grown old. They can hardly stand to think of a world without Sam in it, and Tom is the most upset of all. They agree that Sam’s life... (full context)
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When Sam receives an invitation from Olive a week later he knows immediately what is going on.... (full context)
Chapter 24
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Sam has some difficulty getting Liza to agree to go on vacation with him to visit... (full context)
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As Sam prepares himself to leave the ranch, likely for the last time, he memorizes all the... (full context)
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Sam goes in to see the boys—it has been ten years since he helped to name... (full context)
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As Sam is leaving, he tells Adam he has a medicine that might cure him and might... (full context)
Chapter 25
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
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...a telegram at the ranch and knows what it will say before he opens it: Sam has died. The funeral is in Salinas and it is somber. Though he hadn’t wanted... (full context)
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
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...finished hers. The alcohol once again makes her cruel. She tells Adam she is glad Sam Hamilton is dead, for she hated that man with all her being. (full context)
Chapter 26
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Adam should have been sad and bitter after Sam’s death and his conversation with Kate, but instead he feels euphoric. He goes to see... (full context)
Chapter 31
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...boy John, whose full name is John Steinbeck. Adam introduces himself to Olive, explaining that Sam and Liza helped him deliver his sons. He simply wants to offer his condolences to... (full context)
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...and says he doesn’t trust Tom. He believes Tom has been acting crazy ever since Sam’s death. His defiance only lasts a moment though, and he doesn’t speak of it any... (full context)
Chapter 33
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...and the whorehouses provide little comfort to him. Dessie feels saddened by this, and wishes Sam were still alive, for he could have pulled the greatness out in Tom. They change... (full context)