East of Eden

East of Eden

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Family, Love, and Loneliness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Loneliness Theme Icon
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Money, Wealth, and the Value of Work Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in East of Eden, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family, Love, and Loneliness Theme Icon

East of Eden is a novel about families—marriage, parenthood, succession, inheritance, and sibling rivalry make up the bulk of the book’s conflict. Underlying all of these conflicts is the repeated suggestion that there is no love without pain, rejection, and loneliness. Numerous subplots in the novel involve parental love—children seek love from their parents and parents seek it from their children. Charles is furious that his father loves his brother Adam more than him. Charles loves his father, while Adam only admires him, but Adam is nevertheless the favorite. This pattern persists into the next generation. Cal also suffers feelings of rejection and loss because his twin brother Aron is clearly the favorite of his father Adam. When Adam tells Cal he trusts him, Cal is so happy that Lee thinks he’s found himself a girlfriend—in this sense his love for his father replaces romantic love. Aron, on the other hand, longs deeply for his absent mother; he doesn’t know she is the depraved and abusive madam of a whorehouse.

Tom Hamilton never marries, and his dependence on his father’s love and guidance is greater than that of any of his siblings. When Sam dies, Tom never fully recovers. He finds momentary relief in the company of his sister, but he accidentally kills her by giving her the wrong medicine for her stomach pains, and kills himself out of grief. The Chinese-American Lee, meanwhile, says one of his main regrets is never having kids. Though he raises Aron and Cal, he cannot act as a father to them. Adam forbids him to teach the boys Cantonese, and this puts distance between he and them. However, when he leaves the family to start his bookstore, he only stays away six days—the loneliness he feels without them is unbearable. Eventually he tells Abra he wishes she were his daughter, and she tells him she feels the same, as her father never cared for her because he wanted a boy.

Romantic love also plays a prominent role. Sam Hamilton had a lost love in Ireland—the details never emerge, but it is clear he lost his great love somehow, and has never been the same since. Adam’s love for Catherine is, though terribly misguided, all consuming. He becomes truly alive when he meets her, and feels dead when she leaves him. Aron’s love for Abra is an idealized love. He has made her into a pure and perfect kind of idol, and he loves this imaginary person dearly, but Abra believes he does not know or love her for who she is. Catherine, meanwhile, runs a particularly seedy whorehouse after leaving Adam (and changing her own name to Kate)—in running such an establishment she offers a kind of perverse replacement for romantic love, exploiting the loneliness of men for her own satisfaction and gain.

In his discussion of love and family, Steinbeck tends to locate human strength in love, and human weakness in loneliness. Adam is weak when Catherine leaves him, but strong again when he knows and loves his sons. Men who fall in love with imaginary women (as Aron and Adam do when they begin to think of the women they love so idealistically as to make themselves blind to their faults)—and in so doing basically fall in love with themselves—are destroyed by a particular kind of loneliness. But family in the novel is a recurring source of strength and virtue. In a novel that is so much about human nature, love and loneliness take a place alongside good and evil as primary elements of human existence itself.

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Family, Love, and Loneliness Quotes in East of Eden

Below you will find the important quotes in East of Eden related to the theme of Family, Love, and Loneliness.
Chapter 3 Quotes

“You’re trying to take him away! I don’t know how you’re going about it. What do you think you’re doing?”

Related Characters: Charles Trask (speaker), Adam Trask, Cyrus Trask
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes during an argument between Charles and Adam Trask that boils down to Charles' jealousy of Adam's relationship with their father. Charles, like his father, is a complex person, full of rage, violence, and also the desire to be virtuous and loved. Adam is naturally peaceful and generous, and their father seems to prefer him to Charles. In this passage, the boys' father has taken Adam for a walk and told him he is to join the army to learn to overcome his fears, but Charles worries that Adam is trying to manipulate their father away from Charles himself.

Obviously, knowing the two boys' personalities, this is an outrageous assertion, but Charles projects his own personality onto Adam, assuming that Adam is doing what Charles would have done. Charles is so blinded by his own fear and jealousy that he cannot control himself, and he winds up hurting Adam, even though he loves him. This scene showcases the complexity of Charles' character and motives; he is experiencing constant inner turmoil between his fears and impulses and his desire to be good. It's significant, too, that his family brings out the most extreme emotions in him. East of Eden seems to posit that family is a uniquely powerful entity that can both soothe our worse impulses and stoke our most harmful behavior. 


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Chapter 7 Quotes

“The proofs that God does not exist are very strong, but in lots of people they are not as strong as the feeling that He does.”

Related Characters: Adam Trask (speaker), Charles Trask, Cyrus Trask
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Adam has just returned from his vagabond days, and he and Charles are trying to sort out their father's inheritance, which seems to have been ill-gotten. Charles has also learned from Cyrus's army papers that his war stories were likely untrue. Charles, who loved and admired his father, is distraught by this evidence of his poor character, but Adam is unfazed. He claims that this is because he doesn't believe the new information about his father.

This quote, which Adam offers to Charles as justification, shows the lengths to which Adam will go to deceive himself about others. His peaceful and generous nature is not presented here as a virtue; because Adam idealizes people and does not care to know them on a level more complex than that, Adam lives in a fantasy world constructed by his own stories. This is not familial love, but rather a selfish and isolating delusion--similar to believing in God based purely on emotion, even if one's reason says otherwise. It's interesting that, even though Charles seems to be the less virtuous brother, his insistence on taking his father's moral credibility seriously is seen as an act of love, not defamation, and Adam's indifference is painted as callous or naive. 

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 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.

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 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.

Chapter 30 Quotes

“Dear Lord...let me be like Aron. Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be…I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be lonely.”

Related Characters: Caleb “Cal” Trask (speaker), Aron Trask
Page Number: 379
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Cal struggles between his impulse towards evil and his desire to be good. Cal's own personal narrative (and his treatment by others) has led him to think that he is not a good person like Aron is--he is Cain, and Aron is Abel. While Cal does seem less naturally inclined towards virtue than Aron, this scene gives a window into Cal that allows us to empathize with his complexity. Despite Cal's natural inclinations towards being bad, this scene suggests that Cal has the same potential as Aron to be good; the choice is in his hands, and it's a choice he desperately wants to get right.

Something that clearly prevents him from consistently choosing good, though, is a story--the story he has formed about himself, and the story others have told him about himself, that he is bad and Aron is good. Steinbeck shows how self-defeating these narratives can be and how they can undermine our sacred capacity for free choice by narrowing our own visions of what we ourselves are capable of.

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. 

“Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you’ve got the other too.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Catherine Trask (Kate), Caleb “Cal” Trask
Page Number: 449
Explanation and Analysis:

After seeing his mother sinning at the brothel, Cal is deeply shaken by the implications he sees for his own character. He finds Lee and confesses what he has seen, admitting that he worries that he is evil like his mother. In this quote, Lee explains to him that he does have his mother's evil in him, but he also has his father's good--everyone is a mix of both. Lee takes this argument further by scolding Cal for the laziness of assuming that he is innately evil like his mother. Lee sees the ability to blame bad ancestry for bad choices as a scapegoat and a betrayal of the sanctity of choice. "Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother," Lee says.

This passage shows the liberating potential of seeing identity as not being wrapped up in a person's blood or background, but as comprised of a series of choices made freely. In some sense, this is the least reductive way possible to see another human being. 

Chapter 49 Quotes

“I send boys out…I sign my name and they go out. And some will die and some will lie helpless without arms and legs. Not one will come back untorn. Son, do you think I could take a profit on that?...I don’t want the money, Cal. And the lettuce—I don’t think I did that for a profit.”

Related Characters: Adam Trask (speaker), Caleb “Cal” Trask
Page Number: 543
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a pivotal moment of the book, an analog to the moment in the Cain and Abel story when God rejects Cain's sacrifice and accepts Abel's. Here, Cal has saved up to give his father enough money to replace the fortune he lost through the refrigeration business. However, since Cal made the money profiting off of demands created by war, Adam states that he cannot accept the money. This moment is so fraught because both Cal's and Adam's perspectives make sense. Cal worked hard to do something nice for his father, hoping to earn his approval and love, and Adam is taking a moral stand against profiting off of an event that seems to him to be wholly evil.

Since both parties are acting in good faith, the fallout--Cal's heartbreak--is even more complex and wrenching. Lee's reaction to this situation is crucial, because it shows the importance of empathy. In a sense, Adam is the one who has failed here because his overly-virtuous personality has blinded him to Cal's own kindness. This lack of empathy wounds Cal deeply, but Lee insists that it is not an excuse for Cal to behave badly. In a sense, Adam did not have a choice in how he reacted because he could not see more than one side of the issue. Cal, who is a more complex person, can foresee both the virtuous and the harmful reactions he can have; Lee insists that he choose the right thing.

Chapter 53 Quotes

“He’s crammed full to the top with every good thing and every bad thing.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Caleb “Cal” Trask, Abra Bacon
Page Number: 585
Explanation and Analysis:

The love between Cal and Abra is, in a sense, Steinbeck's promise of redemption. The most relentlessly virtuous characters in the book (Adam and Aron, for example) lack empathy and understanding in a way that actually closes them off to true human love. Both men experienced strong feelings for women, but those feelings weren't really love because the men could not recognize the bad parts of the women they cared for--they loved an idealized version of a woman, rather than a real human being.

Paradoxically, the fact that Cal has sinned almost unforgivably in his treatment of Aron is what makes him able to love Abra. Cal can see Abra for everything she is, rather than reducing her complexity by projecting a single characteristic onto her. The way Steinbeck presents Cal and Abra's love suggests that the way towards virtue involves acknowledging sin and evil as parts of all of us. Without seeing ourselves and each other as complex and conflicted, we are unable to grapple with the reality of the world. And without grappling with the reality of the world, we are unable to make the best choices, and we are unable to truly love ourselves and one another.