East of Eden

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Good, Evil, and the Human Soul 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.
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon

At the heart of East of Eden is the conflict between good and evil; evil people struggle against good people, kindness struggles against cruelty, a man’s good intentions are constantly at odds with his foul and depraved impulses. Steinbeck suggests that this struggle between good and evil is what makes us human—that, in fact, the triumph and redemption of the human soul consists of this struggle.

Catherine Trask is evil incarnate—she was born without any good in her (the narrator calls her a “monster”) and her very humanity is repeatedly put in question. Her husband Adam, meanwhile, is thought by his Chinese servant Lee to be almost too much good in the way that Catherine is too evil—and because of this he is incapable of seeing Catherine for what she is, and goes dead inside when she leaves him. Adam must then struggle to become whole again with the help of Lee and Sam Hamilton, both of whom possess a remarkable optimism when it comes to the resilience and virtue of the human spirit. In this sense, the entire Trask marriage is a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil.

The novel often depicts characters who recognize evil in themselves and wonder if they can overcome it. Charles Trask loves his brother Adam but cannot help but wish evil things on him, out of jealousy. And Adam’s son, Cal Trask, once he discovers who is mother is, believes that her evil is reproduced in him. He sees his twin brother Aron as perfectly good, and doubts if he has any of the same goodness in him. His inner turmoil is the central conflict in the latter half of the book. Abra (Aron’s fiancé who eventually falls for Cal) knows her father has stolen from good men who trusted him, and knows a thief’s blood runs in her veins. She says she loves Cal because he is not “all good.” When she tells Lee about this, he remarks that Cal is “full” of everything—goodness, badness, joy, sorrow, meanness and kindness.

East of Eden repeatedly refers back to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and to the moment where God tells Cain, “thou mayest [overcome sin].” Lee says that the word “mayest” is one of the most important words in the Bible. Having the choice—between sin and virtue, anger and acceptance, good and evil—is what makes mankind truly great. In this way, Steinbeck suggests that to be fully human, a person must (like Cal Trask) contain everything. Every human soul is a kind of contradiction; there is a monster like Catherine Trask in everyone, and there is naïve purity in everyone as well. Our very humanity depends upon being able to choose whether we are good or evil.

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Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Quotes in East of Eden

Below you will find the important quotes in East of Eden related to the theme of Good, Evil, and the Human Soul.
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. 


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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 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.

“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.

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.

“This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Lee makes his final point in his elucidation of the importance of the Cain and Abel story. He does not believe that Cain and Abel should be interpreted as strictly religious figures because he does not think the beauty or importance of the story comes from its relationship to theology. Rather, Lee locates the story's importance in its illustration of the beauty of the human soul. In other words, Lee believes in humanity instead of God, and he thinks that the Cain and Abel story reveals the central beauty and power of humans, which is our ability to make choices (in other words, our free will).

In addition, this passage gestures again towards Steinbeck's insistence that the Bible is important less as theology than as a series of stories or myths that present wisdom about human nature. Lee, as an outsider in his community (due to his race) is uniquely positioned to argue that the Cain and Abel story has more power, not less, when it is interpreted as story rather than theology. As theology, Cain and Abel is relevant only to Christians, but as a story its wisdom can be shared with everyone.

Chapter 25 Quotes

“That’s what I hate, the liars, and they’re all liars…I love to rub their noses in their own nastiness.”

Related Characters: Catherine Trask (Kate) (speaker), Adam Trask
Page Number: 322
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Adam has come to see Kate at the brothel, and she is incensed to realize that she no longer has a hold on him. In this passage, Kate has been drinking and, as usual, alcohol is bringing out her cruelty. She is trying to account for her hatred of the world, and she claims here that she is cruel because everyone else is a liar and a hypocrite. She frames her behavior as almost moral in that it "rubs their noses in their own nastiness."

This scene is yet another illustration, though, of the importance of acknowledging human complexity. Kate embodies evil, and, as a result, she sees that same evil everywhere. She projects herself onto the world instead of receiving and interpreting what is actually there. Were she more receptive to others, she would understand that everyone is not fundamentally a liar. While everyone is sometimes prone to telling lies, people struggle between their good and bad impulses and thus cannot be defined by one quality or another. Kate is reducing people to caricatures in much the same way that Steinbeck shows racism and sexism as functioning.

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 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. 

“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 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.