East of Eden

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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.
Identity Theme Icon

East of Eden features many crises of identity through which Steinbeck examines the meaning of various identities over the course of the book. Lee is one of the most interesting examples of complex identity in the book. He is Chinese, and though he was born in California and speaks perfect English, he chooses to speak pidgin English (a simplified version of English) with a thick Chinese accent for most of his life. He believes people have trouble reconciling his Chinese appearance with his American way of speaking and finds it easier to conform to expectations. Sam Hamilton does something similar: everyone expects an Irishman to be riotous and funny—though Sam often feels somber and serious, he hides it, because he knows what is expected of him and finds it easier to meet expectations.

Steinbeck also interrogates sex and gender, and what kinds of effects they have on a person’s identity. Catherine, because she is pretty and feminine, is not taken seriously by many people she meets (especially men) and she uses this to her advantage. Because people underestimate her, she is able to manipulate them without being detected. Mary Steinbeck, the first-person narrator’s sister, is the best athlete in the county as a child, and wishes desperately to be a boy. Dessie Hamilton’s dress shop is so popular among women because it is a place they can go and be themselves: they swear and belch and laugh riotously. The narration explains that in the shop they are under no pressure to be “women” – they are simply human. Lee’s mother pretends to be a man so that she can come with Lee’s father to work on the railroads in America. She works just as hard and just as effectively as a man would, and is only discovered to be a woman when she goes into labor—and is killed.

Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a time when America was beginning to re-evaluate racial and sexual identity. The civil rights movement would reach its peak within a decade and countercultural feminism was gaining traction. Much of Steinbeck’s work in East of Eden is geared towards exposing simplifications of identity as just such simplifications, and replacing these simplifications with a more complicated and nuanced picture.

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Identity Quotes in East of Eden

Below you will find the important quotes in East of Eden related to the theme of Identity.
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 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 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.

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 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

“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.