East of Eden

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Money, Wealth, and the Value of Work 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.
Money, Wealth, and the Value of Work Theme Icon

One of the central differences between the two families in the novel (the Trasks and the Hamiltons) concerns wealth: The Trasks are rich and have good land, the Hamiltons are poor and their land is barren. This basic opposition is a gateway into a complicated and enduring discussion of the meaning of money, what constitutes “wealth,” and the role that work plays in a meaningful life.

Inheritance—the willing of money to someone who hasn’t necessarily earned it—repeatedly comes into play in this novel. Adam inherits a great deal of money from his father, and accepts it, though he knows it was probably stolen. He also inherits his brother Charles’ fortune, but half of this must go to Catherine even though she has left him, for they are still married. Catherine inherits the whorehouse and a small fortune from the previous madam Faye, whom she secretly poisoned for precisely that purpose. And Catherine finally wills her fortune to Aron, who dies in the war before he can accept it.

It is repeatedly said that Adam would be called lazy if he weren’t rich—but since he is rich he is above criticism. Still, working class characters in the novel—like Lee and Sam Hamilton—suspect that Adam was corrupted by his fortune. They perceive the rich to be fundamentally less happy than the poor, because they have no work they must do. There is also a distinction drawn between work for money and work for love: Sam loves to invent, but he loses money on his patents and greedy lawyers take all the profits. Tom also likes to invent without thinking about money, and so does Adam (his experiment with transporting refrigerated lettuce across the country is a spectacular failure, and loses him his fortune, but he doesn’t mind). Will Hamilton, who is intelligent in business but nowhere else, is scornful of such ventures. He believes money is the only thing worthy of pursuit. When Cal partners up with Will to make his father’s money back, he thinks the gift of money will be well received by his father—but Adam is disgusted with the gift because of how Cal’s success negatively affected others, and Cal ends up burning the money.

The novel repeatedly suggests that money holds only superficial value. It cannot buy love or happiness. The book’s discussion of money, wealth, and work amounts to a deeply anti-materialist warning about the danger of working and living only for money. Steinbeck asserts the inherent value of things like honest work, curiosity, and ingenuity—his happiest, wisest, and most fulfilled characters are those who place little stake in pure material wealth.

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Money, Wealth, and the Value of Work Quotes in East of Eden

Below you will find the important quotes in East of Eden related to the theme of Money, Wealth, and the Value of Work.
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 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 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.