East of Eden

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Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories 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.
Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Theme Icon

East of Eden takes its name and its general storyline from the Biblical story of Adam’s sons, Cain and Abel: Cain believes God loves his brother Abel better than him, because God accepts a sacrifice from Abel but not from Cain. Cain then kills Abel out of anger and jealousy, and God banishes Cain “east of Eden” as a result. The book repeatedly thinks about religion and myth as a kind of storytelling, and affirms the value of stories when it comes to understanding difficult truths about life and human nature.

Re-enactments of the story of Cain and Abel are everywhere in the book. Their initials even appear in the names of Steinbeck’s characters: Charles almost kills Adam because his father loves Adam’s gift more than his. Catherine shoots Adam (nonfatally) because she cannot stand how good and loving he is. Cal knows his twin brother Aron is better loved, and fights the urge to destroy him. Eventually, Cal tells Aron the truth about their mother, and Aron runs away to war and dies: Cal kills Aron as Cain killed Abel. These resonances don’t just exist between the novel and the Biblical story. Rather, the story of Cain and Abel is important to the characters within East of Eden as well. Lee interprets the story of Cain and Abel with a great deal of clarity, saying that one needn’t be Christian to understand the importance of stories that tell important truths—he believes the story of Cain and Abel is a story about a man’s ability to choose between sin and virtue.

These kinds of discussions about religion and myth in the novel thus open up into discussions about the importance of storytelling (and story-interpreting) itself. The book alternates between first and third person, and after hundreds of pages the reader finally learns the name of the character narrating in the first person: John Steinbeck. This kind of self-reference (or “metafiction”) draws the reader’s attention to the fact that they, too, are reading a story—a story meant to teach them important truths if they are willing to investigate it thoroughly enough. Though East of Eden is deeply invested in a discussion of Christianity, it does not necessarily endorse the Christian faith. Rather, it construes the Bible as an important kind of mythology through which people can know themselves and their souls better if they are curious and diligent enough. What’s more, it conceives of fiction, too, as a kind of mythology—laden with the same kind of truth and meaning that can be found in religious texts.

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Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories Quotes in East of Eden

Below you will find the important quotes in East of Eden related to the theme of Religion, Myth, and the Power of Stories.
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 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. 

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 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. 

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 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

“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.

“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 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. 

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.