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.
Time Theme Icon

East of Eden covers an immense stretch of time—from the American Civil War to World War I. Accordingly, the novel displays a profound interest in the passage of time, the progression of history, and the relentlessness of change. The book opens with, and repeatedly returns to, an almost laborious cataloguing of the differences between seasons. This preoccupation with seasonal transitions, year after year, is a facet of the novel’s investigation of the relentless and yet cyclical nature of time and change.

In the same way that Steinbeck carefully records the physical change of the earth, air and sky over time, he records the changes of the body over time. We learn a great deal about how Sam Hamilton’s body ages—his wrinkled face and silver beard are dwelled upon by the narration at length. Notably Sam and his family can hardly believe that he is even capable of growing old. Time’s effect comes as a kind of shock to them. Adam’s mental sickness following the departure of his wife gets better over time—Sam notes that time is the perfect “tonic” for him. Catherine’s arthritis, in contrast, is a gruesome physical manifestation of time’s passage. She resents the aging and twisting of her face and body so much it inspires a manic kind of anger in her. Thus illnesses (which sometimes worsen and sometimes improve over time), aging, and death play a huge role in this multigenerational epic. They remind the reader of times inevitable passage and of the inescapability of change.

The novel also takes stock of the rapid technological progression and change that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Steinbeck goes to great lengths to include myriad new technologies. Railroads, cars, planes, refrigeration, drills, windmills, conveyor belts, color photography, and advances in military technologies are all included, all given a kind of history in this book. Technological progress—and the excitement and anxiety surrounding it—also evinces the (often fearsomely rapid) advancing of time.

Steinbeck wrote this novel in the early 1950s. This was a deeply transitional era. Coming out of the Second World War, Americans demonstrated an enthusiasm and optimism for the future, but it was also a time of great nostalgia for a “simpler” past. New technologies were exciting testaments to American ingenuity, but (as in the case of the atom bomb) they could also gesture towards an even more violent future. This sense of instability, this constant question about what the future might hold, pervades this novel. What’s more, Steinbeck’s health was beginning to suffer around the time he wrote East of Eden. He was a lifelong smoker, and would die of heart disease in 1968, just over 15 years after East of Eden was published. The anxiety of the nation with respect to time and change is coded into this novel but so too is the anxiety of the individual; in many ways the book’s discussion of time reflects universal worries and questions about aging, illness, and mortality.

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Time Quotes in East of Eden

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

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.

“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 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 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.