Sam has some difficulty getting Liza to agree to go on vacation with him to visit their kids, but eventually she agrees. She is not bothered by death, because she believes she will simply receive her reward and live on in heaven, though she hopes there is not too much singing in heaven, for she would find that distasteful.
Liza believes she has worked diligently in this life to secure reward in the next one, and her strong sense of belief in eternity protects her from a fear of aging, illness, and death. Time doesn’t scare her.
As Sam prepares himself to leave the ranch, likely for the last time, he memorizes all the rolling hills and mountains and every detail of the landscape. He saves his visit to the Trask place for last. Lee and Adam ask Sam to stay for dinner and he agrees. Sam looks at Adam’s unplanted land and asks Adam if he feels shame for letting his land go to waste. Sam realizes Adam has never let Cathy go. Sam says that the only way to live your life when bad memories creep into your mind is to resolve to make up some good new memories, to love your current circumstances with dedication and fierceness, and to move forward always.
Sam offers some final advice to Adam—his words are the key to overcoming hardship. Sam has succeeded in life because in the face of bad memories he has resolved to make new, good ones. Sam’s heroism is also humanity’s heroism; in Sam Hamilton, the reader can find an affirmation of human bravery, strength, and resilience. The question becomes one about Adam—can he overcome despair and evil the way Sam has?
Sam goes in to see the boys—it has been ten years since he helped to name them. Aron has dropped the second A from his name and Caleb prefers to go by Cal. Aron raises rabbits, and Cal has taken to gardening—this makes Sam smile knowingly.
Cal and Aron have become neatly aligned with Cain and Abel—Cal, like Cain, is a gardener, while Aron, like Abel, raises livestock. Sam is amused by the coincidence.
Over dinner Lee says he dedicated many years to thinking about the story of Cain and Abel. He noticed that two American translations of the bible are in an interesting kind of disagreement. When God says he likes Abel’s sacrifice better than Cain’s, he tells Cain not to be angry. One translation says that God tells Cain “Do thou [overcome sin],” the other translation says that god’s words are “Thou shalt [overcome sin].” One is an order, the other is a prediction. Lee brought the problem to some other old members of the Lee family. They were fascinated, and together they worked to learn Hebrew. The Hebrew word used in the story is “timshel,” which is best translated as “thou mayest.”
This is another crucial passage, containing one of the book’s most important arguments. Wrapped up in Lee’s words are Steinbeck’s thoughts on human nature, personal agency, the nature of moral choice, and the relationship between good and evil. Humanity is defined by its ability to choose between good and evil—we are all capable of both, and our greatness lies in this choice.
Lee triumphantly explains that “thou mayest” captures what makes men great—they have the choice to overcome sin. “He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee settles back in his chair triumphantly. He says “I have no bent towards gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul…it is always attacked and never destroyed, because ‘Thou mayest.”
This moment deftly illustrates the role that religion plays in the novel’s philosophy: Lee is perhaps the most capable interpreter of the Bible in this entire book, but his strongest faith is in humanity, not God. His faith in the “human soul” translates to a faith in the power of stories.
As Sam is leaving, he tells Adam he has a medicine that might cure him and might kill him. Adam says he wants that medicine, and Sam tells Adam that Cathy is the owner of the most violent and depraved whorehouse in Salinas. Adam is left reeling and Sam leaves. Lee goes with him; he wants to spend a few more minutes riding with Sam. Lee says he can see that Sam has made up his mind that he will die soon. Sam says too many men think of life ending in defeat, and Lee says that it is because we are too rich—rich men die of despair. Sam reflects on Lee’s discovery of the word “timshel”—and tells Lee that he, Sam, has forced Adam to “live or get off the pot” and in doing so he has made his great choice. Lee says goodbye and gets off the cart, shouting farewell to Sam as he drives away.
Sam’s departure is saturated with a variety of thematic meanings: his decision to tell Adam about Cathy is in fact a gift to Adam, for now Adam is being “forced to live.” He must contend with the reality of human depravity and evil, and in doing so he will have the chance to overcome it as Sam has. Lee’s speculation that wealth has hurt Adam more than helped him is a classic stance against materialism. And finally, Sam’s acceptance of death, his belief that death is not a “defeat,” is a solution to the anxiety that comes along with time’s passage and with our awareness of our mortality.