Adam Trask was born in a rural area in Connecticut. His mother, a godly woman who seemed to crave unhappiness, vengefully drowned herself in the shallow water of a pond after contracting gonorrhea from his father when he returned home from the American Civil War. His father is Cyrus Trask, a man who lost his leg in his first skirmish with the enemy. He is a bellicose, stern man who takes pride in his virility above all else. He re-marries a seventeen-year-old woman named Alice and conceives a second child, named Charles.
Adam’s origins are telling: his mother kills herself when she was scared by his father—love destroys her (as it will nearly destroy Adam). Cyrus Trask is one of the first examples of Steinbeck’s interest in gender roles—he is so invested in his own virility that his entire identity is shaped by a desire to be “a real man.” The book will eventually challenge these conventional notions of gender.
Cyrus becomes obsessed with military affairs and the life of a soldier. He reads incessantly about the war, and begins to tell stories of battles as though he witnessed them. Eventually he begins to believe his own lies, becoming convinced that he did live through some of the War’s greatest and bloodiest moments, even though he only fought in one skirmish.
Cyrus’s identity is entirely self-constructed. He literally re-writes his own history, and even begins to believe his own stories and lies. This kind of willful self-deception, this blind self-love, will become a problem for several characters in the novel.
The death of Abraham Lincoln intensifies Cyrus’s political and military dedication, and he begins to write articles about military affairs that are intelligent and convincing. His expertise lands him a job as a paid secretary, and he consults in matters of military organization and personnel, traveling all over the country to meet with important political figures.
Cyrus fools not only himself but, in fact, the US government. Though his memories are lies, his expertise is real; his belief in a certain kind of narrative, his interest in a certain kind of story, has led to real knowledge.
Cyrus consequently learns to run his home as if it is the army. He demands unquestioning obedience, which his wife Alice gladly gives him—she is not amenable to discussion or fighting, and finds it easy to remain quiet and submissive. She becomes sick with consumption, but hides it from her husband because she knows he will treat it so aggressively that his treatment might kill her before the disease does.
Though Alice is quiet, she is tough and resourceful—note how she weighs her options and decides to hide her illness in order to buy herself more time. Their marriage works not because they are in love or particularly devoted to one another, but because they are well-suited to accommodating one another—the book is beginning to make a complicated point about what makes a family “successful.”
Cyrus raises his sons to be soldiers, because he believes the only way to truly become a man is to live the life of a soldier. The boys hate running their father’s drills but it becomes a natural and inevitable part of their lives very early on. Children often see adults, especially their parents, as gods—infallible and all-powerful. But eventually, for every child, this illusion falls apart, and this happens to Adam quite early on. One day he simply realizes that his father is not a great man.
Cyrus isn’t content to impose idealistic masculinity on himself; his sons must also live up to his expectations of manliness. And while children tend to start out worshipping their parents, Adam’s belief in his father’s greatness wanes early on—he sees through his father’s act, and though he obeys Cyrus, he doesn’t believe in him.
Adam is a peaceful and obedient child, but his half brother Charles is assertive like his father. He is strong, athletic, and though he has nothing in common with Adam he has a certain kind of affection for him. They are too different from one another to have true empathy or understanding between them, but they depend on each other and this makes them close.
Adam and Charles are the book’s first figures for Cain and Abel. Charles from the start is, like Cain, defined by violence, where Adam is, like Abel, peaceful. Still they care for each other—it is a distant kind of love, but the variety and complexity of love is one of the main interests of the novel.
One day Adam, who is typically unsuccessful in athletic competitions, repeatedly beats Charles at a game called “peewee” which involves driving a small pointed stick as far as possible with a bat. Charles becomes increasingly angry about losing, until finally he snaps and smashes Adam over the head with the bat. Neither Charles nor Adam tell their father about the beating, but he seems to know anyway. Cyrus begins to speak to Adam in earnest about him joining the military. Adam doesn’t want to go, and complains that Charles is not being forced to join. Cyrus explains that Charles doesn’t have anything to learn from a soldier’s life—he already lives without fear. But Adam needs to go. Cyrus takes Adam on a long walk and explains to him what it will be like; what he will learn, and why it is important to overcome fear.
Charles lashes out in jealousy—jealousy is one of the evil impulses to which Cain succumbed when he killed Abel. What’s more, Cyrus treats the boys differently—just as God treated Cain and Abel differently. Cyrus believes Adam is too fearful and believes life as a soldier will help him learn courage, one of the most important virtues a man can have (in Cyrus’s mind). The reader should keep in mind that Cyrus didn’t, in fact, live the life of a soldier (at least not for very long.) His sense of the kind of work soldiering constitutes is not informed by real experience.
After supper that night Adam says he is going on a walk and Charles joins him. Charles demands to know what Adam and Cyrus discussed on their walk. Adam tells the truth—that Cyrus simply talked to him about the life of a soldier—but Charles does not believe him. He accuses Adam of trying to take his father away. He angrily recalls that he bought his father a nice pocketknife for his birthday, while Adam only brought him a stray puppy. Cyrus loved the puppy—the dog was lovingly trained and still sleeps with Cyrus at night. But Charles has never once seen his father use his pocketknife. Charles snaps and beats Adam fiercely. Adam passes out, and when he regains consciousness Charles is gone, but Adam feels that Charles intends to come back. He hides in a ditch—Charles does come back carrying a hatchet, but doesn’t see Adam and gives up and goes away.
This is a very direct reenactment of the Cain and Abel story: Charles and Adam both gave gifts to their father on his birthday, but Cyrus preferred Adam’s gift. Out of anger, rejection, loneliness, despair, jealousy—any of a number of negative emotions—Charles becomes murderous. He tries to kill his brother as Cain killed Abel but Adam hides and narrowly escapes. The reader should ask what this version of the Cain and Abel story might teach us about the original story from genesis and vice versa. So much of this novel is about the power and truth of stories—this reenactment offers us a new way of understanding Cain’s motivations.
When Adam returns home, beaten, Alice and Cyrus are shocked. Cyrus demands that Adam explain why Charles did this to him. Adam explains that Charles believes Cyrus doesn’t love him. Cyrus has no response, and tells Alice to put Adam to bed. As Alice is cleaning Adam up, she explains that Charles is truly a good boy; that he has been leaving small gifts for her around the house. Adam says nothing, but he has been the one leaving the gifts.
This moment represents an interesting kind of inversion of the Cain and Abel story: Charles’ gift was rejected by his father, but here we see Adam’s gifts being rejected (or misattributed) by a mother figure. Adam, almost peaceful and subdued to a fault, doesn’t correct his step-mother, but we can assume the rejection is painful.