Adam is the son of Cyrus Trask and the brother of Charles Trask. Adam was forced into the army by his father, whom he respected but did not love. After getting out of the… (read full character analysis)
Catherine is born without kindness, empathy, or any goodness at all. She learns to manipulate people at an early age, taking pleasure in the destruction and degradation of other people’s lives. She eventually runs away… (read full character analysis)
Cal Trask is the most obvious figure for the Biblical Cain in the novel: his father Adam loves his twin brother Aron best. Though his father hides Catherine’s identity from the boys, Cal eventually figures… (read full character analysis)
Aron is the beautiful blonde son of Adam and Catherine Trask. He grows up longing for the love of a mother, and his mind is not as complicated as that of his twin brother… (read full character analysis)
Lee is the son of two Chinese railroad workers and Adam’s servant. Though he was born in California and speaks perfect English, he chooses to speak pidgin-English for most of his young life, because… (read full character analysis)
Sam Hamilton is the larger-than-life patriarch of the massive Hamilton family. His land in California is dry, and though Sam is better than anyone at finding water in the ground, he has never been able… (read full character analysis)
Tom is the youngest son of Sam and Liza Hamilton. He is thoughtful and introverted, and deeply dependent on his father’s guidance and wisdom. When Sam dies, Tom is left in charge of the… (read full character analysis)
Dessie is the unmarried daughter of Sam and Liza, who runs a successful dressmaking business in town. She is deeply funny and entertaining, and her dress shop is a haven for women. Around Dessie… (read full character analysis)
John Steinbeck is the son of Olive Hamilton and Ernest Steinbeck, and the grandson of Sam Hamilton. This character shares a name and much of a family history with the actual author of… (read full character analysis)
Mary is John’s sister. She is an athletic child, in fact the best athlete in the county, and wishes desperately to be a boy. She grows out of this desire eventually, but one of… (read full character analysis)
Abra is the love interest of Aron Trask from a very young age. They court for a long time, but Abra begins to recognize that Aron loves an idealized version of her, and doesn’t love… (read full character analysis)
Liza is Sam’s wife. She is a remarkably dedicated and capable woman whose devotion to the Bible is unquestioning. She condemns Sam’s curiosity and believes the Bible is not meant to be questioned or even understood: simply obeyed. Despite their differences, Sam and Liza Hamilton have a happy marriage.
Will is Liza and Sam’s most business-savvy son, and perhaps the only Hamilton child who never bore any great affection for Sam Hamilton.
Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck
Olive is the mother of John and Mary. She is a devoted and capable woman who is fiercely intelligent but also hopelessly stubborn. She is remembered fondly by John who narrates select stories about her.
Earnest is John’s father, who marries Olive and takes her away to the city.
Joe is Catherine’s henchman. He is an escaped convict who has never caught a break in life. Catherine blackmails him, and eventually gives his secret away to the sheriff. He is shot and killed while fleeing the police.
Cyrus is the father of Adam and Charles Trask. He lies about his role in the Civil War and ascends the ranks in government, amassing a sizeable fortune that was likely built on theft and dishonesty. When he dies he leaves his money to his sons.
Charles Trask’s mother, who also raises Adam as her own son (though Adam was born of a previous marriage). She is a deeply obedient wife to Cyrus.
Sam the Sheriff
The town’s sheriff, who knows Catherine’s whereabouts before Adam Trask does, but keeps the information silent to protect Adam and avoid causing a stir.
Una is a daughter of Sam and Liza. Una’s husband invents color photography, but Una is accidentally poisoned by his chemicals. Her death is taken hardest by Sam Hamilton, who is uncomfortable with mortality in general.
Joe is the youngest son of Sam and Liza Hamilton. He leaves the ranch after getting a degree at Stanford to go into advertising on the east coast.
Molly is the youngest and prettiest daughter of Sam and Liza Hamilton.
Edwards is the brothel owner who falls in love with and subsequently attempts to murder Catherine after she runs away from home.
Ethyl is a broken down prostitute who suspects that Catherine had something to do with Faye’s death. She is framed by Catherine, run out of the county, and is found dead in the ocean.
George is one of Sam and Liza Hamilton sons. He is a very minor character.
The eldest daughter of Sam and Liza Hamilton, named for her mother.