East of Eden is a novel about families—marriage, parenthood, succession, inheritance, and sibling rivalry make up the bulk of the book’s conflict. Underlying all of these conflicts is the repeated suggestion that there is no love without pain, rejection, and loneliness. Numerous subplots in the novel involve parental love—children seek love from their parents and parents seek it from their children. Charles is furious that his father loves his brother Adam more than him. Charles loves his father, while Adam only admires him, but Adam is nevertheless the favorite. This pattern persists into the next generation. Cal also suffers feelings of rejection and loss because his twin brother Aron is clearly the favorite of his father Adam. When Adam tells Cal he trusts him, Cal is so happy that Lee thinks he’s found himself a girlfriend—in this sense his love for his father replaces romantic love. Aron, on the other hand, longs deeply for his absent mother; he doesn’t know she is the depraved and abusive madam of a whorehouse.
Tom Hamilton never marries, and his dependence on his father’s love and guidance is greater than that of any of his siblings. When Sam dies, Tom never fully recovers. He finds momentary relief in the company of his sister, but he accidentally kills her by giving her the wrong medicine for her stomach pains, and kills himself out of grief. The Chinese-American Lee, meanwhile, says one of his main regrets is never having kids. Though he raises Aron and Cal, he cannot act as a father to them. Adam forbids him to teach the boys Cantonese, and this puts distance between he and them. However, when he leaves the family to start his bookstore, he only stays away six days—the loneliness he feels without them is unbearable. Eventually he tells Abra he wishes she were his daughter, and she tells him she feels the same, as her father never cared for her because he wanted a boy.
Romantic love also plays a prominent role. Sam Hamilton had a lost love in Ireland—the details never emerge, but it is clear he lost his great love somehow, and has never been the same since. Adam’s love for Catherine is, though terribly misguided, all consuming. He becomes truly alive when he meets her, and feels dead when she leaves him. Aron’s love for Abra is an idealized love. He has made her into a pure and perfect kind of idol, and he loves this imaginary person dearly, but Abra believes he does not know or love her for who she is. Catherine, meanwhile, runs a particularly seedy whorehouse after leaving Adam (and changing her own name to Kate)—in running such an establishment she offers a kind of perverse replacement for romantic love, exploiting the loneliness of men for her own satisfaction and gain.
In his discussion of love and family, Steinbeck tends to locate human strength in love, and human weakness in loneliness. Adam is weak when Catherine leaves him, but strong again when he knows and loves his sons. Men who fall in love with imaginary women (as Aron and Adam do when they begin to think of the women they love so idealistically as to make themselves blind to their faults)—and in so doing basically fall in love with themselves—are destroyed by a particular kind of loneliness. But family in the novel is a recurring source of strength and virtue. In a novel that is so much about human nature, love and loneliness take a place alongside good and evil as primary elements of human existence itself.
Family, Love, and Loneliness ThemeTracker
Family, Love, and Loneliness Quotes in East of Eden
“You’re trying to take him away! I don’t know how you’re going about it. What do you think you’re doing?”
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!
Then a breeze would move her bright hair, or she would raise her eyes, and Adam would swell out in his stomach with a pressure of ecstasy that was close kin to grief.
Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it…That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
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.
Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing.
“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.”