East of Eden


John Steinbeck

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Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Analysis

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.
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon

At the heart of East of Eden is the conflict between good and evil; evil people struggle against good people, kindness struggles against cruelty, a man’s good intentions are constantly at odds with his foul and depraved impulses. Steinbeck suggests that this struggle between good and evil is what makes us human—that, in fact, the triumph and redemption of the human soul consists of this struggle.

Catherine Trask is evil incarnate—she was born without any good in her (the narrator calls her a “monster”) and her very humanity is repeatedly put in question. Her husband Adam, meanwhile, is thought by his Chinese servant Lee to be almost too much good in the way that Catherine is too evil—and because of this he is incapable of seeing Catherine for what she is, and goes dead inside when she leaves him. Adam must then struggle to become whole again with the help of Lee and Sam Hamilton, both of whom possess a remarkable optimism when it comes to the resilience and virtue of the human spirit. In this sense, the entire Trask marriage is a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil.

The novel often depicts characters who recognize evil in themselves and wonder if they can overcome it. Charles Trask loves his brother Adam but cannot help but wish evil things on him, out of jealousy. And Adam’s son, Cal Trask, once he discovers who is mother is, believes that her evil is reproduced in him. He sees his twin brother Aron as perfectly good, and doubts if he has any of the same goodness in him. His inner turmoil is the central conflict in the latter half of the book. Abra (Aron’s fiancé who eventually falls for Cal) knows her father has stolen from good men who trusted him, and knows a thief’s blood runs in her veins. She says she loves Cal because he is not “all good.” When she tells Lee about this, he remarks that Cal is “full” of everything—goodness, badness, joy, sorrow, meanness and kindness.

East of Eden repeatedly refers back to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and to the moment where God tells Cain, “thou mayest [overcome sin].” Lee says that the word “mayest” is one of the most important words in the Bible. Having the choice—between sin and virtue, anger and acceptance, good and evil—is what makes mankind truly great. In this way, Steinbeck suggests that to be fully human, a person must (like Cal Trask) contain everything. Every human soul is a kind of contradiction; there is a monster like Catherine Trask in everyone, and there is naïve purity in everyone as well. Our very humanity depends upon being able to choose whether we are good or evil.

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Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Quotes in East of Eden

Below you will find the important quotes in East of Eden related to the theme of Good, Evil, and the Human Soul.
Chapter 8 Quotes

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Catherine Trask (Kate)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
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:
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:
Chapter 22 Quotes

It seemed to Samuel that Adam might be pleasuring himself with sadness.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

“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:
Chapter 24 Quotes

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man…why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

“This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 25 Quotes

“That’s what I hate, the liars, and they’re all liars…I love to rub their noses in their own nastiness.”

Related Characters: Catherine Trask (Kate) (speaker), Adam Trask
Page Number: 322
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 30 Quotes

“Dear Lord...let me be like Aron. Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be…I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be lonely.”

Related Characters: Caleb “Cal” Trask (speaker), Aron Trask
Page Number: 379
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
Chapter 38 Quotes

Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing.

Related Characters: John Steinbeck (speaker), Caleb “Cal” Trask, Aron Trask
Page Number: 444
Explanation and Analysis:

“Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you’ve got the other too.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Catherine Trask (Kate), Caleb “Cal” Trask
Page Number: 449
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 53 Quotes

“He’s crammed full to the top with every good thing and every bad thing.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Caleb “Cal” Trask, Abra Bacon
Page Number: 585
Explanation and Analysis: