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.
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul ThemeTracker
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Quotes in East of Eden
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?
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!
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.
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.
It seemed to Samuel that Adam might be pleasuring himself with sadness.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing.