East of Eden features many crises of identity through which Steinbeck examines the meaning of various identities over the course of the book. Lee is one of the most interesting examples of complex identity in the book. He is Chinese, and though he was born in California and speaks perfect English, he chooses to speak pidgin English (a simplified version of English) with a thick Chinese accent for most of his life. He believes people have trouble reconciling his Chinese appearance with his American way of speaking and finds it easier to conform to expectations. Sam Hamilton does something similar: everyone expects an Irishman to be riotous and funny—though Sam often feels somber and serious, he hides it, because he knows what is expected of him and finds it easier to meet expectations.
Steinbeck also interrogates sex and gender, and what kinds of effects they have on a person’s identity. Catherine, because she is pretty and feminine, is not taken seriously by many people she meets (especially men) and she uses this to her advantage. Because people underestimate her, she is able to manipulate them without being detected. Mary Steinbeck, the first-person narrator’s sister, is the best athlete in the county as a child, and wishes desperately to be a boy. Dessie Hamilton’s dress shop is so popular among women because it is a place they can go and be themselves: they swear and belch and laugh riotously. The narration explains that in the shop they are under no pressure to be “women” – they are simply human. Lee’s mother pretends to be a man so that she can come with Lee’s father to work on the railroads in America. She works just as hard and just as effectively as a man would, and is only discovered to be a woman when she goes into labor—and is killed.
Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a time when America was beginning to re-evaluate racial and sexual identity. The civil rights movement would reach its peak within a decade and countercultural feminism was gaining traction. Much of Steinbeck’s work in East of Eden is geared towards exposing simplifications of identity as just such simplifications, and replacing these simplifications with a more complicated and nuanced picture.
Identity 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!
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.”
It seemed to Samuel that Adam might be pleasuring himself with sadness.
One day Samuel strained his back lifting a bale of hay, and it hurt his feelings more than his back, for he could not imagine a life in which Sam Hamilton was not privileged to lift a bale of hay.
“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.”
The door was closed to men. It was a sanctuary where women could be themselves—smelly, wanton, mystic, conceited, truthful, and interested…At Dessie’s they were women who went to the toilet and overate and scratched and farted. And from this freedom came laughter, roars of laughter.
“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.”