Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
In Chapter 34 of East of Eden, the narrator articulates his belief that the struggle between good and evil is the one recurring narrative of human history. In fact, he goes so far as to state that there “is no other story.” Writing from the perspective of the Christian tradition, the narrator contends that every human individual since Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel has struggled with the choice between good and evil. The narrator writes that each person, when looking back on his or her life, “will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” Because the struggle is an individual one, the narrator implies that no progress is made through the generations—each person must reenact the same ancient story and grapple with the same ancient problems.
East of Eden dramatizes this perpetual conflict between good and evil in the society of the Salinas Valley as a whole and within the individuals of the Trask and Hamilton families in particular. The main characters of the novel,generation after generation,wrestle with the problem of evil. Cyrus, the patriarch of the Trask family, apparently chooses evil by stealing money during his term as a U.S. Army administrator. Charles succumbs to jealousy of his brother, Adam. Cathy takes the path of evil at every turn, manipulating and wounding others for her own benefit. Cal, worried that he has inherited a legacy of sin from his mother, struggles perhaps the hardest of all the characters. Ultimately, the novel ends on a positive note, as Cal accepts the possibility and responsibility of free will—of free choice between good and evil. This optimistic ending is tempered, however, by our knowledge that future generations will endlessly replay the same struggle that Cal and his ancestors have endured.
Although one of the fundamental ideas in East of Eden is that evil is an innate and inescapable human problem, the novel also sets forth hope that each individual has the freedom to overcome evil by his or her own choice. This idea of free choice is encapsulated in the Hebrew word timshel, the meaning of which Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, has researched. The word, which translates to “thou mayest,” appears in the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible, when God tells Cain that he has the freedom to choose to overcome sin. Lee sees this idea of free will as central to the human condition—in fact, he says that timshel might be the “most important word in the world.”
The other characters in East of Eden have different opinions regarding whether or not individuals can truly overcome evil by free choice. Cathy, for instance, insists that there is only evil in the world, so she immerses herself in it and exploits other people’s human weaknesses to her own advantage. Aron, meanwhile, is only able to face the good in the world, and the evil that his mother embodies ultimately proves too much for him to handle. Cal struggles to find a middle road between these two extremes. Ultimately, he is successful, as he accepts Lee’s belief that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice, regardless of the fact that all humans are imperfect, sinful beings. With this newfound knowledge, Cal is able to go forward into a new life with Abra, confident that he controls his own moral destiny.
The dynamics of father-son relationships, especially the issue of a father’s preference for one son over another, are central to the story told in East of Eden. In the first generation of the Trask family covered in the novel, Cyrus displays a clear preference for Adam over Charles, for no discernible reason. Charles, who seems to love his father far more than Adam does, senses this disapproval from his father and resents it deeply. Charles’s resentment comes to a head when Cyrus prefers the birthday gift Adam gives him (a stray puppy, to which Adam gives hardly any thought) to the gift Charles gives him (a knife for which Charles works hard to save money in order to buy). Once again, Cyrus’s preference for the puppy over the knife appears to be completely arbitrary, and the disapproval enrages Charles. Later, Adam displays the same kind of arbitrary favoritism in his relationships with his own sons, Aron and Cal. Aron grows up to be somewhat cowardly and fragile, while Cal courageously struggles to stay on the path of good amid numerous temptations toward evil. Nonetheless, Adam perceives Aron as ambitious and promising but dismisses Cal as shiftless and directionless.
Steinbeck patterns these father-son relationships in the Trask family on an example in the Bible—the relationships that the brothers Cain and Abel have with God, who represents a father figure to both of them. When Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God (mirrored in Steinbeck’s novel by Charles’s and Adam’s birthday gifts to Cyrus), God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. Conspicuously, neither God nor the narrator of the story in the Bible offers any reason or justification for God’s preference. In East of Eden, Adam mentions that, upon reading the story of Cain and Abel, he felt “a little outraged at God” for favoring Abel so arbitrarily. However, as we see, Adam favors Aron over Cal just as arbitrarily as God favors Abel over Cain. Adam does not realize the depth of his favoritism until he is on his deathbed, when he acknowledges the mistake he has made and grants his final blessing to Cal.