We Are All Cains Who Mayest: East of Eden

East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck may be one of the greatest books ever written, yet I didn’t appreciate it or recognize it as such the first time I read it several years ago.  I recently reread it by listening to it in the car while driving to school, and I have a new appreciation of its status as an epic.

east of eden cover

It is a modern retelling of some of The Bible’s book of Genesis, and therefore biblical in themes and message.  The story spans some three generations of the Trask and Hamilton families.  Adam Trask and his brother Charles are of the second generation, and they represent the Cain and Abel story.  They fight over their Father’s love through the years, with Adam the favorite and Charles the one who must work for appreciation.  After their father dies, they inherit his farm and money.  But Cathy Ames—a snake-in-the-garden character with her sharp teeth, small nose, and flicking tongue—shows up on their front porch, a bruised and beaten whore.  Adam falls for her while nursing her to health, for he is gullible, trusting, and innocent.  Charles knows her for what she is, but she marries Adam anyway and the two migrate to Salinas, California.

Cathy is a fascinating character, and although I appreciate the temptress theme and her representation as a biblical tempter figure entwined with the Cain and Abel story, I felt some chagrin that she had to be female and that the way she enacted that role of Satan was the same way women are often blamed for being temptresses and for not being as pure as men are.  For more on this, see my review of ecofeminist book Woman and Nature.  That part bothered me, but I see the necessity of having a figure that is “bad” in order to highlight the message that Steinbeck wants us to grasp from the Cain and Abel story.  It is this message that moved me.

That message is agency.  We ultimately learn from this novel that we are free to choose.  This message is clear and plays out in the struggle that Adam has with his brother and in the decades-later struggle of Adam’s sons, Aaron and Caleb, who face sibling rivalry and the upset of finding out that their mother left them as soon as they were born to run the town’s brothel.  In their angst, I saw some of myself, in longing for a loving mother, but in also longing to know more about a heavenly mother.  (In my religion, we believe in a Heavenly Father and Mother, but we focus on Christ and the father and know little about our Heavenly Mother.)  Additionally, Aaron is the good and innocent boy, representative of Abel, who doesn’t have to earn his father’s approval.  Much like The Bible story, Cal, representative of Cain, struggles with this, and even has a moment of asking if he is his brother’s keeper.

But all of this is instructive to those of us who are like Cain, Charles, and Caleb.  That is basically all of us.  We learn, from Chinese servant Lee and neighbor Samuel Hamilton, that we are all corrupted and that we all struggle to balance and accept the good and evil inside of us all.  Lee studies and philosophizes, eventually learning from The Bible account of Cain and Abel that the original Hebrew word “timshel” translates as “thou mayest.”  Lee explains how this means we are all able to choose, despite the Cain-like behavior we are all capable of.  “Thou mayest” become the last words Adam speaks to his son Cal.  The family finds out that Aaron, the good one, has been killed in WWI, and Adam suffers a stroke.  Lee encourages him to give Cal his blessing, which Adam does, in biblical fashion as well.  It brings to mind the Jacob and Esau story.  Lee then tells Adam to speak Cal’s name.  Adam whispers “timshel” in one of the most beautiful moments in literature.  Thou mayest.

Samuel Hamilton, is the head of the Hamilton clan in Salinas.  His children interact with Adam and Aaron and Cal.  But I found Samuel’s words and deeds to be most compelling and instructive from the Hamilton side of the book.  Samuel teaches Adam some hard lessons, shocking him with information and looking out for him in some difficult times, like when Cathy shoots him and leaves him with infant sons.  But Samuel is always there, harsh and stern when needed, and soft and full of advice as well.  He has some of the best lines of the book.  I saw him as a sort of God-like figure to Lee’s seeming personification of the Holy Ghost.

Overall, the book is beautiful, epic, and enlightening.  In my opinion, it is worthy of a reread every few years.  There will always be something new to learn by revisiting its pages.  I highly recommend this book if you haven’t already read it.  It ranks with George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my list.  That means it’s at the top.

42 thoughts on “We Are All Cains Who Mayest: East of Eden

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  1. I’m so excited that you wrote about this! This novel is my all-time favorite. Second place is Jane Eyre. I have Middlemarch, too, but haven’t read it yet (I have three little kids and have a hard time staying focused long enough to get through it)!

    I first read East of Eden over ten years ago, when I was in college. I am long overdue for a re-read. I got to visit the Steinbeck museum in Salinas, CA a couple of years ago–very cool to see a bit more history behind this book and all of Steinbeck’s writings.

    I think that Abra is one of my favorite characters. I love that part of the book when she tells Cal that she thinks she loves him. He says, “But I’m not good.” And Abra responds, “Because you’re not good.”

    I also love Lee’s character.

    I just came upon your blog the other day and I’m glad to have found it! It was a special treat to see that you wrote about my favorite novel this morning!


    1. Thanks, Libby! It is easy to see how this one is your favorite novel, and I loved Abra too. All of the characters were delightful and worked in perfect harmony to tell an amazing story that can and should speak to all of us. I haven’t been to the Steinbeck museum, but I did see some sort of house or shop related to him in Monterey some years ago. It has been so long I can’t remember what it was. Anyway, I love all of his books. They speak to me! I’m glad you are here.

  2. Wonderful review, Emily, and interesting point about Cathy Ames as a woman/personification of Satan. I have to agree with you. I read this a couple of months ago and reading your post reminded me how much I loved it. I already know I need to re-read it at some point. In particular, I had read the first 2/3 in 2012 and then picked it up again this fall, after the part where Sam Hamilton had already died. I’d missed many of his good quotes.

    I picked up Grapes of Wrath at a library sale this weekend. I wasn’t so keen on reading it before but after East of Eden I became eager to read more Steinbeck.

    1. It is so hard when Samuel Hamilton dies. I missed him! He had to so Adam could learn to be strong without him, but I missed his wisdom. Enjoy The Grapes of Wrath! I just reread that one earlier this year and it was amazing! I cannot get enough of Steinbeck and I think I’m finally in the right frame of mind to enjoy him to his fullest.

  3. It is a beautiful, absorbing read. You’ve brought back lovely bookworm memories for me here. Thoughtful post.

  4. I read East of Eden after The Grapes of Wrath (my favourite book of all time) and I remember being highly disappointed by it. My biggest problem was with the character of Cathy who is very one-dimensional and could easily have stepped out of a modern-day soap opera. I felt this book lacked the compassion and humanity of The Grapes of Wrath and also Of Mice and Men, were Curley’s Wife is portrayed as a temptress but also a victim. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it after reading your post I may give it another chance.

    1. The Grapes of Wrath is one of the best books as well. I agree with your assessment of Cathy. She was caricatured and, like I mentioned in the post, I hated that she embodied a lot of the stereotypes about women as temptresses and therefore responsible for all of the world’s problems. If you do give it a reread, let me know if your opinion changes. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I read East of Eden for the first time this year. It’s one of those books that will stick with you forever. You can’t go wrong with Steinbeck in my opinion.

  6. I have never read East of Eden but it is a classic and this post reminded me that I am interested in reading it. The problem is that I have so many books I want to read and not enough time!

    I like Middlemarch too. I read it a few years ago and I don’t think reading it once is really enough to appreciate the complexity of Eliot’s writing. I know someone who wrote a PhD about Middlemarch and I enjoyed discussing it with her when I read the book. There is certainly a lot to discuss!

    1. I’m jealous of your conversation about Middlemarch with your friend. How great! I think I’m due for a reread of that one already because you are right that it is so complex and there is always something new to learn and think about. Do read East of Eden. My post doesn’t do it justice.

  7. You know, I probably would have avoided this book if left to my own devices! But now I think that based on your recommendation I may have to give it a chance. Did you ever read “Jacob Have I Loved” by Katherine Paterson? I thought of that as the sisters version of the Cain & Abel story when I was a teenager. That one had a not-entirely-satisfying ending, though.

  8. I have never read East of Eden, but it’s listed as the most famous book set in California, so it’s the next next book on my list as I make my way through all 50 states. I’ve had several friends recommend it, but your review definitely makes me want to really dig in.

  9. I’ll be honest, I’ve tried to read this a couple of times but never made it all the way through. Maybe 2014 will be the year I’ll make it!

  10. Recently, (on Sept. 20, 2020) I wrote this about “East Of Eden”, and then yesterday came across your post, which echoes my sentiments exactly:
    Musings on The Relevance Of John Steinbeck’s “East Of Eden” to our current predicament:
    We are all at a definite and most crucial crossroads as a society, a nation, and a world. Decisions made now will set the course for a long time to come.
    With the proper application of knowledge and technology, we may be able to turn this world into a paradise, else total chaos and destruction may reign.
    It is all up to us, as a collective of souls and beings.
    As of late, I have become witness to the total foolhardiness and hard and severe ignorance of those in power and those at the helm of our nation(s).
    And witness to those around me who behave as if their Modus Operandi for Life consists of insipid aphorisms written on the back of their hand, much like Sarah Palin used to do. My patience has become quite short.
    My personal motto has tragically become “I was never one to suffer fools, and I ain’t about to begin!”
    A scene in John Steinbeck’s “East Of Eden” comes to mind. (The 1981 ABC miniseries version, with Jeremy Irons, Jane Seymour, and Timothy Bottoms, in three installments.) (The miniseries may not be in Consonance with earlier Versions.)
    The protagonist (Adam Trask) is at his home in The Salinas Valley of California (after his wife has left him) with his Cantonese Cook named Lee.
    For a long time, Lee always communicates in broken Chinese-English. One day Lee slips and answers a question quite intelligently. Adam responds: “I didn’t know you could speak such good English. Why have you concealed this all this time?”
    Lee answers: “If we Chinese exhibit any sort of Intelligence to our hosts, we become hated. Therefore, we have to conceal this, act dumb, and behave subserviently.”
    Adam Trask then asks his cook “Just where have you been going every weekend for the past three years?” Lee answers that he has been going to San Francisco to study with a group of Rabbis to determine the proper meaning and translation of the phrase:
    “Thou willest conquer over evil with good”, as found in the story of Cain and Abel.
    Lee and The Rabbis spent three years trying to determine the proper translation of the Hebrew word “Timshel”, which relates to the concept of “willest”.
    They finally concluded, after three years, that the proper translation of “Timshel” was “Mayest”: as in “Thou Mayest conquer over evil with good”.
    In other words, The existential choice between Good and Evil is up to us.
    As a most basic example, we can either use Atomic Energy to destroy the world, or use it to cure Cancer.
    It is all up to us, collectively. (And in The Jungian Sense of The Collective Unconscious.)
    By God granting us this power of choice (and Knowledge), we are becoming God. Acquiring the power to order the creation of our own Universe.
    –Richard Dubriske

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