East of Eden

East of Eden Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-37

Kate is immediately suspicious when Adam visits her at the whorehouse to inform her of his brother's death and offer her half of the inheritance, $50,000. She exclaims: "I don't know what the trick is, but I'm going to find out." She is simply not used to honest people, and does not know how to act appropriately when she encounters one. Adam informs her that she lacks the ability to perceive goodness and beauty, and that she can only view the dark side of everything. He goes on to tell her that she cannot possibly understand that even the men whose sexually-explicit photographs she secretly possesses also have good facets to their personalities. Mirroring Samuel Hamilton's belief regarding Cathy, Adam remarks, "I think you are only part of a human." Adam senses fear in her, and when she realizes that she can no longer control him, she becomes frustrated and abusive. After he leaves Cathy, Adam visits Samuel's wife, Liza Hamilton, in Salinas. Olive Hamilton opens the door and invites him in, and he meets Olive's children: the young John Steinbeck, and his sister Mary. Liza, who has declined in stature but not in spirit, is glad to see him. He tells her that he is thinking of moving to Salinas so the children can receive a better education, and she suggests that he buy her daughter Dessie's house. Dessie Hamilton, it seems, has decided to close her dress-making business and move back to the family ranch, which her brother Tom Hamilton has run since the death of his father, Samuel.

Tom Hamilton cannot pull himself out of the numbing depression he fell into after his father Samuel's death, but is happy to hear that Dessie plans on returning to the ranch. Dessie was always "the beloved of the family" due to her kindness and unwavering sense of humor. Although she was popular with her customers, her dress-making business suffered with the advance of automation. Tom welcomes her home grandly, with painted signs and the words "Welcome Home" spelled out in white-washed stones. Both of the siblings are happy to be in each other's company, but Dessie suffers from a severe stomach pain that she keeps hidden from Tom. At first, the brother and sister are very happy taking care of the ranch and of each other, but in the evenings they both lie in their beds, severely troubled. Pain continues to invade Dessie's body, and Tom sinks further into depression. They decide to travel, and opt to raise pigs in an effort to finance a trip to Europe. Tom goes to see his businessman brother, Will Hamilton, about a loan. Will is not enthusiastic about the pig proposition, and Tom becomes even more forlorn. He returns home to find Dessie in great physical distress, and gives her a does of salts as medication; later, the doctor tells him that this was the worst thing he could have done. In effect, Tom accidentally causes his beloved sister's death. Afterwards, he sinks even deeper into depression. He begins to go mad and starts talking to his dead father, Samuel, pleading with him to understand that he cannot continue to cope with the vicissitudes of life. "I cannot live," he states to the ghostly Samuel. "I've killed Dessie and I want to sleep." He makes suicide arrangements by writing a letter to his brother, Will, asking him to cover up his death as a riding accident to spare their mother pain, and shoots himself with a Smith and Wesson .38.

In chapter 34, which is the cornerstone of the entire novel and takes place in the wake of the deaths of Charles Trask and four of the Hamiltons (Samuel, Charles, Dessie and Tom), Steinbeck once again interrupts the novel's chronological narrative to bring to light the philosophical insights that resonate throughout. In this chapter, the narrator crystallizes the novel's primary theme: "humans are caught in a net of good and evil." He asserts that there is no other real story in the entire world, and that there never will be. He goes on to declare that it is how we live our simple lives while caught in that trap of good and evil that determines our success as individuals and our impact on the world, and especially on those we leave behind. As examples, he discusses the lives and careers of three men, only one of whom succeeded in traversing life's ups and downs. A person's life, he maintains, can be measured by the feelings of those left behind.

Steinbeck again takes up the chronological thread in Chapter 35. Adam buys Dessie Hamilton's house in Salinas, and Lee, after completing all the work involved in the move from the Trask ranch to Salinas, finally leaves for San Francisco to begin life anew as the owner of a bookstore. He leaves the boys money for food at the basketball game, and refuses Adam's offer of a ride to the train station. The boys, both flourishing at their new school, don't seem to even notice his absence, despite the fact that Lee has acted as both mother and father to them for their whole life. However, the twins are convinced of Lee's absolute love for them, and know full well that he will return shortly. Sure enough, six days later he returns and lets himself in to the house in Salinas, feeling for the first time ever in his life that he is finally home. No longer does he want a bookstore in San Francisco. He informs Adam that he feels "overwhelmingly glad to be home" with him, Cal, and Aron.

Cal and Aron attend the West End School in Salinas. At first they are intimidated by its size, but since they are both bright students, they soon become acclimated to life in the seventh grade. It short time, it becomes apparent to the other students that although they are twins, they possess very different personalities. Although Cal has no friends: "everyone was touched with fear of him and through fear with respect," and he quickly becomes a leader. Aron is far more fragile and shy, but very capable of defending himself physically. He quickly makes many friends, unlike his brother. Aron is still smitten with Abra Bacon, who returns his attentions. The children, who fell in love upon first meeting, talk of marriage, and call each other husband and wife. One day, Aron talks about his mother and puts his head in Abra's lap. At the first expression of maternal attention that the youngster has ever experienced, Aron breaks into tears, and Abra comforts him with a tenderness that speaks to the woman she will turn out to be. They talk of Aron's mother, and Abra intimates that she had heard rumors about Kate living in Salinas. He refuses to deal with this possibility, but after Abra leaves he returns to the shady grove they shared and thinks about the possibility that his mother might still be alive. He is psychologically distraught: how could it be possible that his father lied to him? He refuses to even think of such a possibility, and rejects the idea of his mother's existence in Salinas. "He pushe[s] his mother back into death," and returns to the safety of his home, and the love of Adam and Lee.

Time goes on: Lee begins to spend money furnishing the Trask house, even buying an icebox. For some inexplicable reason, Adam is enthralled with the invention, and decides to invest most of his fortune in preserving food through refrigeration. By now World War I has broken out, and Adam devises a plan to transport lettuce by rail from California to the East Coast during the winter. The whole town celebrates the departure of the train, but everyone laughs uproariously when they find out that only wet, soggy garbage arrived in New York. In short, the venture is disastrous, and Adam must live with the ridicule of the townspeople. Furthermore, his inheritance has dwindled to $9.000. Cal and Aron also become objects of ridicule, and are called "lettuceheads". Cal is able to laugh off the lessening of his social position, but Aron remains angry with his father and feels mortified. Abra attempts to temper his rage to no avail, and reasserts her belief that Aron should ask his father point-blank about his mother's death. Aron runs away from her, and Abra feels lonely and saddened by his actions. Cal also feels lonely and jealous of the bond between Aron and Abra. He attempts at one point to attract Abra, but she rebuffs him, and he continues to walk the streets at night in pain and solitude: "always there was the darkness about him."


Steinbeck insists that when a new land is being developed, strong individuals (like those who make up the initial wave of immigrants) arrive first. They perform the back-breaking work, clearing the land and establishing the basic structures of society, before being followed by industrialists and bankers, and finally by lawyers, who are in - at least in Steinbeck's estimation - weaker specimens of mankind. As examples of the strong workers who establish the foundations of society, Steinbeck cites Samuel and Liza Hamilton. After leaving Ireland, their homeland, they had to travel to California where, for financial reasons, they were forced to settle on the most barren land in the Salinas Valley, eking out a living from sun-up to sun-down. It was the couple's strength, fortitude, grace, and love that enabled them to successfully feed and raise nine children. However, many of their children seem like mere copies of the originals, with only a single generation's removal making them far weaker than their parents. For instance, while Samuel and Liza work hard and survive admirably on the driest land in the Valley, their children, Tom and Dessie, are merely watered-down versions of their parents. Sameul and Liza's offspring simply lack the strength to survive the vicissitudes of the world, even though it could be argued that they have far easier lives than their parents. Tom is not even close to being on a par with his father both mentally and physically, and Dessie succumbs early on to a weak body, unlike her physically strong mother. While their brother Will, the car salesman and business entrepreneur, certainly possesses the wherewithal to succeed, he lacks his father's impeccable sense of honesty.

Time moves on, and as the older generation declines, a change in tone occurs in the novel: gradually, the author becomes more and more concerned with the omnipresence of death. Indeed, seven characters have died already: Samuel, Liza, Una, Tom, and Dessie Hamilton, Charles Trask, and Lee's mother. The automobile that Adam buys after attending Samuel Hamilton's funeral and the closing of Dessie Hamilton's dress-making business illustrates the changing times and the effects that the advance of automation has on individuals. It is important to note that Steinbeck completed this novel when he was 62 years old himself, and that many scholars have maintained that East of Eden was the author's final opportunity to offer parting words of wisdom to younger generations. In this section of the novel, Steinbeck preaches about the sacredness of truth and the privilege of being able to choose good over evil.

Many of Steinbeck's characters lie to protect those whom they love. Samuel lies to Adam about his wife's whereabouts to protect him from the psychological pain of finding out that she is a notorious whore and brothel owner. In turn, Adam lies to the twins and tells them that their mother is dead, again to protect them from knowing the truth - that their mother abandoned them when they were a week old. Cal continues the family tradition of dishonesty by failing to acknowledge to Adam and Lee that he has found out the truth, and by continuing to lie to his brother, Aron, in an effort to protect him. Dessie lies to her brother Tom about her stomach problems to keep him from being hurt, and he lies about his own psychological malady to spare his sister. Despite his better judgment, Lee keeps the family secret, but attempts to persuade Adam to tell his sons the truth before they find out about their mother from others. In his effort to get Adam to tell the truth to the boys, Lee shares the horrific story about his mother, thereby conveying his belief that while his father could have chosen to keep the truth about his birth a secret, he chose not to spare his son out of respect. It was, after all, Lee's life, and he deserved to know the particulars. Lee insists that Adam should likewise inform the boys of their true beginnings.

At this point in the novel, Aron and Cal become central to the plot. Once more, the Cain and Abel paradigm unfolds, with Cal continuing in the dark Cain role, and Aron, the golden boy, taking the place of Abel. Cal, however, is soon revealed as the protagonist, despite the reader's expectations that Aron will assume the leading role. Initially, the mild-mannered Aron shines, while Cal is removed from the action. Aron immediately puts Abra on a very high pedestal, as Adam once - very erroneously - did to Cathy. Aron, however, remains static throughout the novel. He is predictable from the start: he never grows as a character, while Cal becomes far more introspective and real. At this point, Aron begins to act as a foil for Cal. He is loved and admired by all ,while Cal finds himself without friends. Inversely, however, we see that Aron cannot accept his father's business losses: he is personally humiliated, and never thinks about how this embarrassing financial fiasco might be affecting his father or other members of the family. Here, Steinbeck foreshadows Aron's later behavior. Cal, on the other hand, is deeply sorry for his father's losses. In short, it appears that Cal loves his father more than Aron does, while Adam loves Aron more than Cal. This is precisely the familial dynamic that caused Charles to strike out in jealousy against his brother, Adam, who was favored by their father, Cyrus.