World War I changes the town of Salinas into a busy beehive. Everyone is wrapped up in a patriotic fervor, selling war bonds or rolling bandages: "There were people who gave everything they had to the war because it was the last war and by winning it we would remove war like a thorn from the flesh of the world." Even the children are affected: Steinbeck shares an autobiographical incident in which he and his sister taunted a German gentleman named Mr. Fenchel. As chairman of the draft board, Adam suffers excruciating guilt over the responsibility of sending young men off to war. Indeed, he feels "like a hanging judge who hates the gallows." Adam has, after all, experienced such fighting himself, and has come to view war as a "reversal of the rules where a man is permitted to kill all the humans he can." When Adam talks to Lee about the horror involved in his job as chairman of the draft board, Lee tells him that he has a choice in the matter. Adam, however, feels compelled to do what he sees as his duty to his country. Meanwhile, the whole Trask family awaits Aron's return from Stanford at Thanksgiving. Adam has come to believe that Aron might be smarter than Cal, and has a party planned to demonstrate to Aron how happy he is with his academic efforts. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to his family, Aron is miserable at school: he has no friends, and is virtually ignored by his classmates. He has sunk into a pit of despair that goes beyond depression, and counts down the days until he can return home to his family and his beloved, Abra. Unhappy with everything about Stanford, he decides that he will not ever return to the school.
While Aron suffers at Stanford, Kate has become suspicious of Joe Valery's continued attempts to extort money from her. She becomes more and more incapacitated by her arthritis, and considers committing suicide by ingesting the morphine that she carries in a vial around her neck. Valery thinks about how drastically the tables have turned, and fantasizes about how he will soon totally control her and have complete run of the brothel. He sees Kate's obsession with Ethyl as the means to this end. Kate, however, has an instinct for deceit, and knows that Joe is lying to her. She tells him that she's had a change of heart about Ethyl, and that she doesn't want the old prostitute dead after all. She explains to Joe that she believed Ethyl had done her a disservice in the past, but that in retrospect she as come to realize that she has treated Ethyl unfairly. Kate tells Joe that she now wants him to bring Ethyl to her, saying, "she didn't do anything to me." Kate, however, is barely holding herself together, and has begun constantly fingering the vial of morphine hanging around her neck. Her paranoia escalates even further when she considers the possibility of another visit from Ethyl. The idea of suicide brings her the only form of respite left in her life. Never will she know the comfort that could be provided by her children, Aron and Cal Trask.
Aron Trask arrives home for Thanksgiving, to the enormous delight of his family. However, he is put off by the overwhelming attentions of his father and Adam's ambitious plans for his future. He fails to tell Adam that he does not even want to return to Stanford. Cal, jealous about the fuss being made over Aron, gift-wraps the $15,000 that he plans to give his father in gold certificates, fully aware that he is making the enormously generous gift in an attempt to buy his father's love ("I'm trying to buy him"). However, he realizes that Adam loves Aron more because Aron resembles his mother, Cathy: "it's because he looks like her. My father never got over her." He seems to hope that his generous gift will win him a small portion of his father's heart. However, Cal is devastated when Adam opens the certificates and rebukes him instead of kissing him. Adam angrily accuses Cal of stealing money from vulnerable people in need of food during the war. He tells Cal that he doesn't want the money, and that he would have been much happier if he had gone to college and made him proud, as Aron did. Almost in tears, Cal rushes from the room. Lee counsels him to control his anger and to remember that his free will can help him to make proper choices. A short while later he apologizes to Adam, but doesn't seem sincere. He seeks out the company of his brother, Aron, and tells him that he has something he wants to show him. Cal leads Aron toward Castroville Street, the site of their mother's whorehouse, and Aron comes to finally realize the full truth about his mother. Horrified, Aron runs away and joins the army.
On the same day that her son enlists, Kate's silence is making Joe Valery extremely uncomfortable. He believes that Kate, who has cloistered herself in her gray room, is plotting against him, but Kate is instead reacting to the events of the previous evening, when Cal brought Aron to the brothel: "she saw the face of the blond and beautiful boy, his eyes mad with shock." She then recalls her other son, the dark-haired Cal, "leaning against the door and laughing." Why, she wonders, would Cal have done such a thing to his brother? At this point, she recalls a traumatic childhood incident: as a little girl of about five, she grew fearful of all the adults surrounding her because they seemed to be as tall as trees. She sought refuge from this fear in the novel Alice in Wonderland, in which the young protagonist grows so small that no one can see her. Kate begins to cry, and for the fist time in her life becomes aware that she is missing some innate human quality. She deduces that Joe has been lying to her about Ethyl, and develops a plan. First, she calls the sheriff to tell him about Joe Valery. She then sits down and writes her will, in which she leaves all of her belongings to Aron. Next, she administers a fatal does of the morphine that she has kept in a vial around her neck for this purpose, and sits down to die, all the while reliving the childhood fantasy of Alice in Wonderland. The next morning, after finding Kate's dead body, Joe is riffling through her papers when he discovers photographs of Kate's customers, some of the town's most prominent men, in compromising sexual positions, along with a safe deposit key and her handwritten will. Joe is euphoric, believing that he has hit pay dirt for the first time ever in his life. He believes that he will be able to open the safe deposit box, and will make a fortune blackmailing the men in the photographs. He doesn't have time to act, however, because a deputy, having been tipped off by Kate's note to Sheriff Horace Quinn, arrives and shoots him when he tries to escape.
The former deputy, Sheriff Horace Quinn, rummages through the photographs that Kate intended to use to blackmail the town's prominent men and burns them in front of a lawyer, who agrees to let the men in question know that the evidence against them has been destroyed. He realizes, however, that this action will most likely result in the loss of his job, because the important men in the photographs will know that he is aware of their aberrant behavior. The sheriff then visits Adam to tell him about Kate's suicide, and to let him know that his son Aron is his mother's sole beneficiary, having been left $100,000. Adam is emotionally shattered and cries out "Oh, my poor darling." The sheriff insists that Aron be told the truth, even though Adam requests that he not inform Aron about his mother's will. Adam does not yet realize that Aron already knows the truth about his mother, nor does he know that Aron has run away and joined the army. Aron has been missing for two nights. When Cal is questioned about Aron's whereabouts, he sarcastically replies, "Am I supposed to look after him?" Adam's health begins to fail, and he finds solace in the belief that Aron has merely returned to Stanford. In search of comfort, Lee reads from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a book he once stole from Samuel Hamilton. The text reveals to him that he will die soon, and yet he has not found peace.
After experiencing momentary joy from having avenged himself at the whorehouse, Cal sinks into despair. He begins to drink heavily in a desperate attempt to alleviate his guilt, but knows that the only way he will be able to find any modicum of comfort is if he confesses his actions to his father and begs his forgiveness. He doesn't know yet that Aron has enlisted in the army, and desperately hopes that he will return home soon. In the company of Lee, he makes a sacrificial offering by burning the $15,000 that his father so adamantly rejected. Lee, however, doesn't let Cal off this lightly. He lectures him against seeking revenge, but says that he now must pull himself out of the pit of despair into which he has slipped. He explains to the young man that we are all human, made up of both good and bad characteristics, and that we all make mistakes that can be rectified. "We are all," Lee explains, "descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous." Cal feels better after their discussion, and tries not to beat himself up any longer. Shortly after his talk with Cal, Lee finds Adam standing just inside the front door, in a state of shock: he has just received a post card from Aron informing him that he has lied about his age to enlist in the army. Adam, who has suffered a stroke, continues to decline. He cannot move his limbs very well, and his eyesight is diminished. Why, he wonders, would Aron have enlisted in the army? Cal is torn between telling his father the truth, and sparing him the pain of knowledge. Lee believes that Cal should wait until Adam's health improves, and prompts him to bring Abra for a visit. Abra tells Cal that she has received a card from Aron telling her that he doesn't feel clean anymore, and that she should forget about him. Cal tells Abra about taking Aron to Kate's house on Thanksgiving, and Abra reveals to Cal that she has known about Kate all along. She also tells Cal that she doesn't love Aron, and hasn't for some time. He has never grown up, she says. She then tells Cal that she loves him, not Aron. Shortly afterward, she explains to Cal that her father is a thief. Relieved by these revelations, she burns Aron's card.
Adam begins sleeping more and more. One day, during an introspective conversation with Lee about a dream, Adam reminisces about the fortune left to him by his father, Cyrus Trask: "he was a thief," he says. Lee immediately sees the hypocrisy involved in the idea of the deeply honest Adam Trask living off an ill-gained fortune. He contemplates how much Samuel Hamilton would enjoy the symmetry of Aron choosing to live off the profits of his mother's whorehouse. Abra visits the Trask household, and Lee is particularly glad to see her. He tells her that he wishes she was his daughter, and she acknowledges her deep, fatherly love for him. He gives Abra his mother's jade ornament, her only possession. The young girl is deeply moved and tenderly kisses the old man, the first kiss Lee has ever received. She tells Lee about burning Aron's letters, and how free she feels now that she has rejected Aron's idealized image of her. Intuiting her feelings about Cal, Lee tells Abra that he is a young man full of both good and bad.
Cal and Abra walk home together, discussing their plan to look for azaleas as soon as spring arrives. Their relationship deepens, and Cal decides to place flowers on his mother's grave: "I'm beginning to think like Aron," he tells himself. His father's health starts to improve. Word spreads that the azaleas are in bloom, and Cal and Abra go on a picnic by a stream. Although Cal is apprehensive, Abra holds his hand and tells him the truth about her father's criminal past. Meanwhile, at the quiet Trask house, Lee is filled with dread as he sits turning the pages of a spring seed catalog. In the silence of the house, he thinks a ghost is present. The doorbell rings, and Lee opens the door to find a man delivering a telegram: Aron has been killed in the war. Initially, he feels anger toward Aron for having left his family, and calls him a coward while he prepares medication for Adam. When Adam returns home, Lee, always an advocate of the truth, tells him that his son is dead, and Adam suffers a massive stroke. He might live for a couple of years, or "he might die tonight," Dr. Murphy says.
Cal returns to find his father near death, and sits down by his bed. "I'm responsible for Aron's death," he tells his father, although he is unsure whether he can understand him. "I took him to Kate's. I showed him his mother." Lee finds the youngster completely distraught: "I killed my brother. I'm a murderer," he cries out. Lee attempts to soothe him and tells him to go get Abra. Over glasses of liquor, Lee tells them both that they are in control of their own lives, and that they do not have to live in emulation of their sinful parents. Cal, Abra, and Lee stand before Adam as he lies on his death bed. Lee explains that Cal has done something that has resulted in Aron's death and Adam's stroke, and that he is experiencing overwhelming guilt. Then, he asks Adam to bless his son. Finally understanding how much Cal loves him, Adam raises his hand and blesses his son with the final word of the novel, timshel, before closing his eyes.
The exchange of gifts is an important motif throughout East of Eden: these exchanges often inspire change and provide insights into individual characters. From the beginning, Cyrus Trask's preference of Adam's gift of a puppy over Charles' gift of an expensive knife sets up the central tension in the novel: the jealousy between brothers. This, of course, parallels God's rejection of Cain's gift in favor of Abel's. Similarly, Adam's rejection of Cal's gift of $15,000 parallels his own father's rejection of Charles' gift at the beginning of the novel. Readers are left wondering whether anyone ever truly learns, which is precisely Steinbeck's intent: mankind as a whole, he believes, never does learn, although individuals might.
The exchange of gifts occurs between other characters as well. After his death, Cyrus passes along a gift of $100,000 to his sons who, despite knowing that the money is ill-gained, accept the cash regardless. This undoubtedly casts a shadow over Charles - which, given his dark nature, is hardly surprising - but also casts Adam in a negative light. Upon his own death, Charles passes along the same amount, $100,000, to be divided between Adam and his wife, Kate. Unsurprisingly, Kate takes the money, but once more Adam accepts money which was gained at a cost to others. He fails to take this opportunity to expiate his guilt. Once again, he is cast as a less-than-palatable character - in fact, his reaction to Cal's gift can be viewed as downright hypocritical. Although Adam righteously feels that he cannot accept his son's gift, he fails to comprehend the pure gesture of love that lies behind the impulse. He cannot see that he himself has never held a job, and has lived off his father's and brother's stolen money for years. In the last section of the novel, Kate leaves her son Aron the same gift of $100,000, in effect passing along the sins of the fathers and the mothers. Readers are, however, prevented from learning whether or not the deeply religious Aron could or would have accepted money made from prostitution. Furthermore, we can only hypothesize whether or not Cal will accept his father and brother's ill-gained money after their deaths. Once again, Cal will be offered the choice between right and wrong.
It is important to consider why Kate left all of her money to Aron, a boy she earlier showed absolutely no regard for, and who only came to her attention after his brother, Cal, came to see her. She sees Aron in church and becomes smitten with him, and returns to watch him again and again, although he doesn't even know of her existence. After Aron shows up at the brothel, Kate is overwrought and commits suicide, leaving all her money to Aron. We can only speculate that Cal will be unwilling to accept his father and brother's ill-gained money, given the fact that he earlier burned the $15,000 he had been planning to give to his father as a sacrificial offering. Not all gifts in the novel, however, have strings attached. For example, Lee's gift of his mother's jade brooch to Abra is a gesture of pure love.
Abra's presence is heightened towards the end of the novel. She says that she is often bad, but readers never see her as anything but caring and loving. In short, Abra provides balance in a novel that has been frequently criticized for its highly negative portrayal of women. Indeed, Cathy Trask is one of the most notable evil female characters in American literature. Cathy is portrayed as the devil incarnate: she is often likened to a cat, prefers to live in the dark, has small, sharp teeth, and scratches and bits those who offend her. Even her name, Cathy, recalls the word "cat", and she runs away, as cats are wont to do. Abra, on the other hand, is caring and maternal, and quickly becomes a dear member of the Trask family. She demonstrates her introspective nature when she becomes worried that she will inherit her father's propensity for evil. She loves Lee deeply (in contrast to Cathy, who hates Lee), and is the only person ever to kiss him. By marrying Abra, Cal increases his chances of successfully utilizing the novel's central concept of timshel.
Timshel is, simply put, the key to escaping the ongoing human battle between good and evil that rages throughout East of Eden. Believed to be the most important word in the world by Lee, it states unequivocally that each individual has been given the freedom by God to overcome evil if they make the choice to do good. The Cain and Abel fable plays out in the conclusion of the novel, when Aron dies. After he kills his brother Abel, Cain is told by God that although he will face exile as punishment, he has the freedom to choose to do good over evil. In effect, Cain (Cal) has once again "killed" his brother Abel (Aron). However, Aron was killed because he ran away to join the army: while it might seem that Cal caused his death, it was Aron's free will determined his own end. Unlike Lee, Cathy believes that humanity is inherently evil, and lashes out at the world in her attempt to prove herself correct. She photographs prominent men in sexually compromising situations and leads others into sexually deviant behavior, believing that all humans are wholly evil. She never once considers the possibility that sexual deviance might be their only flaw. She commits suicide after encountering her son, Aron. It is possible that Aron, who wanted to see only goodness and perfection in the world, was too threatening to Kate's sense of self.
Aron also is at fault: he goes to the other extreme by accepting only the good in people. He views Abra as a saint, completely ignoring the fact that she, like every human, has negative qualities as well. Cal, on the other hand, represents the middle ground. He struggles to be good, but knows full well that he sometimes performs poorly in this regard. However, Cal is aware of when he is bad. His guilty feelings in the wake of Aron's death inspire him to change. Ultimately, with the counseling of the wise philosopher, Lee, he is successful. By the end of the novel, he has come to realize that he can ask for forgiveness and choose to behave better in the future. He realizes that all human beings are fragile and imperfect, that they all commit sins, and that the concept of timshel offers hope for a better future. The sins of the fathers do not have to be visited upon the sons. The sons - and the daughters, for that matter - can make better choices in the ongoing struggle between good and evil.
Steinbeck believed that the battle between good and evil dominates all of human history. Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have struggled with their evil impulses and desire to do good. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck reiterates over and over that man as a whole will never learn to overcome evil, but that individuals have the ability to make good decisions. Ultimately, East of Eden has a positive ending: Cal and Abra both come to realize that they are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Cal's worries that he has inherited Cathy's evil nature, it appears, will not come to fruition. Abra will most likely not be a thief like her father. Both will be better parents then their own parents were, because Lee has helped them to see that they have the choice to select good over evil.