East of Eden

East of Eden Study Guide

John Steinbeck published his highly controversial novel East of Eden, the work that he referred to as "the big one", in 1952. A symbolic recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel set in California's Salinas Valley, Steinbeck wrote the novel late in his life, in hopes of reclaiming his status as a major novelist. Described as Steinbeck's most ambitious novel, East of Eden centers on two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, both early inhabitants of California's Salinas Valley.

The author addressed the book to his sons, six year-old Thom and four year-old John, and positions himself as a minor character in the novel. Steinbeck wanted to record for his children the detailed, multi-faceted history of the Salinas Valley. In addition, the author considered the novel to be a "requiem for himself," and wrote, "it has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years." He also declared that "everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."

However, critics maintained that Steinbeck's expansive yet simplistic portrayal of good and evil and his overuse of biblical allusions overshadow the development of character and plot. East of Eden was not as well received as his earlier masterpieces. Indeed, the characters continue to be harshly criticized for being closer to symbols than actual people. In addition, the book continues to be critically disparaged because of its length and its overabundance of biblical references. The New York Times called East of Eden Steinbeck's "most problematic work."

Spanning the period between the American Civil War and World War I, the novel describes two generations of brothers. The first concerns the placid Adam Trask and his hot-tempered brother, Charles. Adam marries the evil Cathy Ames, who gives birth to twin sons, Aron and Cal, and abandons the family to return to prostitution. As the fair-haired, passive Aron and the dark-haired, energetic Cal grow, they vie for their father's affection. In a jealous frenzy, Cal tells Aron about his mother; Aron, in agony, joins the army and is killed. The unfortunate family is turned around, however, when Cal is offered surcease from his overwhelming guilt.

Despite harsh criticism, East of Eden became an instant best-seller and is considered by some to be one of Steinbeck's finest achievements. East of Eden remains Steinbeck's most controversial book - a disputed classic. The book was adapted as the 1955 film East of Eden by director Elia Kazan, starring James Dean and Julie Harris. The 1981 TV miniseries starred Timothy Bottoms and Jane Seymour. The novel recently saw a remarkable upsurge in popularity when television personality Oprah Winfrey selected East of Eden for her classics-only book club. Another film adaptation directed by Ron Howard is set to be released in 2006.

Ultimately, East of Eden deals with the cycle of sin, guilt, redemption, and freedom. Steinbeck's inspiration for the work can be found in the fourth chapter of Genesis, verses one through sixteen, which recounts the story of the biblical brothers Cain and Abel. The title is taken from Genesis 4:16.