John Steinbeck East Of Eden

East of Eden Synopsis, Themes of East of Eden,

John Steinbeck East Of Eden - Steinbeck paints a picture of the life of ordinary people working the land & trying to eke out a living in California. But the topics he covers are most profound. Plenty to love and plenty to discuss here!

This amazing book is a real page turner! Steinbeck writes in a relatively simple style, moving us easily through his story yet what he writes is SO profound.

He explores various aspects of human behaviour based on the Biblical story of Adam & Eve & Cain & Abel, using the story of the Fall of Man as the backcloth to his tale.

The Plot / East of Eden Synopsis

John Steinbeck East of Eden

At the start of John Steinbeck East of Eden, we are told several different stories that eventually all come together in Salinas California:

  • Samuel Hamilton settles in Salinas with his Irish wife and has 9 children. They are incredibly happy but their farm never yields much, so they never become well off.

  • Adam Trask's story is told from when he was young, growing up with his brother (Charles), who was always favoured over himself, often having to endure great hardships due to his very strict father. He was sent into the military for a long time and then spent time wandering the lands, refusing to come home. Eventually he does come home to discover that he and his brother have inherited over $500,000. He worries that his father did not get the money honestly.
  • Another story develops about Cathy. A strange child who seems not to have a soul - cold and only caring about herself. One night she leaves home, burning down her house, letting her parents die. Later on she is beaten by a pimp and is nursed back to health by Adam (and reluctantly Charles) when they find her half dead near their home

Adam falls in love with Cathy, even though she is unwilling to tell them how she ended up in such a way, she doesn't want to talk about her past. She realises that Adam is rich, and so is happy to seduce him. Charles has more the measure of her but Adam won't listen to his brother's caution. One night Cathy even sleeps with Charles behind Adam's back.

 Adam and Cathy decide to leave for California to start their life together. This is where the stories start to intertwine, with Adam choosing the most prestigious plot of land (he can afford it after all) in Salinas, near the Hamiltons.

Cathy finds out she is  pregnant and it's unclear who the father is (but most likely it is Charles). She even tries to abort the baby. She is unsuccessful but Adam has no idea that anything is wrong. Shortly after giving birth to twin boys, Cathy shoots Adam in the shoulder and runs out on him. Adam goes to pieces.

With the help of a Cantonese chef called Lee and the kindness of Samuel Hamilton, Adam manages to get his life back on track and raise the boys, Caleb and Aron (supposed to mirror Cain and Abel) - they have no idea about their mother (or that she has gone to run a whore house in the main town where she has poisoned the madame so she can take over the business)

Samuel Hamilton passes away, Adam loses most of his money by trying a refrigeration venture and the boys start to grow up - they are both very different.

Aron falls in love with the girl next door but actually wants to become a priest.He goes away to university but really just wants to drop out - his father is so proud of him, so it's so hard for him to tell Adam.

The other (less favoured by Adam,) Caleb, tries to buy Adams love and affection by surprising him with the money he has earned from a successful venture with one of the Hamilton sons. His father is appalled, telling him to give back the money he has exploited off the poor farmers.

Caleb is angry and devastated. He has since found out about his mother and decides to shatter Aron's little world by showing him his mother. He is devastated and enlists into the army. He is soon killed in battle.

The final part of John Steinbeck East of Eden,  has Adam on his death bed, with Lee the cook, pleading with Adam to forgive his only living son Caleb for what he has done - which he does.

Themes Of East of Eden

John Steinbeck East of Eden

Good V's Evil

Steinbeck's main theme appears to be the exploration of good versus evil & it dominates the whole book.

He exaggerates the good or bad in characters to emphasise his point; surely few could be as bad as Cathy!

Steinbeck's general message appears to be that we ALL have a choice of whether to be good or bad.

Cathy for example chooses to be bad  but it doesn't mean that her sons will automatically inherit her badness & selfishness: this point is laboured.

Steinbeck again emphasises his major theme by using two sets of Fathers & brothers, creating situations to stress his point: Father Trask & his sons, Adam & Charles, then Father Adam & his sons, Aron & Cal.

Lack of Communication

Our old friend, "Lack of Communication," raises its ugly head again. Characters spend years & years festering over events & slights which might have been solved if spoken about.

Sibling Rivalry

But an even bigger theme is that of sibling rivalry & jealousy. This is best illustrated when each of the fathers favours one of their sons without sound reason. What trouble they cause! This theme is timeless & universal. We must all know of such favouritism of siblings & the trouble it causes.

Nature and the Environment

The setting is frequently harsh ; man constantly fights the elements, the lands & the seasons. And to a large extent they fashion the characters & influence how they behave.


What we are is not just about ancestors, our parents, our siblings; we are individuals who can make choices.

There is so much to discuss & think about here. Housekeeper Lee, is convincing as he illustrates to Cal that we all have a choice between being good or bad: Cal is taking the easy way out by blaming his mother, Cathy.

But what about the influence on us of those bad people who bring us up in their own image? It must make choosing so much harder than for those who are brought up by good people who teach their offsprings to love, to care, to share etc.

Humour is NOT a theme in the novel BUT the story of Olive & her personal fight against the Germans is extremely funny.

Book Club Questions?

John Steinbeck East of Eden

For some interesting questions for you book club discussion go to

Steinbeck East Of Eden


John Steinbeck East of Eden

Our 2011 book of the year book, scoring 8.5/10. A record score for our group!

John Steinbeck East of Eden,  is actually far too big to tackle in a short time at an evening Book Club meeting; there is so much more to it than commented on here but it is such a good choice. You won't run out of things to discuss, that's for sure.

The setting might be California but it could be Sydney, Hong Kong or London. And the characters could be Christians, Muslims or agnostics. The messages, characters & settings are truly universal.

Steinbeck has an uncanny knack of revealing the tensions, aspirations, love, mystery & darknesses of ordinary people.

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Steinbeck East of Eden questions

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