Study Guide

East of Eden

By John Steinbeck

East of Eden Introduction

He has written about mice and men, and some wrathful grapes, but in his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck sets his sights a little higher and takes on the Book of Genesis.

That's right—our man Steinbeck might have been writing in 1952 and based his story during that awkward time when the 19th century became the 20th, but his subject matter comes from way further back. But even though Steinbeck stepped into religious territory, Easy of Eden is still chock full of all the classic Steinbeck ingredients… by which we mean that it takes place in California's Central Valley.

What, you didn't expect him to change that much, did you?

But let's talk plot. You've probably already got this: Adam and Even live in the Garden of Eden, get expelled thanks to Eve's snake-dealing shenanigans, are exiled, have two sons named Cain and Abel, Cain kills Abel when God likes Abel's gift better, and then Cain is forced to wander the land with a mark on him so that people don't just up and murder him. Tale as old as time and we've heard it all before, right?

Except that East of Eden shakes things up a little bit, and by a little bit, we mean that it changes around everything.

Adam and Charles Trask are two competitive brothers with daddy issues. Cathy is a cold-hearted monster who uses her sexuality to control (read: destroy) people. Adam marries Cathy, brings her out to California, she gives birth to twins, and everything is hunky dory in paradise until Cathy shoots Adam and leaves to go run a brothel.

Whoa. Don't remember that happening in Paradise, now do you?

But then we have the story of Adam's twin sons, Aron and Cal, and if you thought Adam's and Charles's daddy issues were bad, then you're about to see them taken to a whole new level. Throw in an inventive Irish-American farmer and a sage Chinese-American servant as side-characters watching and commenting as this whole train wreck unfolds, and you've got yourself a story.

East of Eden was Steinbeck's magnum opus (which is Latin for "really big deal") after The Grapes of Wrath, and it is easily one of his most popular books. But it's not just important because it helped win Steinbeck the Nobel Prize and all (though that's kind of a big deal); it deals with big ideas too. We're talking major themes: the story of Genesis, the creation of the world, and the beginning of humanity. Does that cover everything? And you thought Steinbeck just wrote about fruit.

What is East of Eden About and Why Should I Care?

This novel is about one of the most basic elements of being human: the need to be loved, and the fear that you're not. Sound vague? Picture this.

You're a kid, and there is an adult in your life—a parent, a teacher, whatever—whom you really admire. Like really admire, in the can-do-no-wrong kind of way. But there's this other kid—a sibling, a friend, whatever—and the adult for some totally unknown and nonsensical reason just likes them better than you. We mean they really obviously like them better than you.

So though you try and try to do everything to get this person to appreciate you, they just don't seem to care about all the gifts you bring them and all the hard work you do for them. Meanwhile, this other kid doesn't even care about what this person thinks, and they get their love without even trying. Ugh—so much for self-worth. It makes you not just jealous, but downright mean. Maybe, just maybe, you start to consider ways to somehow remove this kid from the picture…

That, Shmoopers, is the messed-up story of Cain and Abel. And this world is full of Cains and Abels (although you've probably never had a classmate named Cain…). East of Eden takes this story very, very seriously and asks: Why do we always make the same mistakes? Is there any way to stop the madness? Is all of humanity just doomed to be jealous, or do we have a choice?

Whoa, that escalated quickly.

East of Eden Resources

Websites

In Salinas? Visit John Steinbeck's house.
And imagine little John and Mary being mean to their German neighbor.

… or visit the National Steinbeck Center and attend the Steinbeck festival.
Have some Steinbeck food and meet some Steinbeck people.

or if that's too much, you could always just read a bio on Steinbeck.
Provided by those Nobel Prize people. Also, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize.

Movie or TV Productions

East of Eden (1955)
James Dean. 'Nuf said.

East of Eden (1981 TV mini-series)
Who doesn't love the VHS-fuzziness of an 80s mini-series?

Read About Steinbeck Country and the Places He Wrote About
We wish we had our own country named after us.

Articles and Interviews

The Paris Review Interview with John Steinbeck
In which he talks about lucky birthmarks.

Video

James Dean in Action
A great scene from the 1955 film in which Cal actually confronts his father about his actions. It isn't in the book, of course (and they change some other plot points too), but it still makes us want to fist-pump.

John Steinbeck's Nobel Prize acceptance speech
In which he talks about roaring like a lion.

Audio

"The Rose of No Man's Land" (1918)
A WWI ditty written about Red Cross nurses after people realized that war wasn't so fun after all.

"Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land" (1918)
An Al Jolson hit about the lonely soldiers dying in the trenches. Steinbeck talks about singing it as a child.

Mumford & Sons Have a Song Called "Timshel"
Someone paid attention during English class.

Young Steinbeck
Pony included.

Images

James Dean as Cal Trask
Back when overalls were in style.