Study Guide

East of Eden Fate and Free Will

By John Steinbeck

Fate and Free Will

"Seems like to me there's something not finished. Seems like when you half finish a job and can't think what it was. Something didn't get done." (4.2.12)

Um, creepy. And ominous. And probably foreshadowing. The thing about unfinished business is that it needs to be finished—this is the fate part of fate and free will. Because this is a novel, we know that whatever needs to get done will get done before the last page. And once it's established that Cal is Charles Part II, we know that Cal will be the one to finish it. So even though we've got all of this talk of choice floating around, there is still this sense of impending catastrophe.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. (13.1.6)

It's clear from this passage that Steinbeck thinks individuality is pretty awesome. While this might at first sound like a sidetrack from the actual story, it actually fits into the whole idea of the freedom to choose our own destinies. In this case, Steinbeck is applying free will to creativity and art, and how it depends on the will of the individual (as opposed to anything dictated by a group).

"I believe when you come to that responsibility the hugeness and you are alone to make your choice. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other—cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I'm glad I chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other? None of my children will be great either, except perhaps Tom. He's suffering over the choosing right now." (22.3.119)

It's interesting that Samuel sees greatness not as something that we are either born with or not, but something we choose to be. And it's not an easy choice, either—if being great was so easy, then everybody would be doing it. It has to come at some cost, and only happens to those who want it badly enough to give something up for it. So not being born a genius is no excuse. It's a very meritocratic way of thinking about things, but it also means that we all have the ability to be great—if we don't mind the cold loneliness, that is.

"But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—'Thou mayest'—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if "Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.'" (24.2.73)

Choice is good, right? It means that your actions are your actions, not what someone else already laid out for you. But that means that you have to take responsibility for your choices too, and that's where the whole tyranny of choice idea comes in. Here, Lee is citing what God says to Cain before Cain decides that killing Abel is the way to go: he basically says thou mayest rule over sin, i.e. it's your choice how you want to act, bro. In other words, if you do well it's to your credit, but if you screw up it's your fault. How hands-off of God.

"But the choice, Lee, the choice of winning! I had never understood it or accepted it before. Do you see now why I told Adam tonight? I exercised the choice. Maybe I was wrong, but by telling him I also forced him to live or get off the pot." (24.3.75)

Samuel and Lee are really into this idea of choice—in fact, one might even call them obsessed. Samuel choosing to tell Adam about Cathy is hardly the same as Tom choosing to be great or not, though. (Or is it?) For Samuel and Lee, the importance of choice is more philosophical than practical—it means that, hypothetically speaking, every person has a capacity in them to be any kind of person they want.

"I have always disliked deception. Your course is drawn. What you will do is written—written in every breath you've ever taken […] Faced with two sets of morals, you'll follow your training. What you call thinking won't change it. The fact that your wife is a whore in Salinas won't change a thing." (30.2.74)

So far we've been talking about choice and how everyone has it, but Lee doesn't seem to have that much faith in Adam's choosing abilities. Or rather, he knows that Adam has already made a choice before he has made it, if you follow. It's like Adam has the ability of choice to a fault—to the point where it isn't really choice anymore, but a pre-set course of action. In other words, Adam acts one way, period. It's not really a choice if there is only one option, now is it?

"Don't you dare take the lazy way. It's too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don't let me catch you doing it! Now—look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother." (38.3.52)

It seems to us that while Adam and Aron get away with behaving like little babies, Cal gets chastised by Lee for being a little (reasonably) worried that he might be like his mother. But maybe it's because Lee senses that he has an actual chance to not be like her, whereas Adam and Aron are pretty much stuck the way they are. So with great choices comes great responsibility—or something like that.

"They looked at me and thought they knew about me. And I fooled them. I fooled every one of them. And when they thought they could tell me what to do—oh! that's when I fooled them best." (39.2.90)

Kate is all about freedom—at least, her own freedom (it's other people she likes to enslave). It's when people try to tell her what to do that she really gets nasty. Just look at her parents, or Adam, or Faye. But the thing is, she goes along with other people's wishes and plans just so that she can gain even more control. It's like a game for Kate: let someone think that they are the one in control, and then—bam—show them otherwise.

"Well, suppose there's a slight doubt that the boy should be in the army and we send him and he gets killed."

"I see. Is it responsibility or blame that bothers you?"

"I don't want blame."

"Sometimes responsibility is worse. It doesn't carry any pleasant egotism." (47.2.8-11)

Speaking of responsibility, it's not fun—it means that when things go awry it's your fault. For Adam on the Draft Board, things going awry means people dying, so responsibility just got really serious really quickly. Choice might sound all well and good in theory—after all, who doesn't want to decide between deep dish and thin crust—but that means that wrong choices or bad choices or just unlucky choices are totally plausible. That is what Lee means when he distinguishes between responsibility and blame. Blame is something that other people place; responsibility is holding yourself accountable.

"He couldn't help it, Cal. That's his nature. It was the only way he knew. He didn't have any choice. But you have. Don't you hear me? You have a choice." (49.3.76)

So you remember earlier when Lee calls out Adam on his decision to give Cathy her half of Charles's money? Turns out that was foreshadowing. Lee doesn't see Adam as having any options about how to behave—he is too one-track minded. Cal, on the other hand, is smart, and can think in nuances in a way that Adam can't. And that means that he actually does have a choice.