Study Guide

East of Eden Jealousy

By John Steinbeck


"I love you better. I always have. This may be a bad thing to tell you, but it's true. I love you better. Else why would I have given myself the trouble of hurting you?" (3.3.31)

Whoa—slow down. Didn't Cyrus just finish telling Adam all the things that are wrong with him? Also, what's up with the parental favoritism? Maybe Cyrus just likes a challenge. After all, what fun is a kid who just does everything you say and is perfect? Or maybe, like in Adam and Aron's case, it's something as simple as the fact that Aron looks like Cathy, in which case favoritism is arbitrary and completely beyond our control. What do you think?

"He liked everything you brought him. He didn't like me. He didn't like anything I gave him. Remember the present I gave him, the pocketknife? I cut and sold a load of wood to get that knife. Well, he didn't even take it to Washington with him. It's right in his bureau right now. And you gave him a pup. It didn't cost you a thing. Well, I'll show you a picture of that pup. It was at his funeral." (7.3.53)

We would definitely take a puppy over a pocketknife. Just sayin'… Poor Charles, try as he might, can't seem to do anything right to please Cyrus, and the fact that Adam doesn't have to even try is just salt in the wound. No wonder Charles resents Adam.

Adam knew that his brother was no longer dangerous. There was no jealousy to drive him. The whole weight of his father was on him, but it was his father and no one could take his father away from him. (7.3.166)

Earlier it sounded like Charles picked on Adam because he saw him as an obstacle, but once Cyrus is pushing up daisies, there really isn't a whole lot that Charles can do about his dad's feelings. This passage shows that Charles's anger was always directed more toward his father than it was to Adam.

"Even God can have a preference, can he? Let's suppose God liked lamb better than vegetables. I think I do myself. Cain brought him a bunch of carrots maybe. And God said, 'I don't like this. Try again. Bring me something I like and I'll set you up alongside your brother.' But Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a man's feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger." (22.4.47)

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty basics. What exactly is the relationship between hurt and anger? According to Samuel, if the story of Cain and Abel tells us anything, it's that anger is an easy way to deal with pain. Why didn't Cain just try again with his offering? Because then we wouldn't have a story that tells us something about the nature of jealousy.

He knew she preferred his brother, but that was nothing new to him. Nearly everyone preferred Aron with his golden hair and the openness that allowed his affection to plunge like a puppy. Cal's emotions hid deep in him and peered out, ready to retreat or attack. He was starting to punish Abra for liking his brother, and this was nothing new either. (27.4.61)

Ugh—imagine always coming in second place. In this case, second place is also last place. Needless to say, it's given Cal some issues; it means he hates everybody. Jealousy sure is a nasty business.

Far from disliking Aron, he loved him because he was usually the cause for Cal's feelings of triumph. He had forgotten—if he had ever known—that he punished because he wished he could be loved as Aron was loved. (27.4.65)

Ouch. That's some stuff for a therapist right there. He has gotten so used to being jealous that now he thrives off of it. But notice that here, Cal doesn't take his jealousy out on Aron because Aron is the source of his high. It's really when Adam becomes the source of favoritism that things start to get ugly.

"Dear Lord," he said, "let me be like Aron. Don't make me mean. I don't want to be. If you will let everybody like me, why, I'll give you anything in the world, and if I haven't got it, why, I'll go for to get it. I don't want to be mean. I don't want to be lonely." (30.3.3)

Aw, poor Cal—he just wants to be liked. Maybe invest in some hair dye? No really—apparently all it takes to be likeable in this novel are some angelic blond locks. Seriously though, this prayer of Cal's is insightful because we see that his meanness (read: jealousy) comes from a desire to be liked like Aron is. Love—or lack thereof, in this case—is such a motivating force. What's really weird though, is that Cal's desire to be liked makes him behave in a way that makes him, well, harder to like.

If he had been an only child or if Aron had been a different kind of boy, Cal might have achieved his relationship normally and easily. But from the very first people were won instantly to Aron by his beauty and his simplicity. Cal very naturally competed for attention and affection in the only way he knew—by trying to imitate Aron. And what was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal. And since he was pretending, his performance was not convincing. Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing. (38.1.1)

Aha—here is a new way of looking at things. Cal isn't inherently a bad person, but because he has had to contend with people preferring Aron his whole life, he has gotten caught in a situation where he just can't win. It reminds us of Charles and the birthday gift debacle with Cyrus: it wasn't just that Cyrus didn't like Charles's gift, it's that Cyrus didn't like Charles's gift but liked Adam's. Adam, in other words, becomes what Charles could have been. We've got a similar situation here with Cal trying to imitate Aron.

"It's just jealousy. I'm jealous. That's what I am. I'm jealous. I don't want to be jealous." And he repeated over and over, "Jealous—jealous—jealous," as though bringing it into the open might destroy it. (49.2.62)

They say admitting it is the first step. But even if Cal can own up to his jealousy, the question then becomes how he will react to it. Can't you just feel the tension? It's like he's almost there, but just can't escape it—it being his jealousy.

Adam asked, "Do you know where your brother is?"

"No, I don't," said Cal.

"Weren't you with him at all?"


"He hasn't been home for two nights. Where is he?"

"How do I know?" said Cal. "Am I supposed to look after him?" (51.1.91-96)

We're about to get all King James on you. Check it:

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? (Gen. 4:9)

Okay, so aside from nixing quotation marks and being in seventeenth-century prose, this quote from the Bible is almost exactly like Cal's question at the end of the excerpt. My brother's keeper is one of those phrases that have trickled down into our culture without us really remembering where they come from. In fact, in the 1955 movie version of East of Eden, they have Cal just say it outright.