Study Guide

East of Eden Sex

By John Steinbeck


The truth of it was that Charles was abysmally timid of girls. And, like most shy men, he satisfied his normal needs in the anonymity of the prostitute. There is great safety for a shy man in a whore. Having been paid for, and in advance, she has become a commodity, and a shy man can be gay with her and even brutal with her. Also, there is none of the horror of the possible turndown which shrivels the guts of timid men. (6.1.1)

Translation: Charles is not a ladies man. You know how he has some issues with his dad when it comes to rejection? It's not terribly surprising that he fears the same kind of rejection from the women-folk. But this is also a convenient excuse for the narrator to introduce the subject of prostitutes into the narrative, because they are pretty much going to be a running theme.

Cathy learned when she was very young that sexuality with all its attendant yearnings and pains, jealousies and taboos, is the most disturbing impulse humans have. And in that day it was even more disturbing than it is now, because the subject was unmentionable and unmentioned. Everyone concealed that little hell in himself, while publicly pretending it did not exist—and when he was caught up in it he was completely helpless. (8.1.18)

What does it mean that sex is disturbing? The narrator seems to be implying that people don't really know how to deal with these weird feelings within themselves. Society doesn't help out either, and actually makes it worse by denying the role sex plays in everyone's lives. But Cathy, being the smarty-pants she is, realizes that this makes sex a really great way to control people, because they will at once act on it and feel ashamed about acting on it. Way to help an evil whore out, society.

The sex play of children has always gone on. Everyone, I guess, who is not abnormal has foregathered with little girls in some dim leafy place, in the bottom of a manger, under a willow, in a culvert under a road—or at least has dreamed of doing so. Nearly all parents are faced with the problem sooner or later, and then the child is lucky if the parent remembers his own childhood. In the time of Cathy's childhood, however, it was harder. The parents, denying it in themselves, were horrified to find it in their children. (8.1.21)

Wondering what the heck Steinbeck means by the sex play of children? Basically, he's talking about kids sexually experimenting with one another and saying that pretty much all kids do it at some point. A picture of a super sexually-repressed society emerges as the narrator traces these children to their parents, noting their parents' inability to deal with this totally normal experimentation due to having repressed their own sexuality.

In their sexual relations she convinced him that the result was not quite satisfactory to her, that if he were a better man he could release a flood of unbelievable reaction in her. Her method was to keep him continually off balance. (9.2.5)

If you need to know one thing about Cathy, know that she is manipulative. In this scenario, she keeps giving Mr. Edwards a B- so that he's constantly freaking out about her finding someone who is an A+ in the sack. It keeps him in line, and it keeps her in charge.

"What do you want?"

"What do you think? Move over a little."

"Where's Adam?"

"He drank my sleeping medicine by mistake. Move over a little."

He breathed harshly. "I already been with a whore."

"You're a pretty strong boy. Move over a little."

"How about your broken arm?"

"I'll take care of that. It's not your worry."

Suddenly Charles laughed. "The poor bastard," he said, and he threw back the blanket to receive her. (11.6.46-54)

We've got a feeling that Charles and Cathy would have made a great pair. They probably would have killed one another, but they just seem to be cut from the same cloth, you know? Charles is always saying that he recognizes something in Cathy, and Cathy is always thinking that Charles is like her. We're meant to see them as a match made in heaven (or hell, more like it) in this scene where they consummate their sexual tension; we're also meant to see that Cathy is just about the least fit person on earth for someone as naïve as Adam.

"Over across the tracks down by Chinatown there's a row of whorehouses."

"I know that."

"Everybody knows it. If we closed them up they'd just move. The people want those houses. We keep an eye on them so not much bad happens. And the people that run those houses keep in touch with us." (18.2.52-54)

Kids, this is called a mutualistic relationship, which means you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. You might think that whorehouses are an unsavory business, but the sheriff is a man of practicality and he knows that he is not going to single-handedly wipe out the world's oldest profession. So he simply treats the houses as if they were any other business. His actions are a far cry from the prudishness that Steinbeck describes earlier in the novel; remember Charles talking about a local schoolteacher who got run out of town for showing her ankles?

The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels. (19.1.2)

Hello, Controversy, nice to meet you. But Steinbeck does make a pretty convincing argument for this idea in the paragraphs afterwards. He sees both sex and religion as different ways of getting out all that emotion that society has got pent up. The idea is that when you boil the two things down, they both make people act and feel the same way.

"Look there. That's a state senator. He thinks he's going to run for Congress. Look at his fat stomach. He's got bubs like a woman. He likes whips. That streak there—that's a whip mark. Look at the expression on his face! He's got a wife and four kids and he's going to run for Congress. You don't believe! Look at this! This piece of white blubber is a councilman; this big red Swede has a ranch out near Blanco. This is a professor at Berkeley. Comes all the way down here to have the toilet splashed in his face—professor of philosophy. And look at this! This is a minister of the Gospel, a little brother of Jesus. He used to burn a house down to get what he wanted. We give it to him now another way. See that lighted match under his skinny flank?" (25.3.120)

Um, rated R for graphicness and, shall we say, variety (Shmoop doesn't judge). While fetishes might seem like peanuts in the Age of the Internets, this is the early 1900s we're talking about, a time when people were still getting riled up over ankles, for goodness's sake. But not Kate—no, Kate might be ahead of her time in anticipating people's, um, needs, but it seems like she deals in the particularly degrading brand of needs. Looking at the diversity and scope of her clientele though, it seems like she's just filling a niche in the market. In other words, this repressed society has got some wild things going on under the surface.

"Well, she wasn't no good as a wife but she's sure as hell a good whore." (38.2.12)

We love this sentence, because it's hilarious and because it perfectly encapsulates Kate. Adam tried and failed to make Kate into the perfect wife (okay okay Kate agreed to it but still), but she just wasn't cut for that kind of life. She didn't want to be the mother who sat at home on the ranch and darned socks for her children; she wanted power, she wanted money, and she wanted freedom. Sex was her way of getting those things. We guess some things come naturally to some people?

In a frenzy he poured joyous abjectness on paper to send to her, and he went to bed purified, as a man is after sexual love. He set down every evil thought he had and renounced it. The results were love letters that dripped with longing and by their high tone made Abra very uneasy. She could not know that Aron's sexuality had taken a not unusual channel. (47.3.3)

Weirdly, sexuality doesn't just have to take the form of sex. Aron is a young man with a lot of sexual energy, but he is too innocent to really recognize his feelings as sexual. Instead he gets off to his own self-righteousness and purity (not literally). It has got Abra all confused. The point here seems to be that sexuality is an unavoidable thing, even when it isn't overtly about sex itself.