Study Guide

East of Eden Sex

By John Steinbeck


Steinbeck is all about stripping away taboos when it comes to talking about s-e-x. None of that oh-my-gosh-an-ankle stuffiness of the past here, folks; nope—think of him as the Salt-n-Pepa of the 1950s. But all the talk about sex and whores (so many whores) isn't just for cheap thrills—it's really important to the plot in East of Eden, too. After all, Cathy is the one who actually acknowledges how sex affects people, while everyone else around her twiddles their thumbs and plays innocent. And Aron's refusal to get anywhere near the subject of sex means that he's in for the shock of his life when he can't bury his head in the sand anymore.

Questions About Sex

  1. Why do you think Steinbeck chose to make Cathy into a prostitute? What sort of things does this tell us about her non-sexual personality?
  2. Which characters in the novel are sexually innocent and which are sexually aware? (Hint: this does not necessarily refer to their level of sexual experience.)
  3. How do we feel about the characters that are more sexually aware (i.e. do we like them more or less)? How do we feel about the sexually naïve characters?
  4. What exactly does the narrator say about how society in the novel treats sex? What does he propose about how sex should be treated?

Chew on This

The novel argues that because society doesn't acknowledge sex, people like Cathy are able to use it for manipulation.

Prostitution—whether it's the prostitutes themselves, the whoremasters, or the brothels—is an essential aspect of East of Eden.