In the beginning
of East of Eden, before introducing his characters, John Steinbeck
carefully establishes the setting with a description of the Salinas Valley in Northern California. As a youngster, the narrator learns to tell east from
the bright Gabilan Mountains and west from the dark Santa Lucias Mountains. The weather there is cyclic: years of heavy rainfall, then moderate rainfall
followed inevitably by dryness which always surprises the inhabitants.
Historically, the valley was settled first by "lazy" Indians,
followed by the "greedy" Spanish and finally the "even
In 1870, the
narrator's grandparents Samuel and Liza Hamilton immigrate from the north of Ireland and settle in the driest land in the Salinas Valley. Very prolific, they work hard to raise
their nine children. Samuel's good nature and hard work on his near barren
ranch makes him sympathetic to the reader. Liza is stern but good-hearted. Had
their land been fertile, they would have been rich.
is a neighbor of the wealthy Adam Trask but Adam settled in a much better part
of the Salinas Valley after his move from New England.ï¿½ï¿½ As a child in Connecticut, Adam lived with his devilish father Cyrus Trask-a one- legged syphilitic Civil
War veteran-his affectionate stepmother Alice, who was a timid young woman
intent on hiding her tuberculosis, and a cruel younger half-brother named
Charles. His own mother commits suicide after learning Cyrus has infected her
with syphilis. Cyrus creates a package of lies about his heroic role in the
Civil War by studying military strategy and is so convincing that when he moves
to Washington D.C. he is granted a very high government position.
Adam and Charles
experience a difficult childhood. While Adam is gentle and passive, Charles'
aggression becomes apparent when he beats his brother senseless after Adam
defeats him for the first time in a game. Although Alice never smiles in
public, Adam one day discovers his stepmother smiling by herself and secretly
leaves her presents that she mistakenly believes are from her son Charles.
Cyrus all the while attempts to convince Adam that the Army will make a man out
of him, yet he doesn't encourage his other son Charles to join out of fear of
exacerbating the dark parts of his personality.ï¿½ Charles feels deep resentment
toward Cyrus for ignoring his birthday present, a valuable German knife, and
for valuing instead the stray puppy given him by Adam. Jealousy overcomes
Charles and he savagely beats his brother and leaves him close to death on the
side of the road. Cyrus goes after Charles with a shotgun but in time settles
down.ï¿½ While Adam is recuperating, Cyrus enlists him in the Army.
beginning, Steinbeck sets up the Biblical metaphor of good vs. evil, or light
vs. dark by setting East of Eden in the Edenic splendor of the Salinas
Valley, California, where he grew up.ï¿½ Evil is represented in the form of the Santa Lucias Mountains to the west and contrasted with light "good" welcoming Gabilan Mountains to the east. Although the narrator favored the light mountains, he
nevertheless will, like all human beings, have to find his way through life's
labyrinth of light and dark: good and evil.
Here, both the
Hamilton and Trask families are introduced. Although the happy Hamilton family is fertile, ultimately containing nine children, they live on the poorest,
driest most barren land. On the other hand, the Trask family, which lives on
the richest most fertile land, is small and almost sterile. Samuel Hamilton and
Cyrus Trask represent two biblical patriarchs, Samuel the archetypal force for
goodness- loving, healthy, and passionate about education-and Cyrus, a force
for evil-hateful, diseased and a liar. Samuel's brood will fare comparatively
well, but the sins of the father will be visited upon the kind-hearted Adam and
the evil-hearted Charles. Adam parallels the biblical shepherd Abel, whose
sacrifice of his best lamb pleased God more than the farmer Cain's (the
equivalent of Charles) offering of grain.ï¿½ This original incidence of sibling
rivalry is mirrored throughout the novel.