Random Thoughts

Notes on "East of Eden"

... bad blood?

by Ed Boyd

I wrote this article in 2007. It is not intended as a review but, rather, a
discussion of the issue whether a person can be born evil or does evil in a
person come from a hostile environment.

NOTES on “ EAST OF EDEN”                      

I read Jay Parini’s published biography of John Steinbeck with deep interest,
as I have been a fan of John Steinbeck forever. Parini is a professor of
English at Middlebury College in Vermont and has to his credit other marvelous
biographies of Frost and Faulkner. The Parini Steinbeck biography, like the
Steinbeck novels, is filled with clean and lyrical writing. It covers four
hundred and eighty six pages and it is a meticulous piece of research. You
really learn a lot about the person, Steinbeck, as well about the stories and

Parini has said that everything Steinbeck wrote till East of Eden prepared him
to write East of Eden. I went to Barnes&Noble bookstore, and bought myself
East of Eden, all 601 pages. Parini says in his biography of Steinbeck that
Steinbeck was trashed by academics and celebrated by others. In all, Parini
says, “East of Eden is an ambitious book with deep flaws. In retrospect, it
seems a pity that Steinbeck lacked the firm editorial guidance and the
patience to see the book through several stages of revision. But the novel
somehow survives its flaws…American literature would certainly be poorer
without it.”

In this essay, I want to focus on the issue of “bad blood” that is a central
theme of this novel. In Chapter 8, Steinbeck says, “The face and body may be
perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical
monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?” Steinbeck goes
on, “It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born (my italics) with the
tendencies, or lack of them, which drove her and forced her all of her life.”
Then Steinbeck goes on to describe in great detail this monster he has
invented. “As though nature concealed a trap, Cathy had from the first a face
of innocence.
Her hair was gold and lovely; wide-set hazel eyes with upper lids that drooped
made her look mysteriously sleepy. Her nose was delicate and thin, and her
cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was
heart-shaped, etc.”  Then, “Cathy was a liar, but she did not lie the way most
children do…Cathy’s lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape
punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit.” She
was the only child of a rather ineffectual mother and a remote father. When
Cathy got older she did what she wanted. The father thought she needed
controlling and took her in hand. Cathy submitted to this, seemingly, but
crafted a way to stage her death and burn the house down with her parents in

Cathy is the centerpiece in this story, snowballing herself through until the
end when she commits suicide. Following the death of her parents she meets a
whoremaster who falls in love with her. Cathy abuses her lover so badly that
he bashes her head in with a rock and leaves her for dead. Along come Charles
and Adam, brothers, who take Cathy in and look after her. Adam falls in love
with Cathy while Charles is suspicious. Cathy agrees to marry Adam but drugs
Adam and slips into bed with Charles.

Adam and Cathy eventually marry and leave for Salinas in California where she
becomes pregnant and delivers twin boys, Caleb and Arron. After she delivers
the boys Cathy tells Adam she is leaving as she always had said. Adam says,
“What about the boys”. Cathy says, “Why not throw them into one of your
wells.” Adam tries to stop her from leaving and she shoots him in the

I want to stop the story here and make a few comments, Parini’s and then mine.
First, Parini: “Steinbeck’s greatest mistake in East of Eden is unquestionably
the one-sided portrayal of Cathy. Why did she leave Adam and her newborn sons?
Was there something to provoke such bizarre and inhumane behavior? This is
never made clear. Cathy seems to embody evil almost arbitrarily, much as
Gwyn(the first of Steinbeck’s three wives) now did in Steinbeck’s mind. She is
the sinful wife who cannot curb her sexual instincts.”

I don’t think that this is a problem if the reader is willing to accept the
idea that you can be born (my italics) a psychological monster. Such a person
would feel entitled to do anything, everything that she could get away with.
So she might want to drown her sons as well as anything else. The problem as I
see it is that such a monster is not born but must learn to become a sociopath
from the environment. In my imaging’s, I see an infant, left in the cold
without covers, never nourished even for a moment. Such a child grows
impervious to fear, anxiety, depression, remorse, and is superficially
charming. Such a person has the inability to express emotions deeply, can not
respond to kindness, is given to pathological lying, has no self insight,
little humor, though of good intelligence. And these are things you are not
born with but are learned from a very hostile environment. I think the story
as told would have been a lot more credible if Steinbeck had spent time
developing the two parent figures. If the mother was made to be psychotic and
the father very unavailable then we have good reason to think of Cathy as a
sociopath, which she is.

If you consider the words Steinbeck puts in Samuel Hamilton’s mouth, (a kind
of a mentor for Adam) “I don’t very much believe in blood,” said Samuel. “I
think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he
planned in them after they cleared the womb.” This tells us that Steinbeck
must at least have been conflicted about a belief that a child could be born
into the world as all ready a full blown psychopath.     

We know that Caleb went to confront his mother, studied her closely and decide
he did not see himself in her. This is a central theme that runs through this
story of badness and goodness. In the end Lee (Adam’s man servant) asks Adam,
who lays in bed having suffered from stroke, to forgive his son, Caleb.

We have to flip back to page 301 to get the meaning of Adam’s answer. I also
believe that Lee, the Chinese handy man speaks with Steinbeck’s voice. He says
at the middle of page 301, “But the Hebrew word, Timshel _ ‘Thou mayest’ gives
choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is
open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest’_ it is also true
that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”  

Adam pauses, “His whispered word seemed to hang in the air.”
“Timshel!”, Thou mayest…
“Adam’s eyes closed and he slept.”

April 7, 2017

Originally printed with  February 02,2007..

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