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Adam Trask was born on a farm in Connecticut. His father Cyrus, who was a playboy and adventurer, also served as a soldier in the Union army during the Civil War. He was released early, for he was shot in the leg and had to have it amputated. As he was recovering, he had sex with a black woman and contracted syphilis. When he returned home, he gave it to his wife, a very religious woman. When she found out she had syphilis, she decided to kill herself. She wrote careful notes confessing to sins she never committed, then wrapped herself in a shroud and drowned herself in a shallow pond. After his wifeís death, Cyrus neglected the infant Adam, giving him whiskey to quiet his hungry cries. Unable to take care of himself or the baby, he quickly arranged to marry Alice, a quiet young woman from a neighboring farm. He told everyone that he needed a wife because farm help, nannies, and prostitutes were too expensive.
Cyrus began to relate tall tales about his army experience. In order to sound convincing, he studied the war and military strategy until he became an expert. He was so successful that he was appointed as a secretary of the army.
The quiet and obedient Alice Trask was afraid of her powerful husband. When she contracted consumption (tuberculosis), she kept it to herself because she was afraid Cyrus would kill her with some harsh cure.
Charles, Adamís younger half-brother, was just like his father. He was an expert at physical activities and very competitive. He also served as Adams protector. Adam was more like Alice his stepmother. Just like her, he was sensitive and obedient. He hated his fatherís insistence on his learning military drills and strategies, but he willingly submitted out of fear and respect. He also felt a strong pity for Alice, or she seemed so unhappy to him. When he caught her smiling one day,
he marveled at the sight of it. He then began scheming to make her smile more. He left her small presents and then hid to watch her happy reaction.
One day Adam beat his brother at a throwing game, and Charles beat him severely. From that day on Adam feared his brother. He also accepted that he should never beat Charles at anything unless he was prepared to kill him.
One day Cyrus took Adam on a walk and talked to him about joining the army. Adam tried to tell his father he did not want to join, but his father ignored him and kept talking about the benefits of army life. He explained that the army trains men against their nature to protect themselves. It also strips them of their identity in order to make them lose their vanity as well.
Adam asked his father about Charles going in to the army. Cyrus told him he would not be sending Charles, for the boy had something in him that needed to be held down and the army would set it loose. Adam then asked his father why he had never punished Charles, like he had been punished. Cyrus answered that he loved Adam better and punished him to make him the best he could be.
At supper that night no one talked. Finally Adam said he was going for a walk, and Charles offered to go with him. Out on the road, Charles quizzed Adam about what Cyrus had told him earlier. Adam explained that Cyrus was once again talking about the army. Charles was not satisfied, for he had seen the two of them, and it had looked like Cyrus was talking to a peer, not lecturing his son. As he talked, Charles seemed to grow angry. He then began talking about a special German knife he had given his father as a birthday present; but Cyrus accepted it in an offhanded fashion. Charles then compared his gift to Adamís gift of a stray dog, which their father had developed a great love for.
Charles suddenly started beating Adam. Adam could do nothing but try to hang close to Charlesí body so he could not swing hard. After Adam lost consciousness, Charles walked away. When he regained consciousness, Adam crawled off the road into a ditch full of water. He heard Charles searching for him and saw that he had a hatchet. After searching unsuccessfully, Charles threw the hatchet into the field and walked away. Adam knew he would lose consciousness soon, so he walked to the house. Alice saw him first, then Cyrus. Cyrus forced him to tell why Charles had beaten him. After some struggle, Adam said, "He doesnít think you love him." Cyrus got his gun and left the house. Adam went to his room, and Alice came and dressed his wounds. She tried to comfort Adam, saying Charles was a strange boy. She explained how he had been giving her small gifts for years.
In this chapter, Steinbeck launches the Biblical allusion on which the title of the book is based. The Adam/Charles tale is a thinly veiled version of the Cain/Abel story. Adam corresponds to Abel, the beloved of God, who gives a gift from the heart. Charles corresponds to Cain, who gives a showy but inferior gift. Cainís jealousy leads him to kill the good brother and then wander the face of the earth as an outcast from Godís love. In placing this Biblical narrative in a naturalist novel set in California, Steinbeck brings two powerful determinist narratives together: the religious determinism of Judeo-Christian tradition in which sin is predetermined and the determinism of naturalist fiction, in which natural, psychological, and economic forces determine the fate of individuals. Free will has almost no influence on the lives of Steinbeckís characters.
The family structure is also analyzed in the chapter. Cyrus is the authoritarian father, who is unable to share his feelings in any way except in giving orders. Alice is the silenced and obedient wife, who is almost a non-entity around her husband; she does, however, care for her sons, especially Charles. Her misplaced love of Charles is part of the blindness Steinbeck gives his characters in order to create dramatic irony. She wrongfully assumes it is Charles, not Adams, who has been leaving the small gifts for her.
Charles is a frightening, enraged bundle of jealousy and hatred, created with a contradictory protectiveness for Adam and hatred for him. Adam is an even more complex character. In spite of her somber unhappiness, he loves Alice and tries to make her smile. He fears both his father and brother and tries by various subterfuges to keep safe from them. The reader identifies with him and hopes he will find an escape from this destructive family system in which he is entangled.