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The plot of East of Eden is developed around the battle of good vs. evil. At the beginning, evil reigns because the father figure, Cyrus Trask, does nothing to foster good and temper evil. In fact, he contributes to the degeneration of his son Charles into jealousy and hatred by treating him with contempt while openly favoring Adam. When Cyrus dies, goodness begins to flourish. Charles settles down as a successful farmer, becomes a warmer person, and cares about his brother, Adam.
When Cathy enters the picture, evil flourishes once again. After killing her parents and being a prostitute, she arrives at the Trask place, where Adam and Charles are living, after being severely beaten and left for dead. The good Adam nurses her back to health, falls in love with her, and marries her. Charles, driven to evil in Cathyís presence, has sex with her on the night she marries Adam.
Charles forces Cathy to move to California against her wishes. When she finds out that she is pregnant, the evil Cathy tries unsuccessfully to abort the baby. During her labor she feels nothing but hatred and severely bites the hand of Samuel Hamilton, who is helping her to give birth. As soon as she is well enough to leave, Cathy shoots and wounds Adam and departs for good, leaving her infant twins behind. Although she has tried several time to blot out goodness, the evil Cathy has never been able to kill the force of good. Samuel, Adam, Lee, and the twins all live in spite of her evil.
After the birth of Caleb and Aaron, the plot begins to focus on the second generation. Samuel forces Adam to face the truth about Cathy, who has become Kate and the owner of a brothel. The knowledge frees him for goodness once again, and he turns his attention to raising his sons.
Ironically, Adam makes the same mistakes as his father, Cyrus, favoring one twin over the other.
Cal parallels Charles, and Aaron parallels Adam; however, their relation to good and evil is mediated by the wisdom of Lee, who guides them and disciplines them as a surrogate mother.
Although Cal is sometimes mean, Lee convinces the boy that he is not evil; he additionally teaches him that he has the freedom to choose goodness over sin. In the end, Cal forgives himself when he receives his fatherís blessing, which he has been seeking throughout the novel. As a result, he stands at the end of the novel as the figure of hope and goodness.
The novel is expansive and complex, spanning three generations. As a result, it largely ignores the unifying factors of time, place, and character. It is, however, tightly held together by the theme of goodness vs. evil. In the end, goodness triumphs over evil through the characters of Adam and Cal, making the resolution of the plot a comedy.