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The main theme of the novel, which is stated directly at several points (most explicitly in the opening of Part IV) is the battle between good and evil. The narrator thinks this conflict is central to every good story ever written. The conflict was the basis for the story of Cain and Abel in the Old Testament. Cain represents evil, while Abel represents good. Since Cain kills Abel, it would appear that evil triumphs; but the Lord intervenes to punish Cain and teach him that he can choose the path of goodness over evil. The Cain and Abel story is repeated in the relationship between Adam and Charles Trask, where Adam is an Abel figure and Charles is a Cain figure. Their father Cyrus greatly favored Adam over Charles, causing a great jealousy to arise. Charles reacts to his fatherís unequal love by competing with Adam. When he fails to win his fatherís love with gifts, he tries to kill Adam. Charles, however, does contain some good. He loves Adam underneath the hatred. Hence, Steinbeck begins to complicate the theme with the idea that even those who are bad have in them the seeds of goodness. Nevertheless, Charles remains essentially a wicked man. In his will, his spitefulness again comes to the surface when he splits his fortune between Adam and Cathy/Kate.
The Cain and Abel story is again repeated between Cathy, the symbol of evil, and Adam, the symbol of goodness. Although she destroys her own life and negatively affects the life of Adam and her sons, evil, in the form of Cathy, does not triumph. Adam finally faces her at the house of prostitution. When he sees the truth rather than his idealized version of it, Adam can no longer love an abstract Cathy. His release from her hold allows him to turn his attention to his sons. Sadly and ironically, he creates the Cain and Abel story between them, for he greatly favors Aaron over Caleb. As result, Cal strikes out at his brother in jealousy and eventually forces him to face the truth about their mother, which destroys his innocence and his idealized vision of life. As a result, he joins the military, goes to war, and is killed. Cal is left behind to deal with his guilt. With Leeís help, he begins to understand that he can choose good over evil. When he finally receives the blessing of his dying father, Cal is released to life and goodness.
The theme of free will versus determinism is voiced explicitly in the novel. At the time that the boys are named, Lee brings up the question of the Cain and Abel story. He tells the others that he has researched the language of the story and found that neither of the English versions of the Bible gives the correct translation of part of the Cain and Abel story. The original Hebrew provides hope for humanityís escape from the impossible war between good and evil. When Cain is banished from his home by God, God tells him he may choose to live a righteous life. In the word "may" Lee finds worlds of hope. The Hebrew word for "may" is timshel. It indicates that a person may have evil tendencies, but she or he may choose to live a righteous life. The choice is the personís own; it is not a commandment from God and it is not a fate determined in advance. Man has the free will to choose goodness and redeem himself.
The resolution of the novel is based upon the theme of redemption. Cal is able to redeem his fall from grace by receiving and accepting his fatherís forgiveness. Out of nothing but love, Adam blesses him and grants him the power of free will. The novel is thus highly Christian in its interpretation of the Old Testament story. Love conquers evil.
A minor theme of the novel is the idea that humans are nostalgic about the past and hopeful of the future. The glory of the past is represented in the character of Samuel Hamilton, who embodies the ingenuity, philosophy and warm spirit of a past age. The future is represented in the hope that Samuel has for his sons and daughters, who live in the future world of business deals and technological advances. Cal and Abra also become a hope for the future. Steinbeck indicates that they will marry and live a good, full life together. Cal is certainly poised for the future. He has learned an important lesson about how to make money and will never again live off anotherís misfortune. He will also be determined to avoid the shame of loss that Adam experienced with the lettuce. Since both he and Abra are more practical than Adam or Aaron, Cal becomes the brightest hope for the future in the book.