Cathy Ames/ Kate. Representative of Satan, and the most evil character in the novel, Cathy, who will be named Kate in the second half of the book, is a parasite who embodies evil. As more than one character points out, Cathy lacks some human quality. She murders her parents by setting fire to their house and becomes the mistress of pimp Mr. Edwards. She is rescued by Adam Trask when Edwards leaves her for dead.
After giving birth to twin sons, Cal and Aron, she shoots Adam when he attempts to stop her from leaving. She takes a job as a prostitute and poisons brothel-owner Faye while taking over the business. She gives her whores drugs, encourages sadomasochistic sexual practices and blackmails her customers. Late in life she commits suicide after encountering her son Aron.
Abra Bacon meets Aron as a child and falls in love with him until she realizes as an adult that Aron has been in love with a dream girl. Daughter of a county supervisor in Salinas, she learns her father is a thief. Her maturity and goodness contrast the evil Cathy. Lee, who loves her like a daughter, shares with her the knowledge that she doesn’t have to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Mr. Edwards is a businessman who runs a New England prostitution ring and leads a double life. His deeply religious wife knows nothing of his business affairs. Mr. Edwards falls in love with Cathy when she approaches him for a job. Soon, she had him completely in her power. He leaves her for dead near the Trask farm after nearly beating her to death.
Ethel is a prostitute at Faye’s brothel who digs up the empty bottles of poison used by Kate to kill Faye. She attempts to blackmail Cathy but is later found dead by Joe Valery.
Cotton Eye is the brothel’s piano player who is addicted to opium. Kate slyly tells Faye she feels sorry for him to gain her sympathy and cast her in a positive light.
Faye is the good-hearted madam of the Salinas whorehouse who comes to think of Kate (Cathy) as her daughter and leaves the brothel to her in her will before Cathy poisons her.
Dessie Hamilton is the happy-go-lucky and most beloved daughter to Samuel and Liza. She opens a dressmaking business in Salinas and falls in love with the wrong man who causes her deep distress she can share with no one. After she closes her business, she moves back to the ranch where Tom inadvertently gives her a medication that causes her death.
Liza Hamilton is the wise mother of the nine Hamilton children and the tiny wife of Samuel. Strict and hard working with good sound sense, she acts as a counter-balance to her dreamer of a husband. Unlike him, Lisa is pragmatic to a fault and abhors drinking until, that is, the doctor prescribes port wine in her old age.
Olive Hamilton is the daughter of Samuel and Liza Hamilton who becomes a teacher and mother to the narrator (and the mother of the author) John Steinbeck. As an example of a loving mother, she contrasts the nefarious non-mother Cathy Ames.
Tom Hamilton is the son of Samuel’s heart. A poet who remains on the farm after his parents grow old, he sinks into deep depression after his much-beloved father dies. He accidentally causes the death of his sister Dessie by poison and kills himself out of guilt.
Una Hamilton is the deeply unhappy daughter of Samuel and Liza Hamilton. She marries a photographer and moves to Oregon where he keeps her in great poverty. Her death causes the beginning of Samuel’s demise.
Samuel Hamilton is the much-beloved and admired Hamilton family patriarch who acts as a mentor for Adam Trask and stands in sharp contrast to Cyrus, the dishonest Trask family patriarch.
A self-educated immigrant from Northern Ireland, he demonstrates the positive principle of life. Although he farms the most barren land in the Salinas Valley, he is enormously prolific, fathering nine children and enjoying life to the fullest until the death of his favorite daughter Una saddens him deeply and permanently.
Samuel Hamilton was indeed author John Steinbeck’s grandfather who emigrated from Northern Ireland where he was self-educated from borrowed books. Although Samuel experienced initial distrust from his new California neighbors because of his Irish background, in time he wins their hearts with his goodness and hard work as a blacksmith and pseudo-doctor. Although he never achieves wealth on his poor farm, he is happy with his lot. His family never go hungry and have everything they need. Reminiscent of a biblical patriarch, he fathers a dynasty of nine children. Like many Irish, he tends to dream of the future, always attempts to improve things, and, fearful of his wife’s scorn, drinks whiskey on the sly.
Will Hamilton is the son of Samuel and Liza and the antithesis of his dreamer father. Samuel. Practical to a fault, he was born to be a businessman. The first to sell cars in the Salinas Valley, he becomes Cal Trask’s business partner.
Lee is the Chinese-American cook and housekeeper to Adam Trask’s family. He speaks in a Chinese pidgin dialect to “survive” life in America. He brings up Adam’s children from the time they are abandoned by their mother. A philosopher, he is a heartfelt friend to Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask and forms the third insightful part of their dialogs. He researches the Cain and Abel story for years and brings to life the novel’s central concept of timshel “thou mayest.”
Horace Quinn is the sheriff who as a deputy covered up Kate’s life as a prostitute to protect Adam and the twins. Later in the novel, he informs Adam of Kate’s death and tells him that Aron is his mother’s beneficiary of $100,000.
Aron Trask is the fair-haired twin son of Adam and Cathy Trask and the twin brother of Cal. Deeply religious and celibate, he plans to enter the ministry to escape the world. He is favored by Adam, much to Cal’s chagrin, and is in love with Abra Bacon. When he discovers his mother, who abandoned him as an infant, is still alive and living as a prostitute, he leaves Stanford and runs away to join the Army and dies soon after.
Adam Trask. Protagonist of the early part of East of Eden, Adam Trask is a benevolent and deeply honest man who grows from a dreamy, misdirected youth into a passionately alive man who cares deeply about his sons, Cal and Aron. The son of Cyrus Trask, he falls in love with Cathy Ames when she wanders injured and helpless into his farm. Adam represents the biblical character. Abel who was slain by his brother in a jealous rage. His blessing of his son
Cal at the end of the novel authenticates timshel, the novel’s central concept which mandates that humans are not predestined to fail or to succeed but have free choice.
Alice Trask is the passive mother of Charles Trask and caring step-mother to Adam Trask. She rarely talks. She smiles, however, when no one sees her.
Adam leaves her little gifts of love, but she wrongfully believes them to be from her son, Charles.
Caleb Trask. Known as Cal, the dark-haired son of Adam and Cathy is jealous of his seemingly perfect twin brother, Aron Trask. Cal represents the novel’s second Cain figure, indirectly killing his brother Aron (Abel) whom he forces to enlist in the Army. Ultimately, however, he demonstrates the novel’s major concept of timshel, that people can overcome their background and choose free moral lives.
Charles Trask acts out in anger against his half-brother after their father Cyrus favors Adam’s gift of a puppy over his gift of an expensive knife. He is representative of the biblical Cain figure who kills his brother when God favors the gift of Abel’s lamb over his gift of grain. He has a dark brown scar from an accident and remains on the family Connecticut farm as Adam wanders and manages to amass a fortune of $100,000 that he leaves to Adam and Cathy.
Cyrus Trask is the family patriarch who commits the “original sin” that determines the action of the novel. The cruel father of the brothers Adam and Charles, he lies about his record as a Civil War hero and gains an important administration job in Washington D.C. which allows him to leave an ill-gained inheritance of $100,000 to his sons.
Mrs. Trask is the deeply religious mother of Adam Trask who commits suicide soon after her husband Cyrus Trask returns home from the Civil War and infects her with syphilis.
Joe Valery is an ex-convict bodyguard and bouncer who attempts to control Kate who is fearful her murder of Faye will be discovered. As her arthritic pain increases, Kate comes to rely more and more on him and when she realizes that he is extorting money from her, she commits suicide, but not before turning him into the sheriff.