Metaphors and Symbols in East of Eden

Table of Contents

Cain and Abel in East of Eden

A story taken from “Genesis,” the first book of the Bible. The sons of Adam and Eve, Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd. The brothers offer sacrifices to God the Father and for some unknown reason God favors Abel’s gift of his fattest lamb over Cain’s offering of grain. In a jealous rage, Cain throws Abel to the ground and murders him. When God inquires about Abel, Cain angrily replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God exiles Cain to wander in the land of Nod, which lies to the east of Eden and puts a mark on him to warn others not to kill him.

Charles and Adam (C&A) follow the Cain and Abel biblical model throughout their lives. When their father Cyrus favors Adam’s birthday gift of a puppy over Charles’ expensive knife, Charles almost beats his brother to death in a jealous rage. Unlike Charles (Cain), however, it is Adam (Abel) who wanders the earth. Charles remains on their Connecticut farm, where like Cain he becomes marked with a dark brown scar after an accident
with a crow bar.

The next generation of Trask brothers, the dark-haired Cal and the fair-haired Aron (C&A) also live out the Cain and Abel legend. On the Trask ranch, Samuel, Adam and Lee gather to name the children who lie sleeping on the warm ground. This scene references the biblical brothers. Cain kills Abel in a field; God tells him his brother’s blood cries out to him from the ground, and that he is cursed from the earth. Samuel suggests naming the children Cain and Abel, much to Adam’s chagrin. And, Adam spurns Cal’s birthday present of $15,000. which causes Cal to become enraged. In revenge, he takes his bother Aron to visit their mother who lives as a notorious prostitute in Salinas. Aron, who believed his mother was dead, is psychologically shattered. He runs away, joins the army and soon after dies. Cal cries out when questioned “Am I supposed to look after him?” Thus, the biblical tale plays out with Cal, albeit inadvertently, killing his brother Aron.

Salinas Valley in East of Eden

Steinbeck utilizes the setting to illustrate the human fight between good and evil which represents the central theme of East of Eden. The novel opens with a
contrasting description of the Salinas Valley where the author grew up. The
young narrator learns to tell east with its sunlit Gabilan Mountains which he
favors, from the western dark and foreboding Santa Lucias Mountains. The
mountains symbolize life’s treacherous journey between light and dark or good
and evil.

The Salinas Valley setting also establishes the characteristics of the two
major families, the Hamilton and the Trasks. The Hamiltons from the North of
Ireland settle in the driest land. Ironically, although their land is practically barren, they successfully produce and raise nine children.

Samuel’s good nature and hard work on near barren soil establishes him as a force for good. Liza Hamilton is a caring, reliable mother. Ironically, Samuel’s neighbors, the wealthy Adam and Cathy Trask, settle in a much more fertile part of the Salinas Valley after their move from New England. However, despite its rich soil and plentiful water, the farm remains uncultivated for decades indicating the lies and deceit upon which the family was founded.