Although Cathy Ames and the Trask Family are introduced on the east coast, most of the novel is set in the expansive Salinas Valley in California. One of Steinbeck’s many goals in writing East of Eden was to record the life and manners of the area in which he grew up for his sons, for whom the book is written. Readers of Steinbeck are familiar with the prominent role the Salinas Valley plays in much of his early fiction, like Tortilla Flat, The Long Valley and Of Mice and Men. In some ways East of Eden is a nostalgic return to the Salinas Valley for Steinbeck, who was residing on the east coast and had abandoned the valley as the primary setting for his work several years earlier.
Similarly to some of his other works set in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck opens the novel with a vivid description of the natural environment. His goal is to create an impressionistic sense of the area rather than to describe it in copious, concrete detail. In Journal of a Novel, the collection of journal entries Steinbeck kept about the composition of East of Eden, he explains to editor Pascal Covici, “I want to describe the Salinas Valley in detail but in sparse detail so that there can be a real feeling of it. It should be sights and sounds, smells and colors but put down with simplicity as though the boys can read the book” (7). He wanted just enough detail to capture the historical flavor of the area for his sons, but was careful not to allow the setting to detract from the characters and the universality of the themes he was attempting to express.
Steinbeck goes on to write:
I must introduce Samuel Hamilton and his wife to the Salinas Valley. I am pleased now because the geography and weather are over and I can start with the people. It was my intention, Pat, to give rather an impression of the Valley than a detailed account—more a sense of it than anything else. I do hope I have succeeded but I won’t know that for a long time. But this book is not about geography but about people and I do not want to give the place undue importance. (Journal of a Novel 15)
Essentially Steinbeck utilizes the setting in two seemingly contradictory ways. On one hand, the location of the story is quite important for Steinbeck to achieve his objective of revealing some of his family’s history to his sons. On the other, Steinbeck’s downplays the importance of the setting with the intent to tell a universal story of good and evil that would be applicable to the lives of all readers. In that sense, the Salinas Valley simply serves, Steinbeck writes, as a “microcosm of the whole nation” (Journal of a Novel 65).
Probably more important than where the novel actually takes place is the time period in which it is set. The novel’s action spans from 1862 through the outbreak of WWI (1914-1918), a time period of tremendous technological development and change in the United States. This time period also saw much growth in metropolitan areas as people abandoned farming and the rural countryside to gain employment and enjoy more modern conveniences in cities in greater numbers.
The Trask family’s experiences mirror the developments in the nation during this time. Though when we meet Adam he is a farmer’s son, we see him participate in the last great push to move the Native Americans out of America’s path of modernization. Also, while he originally locates to rural farming land in the Salinas Valley, he eventually abandons his ranch for a house in town. He purchases a Model T Ford and a modern stove, experiments with refrigeration and begins to live the modern American life. Eventually, one of his sons is killed in WWI, the war that brought the mechanization of killing to a never-before-seen horror.
Likewise, Samuel and Liza Hamilton see all but one of their children abandon the family farm for life in the city. Most of their children become successful, modern professionals—teacher, insurance salesman, car dealer, advertiser. The two families’ experiences represent some of the significant social and cultural changes occurring in the nation during the time period. While on one hand Steinbeck attempts to describe events with some historical accuracy, on the other, he critiques them with hindsight. As a result, East of Eden seems skeptical at best of certain aspects of modernization, especially the potentials for mass production and consumerism, which Steinbeck had seen explode by the time of the novel’s composition.