In Part One, Steinbeck introduces the three families whose destinies are uniquely intertwined in the novel: the Hamiltons, the Trasks, and to a lesser degree, the Ames. Steinbeck introduces the Hamiltons first, who are unique mixture of a fictionalized and accurate portrayal of his own family. Most of Part One is devoted to providing the history of the fictionalized Adam Trask and his family.
The novel begins with a lively description, both geographical and historical, of the Salinas Valley which is peppered with John Steinbeck’s memories of the area from his childhood. Steinbeck then introduces his grandparents, Samuel and Liza Hamilton. They are immigrants from Northern Ireland who settled outside of King City around 1870. By this time, much of the green, fertile land was already taken. Additionally, the Hamiltons came to King City with very little money and the only land they could afford was dry, rocky land located on the top of hills. As a result, Samuel has to make a living by doing odd jobs around other people’s farms as he cannot grow crops on his land. Hardworking and resourceful, Samuel is well-liked but is never able to acquire wealth. Much of his profits are eaten up by raising a family of nine children and suffering from “a very bad patent habit” (40).
Later in Part One, the rest of the Hamilton brood, consisting of four boys and five girls, is introduced. George and Will, the older boys, are practical, married and become respected businessmen. The younger two boys, Tom and Joseph are dreamers. Tom has a knack for poetry but remains on the family farm. Joseph has an aversion to farm work and is sent to college at Stanford. Una Hamilton is the oldest girl and is described as “dark and studious” (41). Lizzie, the next oldest girl, quickly became estranged from the Hamiltons. She married at a young age and moved away. Dessie, the middle girl, is considered fun and full of laughter. Olive, the fourth daughter, is a schoolteacher and mother to John Steinbeck. Mollie, the youngest, is simply described as “a little beauty with lovely blond hair and violet eyes” (41).
The next family introduced is the Trask family, which lives across the country on a Connecticut farm. The patriarch of the family is Cyrus Trask, who despite his short time as a private in the Civil War, spends most of his time spinning larger than life tales of his experience in the military. Cyrus has two sons, Adam and Charles, each born of different mothers. After the death of Adam’s mother, Cyrus quickly re-married his neighbor’s seventeen year old daughter Alice. She became pregnant within weeks of the marriage and gave birth to Charles, whom we learn later, she always secretly favored. She devoted her time to raising the boys and taking care of household chores, mostly staying in the background to please Cyrus.
Cyrus becomes a war expert and later takes a position with the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R). He spends much of his time traveling but demands weekly reports from Alice about his assets and home life. He is very strict with his sons and decides early on that Adam, who is smaller, less coordinated and less clever than his half-brother, will need the discipline of the military to grow into a strong man. Divided by their father's love, the brothers develop a bitter rivalry, which becomes violent when Charles, the stronger and quicker of the two, beats up Adam after Charles loses a game of peewee to Adam.
When Adam is older, Cyrus has a heart to heart talk with Adam about military life and his inevitable enlistment in which he admits to Adam that he loves him more than he loves Charles. Although Charles does not know what the two discussed, he becomes jealous of this talk and later follows Adam outside for a walk. Charles accuses Adam of trying to take Cyrus away from him and flies into a merciless rage, intending to kill Adam. Adam, bloodied and beaten, makes his way back home where Alice and Cyrus oversee his recovery. Angry with Charles, Cyrus searches for Charles in town, but cannot find him. Charles eventually returns home after a few weeks of hiding out and apologizes. While recovering in bed, Cyrus brings in a military sergeant to officially enlist Adam into the Calvary.
At age eighteen and physically healed from his brother’s wrath, Adam leaves to fulfill his five year obligation to the Cavalry. During this time, Alice dies and his father moves to Washington D.C. to continue his work with the G.A.R. Charles periodically sends Adam letters talking about how much he misses him. After his discharge, Adam spends a few days in Chicago avoiding the inevitable journey home. Despite his aversion to violence, he re-enlists in the Calvary, which angers Cyrus. Cyrus summons Adam to D.C. and tries to talk him into attending WestPoint or working under Cyrus in the G.A.R. When Adam refuses, Cyrus tells Adam that instead of becoming a stronger person, he believed that the military had given Adam the “dumb resistance of a solider” (51).
Meanwhile, Charles stayed home to work the family farm, growing increasingly isolated and lonesome. One day while moving stones, Charles loses his temper and knocks himself out with an iron bar, creating a dark scar that stretches from his hairline to his brow. With no real desire to have a committed relationship with a woman, Charles frequents a local inn run by a Mr. Hallam. Mr. Hallam rents out the third floor to a new group of prostitutes every two weeks, supplied by a Mr. Edwards from Boston. Although he is hurt by his brother’s refusal to come home or even return his letters, he also still harbors a strong resentment and jealousy towards Adam.
After Adam’s second term is up, he is discharged in San Francisco, and spends the next three years wandering the county. As he is eventually making his way towards Connecticut, he is arrested in Florida on vagrancy charges and serves a six month prison term. Shortly after his release, he is picked up again for vagrancy and spends another six months in jail. Adam escapes shortly before his second term is up and sends a telegram to Charles asking for money to come home. The brothers reunite to the news of their father's death, along with a shockingly large inheritance. The two somehow manage to live together, albeit inharmoniously, for a few years.
Shortly before the end of Part One, Steinbeck introduces Cathy Ames, a monstrously devious girl from a small town in Massachusetts. Lovely and delicate, Cathy learns at an early age how to use her coy sense of sexuality to manipulate men. At age 10, her mother finds her in a compromising situation with two fourteen year old boys. In high school, her Latin teacher, James Grew, goes crazy one night, demanding to speak to Mr. Ames. Mr. Ames refuses to see him and James commits suicide hours later. Mrs. Ames is oblivious to Cathy’s manipulations but Mr. Ames secretly senses his daughter may be capable of sinister deeds and may be responsible for framing the two boys and driving Mr. Grew to suicide.
At sixteen, Cathy burns her own house down, killing her parents. Although her body is not found, it is assumed she died in the fire. Sometime later, Cathy appears in Boston. There, she finds Mr. Edwards, the same pimp who supplies prostitutes to Mr. Hallam’s inn, and he instantly falls in love with her. Rather than hiring her as a prostitute, he keeps her as his mistress, setting her up with a place to live and paying her expenses. She constantly toys with his emotions and tries to make him jealous. Mr. Edwards suspects Cathy is devious and when he comes across a newspaper clipping about the house fire that killed the Ames family, he becomes fearful of Cathy.
Forcing Cathy to accompany him on a trip to Connecticut, his mixed emotions of love and hate overtake him and beats her nearly to death and retreats home to his wife. Left “[a] dirty bundle of rags and mud," Cathy manages to crawl to Adam and Charles' doorstep (109). Against Charles' wishes, Adam takes her in and eventually marries her, never suspecting she is anything other than a sweet, abused girl. At the end of Part One, Cathy drugs her new husband to sleep, then climbs in bed with his brother.
Part Two begins at the turn of the twentieth century. Steinbeck utilizes the event to speculate on the state of the nation and Americans’ hope that the next century will be greater than the last, which is paradoxically remembered as both a golden and rotten time. He also expresses a little fear of the “monstrous changes taking place in the world” and wonders how humanity will adapt (131).
The action resumes with Adam and Cathy boarding a train station to move West despite Cathy’s opposition to the plan. Charles and Adam’s farewell to each other is a simple handshake. Little do they know they will never see each other again. Adam and Cathy rent a hotel room in King City while Adam takes his time driving around town looking at property. During this time, Cathy learns she is pregnant and tries to abort her baby with a knitting needle. Adam finds Cathy nearly lifeless in a pool of her own blood. She is examined by Dr. Tilson, who quickly realizes what Cathy tried to do and threatens to press charges against her if she tries to harm herself or the baby again.
Meanwhile, Adam is still unable to see past his own glowing happiness to notice Cathy’s growing unhappiness. Blinded by his love for Cathy and happier than he has ever been before, Adam buys the Sanchez Place, a rich piece of land inherited by a Swiss immigrant from Spanish royalty, and begins paying workers to rebuild the house. When Adam visits Samuel Hamilton to discuss the likelihood of locating water on his new land, he invites Samuel to work for him sinking wells and building windmills. In his mind, Adam is ironically building his own “Eden,” in which he wishes to raise up his posterity, seemingly forgetting or ignoring the fate of Eden’s original inhabitants.
Adam also hires a cook named Lee, a California native of Chinese descent. When Lee is sent to pick up Samuel, the two quickly become friends and Lee, a private man, opens up to Samuel, speaking as an equal instead of using the simplified “pidgin” speech of Chinese immigrants, which he has come to see as expected of him by the surrounding American culture. Lee and Samuel sense something amiss on the Sanchez Place, and are mistrustful of Cathy, who grows abnormally large in her pregnancy. Cathy warns Adam that she will leave him as soon as she can. He doesn't listen.
When Samuel is called in to help with Cathy's labor, she bites his hand so badly that he is sick with fever for three days, though with his help, she successfully delivers twin boys. Two weeks later, she tells Adam she's leaving, and when he tries to stop her, she shoots him in the shoulder. Word of Adam Trask getting shot in the shoulder soon reaches Deputy Sheriff Horace Quinn, who along with local citizen, Julius Euskadi, ride over to the Trask farm to investigate. Along the way, they talk about Adam firing all the workers who were re-building the Sanchez Place and also about a new whorehouse in Salinas called Faye’s.
When Horace and Julius find Adam, he tells them he accidentally shot himself cleaning his gun. Not convinced an ex-Calvary soldier would shoot himself in the shoulder with a pistol, Horace asks to question Mrs. Trask and is told she is away. Adam is unable to give Horace very many details about Cathy’s past or her physical appearance. Horace decides to question Sam and Liza Hamilton to get a better physical description of Cathy. He then meets with the sheriff to figure out how he should proceed with the case. In strict confidence, the sheriff tells Horace that Mrs. Trask is most likely the newest prostitute at Faye’s. The sheriff later threatens Cathy to never reveal her past or who she was before coming to Faye’s or he will send her out of the county.
Indeed, Cathy found her way to Faye’s, the new brothel in town. Going by the name Kate, Cathy quickly becomes a favorite of customers and working girls alike, even winning the heart of Faye, who thinks of Kate as her own daughter. As a result, Faye becomes uneasy with the idea of Kate as a working girl, and allows Kate to instead spend more and more time tending to the operations of the house. One night after work, Faye presents her will as a show of love to Kate. The will deeds all of Faye's worldly possessions, including the business, to Kate. After covering up an incident of drunken maliciousness later that night, Kate begins, slowly and subtly cowing everyone with gifts and complements. After months of patient planning, she poisons a bean salad, making Faye terminally ill, and causing the doctor to believe she suffered from botulism due to poorly preserved string beans.
Meanwhile, after losing his Cathy, Adam enters into a period of lifeless hopelessness. The Sanchez Place is left unfinished and Samuel occasionally visits to try and snap Adam out of his malaise, but Liza tells Samuel to quit visiting Adam as he evokes a change in Samuel every time. Lee becomes the primary caregiver to the boys, bathing, feeding and changing them as well as interacting with them. When the boys are fifteen months old, Lee tells Samuel that Adam still has not named the twins. Samuel, upon hearing this news, becomes determined to make Adam name his children. The two instantly argue and Adam tells Samuel to go away. Samuel strikes Adam. This makes Adam stop and listen to Samuel. Soon, Adam, Samuel and Lee begin to discuss names for the twins. This leads to speculation about the story of Cain and Abel and the significance of the fact that we are all Cain’s, the murderer’s, descendants. Adam asks Samuel to start naming names out of the Bible and they soon settle on the names Caleb and Aaron at the conclusion of Part Two.
Part Three starts out ten years later with the death of Una Hamilton, Samuel and Liza’s eldest daughter. Una, who had married a photographer and moved to Oregon, dies a surprising and somewhat mysterious death. Samuel is quite shaken up by this loss and begins to age rapidly as a result. When the family visits for Thanksgiving that year (1911) they are concerned by the sudden onset of old age in Samuel. His children agree to get their parents off the ranch by inviting them to Olive’s house. Tom cannot condone the plan, believing that it would be an insult to Samuel, but he agrees to not stand in their way.
A few weeks later, Samuel receives a letter from Olive with train tickets to Salinas and an invitation to visit for the winter. Samuel immediately senses the purpose of the invite and agrees to visit. Tom tries to keep the Thanksgiving conversation secret, but Samuel figures out that his children want him to retire and will take turns inviting him to visit their homes.
Samuel stops to visit Adam at the Sanchez Place before he departs. He sees that Adam is still pining for Cathy, or at least his idolized vision of Cathy. He accuses Adam of wallowing in “what-if’s,” wondering what his life would be like if Cathy were still around. Adam is angered and begins to yell at Samuel, asking why he has to prod into his life. Samuel tells Adam he does it to get Adam angry in hopes that he will stop wasting his life. Samuel then tells Adam he is leaving for Salinas to stay with Olive. Adam instantly realizes that Samuel will probably die soon if he stops working. Adam tries to persuade Samuel to stick around and help him build gardens around the Sanchez Place. Samuel appreciates Adam’s gesture but declines the offer.
Samuel stays for dinner and afterward, Lee again discusses with Samuel the story of Cain and Abel. He is particularly interested in God’s command that Cain shall triumph over sin. He explains his particular study of the Hebrew word timshel, which has been translated both as an order, “thou shalt” and a prophecy, “thou wilt.” After years of close study with Chinese scholars, Lee relates to Samuel a different translation of timshel, “thou mayest,” which implies humans have a choice in triumphing over sin. He explains:
Now there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, “Do thou,” and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in “Thou shalt.” Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great…”. (301)
Before leaving the Sanchez Place, having been affected by Lee’s story, Samuel attempts to knock Adam from his malaise one last time by telling him that Kate is running a whorehouse in Salinas. Adam is devastated and he runs off into the hills. Samuel says goodbye to Lee and rides off.
Not long after this encounter, Adam finds himself attending the funeral of Samuel Hamilton in Salinas. Maintaining his distance from the service, he wanders around the cemetery and then eventually finds his way to a bar when it begins to rain. He talks to the bartender awhile and, after a few drinks, decides to ask the bartender for directions to Kate’s. The bartender tells him Kate’s is no place for him and he should visit Jenny’s next door.
Adam makes his way over to Kate’s. She is startled at first but after a few minutes with Adam, Kate realizes that Adam is not there to physically harm her. She tells him she forgot about him. He tells her that he never forgot her, but now that he sees her, he can forget. This makes Kate angry and she tries to seduce Adam and convinces him to stay for a drink. She tells Adam about all the prominent men she can blackmail and criticizes their depravity. Adam finally sees Kate for who she is, telling her “I’m beginning to think you’re a twisted human – or no human at all” (320). Kate tries once more to seduce Adam and after he refuses, she tells him that Charles fathered the twins. Adam says this does not matter and laughs. This angers Kate and she calls in her guard Ralph to beat up Adam, but Ralph does not comply as Adam does not fight back. Finally, Adam leaves.
Adam returns home a changed man, alert and at peace, which prompts Lee to announce his plans for retirement. Aaron and Caleb, having been raised by Lee, are startled by their father’s burgeoning attention. At this point, Steinbeck describes the twins in more detail. Caleb, or Cal, is dark, clever and brooding. Aron, as he spells his name, is simple, fair and angelic in appearance. They meet Abra Bacon when her family stops at the ranch during a storm. The boys compete for Abra’s attention, but Aron and Abra quickly form a bond, which makes Cal jealous. Cal causes Abra shame and embarrassment out of jealousy, revealing the mean-spirited nature of his character which he struggles against through the remainder of the novel.
In his attempt to regain control over his life, Adam decides to write to his estranged brother Charles. News comes by letter that Charles has died. His will stipulates that the enormous wealth he accumulated on Cyrus’s farm be divided evenly between Adam and Cathy. When Adam visits Kate to tell her of her inheritance, she is highly suspicious and mean, believing that somehow Adam was setting her up to trick her. Adam is unfazed by her paranoia.
The final chapters of Part Three witness Dessie, lonely and struck by Samuel’s passing, moving back home to live with Tom, who is equally sad, but regains a purpose and strength with Dessie’s return. The two make plans to travel the world after saving for a year and raising pigs. However, tragedy befalls the Hamilton’s as Tom, trying to cure Dessie of what she describes as a stomach ache, feeds her “salts,” which violently attack her system. Dessie dies within hours, leaving Tom, overcome by guilt and shame, to commit suicide.
Part Four of East of Eden opens with Chapter 34's description of the battle between good and evil, which Steinbeck characterized as the essential narrative of human existence. This discussion sets the tone for the emotional struggles that occur within the characters in the final part of the novel. The action then focuses on Cal and Aron, who are in seventh grade and living with Adam and Lee in Dessie's old house in Salinas. At the beginning of Chapter 35, Lee is packed up and ready to move to San Francisco to run his own bookstore. Lee returns a week later, admitting he was lonely and didn’t really want to own a bookstore.
Cal and Aron are now attending the same school as Abra. Aron and Abra immediately pick up where they left off, officially becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. Cal has no more luck making friends in Salinas than he did when living at the Sanchez Place. He remains isolated and resentful of the acceptance he thinks everyone else seems to achieve.
Chapter 37 skips ahead five years. Adam has an idea to ship refrigerated produce around the country. He buys an ice plant and tries to ship lettuce packed in ice to the East Coast. The first test at shipping produce cross country is a failure, as a train full of lettuce is reduced to slop when weather delays and route mix-ups add a week to the estimated travel time. Adam loses a large portion of his wealth in the failed investment. Cal and Aron are teased at school and Aron becomes deeply embarrassed by Adam’s failure. Abra tries to draw Aron out of his shame. Confident and beautiful now, she becomes frustrated with Aron as his feelings of shame lead him headlong into devout religious practice. Aron begins to spend his free time studying theology under the guidance of Reverend Rolf at the local Episcopalian church.
At sixteen, Cal is “tall and rangy, and always there was a darkness about him” (439). He begins to take restless walks at night, which eventually lead him to Kate's, where he discovers who his mother really is. When he begins following her she confronts him, and in a crucial moment, one of many, for Cal, he decides she cannot influence him, saying to Kate, “I'm my own. I don't have to be you” (462).
As the nation slides "imperceptibly toward war," (471) Cal encourages Aron to study and graduate early, which Aron does, enrolling at Stanford and causing confusion at home by celebrating his achievement with the Reverend instead of his family. While Aron is at Stanford, Abra grows closer to the Trasks, especially Lee.
Cal, in an attempt to win his father's love, invests in 5,000 acres of beans with Will Hamilton, who prophecies a tremendous growth in demand thanks to the beginning of WW I. The plan pays off. On Thanksgiving, with Aron home from school, Cal gives Adam $15,000, which Adam refuses, claiming he could never "take a profit" on the war (540). Enraged by Adam’s rejection, Cal leads Aron to Kate's. The discovery of his mother crushes Aron, and despite his father's position as head of the draft board, he secretly enlists in the army.
Increasingly bothered by paranoia ever since a former prostitute at Faye’s, Ethel, showed up with evidence of Faye's murder, Kate hires Joe Valery to find Ethel. He discovers Ethel is dead, but keeps this to himself in a ploy to extract money from Kate. Eventually, Kate finds him out, but the battle takes its toll on her conscience. Not long after the visit from Aron and Cal, she realizes, "they had something she lacked, and she didn't know what it was" (550). With that knowledge, she wills her fortune to Aron and kills herself. Joe Valery finds Kate dead and takes some money and documents from her room. Shortly before her death, however, Kate sent a message to the police to look into Joe’s background, knowing he was wanted for escaping from prison. A cop, Oscar Noble shows up at Kate’s place looking for Joe. Joe tries to run but is shot dead by Oscar. When the sheriff delivers the news and Kate's will to Adam, Adam sinks into despair, which is soon intensified after he seems to suffer a mild stroke upon learning of Aron's enlistment.
Hung over, overcome with guilt and shame, Cal broods in his room and burns the $15,000 dollars he attempted to give to his father in order to punish himself. Lee, in a tactic reminiscent of Samuel’s treatment of Adam, begins insulting him, telling him to get over his indulgent self-pity. Lee criticizes Cal for thinking he is unique, when the truth is every human wrestles with self-loathing and the struggle to do good. When Cal later tries to explain to Abra that he is not a good person, she admits that neither is she, and that she loves him. She explains that her relationship with Aron was always a fantasy based on Aron’s faulty perception of whom he wanted Abra to be—much like his Adam’s relationship with Cathy. Cal and Abra look forward to a brighter future and plan a picnic together in the spring.
Later, on the day of Cal and Abra’s picnic, Adam suffers a major stroke after a telegram arrives informing him Aron has been killed in battle. Cal visits his father’s room and perceives his accusing eyes. He is overcome with shame and self-loathing and believes he has murdered his brother. Warning him of the danger of basking in sorrow, Lee sends Cal to Abra. Cal tells Abra, "I've killed my brother and my father is paralyzed because of me" (596). She guides him back to the Trask house, where, in the final scene, Lee summons Adam from a near coma, pleading with him, demanding that he offer Cal his blessing. With tremendous effort, Adam raises his hand an inch of the mattress and whispers, “Timshel.”