East of Eden - Essay Study Questions

  1. Steinbeck sets the majority of East of Eden against the backdrop of the Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the twentieth-century in order to nostalgically capture what life was like in the area when he was growing up there.  What changes occur in the Salinas Valley during the course of the novel?  What does Steinbeck’s description of the area reveal about its value system?  How do the changes occurring in the Salinas Valley represent the change America was undergoing as a nation at the turn of the twentieth century?
  2. Samuel and Liza Hamilton are quite an odd couple.  Liza appears harshly puritanical, while Samuel secretly loves whiskey and seems almost like a mystic.  Ironically, they have the only successful marriage relationship in the novel.  What is special about Liza and Samuel’s relationship that makes it work?  How do you think the fate of their children reflect both the strengths and short-comings of their relationship?
  3. Compare and contrast the relationships between Charles and Adam and Adam’s sons, Cal and Aron.  How does the relationship between each pair of brothers reflect or diverge from the Cain and Abel parable? What do the conflicts experienced by the pairs of brothers reveal about sibling rivalry in East of Eden?
  4. Compare and contrast Charles’ and Cal’s relationships with their fathers.  How are they affected by what they perceive as their fathers’ rejection?  How do Cal and Charles each deal with being rejected?
  5. Explain the detrimental effects Charles, Adam, Cal and Aron experience as a result of being denied maternal affection as children.  In particular, how does the lack of maternal affection and nurturing affect their relationships with women later in life?
  6. Describe Abra and Aron’s relationship as it matures throughout their teenage years.  Why does Abra decide she is no longer in love with Aron by the end of the novel?  Is her burgeoning interest in Cal a betrayal of Aron? Why or why not?
  7. What varying explanations does the novel offer for Cathy’s monstrous behavior? How do you think readers are supposed to understand her behavior? Do you think Steinbeck intended readers to experience any sympathy for Cathy?  Why or why not?
  8. Explain the history of prostitution in Salinas.  How do the brothels intricately factor into the town’s social structure?
  9. Why can’t Lee find acceptance among Americans, Chinese-Americans or the Chinese?  What does East of Eden have to say about race relations in America at the turn of the twentieth century?
  10. Discuss some of the technological developments that occur in East of Eden. What does the novel have to say about modernization and increased mechanization of American life at the turn of the twentieth century?
  11. East of Eden has been criticized for its negative portrayal of females.  Compare and contrast some of the female characters in the novel, such as Cathy Ames, Liza Hamilton, and Abra Bacon.  Do you think these female characters are realistically portrayed?  Why or why not?  Overall, do you agree or disagree with the assertion that the presentation of female characters in the novel is misogynistic?  Why?
  12.  One criticism of East of Eden is that the stories of the Trask and Hamilton families are not integrated closely enough and that East of Eden seems more like two separate novels.  Do you agree or disagree with this criticism?  Do you think the stories of the two families could have been better integrated?  If so, how?  Do you believe East of Eden should have been released as two separate stories?  How might that impact the development of some of the novel’s themes?

Setting | Character Summaries| Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References