East of Eden - Character Summaries

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

Major Characters

Cyrus Trask

Cyrus is the stern father of Adam and Charles.  His military career is cut short when he was shot in the right leg during the Civil War. His amputated leg is replaced first by a wooden and then by a steel prosthesis. Cyrus, who “was something of a devil,” contracted gonorrhea while in the service and passed it onto his first wife, who kills herself as a result (14). After the death of his wife, he quickly remarries and fathers his second son, Charles.  His perceived favoring of Adam causes a violent and lifelong rift between his sons.  Cyrus is very proud of his involvement in the military.  He peremptorily decides Adam will join the military as he believes his weaker son needs discipline to make him a man.  In his spare time, he writes perceptive articles criticizing military strategy.  As a result he is offered a paid position with the General Army of the Republic (G.A.R) and travels around the country lobbying and speaking about military issues.  After the death of his second wife, he re-locates to Washington D.C. to continue his work with the military. He dies of pneumonia in 1894 and many high level government officials attend his funeral.  He leaves Adam and Charles an inheritance of $100,000.  The boys are never sure how Cyrus amassed his fortune though Charles suspects his father had stolen the money.

Adam Trask

Adam was born in 1862 on a Connecticut farm to father, Cyrus and Cyrus’s first wife whose name is never mentioned.  His mother commits suicide when Adam is still a baby.   He is raised by Cyrus’ second wife Alice.  Cyrus views him as weak and less intelligent than his brother Charles, which confirms his decision to force Adam to enlist in the military, a prospect that terrifies Adam.  He was a quiet, obedient child who shied away from conflict and violence.  He catches on early that his father tends to exaggerate about himself and knows that his father was not a great man (20).  During his first five years in the army, Adam develops a deeper aversion to violence and volunteers to work in field hospitals.

After being discharged in 1885, he wanders around Chicago for a few weeks to avoid moving back home with Charles.  Not knowing what to do next, he re-enlists in the military.  He is discharged again in 1890 in San Francisco.  He spends the next three years wandering around the country and eventually serves time in jail for vagrancy.  Upon arriving back at the farm, Charles tells him about their inheritance.  Adam stays on at the farm with Charles for a few years. After growing restless, he takes off for months at a time traveling around the world, especially when he and Charles would quarrel.  Adam is not content to continue living on the farm and talks of moving to California which further irks Charles. When Cathy, after being beaten by Mr. Edwards, arrives on their doorstep, Adam takes her in and cares for her. He proposes before she is completely well and they are soon married.  Adam and his new bride relocate to Salinas, California.  His intention is to build a new “Eden,” where he can create a lasting legacy for his family.

Unfortunately for Adam, he is completely deceived about the identity if his wife.  Once she shoots him and deserts him with her newborn twin sons, Adam falls into a hopeless stupor, leaving his Chinese-American man-servant Lee to raise his children.  He does not even name them until Samuel Hamilton forces him to do so when the twins are fifteen months old.  It is another 10 years, after a confrontation with his estranged wife, before Adam actually takes an interest in raising his sons.  The boys, however, have already been permanently affected by that time.  Both long for the acceptance of father and mother and embark on an inner struggle that is exacerbated on the one hand by Cal’s perception of his father’s favoring of Aron and Aron’s embarrassment over his father’s failed business venture.  In the end, Adam has repeated the mistake of his own father causing a rift between his two sons.  He seems to redeem himself on his deathbed by forgiving and accepting Cal who has suffered his entire life from being estranged from his emotionally aloof father.

Charles Trask

Charles is the son of Cyrus and Alice Trask and half-brother of Adam.  Charles is considered stronger, quicker, and smarter than Adam.  Adam possesses a secret fear of Charles, who is prone to outbreaks of murderous rage.  When Adam is old enough to enlist, Cyrus has a private talk with him about his future in the military.  Charles overhears the conversation and becomes envious of his father’s interaction with Adam.  His envy, combined with his bitterness over Cyrus’s preference of the birthday gift Adam had given him, enrages Charles.  Charles blames Adam for his feelings of rejection and severely beats and then chases after Adam, intending to kill him.

After Adam leaves for the Army and his mother dies, Charles is left alone to run the family farm.  He misses his brother and often writes letters to Aron. He becomes lonesome and isolated.  In his letters to Adam he writes about looking for a wife but instead only ends up frequenting the local inn, which houses prostitutes.  Occasionally, he would move in “one slovenly woman after another” but his interest in the women would quickly wane and he would then move them out (53).

When Adam finally comes home to the farm after their father’s death, Charles is glad to have his brother around but the tension between the brothers never lessened.  While the industrious Charles seeks to increase their land holdings and develop the family farm, Adam is restless and dissatisfied with farming.  His desire to travel rather than stay in Connecticut agitates Charles and is a subject of their quarrels with each other.  When Adam decides to take in Cathy, Charles instantly distrusts her and sees in her a darkness that he recognizes in himself.  On Adam and Cathy’s wedding night, Cathy drugs Adam and shows up in Charles’s bedroom and the two have sex. Although never proven, it is hinted that Charles could be the biological father of one or both of Adam’s twin boys.  Throughout his adulthood, Charles stayed focused on running the farm and amassed great wealth; however, he never finds love or happiness.  Of the Trask property Steinbeck writes, “It was a grim farm and a grim house, unloved and unloving” (63). Upon his death, Charles left behind a $100,000 inheritance, which he willed to be split between Adam and Cathy.  A note scribbled to Adam by one of Charles’ lawyers indicated he died having lived a lonely and miserly existence.

Cathy Ames (Kate)

Cathy, one of Steinbeck’s most interesting and controversial characters, is born with what the author describes as “a malformed soul” in a small Massachusetts town (71).  From early on, people are both taken and betrayed by her innocent face.  She often makes people feel uneasy, though they would not be able to say why.  She learns at a young age how to use her sexuality to manipulate people and is a very clever liar.  She is the cause of the whipping of two fourteen year old boys and the apparent suicide of one of her school teachers.  As a teenager, she murders her parents by setting the family’s home on fire while they slept.  Though her body was never found, she too is presumed dead.

Eventually Cathy finds her way to Mr. Edwards in Boston for a job as a prostitute.  Instead, stricken by her apparent innocence and beauty, he installs her as his mistress.  Cathy tortures Edwards, who is obsessed with her, by stroking his jealousy and fears that she might abandon him.  He later learns of the house fire and forces her to accompany him on a trip to Connecticut, where he nearly beats her to death.  She crawls her way onto the Trask property where Adam finds her and nurses her back to health.

She marries Adam for protection, though she has sex with his brother Charles on her wedding night.  Reluctantly she moves to California with Adam where she learns she is pregnant.  She later intimates to Adam that Charles impregnated her.  After a failed self-induced abortion, Cathy gives birth to twin boys.  She endures her pregnancy as a trial and the birth is described as “bitter, deadly combat” (187).  Two weeks after the delivery, she packs her bags to leave the ranch.  When Adam attempts to stop her, she shoots him in the shoulder.

Cathy then finds her way to Faye’s brothel where she adopts the pseudonym Kate.  Like others before her, Faye is fooled by Kate’s innocent face and beauty.  She discourages Kate from prostitution and eventually begins to rely on her to run the brothel’s affairs.  When Kate learns that Faye has left everything to her in her will, she concocts a subtle and devious plan to murder Faye.  Once Faye is dead and Kate has inherited the house, she creates a brothel with a reputation for sexually depraved spectacles.  She keeps the prostitutes in her employ cowed and hooked on drugs.

Eventually Kate is visited by Adam and both of her twin sons.  The meetings, along with growing paranoia about the evil deeds of her past resurfacing, cause Kate to question herself.  Having always been self-assured in her isolation from what she saw as great depravity in other people, she begins to wonder if perhaps it is she who is different.  Particularly, her meeting with Aron, who is brought to her out of revenge by his angry and rejected brother, brings this fact into relief. “They had something she lacked,” Cathy thinks to herself, “and she didn’t know what it was.  Once she knew this, she was ready; and once ready, she knew she had been ready a long time—perhaps all her life” (550).  She was ready to kill herself, which she does, after willing her entire fortune to Aron.

Caleb (Cal) Trask

Cal is one of Cathy and Adam Trask’s twin sons.  Cal is described as “watchful” and is darker of complexion and bigger and stronger than his fair skinned twin (333).   Cal notices from an early age that people gravitate towards his innocent and angelic looking brother.  As a result, he craves attention and often feels rejected, especially by his father.  Cal possesses a cruel streak that contrasts sharply with his brother’s gentle nature.  While on one hand he loves his brother, on the other, he gets satisfaction from knowing he can manipulate Aron to cause him pain and confusion.  Sometimes he feels a great desire to protect his more innocent brother. He is frightened by what he perceives as darkness inside of him, especially once he learns the truth about his mother.  He worries it might be an inherited, permanent evil.  He prays to God to remove the stain: “I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be lonely” (377).  After learning about Cathy, Cal stalks her for a few weeks until she confronts him.  When he finally comes face to face with his mother, Cal realizes where the darkness comes from and decides that he has the power to become a different person.

Like his Uncle Charles, Cal craves love and attention from his father, whom he believes favors his brother.  When Adam loses his fortune, Charles invests in a business deal with Will Hamilton during WW I and makes a $15,000 profit upon the great demand for beans.  Cal presents the money to his father as a gift on Thanksgiving in front of Adam, Abra and Lee.  Adam rejects the gift, refusing to take any money that was made in profit off of the war.  Cal is completely devastated.  In revenge, Cal takes Aron to see Kate.  Consequently, Aron runs off and joins the military and is killed in battle only a few months later.  Adams suffers a major stroke upon learning of his son’s death.  Cal, riddled with guilt, seeks out Abra who brings him back to his father.  Ultimately, Adam blesses Cal with the word, timshel, indicating that there is a chance of redemption for Cal should he choose to triumph over the sins of his past.

Aron Trask

Aron is one of Cathy and Adam Trask’s twin sons.  In comparison to his darker, brooding brother, Aron seems simple and innocent.  People are taken by his pleasant countenance: “The width between his blue eyes gave him an expression of angelic innocence” (333).  Unlike the clever and suspicious Cal, Aron is trusting and kind. Though he hears suspicious remarks about his mother, he cannot reconcile the fact that his father might be a liar.

While Cal craves the attention of his father, Aron desires the love of a mother figure.  He allows his girlfriend, Abra, to mother him and admits to himself he experiences a “wordless longing” for his mother (426).  Perhaps, deep down, Aron blames his father for his angst, which could explain the intensity of the embarrassment he suffers after Adam loses the family’s fortune in his failed attempt to transport refrigerated lettuce across the nation.  Aron seems to become increasingly uncomfortable in his own skin after that incident and desires to finish school early and leave Salinas.

In the meantime, Aron turns to the church and becomes devoutly religious.  He decides to become an Episcopalian minister and even contemplates a life of celibacy, much to Abra’s disappointment.  His devout nature causes friction in his relationship with Abra, who feels she cannot live up to his expectations.  Overtime, Abra comes to realize that Aron does not love her; rather, he loves an idealized version of her that exists only in his mind—just as was the case with Adam’s love of Cathy.  Aron also comes to harshly judge his brother Cal whom he sees as living a sinful life.

Aron is destroyed when confronted by the reality of Cathy.  That the blood of a depraved prostitute runs in his veins is too much for him to bear.  Though he is killed shortly after he runs away and joins the military, it is likely he experienced a more significant emotional or spiritual death after the confrontation.  Readers are left to wonder if Aron would have ever been able to recover from the crushing blow had he survived the war.

Samuel Hamilton

Samuel Hamilton, a transplant from Northern Ireland, arrived in the Salinas Valley around 1870.  Samuel is the bearded patriarch of a large family from which John Steinbeck is descended (139).  Samuel unfortunately settles on dry, rocky ground and is never able to establish a successful farm.  Through his ingenuity and industrious nature, he manages to eke out a meager living to support his wife and nine children.

More importantly than financial prosperity, however, Samuel Hamilton is respected and admired by nearly all those who know him.  He has a sharp and inquisitive mind and possesses a great love for reading.  His reading interests vary widely.  He even buys a copy of William James’ Principles of Psychology behind his wife’s back—odd for an Irish immigrant farmer at the turn of the twentieth century.  Steinbeck implies Samuels’ tremendous intellectual curiosity and creativity make him special.  He also passes his love of learning onto his children, who “[. . .] were better read and better bread than most of their contemporaries.  To them Samuel communicated his love of learning, and he set them apart from the prideful ignorance of their time” (147).  He has a knack for invention but not business and so loses many potentially great ideas to more savvy individuals.

While Samuel never could get water to his own farm, he has a special gift for locating water in the valley.  Samuel meets Lee and Adam Trask when Lee comes to fetch him to see if he can locate water on the old Sanchez ranch that Adam has purchased.  He locates water using a special forked stick, which he refers to as his “magic wand” (165).  When Adam inquires about how the stick works, Samuel explains it this way: “I don’t really believe in it save that it works. [. . .] Maybe it’s this way.  Maybe I know where the water is, feel it in my skin. Some people have a gift in this direction or that.  Suppose—well, call it humility, or a deep disbelief in myself, forced me to do a magic to bring to the surface the thing I know anyway” (167).

Samuel’s sensitive and intuitive nature makes him keenly perceptive about both natural phenomenon and the subtle psychology of the human mind.  He sees similar tendencies in Lee, Adam’s servant, and so comes to greatly respect him.  He recognizes the inhumanity of Cathy and is greatly grieved by her.  He also immediately sees the faults in Adam’s worship of his wife and unattainable dream of creating a garden.  Likewise, he knows the great damage Adam is doing to his sons after he falls into a hopeless stupor once Cathy deserts him.  Samuel saves Adam’s sons twice—once by bringing them into the world and second by revealing the truth about Cathy to Adam to goad him into living again.

Though Samuel dies half way through the novel, he remains an important influence throughout as his figure is frequently recalled by both Lee and Adam later in the story.  Even Kate remembers the effect Samuel had on her.  His presence resounds again at the very end of the novel when Adam blesses Cal with the word “timshel” since it was Lee’s explanation of the term and the resulting glory of humanity’s apparent freedom to exercise choice which drove Samuel to tell Adam about Cathy in the first place.


Lee is Adam Trask’s complex and interesting Chinese-American servant.  Readers meet Lee when he goes to pick up Samuel to bring him back to the ranch to discuss boring wells with Adam.  On the surface, Lee appears a stereotypical Chinese manservant, wearing a queue and speaking in pidgin Chinese.  Within a few moments of meeting him and learning Lee was born in America, Samuel tells Lee, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure out why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the back bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years” (161).  Lee and Samuel are great friends from that moment on.  Lee explains he essentially hides behind a stereotypical Chinese mask since that is what the surrounding American culture expects from him.

Behind the façade, Lee is highly intelligent, thoughtful, well-read and kind.  Rather than being humiliated by his position as a servant, he sees servitude as a unique position to exercise power over a master who comes to rely too heavily upon his servant.  Lee, however, does not take advantage of this position.  He ends up running Adam’s household and raising his twin sons while Adam languishes in his depression.  Once Adam emerges from his stupor, Lee presents to him 10 years of carefully maintained accounts—every household penny accounted for.

Besides his role as surrogate father to the twins, Lee plays an important role in the novel by introducing the concept of “timshel.”  When the twins are fifteen months old, Samuel descends upon the Trask property to force Adam to name his unclaimed and unloved sons.  In the process, Samuel and Lee end up discussing the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Together they ponder the significance of the story, particularly that because Abel dies, all of humanity is descended from the banished murderer, Cain.  Intrigued by contradictory translations of the wording in the story, Lee consults Chinese elders with whom he undertakes a study of Hebrew in order to translate the passage more accurately.

Later in the novel, Lee explains his findings to both Adam and Samuel, who has come to bid the men farewell.  In contrast to the two conflicting translations of the word timshel—one which orders Cain to triumph over sin (do thou triumph) and the other, which prophesies Cain will triumph over sin (thou shalt triumph), Lee and his elders conclude the word is most accurately translated as “thou mayest.”  Lee interprets the significance of the word in this manner: “But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice.  He can choose his course and fight it through and win” (301-02).

Lee’s words have a tremendous impact on both Samuel and Adam.  They immediately inspire Samuel to choose to reveal the truth about Cathy to Adam, which he hopes will force Adam to make a choice: get up and live or lay down and die.  At the very end of the novel, we see the lasting impact the words have had on Adam.  In the face of one of his son’s death, at least implicitly at the hand of the other, Adam is able to bless Cal, who has struggled throughout his entire life to choose right over wrong, with the word “Timshel.”  Essentially Lee saves Cal’s life by not only presenting Adam with the material circumstance to bless Cal by bringing him in front of his father and forcing Adam to speak, but he has also presented Adam with the spiritual understanding he needs to help free Cal from the weight of his sins.

Abra Bacon

The Trasks are first introduced to Abra Bacon and her family when Abra is 10 years old.  Her family stops at the Trask ranch for shelter during a storm.  Abra is intelligent and precocious.  She seems much more mature than other girls her age.  Later when Adam asks Cal Abra’s age, he replies, “Nearly fifteen.  But she’s—well, more than that some ways” (453).  Lee comments that she was born a woman.  As a child, she is immediately drawn to the sweet and innocent Aron, which sparks Cal’s jealousy and anger towards her and his brother.  Though they are together for just a few moments, Aron and Abra decide they will be married some day.

 A few years later, the twins end up attending the same school as Abra once the Trasks move to Salinas.  Abra and Aron’s relationship burgeons and Abra grows close to the Trask family, especially Lee, who eventually comes to see her as a daughter figure.  He presents to her a jade button, his dead mother’s only ornament.  Initially, Aron relies on Abra for much needed motherly affection.  Later he begins to reject her affections as he becomes increasingly introverted and more devoted to the Episcopalian church.  Abra struggles to be what Aron needs her to be, but as she matures, she realizes that Aron does not love her for who she actually is as a person, but rather he loves some idealized vision of Abra that exists only in his mind.

As the novel progresses, readers learn more about Abra’s family, which seems cold and unloving.  As she does with Aron, Abra hides her true self from her mother and father.  Her mother dresses her like a doll and orders all of her affairs.  She tells Cal her father never loved her because he wanted a son, probably to name Abraham, which is why he named her “Abra.”  

At the end of the novel, Abra tells Cal she no longer loves Aron.  She accepts that she cannot live up to his expectations and that she is just as imperfect as Cal, who considers himself stained because of his family heritage.  Abra says she is equally bad as she has discovered her father is a liar and thief who has embezzled money from his company.  Abra finally achieves acceptance from the understanding Lee and Cal.  She is instrumental in Cal’s redemption at the end of the novel as it is she he goes to in his despair and she who forces him back to his father’s bedside.  Together Abra and Lee save Cal from self-destruction.

Minor Characters

Mrs. Trask

Mrs. Trask is Cyrus’ first wife and the unnamed mother of Adam.  She considered herself to be deeply religious and believed that when bad things happened to her it was punishment from God.   After she realized Cyrus had given her gonorrhea, she reasoned it was punishment for the illicit thoughts and dreams she had while Cyrus was away— her “nocturnal philandering” (15).  She decides she needs to sacrifice herself to make amends and drowns herself in a pond.

Alice Trask

Alice lived on a farm neighboring Cyrus Trask’s property and is quickly married at age 17 to Cyrus just weeks after his first wife’s death.  She soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to Charles.  She mostly busies herself with raising the boys, cooking and keeping the house clean. She rarely exhibits emotion and only smiles when she is alone.  Only Adam ever catches a glimpse of her smiling and this causes him to long for the motherly affection he never received.  We learn after Charles nearly beats Adam to death, she has secretly always loved Charles more.  When Cyrus is away on military business, she is required to send regular reports to him about the household affairs.  She keeps her letters short and to the point. She suffers from consumption but keeps her condition hidden, fearing Cyrus’s military discipline will subject her to a treatment that will likely kill her.  She dies from consumption while Adam is away in the army.

Liza Hamilton

Liza is the practical, hard working and devout wife of Samuel Hamilton.  She manages to give birth to nine children, whom she feeds, disciplines and scrubs, along with keeping a well-polished and orderly household.  Liza is unemotional and plain in her appearance.  Above all, she places a firm and unwavering faith in God, whom she is certain shares all of her opinions: “It was well known that Liza Hamilton and the Lord God held similar convictions on nearly every subject” (178).  While she is disdainful of her husband’s creative thinking, she cares for him and loves and respects his kindness.

George Hamilton

George is the oldest son of Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  Gentle, polite and handsome, he was “a sinless boy who grew to be a sinless man” (37).  Eventually he marries and becomes an insurance salesman.

William Hamilton

Will is the second son of Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  Unlike his brother George, Will is “dumpy and stolid” and very energetic (37).  He marries a woman named Delia.  Will develops an interest in business at an early age and has a knack for creating and investing in profitable ventures.  He grows wealthy selling Fords and is politically and fiscally conservative.  Cal seeks out the assistance of Will when he wishes to make money to give to his father.  Together they invest in beans, which Will perceives will be in great demand with the outbreak of WW I.  They both make a large profit off the venture.  Later in the novel, and to Adam’s surprise, readers learn William is disdainful of his father for his failure to achieve financial success in life.

Tom Hamilton

Tom is the third son of Samuel and Liza Hamilton. He is lively and enthusiastic and likes to dream big. He inherited his father’s inventive nature but is more daring.  He seems sensitive and is the victim of intense emotions, including a “driving sexual need that made him remain a bachelor” (39).  He often experiences guilt over what he perceives as his excesses.  Described by Samuel as “quavering over greatness,” his family members, especially his mother, are protective of his sensitive nature and apparent passivity (280).   Unlike his brothers and sisters who eventually move away, he remains on the family farm.  Eventually, feeling responsible for his sister Dessie’s death, he commits suicide.

Joseph Hamilton

Joe is the youngest son of Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  He is “physically lazy” and considered "the darling of the family"(40).  Since he is apparently inept at farm work, he is sent to college. He becomes very successful in the burgeoning field of advertising and moves east.

Una Hamilton

Una is the oldest daughter of Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  She is described as "thoughtful, studious [and] dark" (40).  She lacks her father’s sense of humor.  Despite her dark intensity, she is Samuel’s favorite--his “greatest joy” (273).  She eventually marries a technician who is trying to invent color film.  He is uncomfortable around her family and so moves Una to the border of Oregon.  Una seems to disappear for awhile until, shockingly, her body is brought home.  The actual cause of her death is mysterious but it is apparent she has lived in great poverty.  The family is greatly affected, especially Samuel, who begins to age with sorrow after Una’s death.

Lizzie Hamilton

Lizzie is the second daughter of Samuel and Liza Hamilton and quite a socialite.  She is ashamed of her family’s rural poverty and has the ambition to ultimately live a much more cosmopolitan lifestyle.  She marries at a young age and moves away from the Salinas Valley. She returns only for funerals.

Dessie Hamilton

Dessie is the third daughter of Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  Like her father, she is lively and full laughter.  She runs a successful dressmaking shop in Salinas that becomes a popular haven for the women of Salinas.  Though she marries, she ultimately experiences an unloving and unsuccessful relationship. Her liveliness withers a bit after the failed relationship.  Eventually she sells her house to Adam Trask and moves back to the family farm with Tom where she dies after suffering from an ongoing, painful stomach ailment. Out of guilt, Tom kills himself shortly after her death.

Olive Hamilton

Olive, John Steinbeck’s mother, is the fourth daughter of Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  She aspires to be a teacher and moves to Salinas at 15 to attend secondary school.  She becomes a well-respected and hard-working teacher by the age of 18.  She marries Ernest Steinbeck and moves to Paso Robles and then to King City and eventually back to Salinas.  Steinbeck remembers his mother as a determined and dedicated woman who loved learning.  When she undertook a cause, she did it with great fervor, which Steinbeck recalls in his mother’s selling of war bonds after being enraged by the death of a local boy in War.

Mollie Hamilton

Mollie is the youngest daughter of the Hamilton family.  She is a “little beauty with lovely blond hair and violet eyes” (41). She marries William Martin and eventually moves San Francisco.

Mr. Ames

Mr. Ames is Cathy Ames’s father.  He operates a tannery in Massachusetts.  Unlike everyone else, Mr. Ames is suspicious of his daughter and knows there is something not quite right about her, though keeps his thoughts to himself.  He tries to teach Cathy about running the tannery, but she ends up robbing him and then setting the family’s home on fire.  Mr. Ames perishes in the fire.

Mrs. Ames

Mrs. Ames is Cathy’s mother.  She is quite blinded to her daughter’s behavior.  She believes her daughter was sexually assaulted after finding Cathy at age 10 in a compromising situation with two boys.  She blames some of Cathy’s odd behavior on shock caused by the incident.  Unlike her husband, Mrs. Ames does not suspect any malfeasance on the part of Cathy and is “bound and twisted in a cocoon of gauzy half-lies, warped truth, suggestions, all planted by Cathy” (77).  She also dies in the house fire set by Cathy.

Mr. Edwards

Mr. Edwards is a cold-blooded whoremaster from Boston who circulates his girls in 33 New England cities.  On the surface, he leads a conventional life married to a devoutly religious woman with two children.  When Cathy seeks out Mr. Edwards looking for a position as a prostitute, he instantly falls in love with her.  He keeps her as his mistress, paying for her housing and living expenses.  Cathy takes advantage of Mr. Edward’s jealous nature and torments him with fears of her leaving.  Eventually he learns of the house fire that killed Cathy’s parents and becomes angry at her manipulation.  He takes Cathy to Connecticut and whips her and leaves her for dead.  He runs away from the scene of his crime and is sick for a short time after the incident but he quickly returns to his normal life.  Mr. Edwards dies at age 67 from choking on a chicken bone.

Mrs. Edwards

Mrs. Edwards is the deeply religious wife of the whoremaster Mr. Edwards.  She is ignorant of Mr. Edwards’s actual profession and believes he is an importer.  She keeps herself busy with her children, her cooking and her church.  Overall, she is quite content with her life.

James Grew

Grew is Cathy's Latin teacher at her high school in Massachusetts.  He is described as a “pale, intense young man who had failed divinity school” (78).  He experiences a short period of happiness and confidence but then becomes nervous and sickly.  Although never seen with Cathy outside of class, he frantically visits the Ames’ residence the night before his death, urgently desiring to talk to Mr. Ames who turns him away. Later that night, he commits suicide.  The novel implies Cathy drives him to kill himself.

Mr. Hallam

Mr. Hallam is the innkeeper of a hotel that houses circuit prostitutes in Connecticut.  The hotel is supplied with girls by Mr. Edwards, a whoremaster from Boston. Charles Trask often visits the prostitutes in Mr. Hallam’s establishment.

Alex Platt

Platt finds Mr. Edwards’s suitcase and Cathy's box of money and her purse, which were left at the scene of Cathy’s beating.  The items have no identification, however, and no one in the area puts together that the money and the purse belong to Cathy.


Samuel Hamilton’s horse.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck is the author and narrator of East of Eden.  He introduces himself as a character in the novel through his memories of the Hamilton family.  He describes his battle with pneumonia as a teenager to illustrate his mother Olive’s character as she helped him recover from the disease by, in his opinion, simply willing him to get well.

Dr. Tilson

Dr. Tilson is the doctor in Salinas who tends to Cathy when she tries to abort her baby with a knitting needle. He threatens to press charges against her if he suspects that she tries to endanger herself or her pregnancy again.

Louis Lippo

Lippo introduces Adam to Samuel and Liza Hamilton.


Bordoni was the Swiss immigrant and owner of the Sanchez Place purchased by Adam Trask in Salinas Valley.

Martin Hopps

Hopps is a shy boy who lives around the corner from the Steinbeck family in Salinas.  He is killed in WWI, which greatly perturbs Olive Steinbeck.  She ferociously sells war bonds as her way of getting even against the Germans who killed Martin.  Eventually she wins a ride in an Army plane for her efforts.

Rabbit Holman

Holman is a carpenter and ex-prospector in Salinas.  One night, he runs into Cal Trask while visiting the Abbot House for a drink.  Rabbit ends up getting extremely drunk and forgets he is talking to Cal.  Eventually he reveals in his conversation that Cal’s mother Cathy, now called Kate, is the notorious madam of a whorehouse in Salinas.

Horace Quinn

Quinn is the deputy sheriff of King City.  He interrogates Adam after Adam is shot by Cathy.  Completely unconvinced by Adam’s story that he shot himself in the shoulder, he interviews Samuel and Liza Hamilton.  Afterwards, he goes to tell the strange tale to the sheriff of Salinas, who reveals to him that Cathy has shown up in town and to work at Faye’s brothel. Together, the two decide never to tell Adam about the fate of Cathy in order to protect him and his children from shame.

Julius Euskadi

Euskadi is a well-to-do Basque who accompanies Horace Quinn to interview Adam after he is shot.  He attends mostly out of curiosity.


Jenny, also known as Fartin' Jenny, is the madam of one of the three brothels in Salinas.  She is known for her sense of humor and congenial nature.  She is a “keeper of secrets, a giver of secret loans” (218).  People in town know to go to Jenny’s if they are looking for a fun, light-hearted time, since it “jangle[d] with honky-tonk and rock[ed] with belching laughter” (522).

The Nigger

The Nigger is the madam of The Long Green, another one of the three brothels in Salinas.  She is described as a “handsome, austere woman with snow white hair and a dark and awful dignity” (218).  The experience at The Long Green is described as serious and mysterious, like a “voodoo offering” (522).  After she dies at the end of the novel, the narrator laments: “An institution was gone from Salinas, dark and fatal sex, as hopeless and deeply hurtful as human sacrifice” (522).


Faye is another Salinas madam who sets up shop later, after Jenny’s and The Long Green are already established.  Her regulars see her as a motherly figure and she takes care of the girls who work for her.  She contributes generously to charities. She hires Kate (Cathy) and, through Kate’s manipulation, begins to rely on her for business matters and eventually comes to see her as a daughter figure.  Faye decides to will all of her wealth to Kate and makes the mistake of telling her.  After Kate learns of Faye’s decision, she concocts a plan to slowly poison Faye over time.  After months of keeping Faye in ill health, Kate finishes her off and inherits all of her property.

Cotton Eye

The blind piano player at Faye's.


Ethel is a prostitute at Faye's.  Towards the end of the novel, Ethel resurfaces and visits Kate’s implying she has the empty poison bottles used by Kate to poison Faye in her possession.  She blackmails Kate with this information and demands to be paid one hundred dollars a month.  Kate uses Joe Valery to frame Ethel for theft and Ethel is run out of Salinas by the cops.  Shortly afterwards Kate becomes increasing paranoid about the whereabouts of Ethel and sends Joe Valery out to locate her.  Joe discovers that Ethel was found dead in Santa Cruz.  He decides to keep this information to himself in hope of using Kate’s paranoia about Ethel to his advantage.


Prostitute at Faye's.


Prostitute at Faye's.

Dr. Wilde

Dr. Wilde is a doctor in Salinas who tends to Faye during her prolonged illness, which, unbeknownst to him, is caused by Kate’s poisoning of Faye.  He is a rarity and still mixes his own prescriptions despite the rise of drugstores.  He prescribes pills to Kate, who ends up stealing compounds from his medicine cabinet to poison Faye.


Cook at Faye's.


Prostitute at Faye’s.


Prostitute at Faye's.

Mr. Bacon

Mr. Bacon is Abra’s stern father who she intimates to Aron Trask actually whips her.  He is also a county supervisor in Salinas. While at first he is comfortable with his daughter’s relationship with Aron, his attitude changes once Adam Trask loses part of his wealth in his failed attempt to transport refrigerated lettuce across the country.  He begins to encourage Abra to see other boys.  At the end of the novel, Abra discovers her father is in trouble for embezzling money from his business partners.

Mrs. Bacon

Mrs. Bacon, Abra’s mother, micromanages her daughter’s life.  As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Bacon does not know her daughter at all.  Mrs. Bacon tries to protect Mr. Bacon from the consequences of his illegal business activities.


Roy is a Ford mechanic who went to automobile school in Chicago.  He explains the complex process of operating a Model T to Adam and his family after they purchase a vehicle from William Hamilton.

Mr. Rolf

Mr. Rolf is the young, curly-haired Episcopal priest with whom Aron studies.  He sees Aron as his “spiritual son” and greatly encourages Aron in his desire to enter the priesthood (485).

Joe Valery

Born Joseph Venuta, Joe becomes Kate’s right hand assistant.  He caters to Kate’s needs and does her dirty work.  With the exception of Kate, Joe distrusts most people and is only concerned about himself.  Before working for Kate, Joe escaped from a San Quentin road gang while serving a sentence for armed robbery, a fact he does not know that Kate is aware of.  Towards the end of the novel he decides to use Kate’s growing paranoia to his advantage.  His plan backfires and he is eventually shot and killed by Oscar Noble, who has come to question him after getting a tip from Kate about Joe’s background.

Hal Mahler

Pool hall owner in Santa Cruz.

Bill Primus

Bill is on the local police force in Santa Cruz.  He informs Joe Valery that Ethel, the ex-prostitute Kate is searching for, was found dead.

Henry Stanton

Friend of Adam Trask.

Crazy Alf Nichelson

Alf is a local handyman and gossip.  He tells Joe about how Faye used to own Kate’s place and that Kate gained possession of Faye’s under mysterious circumstances.  Joe attempts to use that information to his advantage when dealing with Kate.

Oscar Noble

Cop that shot Joe Valery.

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