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Biblical Symbols and Symbolism in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

Biblical Symbolism in East of Eden

John Steinbeck includes more of the tale of Genesis: 4 than is actually told in the bible. The basis of this is a Jewish story involving twin sisters of both Cain and Abel. The two disputed over Abel’s twin whom Abel was to marry. Cain murdered Abel and wed the twin sister of his brother (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3380). The story differs also in that it is Abel who leaves his home instead of Cain. Abel found his Eden, represented by Salinas Valley, but lost it after fathering a second generation very similar to the first, Caleb representing Cain and Aron representing Abel (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3379). The story is changed by Steinbeck to illustrate the idea that men naturally have both good and evil tendencies within them, and that this mixture compels men to choose between the two. The story told is similar to an alternate interpretation of Genesis: 4 called timshel. This alternate reading introduces the idea that Cain feels evil and kills Abel because of the jealousy he feels towards his brother and God’s love for Abel (Levant, Howard. p.243).

The relationship of good to evil is found in many different ways throughout East of Eden. One way is the opposition between the two. Such a relationship is illustrated through the Cain and Abel allusions in the novel. Another relationship is that the two must coexist. This relation is represented by the arrival of both the church and the brothel in town at the same time. Good comes from evil is the third relationship. Cathy making Adam appear all the more pure shows this relation. The last relationship is that both terms are relative (Fonterose, Joseph. p.3381). Caleb Trask is illustrated as being a man more evil than others are. This innate wickedness varies from the immoral values of other characters such as Charles or Cathy-Kate. The wickedness is attributed to Caleb’s ability to choose between good and evil and his choosing of the latter (Levant, Howard. p.240). In East of Eden, good is associated with individual morals. Examples of such would be abstinence from sexual activity and virtues like generosity and self-respect. Evil is illustrated through acts such as prostitution and murder (Fonterose, Joseph. p. 3381). Sex is treated as a carnal act that cannot be good. It is a sin; where in other Steinbeck novels, it would be easily accepted.

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden – Religious References

Religious References in East of Eden

Religion constantly appears throughout Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Among these religious appearances are the similarities between the Cain and Abel story and the characters, the Hebrew word timshel, and the presence of God/Fate in the novel.

First, East of Eden is a reenactment of the Cain and Abel tale. Many similarities are seen between the two. The title East of Eden comes from the biblical tale when ” ‘Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden’ ” (Steinbeck 352). The relationship between Abel and Cain, who killed Abel, is similar to those of Adam and Charles, who once tried to kill Adam, and Aron and Caleb, who informed Aron of their mother’s profession, an act which led to Aron’s death in World War I. Charles and Caleb fight for their fathers’ affections in the same way in which Cain fought with Abel over the Lord’s attention. Also in the novel, “the Cain characters … are identified by names beginning with “C” (Cyrus, Charles, Cathy, Caleb) and the Abel characters … with “A” (Alice, Adam, Aron, Abra)” (Lisca 269).

Next is the word timshel– thou mayest– a Hebrew word spoken to Cain by the Lord: ” ‘if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him’ ” (Steinbeck 351). Lee discovers that the verb in this passage has been translated as both thou shalt [rule over evil] and do thou [rule over evil].With the help of his Chinese elders and a Jewish Rabbi, Lee determines that the original meaning is thou mayest–

“the word timshel … gives a choice” (398) or free will to mankind to commit good or evil acts. This word appears often in the novel and is important at the very end where Adam’s final timshel blesses and forgives Caleb and reminds him that even after his “murder of his brother … he can still choose his course and fight it through and win”, meaning Caleb still has the chance to overcome the tendency for evil which he believes he has inherited form his mother. (Gribben 96)

One of the novel’s epiphanies is Lee’s translation of timshel to thou mayest. This translation puts choice into man’s destiny. According to this view, we are not condemned; we have a choice between good and evil.

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