Notes on the Imagery of Cain and Abel in Steinbeck’s East of Eden

November 06, 2018

Delivered at New Saint Andrews College to the Lost Generation Literature class, November 6, 2018. Good morning. First of all, I recognize that Cain and Abel imagery is arguably the most obvious biblical allusion made in the course of the novel, and therefore I will not be spending a great deal of time arguing that such imagery does in fact exist, or analyzing where or in what manner it exists. Rather I will take it for granted that the biblical story of Cain and Abel is the dominant myth lying behind the characters of Adam and Charles, Cal and Aron, and attempt to do some close reading of the passages where this story is referenced, in order to hopefully provide some insight into what this imagery really means for the novel. Cain and Abel, as biblical characters, do not loom reproachfully over the human characters of the novel with a fierce, allegorical symbolism. Rather, the human characters are left free to do as they will, and the story of Cain and Abel is, at various times, referenced explicitly or implicitly in order to provide interpretation and symbolic context. The story of Cain and Abel becomes almost a character in the story through the explicit references of the characters. For example, on page 265 of the Centennial edition which I believe most of us have, Samuel reads the sixteen verses of the story from the Bible which he borrows from Adam, because when they first mention the naming of Adam’s twins, Samuel suggests, half-jokingly, that they be called Cain and Abel, while recognizing that of course they could not; “that would be tempting whatever fate there is,” he says. Samuel, Lee, and Adam go on to meditate on the meaning of the story, with its dark, desolate outlook on man’s condition. More than the story of the Fall, they say, the murder of Abel provides a concrete picture of original sin, of the darkness and wickedness embedded in every human heart, and the guilt that plagues them. Lee declares, “No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us. What a great burden of guilt men have!” Every man tries to take the burden of guilt on himself; “We gather our arms full of guilt as though it were precious stuff. It must be that we want it that way.” As the conversation goes on, Samuel points out the seeming fickleness of God in the story:

‘Adam was excited. “Yes, but why did God condemn Cain? That’s an injustice.” Samuel said, “There’s an advantage to listening to the words. God did not condemn Cain at all. Even God can have a preference, can’t he? … Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a man’s feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger.” Lee said, “St. Paul says to the Hebrews that Abel had faith.” “There’s no reference to it in Genesis,” Samuel said. “No faith or lack of faith. Only a hint of Cain’s temper.”’

From this conversation between Samuel, Adam, and Lee, there are three brief observations I would like to make about the usage of the biblical story. Firstly, the story is read in order to shed light on their own feelings about identity, faith, guilt, and family. East of Eden, after all, is very much a story about family, starting off as it does with a genealogical essay on the origins of the central characters. Perhaps surprisingly, the characters of the novel are quite well aware of the symbolic story that their own actions reference. Just as though the Fall, witnessed to by the sin of Cain, original guilt is passed down, so East of Eden is a story about the failures of parents, and the sins of children. Arguably, just as the failures of Cathy’s parents contributed to her sociopathy, so did the failures of Adam (both in his naiveté about Cathy in the first place, and later in his almost complete absence from his boys’ lives) contributed to Cal’s guilt at the end. The story of Cain and Abel is not the allegorical parent of Steinbeck’s novel, but rather a foil for many of its characters’ central relationships, with its own unique place in the story. Secondly, the interaction of Samuel with the story emphasizes the need to approach the guilt and sin of the novel without naiveté, with open-eyed acknowledgment of the harsh realities that seems to present itself in God’s providence. Divine history is a history of blood and guilt, along with redemption, and failing to recognize the paradoxes in the Bible and in life can lead only to a glib, uncomforting reconciliation. Steinbeck shows us this in the character of Liza, Samuel’s wife:

Lee asked, “How does Mrs. Hamilton feel about the paradoxes of the Bible?” “Why, she does not feel anything because she does not admit they are there.” ‘“But—” “Hush, man. Ask her. And you’ll come out of it older but not less confused.” Liza says that we should not attempt to understand, that we should merely accept.

Samuel says of the stories of the Fall and of Cain and Abel: “Two stores have haunted us and followed us from our beginning,” Samuel said. “We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the story of the original sin and the story of Cain and Abel. And I don’t understand either of them. I don’t understand them at all but I feel them. She says I should not try to understand them. She says why should we try to explain a verity.” We ought to try and understand. But we have to start by admitting the truth, which is quite often not a comforting one at all. Thirdly, we should not fail to notice what Lee says of the nature of a good story. When we read it, if it is good, we in some measure feel the truth of it in our hearts. I believe we would be amiss not to see some Steinbeck’s own hopes for his novel in this statement. The guilt of Cain at the murder of Abel, the guilt of Cal at his implicit murder of Aron, and the guilt each of us feels at the burden of sin passed on to us from our ancestors, speaks to us. Finally, in the remaining time left to us, I would like to bring us to Cal and Lee’s conversation at the very end, in which Cal must wrestle with his own guilt, and Lee bardicly attempts to find some explanation for it all, for the generations of death and anger of brother against brother. Lee’s thoughts might well be ours, as readers:

“I had to find out my stupidities for myself. These were my stupidities: I thought the good are destroyed while the evil survived and prosper. ‘I thought I had inherited both the scars of the fire and the impurities which made the fire necessary — all inherited, I thought. All inherited. Do you feel that way? That isn’t good enough … Maybe you’ll come to know that every man in every generation is refired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger to make a perfect cup—thin, strong, and translucent? … Cal, listen to me. Can you think that whatever made us—would stop trying?”

Steinbeck’s is a story of Cain and Abel in which we do not give up on Cain, in which we do not give up on ourselves simply because we are children of Cain. It’s not good enough to simply recount the story of ancestral sins. We must try and understand ourselves, our own guilt, and act, because we have free will, the power to choose. Adam blesses Cal with the word “Timshel,” meaning, as rendered by Steinbeck, “thou mayest.” We are all Cal, having inherited the sins of our fathers, but blessed with the power of choice.

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Michael Helvey

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