"We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil." In the novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck emphasizes the theme of this struggle between good and evil as he explores his characters and their lives in the California hills of the Salinas Valley. He says that this perpetual battle exists as the only true human story in which all of mankind can find themselves and their thoughts and actions. Every character, even the malicious and blatantly evil Cathy, wrestles with this internal conflict. Steinbeck says, "I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence." In East of Eden, many of the characters' struggles are obvious as they grow and learn of the often harsh and unjust world in which they were placed. Charles is torn between good and evil as a child faced with a father that only loves him second-best. Likewise, Cal feels that he is inferior to Aron's near perfection and must battle with himself constantly.
The story of good and evil, present throughout East of Eden, has been told since the beginning of mankind. In the Garden of Eden, man first became aware of the difference between virtue and vice after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. From that point on, humans had the choice to fall prey to sin or to rise about it and find God's favor. Since this story is common to each of us, it has been retold countless times in many different forms, from John Proctor's struggle in The Crucible to the creature's battle in Frankenstein. These stories and East of Eden have endured through the years because they tell the story of mankind and our never-ending quest to conquer evil with good.
In East of Eden, the struggle between good and evil is constantly seen both internally and between characters. Cathy, symbolizing Satan, looks for the evil in each person and tries to draw it out and exploit it. Steinbeck says, "And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is." Cathy must change her name and appearance and move often to continue her corrupt work. After murdering her parents, she becomes Catherine Amesbury and later changes her name again to Kate after shooting Adam and leaving her sons. Cathy has to put on different faces regularly. To Faye, she is the sweet, adoring daughter, but to the girls who live in her whorehouse, she is the merciless punishment enforcer. She must constantly watch her steps and plan any action from start to finish to make sure she will be able to carry it out. This is the story of evil. Satan can always conceive new and creative ways to lure people to him and yet the evil always dies and is forgotten. On the other hand, virtue is remembered and honored from generation to generation. Samuel's teachings and philosophies are often relied on long after his death. Lee incorporates Samuel's teachings into his upraising of the Trask twins. Therefore, good always conquers in the end as it does in East of Eden. Cathy begins to realize reluctantly near the end of her life that the evil on which she thrived caused her downfall. She had trained herself never to trust anyone and in the end Cathy even began to doubt herself.
The most obvious case of an internal struggle between good and evil is present in Cal. As a child, he is aware that his light-haired brother is favored over him by nearly everyone. When Cal finally confronts his mother, he believes that Adam loves Aron more because he looks like Cathy. Cal's peers are scared of him and he has no friends. The first young girl that that twins meet is won by Aron. Cal often feels that he has no choice in his evil actions. He believes that his mother's blood that runs through his veins causes him to be bad. Most of Cal's evil actions are merely because of his desire for love and acceptance. "...everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection...and there is the story of mankind." Cal has felt this rejection throughout his entire life. He knows that Abra favors Aron so he tricks the young girl to try to win her love.
But underneath Cal's harsh appearance, is an earnest desire to live a good life. He has a genuine love for Aron and a desire to protect his weaker sibling. One night he cries and prays to God to help him be good in both his actions and thoughts. Once he gets to know his father better, Cal wants to help him recover some of the money he lost in a business venture and devotes his time to making over $20,000. Yet when he presents his gift to Adam, it is rejected and Cal feels that it is he who is being rejected. He who loves and respects his father is turned away while Aron who feels that he is almost too good to talk to his father is honored with a gold watch. This rejection causes Cal to feel that he is evil and that leading a good life is hopeless. At the end of the novel, goodness returns again to Cal. On his deathbed, Adam blesses his only living son, giving him the choice to live his life in either good or evil from that minute onward. Cal now understands that even though he has made mistakes throughout his life, his father's love will always be with him and he is free to live his life righteously.
"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love." Cal's attempt to lead a good life had to start with self-love and self-acceptance. Once he realized that he would make many mistakes in his life and that this was common of all of mankind, he was able to dedicate his life to living it so he will be remembered as a good person. Cal was accepted by both his father and Abra and found the love for which he had been searching for. In Cal, one can see the entire story of mankind unfold-the search for love, the feeling of rejection and hopelessness, and finally the acceptance of one's individuality. Steinbeck successfully created a story that will endure for generations because of its truth and honesty of the story of mankind and our constant battle between good and evil.