Have I done well or ill? This is what Steinbeck says will be the question looking back at the end of our lives. In the telling of the story of the Trask family, the author goes through the generations showing the patterns of their similar struggles. Cyrus Trask, the patriarch of the Trask family and father of Adam and Charles, favors Adam over Charles, which drives Charles into a deep rage filled jealousy and he tries to kill Adam, like Cain and Abel. Adam then relieves the story of Cain and Abel with his own two sons Aron and Cal, favoring Aron over Cal. The struggle between good and evil is the one recurring narrative of human history.
The novel fist shows the struggle between Adam and Charles, who symbolically prove themselves to be Cain and Abel. The narrator describes Young Adam was always an obedient child (page 20) In this generation of Trasks Adam plays the role of Abel, good to the core with his innocence that let him shrink away from violence. Cyrus had gentleness toward Adam and he often spoke to him alone, showing favor towards him just like in the original story. Charles exhibited Cain-like traits, which can be seen when Adam beat him at a game, the hatred in Charles face frightened him (page 23) Charles had a competitors will to win over others, combined with his strength and malice, he was a dangerous man starting at a very young age. Most importantly Charles was jealous of Adam which led to contempt for him, which is Cains most influential trait. Charles shows his jealousy when he points out the reception of their presents from their father, That dog sleeps in his room And wheres the knife?(page 24) This jealousy leads to Charles trying to kill his brother, mirroring the story of Cain and Abel exactly until the point to execution. When Charles succumbs to the jealousy of his brother he has lost the battle of good and evil and fallen back onto primal actions. Throughout their youth the two brothers warily surrounded each other but the struggle of good and evil plays out despite their caution.
In East of Eden Cathy plays the part of inherent evil, drawing out the evil in those around her. The narrators introduction of Cathy as a monster foreshadows her numerous evil deeds. She murders her parents, becomes a prostitute and brothel owner, enslaves her whores with drugs, encourages sadomasochistic sexual practices, and blackmails her customers. Cathy takes the path of evil at every turn, manipulating and wounding others for her own benefit. In the novel Cathy is one of the characters that is first born evil and cannot overcome it because of her disinterest to overcome it. From the very beginning Cathy, unaware, has lost the battle to evil, controlling others to overcome her fear of what she cannot understand, goodness. Cathy acts out of a perverse love of debasement, destruction, and control. Throughout the novel Cathy tries to control people without remorse or much feeling at all. Cathy, symbolizing Satan, looks for the evil in each person and tries to draw it out and exploit it. she fails to understand the good in other characters and instead uses their trusting natures to achieve her own predatory ends. Cathy is a symbol of the human evil that will always be present in the world.
Cal and Aron Trask are the second generation to enact Cain and Abel, but Cal embodies the concept of timshel , as in the given choice. At first, it appears that Cal has inherited the evil tendencies of his mother, Cathy, and that he is destined to fulfill the role of Cain in his generation. Cal does portray Cain characteristics: he becomes fiercely jealous of Aron because of Adams obvious preference for him, and ultimately sets in motion the events that lead to Arons death. Cal even utters a parallel of the biblical retort from Cain to God about being his brothers keeper. Although he is seemingly on the path towards evil, he prays to God against it saying, dont let me be mean (page379) Although Cal is seemingly born into an evil path, he struggles against what he sees as his inherited evilthe evil of his mother, Cathyand prays to God to put him on the path toward good. Although Cal does make several bad moral choices as he is growing up, he ultimately takes Lees advice and recognizes the truth of timshel, the idea that each individual has the power to choose between good and evil in life. At the very end of the book Cal feels the weight on guilt on his shoulders from the responsibility of his brothers death (page 602). This shows that Cal is developing into a good character, which is further cemented when his father gives his blessing. With this newfound knowledge, Cal is able to go forward into a new life with Abra, confident that he controls his own moral destiny. While Cal is indeed a Cain figure, he demonstrates the ability to break out of inherited sin and act for good instead.
Cathy is a symbol of the human evil that will always be present in the world, and her loss of power over Adam and Cal makes the novels message that individuals have the choice to reject evil in favor of good. Because the struggle is an individual one, the narrator implies that no progress is made through the generationseach person must reenact the same ancient story and grapple with the same ancient problems. The narrator says that the evil of Cathy is in everyone and that means that the fight between good and evil is never ending. Through timshel we have the choice to lead a life along the path of good through the struggle of good and evil.