East of Eden: A Critical Analysis of John Steinbeck's Masterpiece

East of Eden: A Critical Analysis of John Steinbeck's Masterpiece

Based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel of the same title, East of Eden was released on April 10, 1955. The film achieved immense commercial success and critical acclaim, including the nod of approval from Steinbeck himself, who declared it was the best film he had seen. Directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel set in the Salinas Valley of California during the early twentieth century, just as the United States enters World War I. Taken from the final section of Stein-beck’s original work, the film adaptation, written by playwright Paul Osborn, begins in Part Four of the novel. It focuses almost exclusively on the conflict between two teenage brothers, Aron and Cal Trask, over the love of their father Adam and a girl, Abra. East of Eden won the award for Best Dramatic Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. The following year, the film received four Academy Award nominations with Jo Van Fleet winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. East of Eden was awarded the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture Drama and received three nominations at the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards that same year.

East of Eden

Although it is not as popular as his most famous novel, Grapes of Wrath (1939), many critics consider East of Eden to be Steinbeck’s most ambitious novel. In contrast to Kazan’s film, the novel spans several generations—playing out the biblical story of Cain and Abel not once but twice. According to Steinbeck, the epic contained all of his knowledge about the human struggle between good and evil. Set in the Salinas Valley of California where Steinbeck grew up, the book contains many people and events based on Stein-beck’s experiences during his childhood, although the main conflicts in the story are somewhat removed from the author’s history. Despite its ambition and best-selling commercial success, East of Eden received mixed critical reviews due to what some perceived to be a diffuse treatment of the novel’s key themes and inadequate character development. After Oprah Winfrey, an American celebrity and television icon, selected East of Eden for her book club in 2002, the novel experienced a resurgence in popularity, which peaked in the summer of 2003. A new film adaptation of the work is scheduled for release by Universal Pictures in 2010.

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Plot Summary 

Due to the length and complexity of Steinbeck’s novel, director Elia Kazan and playwright Paul Osborn chose to begin the film at approximately Chapter 37, in Part Four of the book. The film opens in 1917 in northern California, just before the United States enters World War I. As the opening credits roll, the setting of the picturesque Salinas Valley is established with a long panning shot of Monterey, a city on the Pacific coast. The Trask family lives in a small agricultural town named Salinas, roughly fifteen miles from Monterey. The two cities are separated by the ‘‘dark and brooding’’ Santa Lucia Mountains.

James Dean Makes His Debut as A Troubled Boy in Search of His Mother

The action begins as Cal Trask (played by the soon-to-be-famous James Dean) a teenage boy, quietly follows an older woman through the streets of Monterey as she runs errands. While she is dressed like an upstanding lady, the reactions of the townspeople indicate that she is not very respected by the community: the bank teller giggles as she makes a large deposit, indicating to viewers that the source of her income is questionable. Cal suspects that this woman is his mother and he is correct. He has never met her because when he was young, she left the family and moved to a brothel in Salinas, although this only becomes clear to Cal much later in the film.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Cal is led to the brothel by a local rancher who he meets one night at a bar. Kate’s character is complex and her disturbing history (including murdering her parents and later shooting Adam Trask in the shoulder as she leaves the family) comprise a substantial portion of the story, whereas in the film she appears only in her interactions with the two Trask boys. Despite the considerable focus on Kate in Steinbeck’s novel, her characterization is often criticized for being unrealistic and disruptive of the plot’s narrative coherence. By contrast, Kate in the film is generally regarded as a believable character, so much so that Jo Van Fleet won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as Kate. While the novel candidly discusses the nature of Kate’s involvement with prostitution, the film treats the matter with discretion, as would be expected for films released by Hollywood in the 1950s, implying but not explicitly stating that it is a brothel Kate runs.

Kate observes Cal following her and asks Anne, a girl working at Kate’s brothel, if she has seen him before. After Kate disappears into the house, Cal throws a stone at one of the house’s windows. He is then questioned by Joe, Kate’s assistant. Cal expresses a desire to speak to Kate but then tells Joe to tell her that he hates her. Joe’s full story is not portrayed in the film; in the novel he is an escaped convict who tries to gain access to the power and money Kate has acquired during years of running the brothel. Late in the novel Kate again demonstrates her keen intellect and unparalleled ability to use people while protecting herself when she anticipates Joe’s actions and informs the police of his previous jailbreak, prompting them to gun him down as he tries to leave town.

Due to the length and multigenerational nature of Steinbeck’s novel, many characters are omitted in the film adaptation. Of these, perhaps the most significant is the character Lee. In Steinbeck’s novel Lee is a Chinese immigrant who lives with the Trasks and raises Aron and Cal after they are abandoned by their mother, while Adam mopes about and wants nothing to do with the children. A philosophical man, Lee is mostly content with his role as a housekeeper and caters to the expectations of the people around him by faking a Pidgin accent and speaking in broken English, despite his ability to speak fluently.

A Brooding, Violent but Tragically Misunderstood Loner

After hitching a ride on the top of a train back to Salinas, Cal follows his brother Aron and his brother’s girlfriend, Abra, as they walk, eavesdropping on their conversation. The boys’ father, Adam Trask, has just purchased an ice factory because he is in the process of inventing a novel system for shipping lettuce by train to cities on the East coast. In Steinbeck’s novel, the father of the boys is known by Cathy (who changed her name after moving to Salinas, in part to hide her dark past) to be Adam’s brother, Charles, reflecting the first instantiation of the Cain and Abel story. They were conceived after Cathy drugged Adam on their wedding night and slept with Charles. Adam moved out to California with Cathy, in part to get away from his brother who nearly beat him to death when they were children after being rejected by their father, Cyrus Trask. Cathy did not want to go, a fact that is alluded to at various points in the film, and eventually left Adam and her children to live a life of financial independence. In the film, Cal, who has been out wandering the streets all night, arrives at the ice factory but offers no explanation or apology to his father. Adam is angry and confused by Cal’s behavior. In contrast to his cold interaction with Cal, Adam is warm toward Aron who supports his purchase of the ice factory. While spying on Abra and Aron in the factory, Cal overhears Abra saying that she is afraid of him because he reminds her of an animal. Aron, by contrast, sees Cal as harmless and laughs at Abra’s concern. Cal becomes violently angry and sends huge blocks of ice down the ice shoot, again displeasing his father.

The Truth about Kate: A Confrontation

Later, after Cal is made to atone for his sin by reading from the Bible, he confronts Adam about the lie he and Aron were told as children about their mother. Not wanting them to know the truth, Adam told the boys that Kate was dead and in heaven. Cal reveals to Adam that he knows the truth, that she is alive. Adam and Cal talk briefly before Cal leaves abruptly to wander the streets of Monterey, as he does frequently.

Cal learns from Anne the whereabouts of his mother, Kate, and begs her to talk to him as he is being thrown out by Joe. Cal wants to know if there is anything good in his mother because he wants to understand why he is all bad. At the Monterey jail, Sam, the sheriff, shows Cal a photo of Kate and Adam on their wedding day. Cal cannot understand why Kate would hurt Adam and abandon the family.

The Lettuce Disaster

The entire town of Salinas helps prepare lettuce to be shipped on the train in ice-cooled cars. Cal designs a method to prepare the lettuce more efficiently and oversees the operation, earning his father’s praise. When Aron is nowhere to be found, Abra and Cal have an intimate conversation about Abra’s family life, in which she forgave her father for not understanding her. During their interaction, Abra flirts with Cal and teases him about a girl who has been following him, and it becomes increasingly clear that Abra is romantically interested in the older of the two brothers. Finally, Aron arrives. Adam becomes unhappy with Cal when he finds out that, in an effort to carry out the lettuce operation, Cal has taken equipment from some coal miners without asking. The whole town celebrates as the train, full of lettuce as well as Cal’s hopes to earn his father’s love, pulls away headed east. Unfortunately, the train gets stuck, the ice melts, and the lettuce rots before it arrives at its destination. In the novel, both Cal and Aron are made fun of by their peers for their father’s foolishness, an incident which is omitted in the film.

Cal decides that he wants to recoup for his father the money that was lost with the lettuce. He knows that the price of beans will increase as World War I progresses and the United States becomes involved, and he decides to invest in beans. He consults with Will Hamilton who is excited by the idea and tells Cal he will need to borrow five thousand dollars. In the film, Cal borrows this money from his mother, whereas in the novel, it is Lee who offers to lend him the money. Will Hamilton is the son of Sam Hamilton, a family friend of Adam Trask who figures quite prominently in the novel but not in the film. In the novel, Will mentors Cal after seeing in him a keen intuition for business. He feels like Cal is in some ways like a son to him. Will and Cal profit from the scarcity of food and their foresight.

Kate and Cal Connect

Cal approaches Kate as she is walking on a dirt road and Kate asks him questions about himself and Aron. When she asks about Adam, Cal responds that he does not want to talk about him. Cal asks to borrow the money for the beans. Kate takes Cal back to her place, where they talk about the business venture and why Kate left the family, explaining many of the details that Lee explains to Cal in the novel. Kate explains that she shot Adam because he wanted to keep her on the ranch where she was not happy. He was too consumed with the Bible and his purity to really understand or appreciate what Kate wanted. Cal identifies with much of what Kate describes. Kate lends Cal the money and Kate tells him he is ‘‘a likable kid.’’ In the novel, Kate’s preference for Cal over his brother is made explicit when she leaves her entire fortune to Cal before committing suicide, an event that does not take place in the film. 

The United States Enters World War I

Monterey comes alive with patriotic celebration as the United States enters World War I against Germany. During a parade (an event that does not take place in the novel), the town officials speculate that the war will be over in a couple weeks. Aron hangs back behind a tree and tells Abra that he thinks the war is not right and that nothing will ever make him go. The town officials turn out to be wrong, and word trickles in that soldiers from the area are being killed in battle. Some townsfolk lash out in anger by throwing a rock through the window of Gustav Albrecht’s business because he has a foreign accent. Adam grows tired from working at the draft board office and Aron becomes depressed by the war.

Abra and Cal enjoy each other’s company at a carnival, exchanging flirtatious glances, while Abra simultaneously worries about Aron’s absence. On the Ferris wheel, Abra wonders if Aron really loves her. She feels like she lost him because she cannot tell if he loves her. Abra and Cal kiss and Abra pulls away crying, saying, ‘‘I love Aron, I do, I do!’’ An altercation arises below the Ferris wheel between Gustav Albrecht and the townspeople who are angry that their sons are being killed in the war. Cal sees his brother among the people defending Albrecht and runs to help. A fistfight breaks out in front of Albrecht’s house and is broken up by Sam, the sheriff. Aron sees that Abra is carrying Cal’s coat and becomes angry and jealous. He yells at Cal for throwing the first punch in the fight. Cal and Aron exchange blows. Afterward, Abra begs Cal to admit that the kiss on the Ferris wheel meant nothing.

Cal Tries to Win His Father’s Love

Cal sneaks out in the middle of the night to visit Abra. He tells her his secret about making money with beans. He has made a profit and plans to give the money to his father the next day at a birthday party he is planning. He invites Abra to come over for the party. Cal is drunk and feels remorse for hitting Aron. The next day, Abra helps Cal decorate the Trask’s home and Cal is both nervous and excited about giving his father the money. Adam comes home tired from his job at the draft board.

Just as Adam is about to open Cal’s gift, Aron announces that he and Abra are engaged. Adam says that no gift could be better. Abra, feeling Cal’s pain, looks distressed and reminds Adam about Cal’s gift. When Adam opens the gift containing Cal’s money, Adam is unhappy, explaining that the money was made from the suffering of others. Crushed, Cal leaves the dining room wailing. Abra follows to comfort him, while Aron watches. Dean’s extremely emotional portrayal of Cal won him critical praise at the time, but many viewers today find it melodramatic.

The Truth Is Revealed with Devastating Consequences

Aron tells Cal never to touch Abra again and speaks cruel words to him about his badness. Cal invites Aron to look at the truth just once and takes him to see their mother at her brothel. Cal introduces Aron to Kate as ‘‘everything that is good.’’ Aron tries to leave but Cal forces him to stay in the room, slamming the door behind them. Back at home, Cal tells Adam what he knows and what he has done. He admits to trying to buy Adam’s love and declares that he no longer wants it. Sam the sheriff comes to the house and informs the family that Aron has gone crazy and plans to leave town and enlist in the morning. The sight of Aron crying on the train overwhelms Adam and causes him to suffer a stroke. In the novel, Adam suffers a stroke after learning from Lee that Aron has been killed in battle. It is left unclear in the film what will become of Aron, although many of the young men who enlisted were killed in World War I. The doctor informs Cal and Abra that Adam might only live a week and may not recognize Cal anymore. Sam suggests that Cal go away someplace like Cain did in the Bible story. Cal visits his father’s bedside where Adam is attended to by an obnoxious nurse. Cal apologizes for his actions and, feeling guilty, leaves the bedroom. Abra explains to Adam how Cal has felt unloved his whole life. She begs him to release Cal from his suffering by giving him some sign that he loves him, like asking Cal to help him in some way. Abra begs Cal to talk to his father before it is too late and ushers him into the bedroom. Cal goes to talk with his father and Adam does as Abra has asked by requesting that Cal get him a new nurse. He also asks Cal to take care of him. Cal gets up to kiss Abra and then returns to his father’s bedside where the movie ends.


Gustav Albrecht

Played by Harold Gordon, Gustav Albrecht is a man of German descent who is harassed by the townspeople after the United States enters World War I. He is a friend of the Trask boys who defend him when he is attacked.

Cathy ‘‘Kate’’ Ames

Played by Jo Van Fleet, Kate is the estranged mother of Aron and Cal Trask. While the boys were told that Kate had died, Cal discovers that Kate actually runs a brothel in Salinas. While Adam believes that she lacks kindness and is inherently bad in some way, Cal understands that Adam never loved her because he was blinded by his need to see her as completely pure, a mistake that also blinds him to seeing and understanding Cal. In Steinbeck’s novel, readers are given access to Kate’s perspective as she grows up feeling unloved by her parents. While the narrator initially describes her as a monster (and, indeed she commits many heinous crimes worthy of the description) he also hints that her actions stem from a life of pain and fear. Compared to the novel, Kate’s character in the film lacks a complex past but makes up for it with added warmth toward Cal. In the novel, Kate commits suicide and leaves all the money she made from prostitution to Cal.


Played by Lois Smith, Anne works in the whore-house run by Kate Ames. A nervous girl, Anne is afraid of angering Kate who has the power to throw her out. Anne shows Cal the door to Kate’s room at his request.

Abra Bacon

Played by Julie Harris, Abra Bacon is the daughter of the county supervisor in Salinas and the love interest of both Aron and Cal Trask. Abra’s mother died when she was thirteen and her father remarried shortly afterward. Abra became enraged, prompting her to throw a three-thousand-dollar ring in the river. Early in the film, Abra is in love with Aron; however, she turns away from Aron after she feels he does not love her for herself but rather has an idealized, pure image of her. In contrast to the character in Steinbeck’s novel, who is noble and serious, Abra in the film is flirtatious and passionate. She loves Adam Trask as though he were her own father and shows affection to him and both his sons. She is compassionate and understanding, often empathizing with Cal’s feelings of rejection. After it becomes clear that Cal’s capacity for loving her is greater than that of Aron’s, Abra turns her ardor toward Cal. After Adam suffers a stroke, Abra pleads with him to show love toward Cal, knowing that he needs to feel loved by his father in order to become a man.

Will Hamilton

Played by Albert Dekker, Will Hamilton is a friend of the Trask family who goes into the bean business with Cal. Steinbeck’s novel explores the history of the Hamilton family. Samuel Hamilton, the family patriarch, shares a long-standing friendship with Adam Trask and helps pull Adam out of the foggy depression he suffers after his wife shoots him in the shoulder and then abandons him and his sons. Samuel is an Irish immigrant who shares a connection with Lee, a Chinese character completely omitted from the film.


Played by Nick Dennis, Rantani is a Swiss-Italian man renting the Trasks’ place.

Sam the Sheriff

Played by Burl Ives, Sam the Sheriff is a stout man who keeps tabs on Cal as he discovers the truth about Kate. He is an old friend of Adam. He knows all the town secrets and maintains order when an angry crowd follows Gustav Albrecht home, harassing him about being sympathetic to the Germans. After Sam learns that Cal is responsible for informing his father and Aron of the truth about Kate, he tells Cal that he should go away just like Cain did in the Bible.

Adam Trask

Played by Raymond Massey, Adam Trask is the deeply religious father of Aron and Cal Trask. In contrast to Steinbeck’s novel, where Adam appears as the protagonist for the first half of the story, he is a secondary character in the film. Adam favors Aron over Cal, seeing Aron’s actions as good and Cal’s as bad. Adam is cold toward Cal, saying that he has never understood him, just as he never understood his wife, Kate. Adam has a scar on his shoulder from the bullet wound inflicted when Kate shot him before leaving the family. Early in the film, Adam buys an ice factory so that he can ship lettuce to cities on the East coast. Cal tells Adam that if he wants to make money, he should invest in beans that will increase in price as World War I progresses, but Adam dismisses his idea, saying he is not interested in making money. According to Kate, Adam is ‘‘living in the Bible,’’ the implication being that he is not grounded in the reality of everyday life. Indeed, he is unable to bear the truth about Cal’s actions toward his brother and suffers a stroke when he learns that Aron plans to enlist in the army. Omitted from the film is the complex relationship Adam shares with his own unloved brother, Charles, who lives on a ranch they inherited from their father. Like Aron, Adam was his father’s favorite—causing Charles much pain and suffering.

Aron Trask

Played by Richard Davalos, Aron is the favored son of Adam Trask. He is romantically involved with Abra and loves his brother, in spite of Cal’s brooding nature. He is in love with Abra but his disposition changes when the United States enters World War I. He becomes depressed by the news of what the Germans are doing and of the casualties from the fighting. He withdraws increasingly from Abra, becoming more and more religious like his father. Abra believes that he no longer loves her, preferring instead an idea of her that is his vision of purity. In the end, Aron’s worldview is shattered when Cal takes him to visit Kate at the brothel and he learns the truth. Aron gets drunk and leaves on a train to enlist in the army, causing his father to suffer a stroke at the train station.

Caleb ‘‘Cal’’ Trask

Played by James Dean, Cal Trask is the son of Kate Ames and Adam Trask. He resents his brother Aron because his father, Adam, favors him. After his brother withdraws into a puritanical commitment to religion, Cal becomes romantically involved with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra Bacon. In contrast to Cal in Steinbeck’s novel, Cal in the film is more intensely violent and brooding but also more likeable with increased vulnerability. He believes that he is ‘‘bad,’’ an idea supported by his father who calls him that in anger. After Cal learns that his mother runs a brothel, he thinks that he is all bad because Kate is all bad—and that his brother, Aron, is all good because he inherited all of Adam’s goodness.


The Struggle between Good and Evil

For his novel, Steinbeck drew heavily from the stories contained in the book of Genesis in the Bible, particularly the tale of Cain and Abel. These stories would have been familiar to both Steinbeck and Kazan’s audiences and resonated deeply with their struggle to understand how the horrors of the Great Depression and World War II were possible. In most Jewish and Christian religious traditions, Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. The story is also present in the Qur’an, although the two accounts differ slightly. In the Jewish and Christian versions, Cain, the older of the two brothers, was a farmer, and Abel, the younger brother, a shepherd. The tension in the story begins when God rejects an offering of produce made by Cain but accepts an animal sacrifice made by Abel. Unable to bear the rejection, Cain sinfully murders his brother, an event that is sometimes interpreted as the first instance of evil in the world. Why God rejected Cain’s offering remains open to interpretation and is explored in both Steinbeck’s novel and Kazan’s film. Emphasizing the importance of this story for both the novel and film, both versions of East of Eden begin with powerful portrayals of the Salinas Valley—an area enclosed between the sunshine of the east and the dark mountains of the west. In the film, this description takes the form of sweeping views of the California coastline and picturesque Monterey. Everything looks Eden-like and it is hard to imagine the presence of evil in this idyllic setting. However, the Salinas Valley serves as a symbol of the place Adam and Eve lived after they were exiled from the Garden of Eden. It is here that the characters of the story struggle to be good in the face of human drama and their own imperfections.

In contrast to Steinbeck’s novel, which retells the biblical story of Cain and Abel twice—first with Adam and his brother Charles and then with Adam’s sons Cal and Aron—the film explores this theme through the latter pair of brothers only. In the film, when Cal acts out in anger as a teenager, Adam explains to him that what separates man from the animals is his freedom to choose to be good. In the novel, this concept is introduced first by the narrator and then later as timshel by the character Lee, who is notably omitted in the film. In both versions, Cal struggles with his feelings that he is inherently bad, presumably because he inherited all of his mother’s badness whereas his brother inherited all of their father’s goodness.

In addition to the central conflict of the film, the struggle between good and evil in humanity also plays out in the backdrop of the story, in the plight of immigrants trying to make a living in California, and in World War I.

Rejection, Sin, and Redemption

Adam Trask shows only one of his sons, Aron, understanding and love. Deprived of paternal understanding and connection, Cal grows up feeling unloved and comes to believe that unlike his brother who is all good, he is all bad. When he learns that his mother is alive and running a brothel in Monterey, Cal begins to think that he inherited his badness from his mother. Cal tries throughout the film to earn his father’s love, only to be misunderstood and rejected. However, after Kate explains to Cal why she left Adam, Cal questions his assumptions about himself and realizes that things are not so black and white. Cal’s struggle about his relative goodness and badness composes the key conflict in the film.

Like Cal, Abra grew up feeling the pain of her father’s rejection, and she plays a key role in facilitating a healing moment between father and son. Abra loves Cal but believes that he will never be a man unless he feels loved by his father. After Adam suffers a stroke and lies dying in bed, Abra begs him to give Cal a sign that he loves him. Clearly moved by her request, Adam complies, thereby relieving Cal of his suffering.


A Realist Drama of Epic Proportions 

Kazan’s effective use of CinemaScope and War-nerColor combine with the work of cinematographer Ted D. McCord to convey the epic scope of East of Eden. In film, the term epic is reserved for works that depict human dramas that are played out on a large scale. Often, these are among the most popular and highest-grossing productions. Kazan’s realist drama may not seem like an epic when compared to the high-budget films that are produced now; however, in its day East of Eden was regarded by many as belonging to this genre. Even today, scholars discuss the epic nature of its style and content.

Steinbeck’s home in the Salinas Valley is beautifully shot, particularly in scenes that depict the vast California landscape, much of which was shot on location in Mendocino, California. From the beginning, viewers are given a sense that what is at stake in the story that is about to be told extends far beyond the fields of California and deep into the human experience. During the opening credits, downtown Monterey, the mountains in the distance, and the rocky shores of California are presented with slow panning shots set to music, which plays an equally important role in establishing the film’s mood. Kazan’s techniques and McCord’s cinematography are enhanced by the film’s score, which was written by Leonard Rosenman, an artist who had once taught James Dean to play the piano. This was Rosenman’s first movie score, and he received abundant praise for his role in establishing the mood of the film.

1950s Melodrama and Method Acting

In the 1950s, directors such as Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, and most notably Douglas Sirk, created a body of films that were later labeled by film critics as family melodramas, owing to their use of intense emotionality and focus on family conflict. In particular, the action of these films concerned the anxieties of bourgeois families and their engagement with the contradictory ideologies of the postwar era. These films were marked by an exaggerated and excessive style, which some argue served to subvert repressive notions of suburban life in America. Kazan’s other films belonging to this genre include A Streetcar Named Desire (1951; starring method actor Marlon Brando), On the Waterfront (1954; again with Brando), and Splendor in the Grass (1961). As a film genre, it is important to remember that melodrama has taken on many meanings, of which the family melodramas of the 1950s represent one of many.

Today, East of Eden is remembered by many as the film that made James Dean famous. Modern viewers are often bemused by Dean’s over-the-top performance and violent emotionality. This style, called Method acting, first became popular in New York during the 1930s. James Dean, along with Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and James Fonda, is among the most famous American actors to use this technique. Method acting is different from other forms of acting, in that the actors try to create lifelike emotional performances by drawing on their own emotional memories; in other words, they are trying not to simulate the emotions but to actually feel them during their performance.

Cultural Context 

U.S. Entry into World War I 

The U.S. entry into World War I forms the backdrop for both Kazan’s film and the final portion of Steinbeck’s novel used for the film adaptation. Since the novel spans several generations, with earlier portions of the book stretching back as far as the American Civil War, World War I is de-emphasized in its overall significance. The portions that do concern the war are diluted by complex secondary plots that take place outside of the Trask family—like the action at Kate’s brothel—that are completely omitted from the film. By contrast, Kazan’s adaptation contains several central scenes—the Salinas parade scene and the Ferris wheel scene, for example— portraying in vivid detail the nationalistic, pro-war and anti-German sentiments that swept through the country as the United States prepared to enter the war. The U.S. entry into World War I is discussed by the novel’s narrator, briefly in Chapter 42, as he discusses the town’s growing realization that the Salinas Valley is being effected by the events abroad.

While Adam Trask works for the government as an enlistment officer in both works, the immense difficulty he faces daily in sending the young men of the Salinas area off to fight (often only to hear later of their deaths) is emphasized in greater detail in Steinbeck’s novel. However, when he learns that his son Aron has enlisted, the impact is equally devastating in both works.

Racism and Gender Inequality in the Salinas Valley

Whereas Kazan’s portrayal of racism in the Salinas Valley is limited to the Ferris wheel scene, where Cal and Abra witness Aron trying to stop a mob of angry townspeople from lashing out at a local, Gustav Albrecht, Steinbeck’s treatment of race relations in the area is much more complex. Unlike Kazan, Steinbeck uses Lee, the Asian servant and philosopher, to suggest that racism is not merely a reaction to the losses of World War I, but rather deeply imbedded into the cultural fabric of the Salinas Valley. In the novel, it is easier for Lee to fake a Pidgin accent than use fluent English when dealing with most characters because their racist expectations limit the possibilities for relating.

In both the film and novel, Kate leaves Adam Trask because he completely disregards her feelings about settling in the Salinas Valley, expecting her instead to eventually come around to settling into motherhood and being content as a housewife. In both stories she shoots him in the shoulder, unequivocally refusing to submit to this fate. In the novel, Steinbeck gives us greater insight to the numerous barriers faced by women who wanted to survive on their own without the support of a man—although in both novel and film, Kate chose to run a brothel rather than be a housewife, a rather grim option for female independence. Because Kate meticulously documents the sexual exploits of men in the Salinas Valley, readers can see the pervasive nature of gender inequality in the social make-up of America in the twentieth century.

Critical Overview 

By many measures, East of Eden was a huge success. In the year of its release it won the award for Best Dramatic Film at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1956, the film received four Academy Award nominations with Jo Van Fleet winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as Kate. Also in 1956, East of Eden was awarded the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture Drama and received three nominations at the BAFTA awards. Despite its huge commercial success, the film was not without its critics, many of whom found it melodramatic and overly simplistic, hardly doing justice to Steinbeck’s original. Today, the film is remembered by many as James Dean’s first (and for some best) major performance. Scholars continue to compare and contrast the film with Steinbeck’s novel, although many within film studies often treat it as a stand-alone work, often praising Kazan for his innovative use of CinemaScope.

Source: Gale - Novels for Students (V. 34)

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