Choices & Fate in East of Eden

Critic Roland Barthes once said: “Literature is the question minus the answer.” With the novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck, the author explores this quote throughout the novel with the question: “Can you choose between good and evil?” The answer to this can be identified during Cal’s journey through his choice to manipulate Aron, choosing to accept his flaws, and making the choice of seeking to redeem himself. This character’s journey conveys Steinbeck’s message that your choices can affect your fate.

From a young age, Cal realized that he was able to choose between good and evil through choosing to use his power of manipulation. In chapter 27, Cal realizes that he has this power and uses it for the first time on his brother, Aron. “Cal felt pleasantly excited. He had found another implement, another secret tool, to use for any purpose he needed. He studied Aron, saw his quivering lips… Cal put his new tool away.

He could bring it out anytime, and he knew it was the sharpest weapon he had found. He would inspect it with ease and judge just when and how much to use it (338)”.

Cal realizes that the ultimate power he has in his manipulation, is through convincing Aron that their mother, Cathy, is not dead and abandoned them at birth. This “tool” is signified as one of Cal’s many choices in harvesting this power, and being able to use it to his advantage whenever he wants; giving him ultimate satisfaction.

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Steinbeck gives the reader this side of the character at an early age, to later indicate that this power will affect his fate. In chapter 50, Cal manipulates Aron and the two to see their mother, Cathy.

Upon the visit, Cathy views Aron as: “The blond and beautiful boy, his eyes mad with shock… And she saw his dark brother leaning against the door and laughing (548).” Steinbeck highlights Cal utilizing his “tool” of manipulation that affects Cal and Aron’s relationship through the two boys visiting Cathy. With this choice Cal makes, he highlights the crossroad he hits and proves Steinbeck’s point that not everyone chooses good all the time, and how that choice will later affect his fate.

During Cal’s young adulthood, he finds out more about himself, ultimately choosing to accept himself as a flawed individual. In chapter 38, Cal’s flaws are described as the following: “Cal naturally competed for attention and affection in the only way he knew–by trying to imitate Aron… When Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing (444).” These flaws that are identified are Cal trying to conform to being his brother, Aron, resulting in being a less favored member of the Trask family. Cal soon believes that these flaws are stemmed from his mother, Cathy to which he says: “I hate her because I know why she went away. I know–because I’ve got her in her in me”

This moment illustrates how Cal views himself, and how this moment eventually sparks his interest in finding his mother, Cathy. One day, Cal visits his mother, Cathy, who owns a brothel in the town, in which she changes her name to Kate. In chapter 39, Cal argues with his mother, Kate on where his malicious persona came from: “I was afraid I had you in me. You have, said Kate. No I haven’t. I’m my own. I don’t have to be you. How do you know that? I just know. It just came to me whole. If I’m mean, it’s my own mean (466)”.

Through this scene, Steinbeck illustrates how Cal distinctively makes the choice to break away from being his mother’s child, strengthening his character while showing how he has evolved from a child masking his flaws through mimicking Aron, to becoming his own person. This decision allows Cal to accept his flaws and choices as his own, without letting his family or past affect him as a person.

Towards the end of the novel, Cal makes the choice of seeking to redeem himself, after learning about his father’s stroke and his brother’s death. In chapter 55, Cal tells his father, Adam: “I’m responsible for Aron’s death and for your sickness. I took him to Kate’s. I showed him his mother. That’s why he went away. I don’t want to do bad things–but I do them (595)”. By Cal identifying what caused his brother Aron’s death and ultimately resulting in his father, Adam’s stroke. This scene displays how Cal’s choices have affected the people around him. Instead of choosing to be bad, Cal decides that if he seeks redemption, then this will direct him to choose more clearly between good and evil. The last scene of the book depicts Lee asking Adam to give his son, Cal, a blessing in order to be redeemed for his actions.

In Adam’s final breath, he says: “Timshel! (602)” Timshel is defined as thou mayest triumph over sin. Steinbeck uses Timshel in this context to have Adam remind Cal that he has the choice of being able to choose a better path, away from evil. With Cal seeking redemption, Timshel is presented in this final scene to show readers that Cal has the ability to make the right choice between good and evil. This relates back to Cal seeking redemption as to why he wants to stop doing bad things and feeling responsible for his Aron’s death.

Steinbeck allows the reader to interpret his answer that Timshel is a path that Cal can pick in order to choose between good and evil because not everyone knows how to choose between the two, which will lead him to decide his own fate. This proves how the concept of Timshel is having the opportunity to rise above and triumph over sin, and changing your fate for the better.

To conclude, Steinbeck reveals in chapter 34: “We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a fresh face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is (415)”. With this position, Steinbeck highlights that every single story will always include the theme of choosing between good and evil. More so, Steinbeck advises to the reader that if when choosing being good, then that choice will will live out longer than evil; causing it to constantly reform. In Cal’s journey over the course of the novel, he comes across Steinbeck’s position.

While using the power of manipulation, Cal was unaware that he was making the right choice because he saw how he was able to dominate his brother, Aron; resulting in tricking him into seeing their mother, Cathy and affecting his relationship with his brother later on in the novel. When Cal chooses to accept his flaws, he is choosing the path of good instead of evil, which allows him to become his own person without letting anyone negatively influence him.

In seeking redemption, Adam’s last word to Cal was Timshel, allowing him to have the ability to choose between good and evil, ultimately leading him to a chance to a better fate. In East of Eden, Steinbeck proves to the reader that through Cal’s journey, the there will be a crossroad of choosing between good and evil will occur, and that choice that you will make will affect your fate.

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Choices & Fate in East of Eden. (2023, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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