East of Eden begins with a description of the Salinas Valley, first--in chronology and importance--of a number of disquisitions on varied topics that Steinbeck intersperses throughout the book. (Later, we will learn about the economics of prostitution in New England, law enforcement in the West, and the U.S. entry into World War I, among other matters.) Steinbeck also introduces the Hamilton family, headed by the charming and brilliant Samuel, who despite his many ideas cannot seem to make a decent living. Still, the Hamiltons' financial challenges don't prevent the family from growing large and being happy. We also learn that the narrator is the Hamilton's grandson.
With the setting set and a compelling character established, it is disconcerting to find ourselves carried off to New England, where the Trask family lives. The patriarch of the Trask family was injured while training to fight in the Civil War, but this does not stop him from presenting himself as a Civil War hero and military expert. He raises his two sons, Adam and Charles, by training them for military life (their mothers have died in rapid succession). Charles is a rough-and-tumble boy, while Adam is more cerebral--but their father decides Adam should go into the Army while Charles works the farm. Adam returns to the farm after a years in the military and time in jail, but he and Charles can co-exist for only a limited time. However, their father has died and left them wealthy (the source of the money is unclear but it was almost certainly gained nefariously), and Adam decides to set out for California with his new wife, Cathy Ames. Cathy showed up on their doorstep one night nearly beaten to death, and Adam falls immediately in love with her. While the reader knows that Cathy is a prostitute, beaten by her married lover, naive Adam has no idea what happened to her.
By the time they arrive in California, Cathy is pregnant and miserable. Adam buys a large spread in the Salinas Valley and sets about turning it into a garden for his beloved. He calls on Samuel Hamilton to help him find water, and the two strike up a friendship that also includes Adam's Chinese servant, Lee. Samuel and Lee both sense something inhuman in Cathy, but Adam remains besotted. Samuel--who in addition to being a douser and a well digger is something of a midwife--delivers Cathy's twin sons. Shortly thereafter, Cathy shoots Adam in the shoulder and heads to Salinas, where she becomes a prostitute and, eventually, a madam. For a year, Adam does not even name the twins, until Lee and Samuel insist that he pay some attention to the two children.
Samuel reads the story of Cain and Abel to Lee and Adam, but Adam rejects those names, choosing instead Aron and Caleb. The two boys grow up to be different in appearance and personality. Aron is fair and sweet, Caleb is dark and somewhat manipulative. As a pre-adolescent, Aron falls in love with Abra; as they move toward adulthood, Aron's goodness (he considers becoming a minister and even adopting a celibate lifestyle) cause Abra to question whether they are meant to be together. Meanwhile, Cal is all too aware that Adam loves Aron better and plans a gift that he hopes will win Adam's love. With the shadow of Cain and Abel hanging over the brothers, the reader knows only too well that the outcome will not be good.
I'm leaving out huge chunks of the book--Cathy's life as a Salinas prostitute and madam, the Hamilton children's struggles and triumphs, the philosophical conversations among Samuel, Adam, and Lee--and much more. The book exemplifies the term sprawling. But the sprawl is appropriate to the themes Steinbeck explores in East of Eden: good and evil, the quest to be loved, the struggle to be great, the the power of choice.
One quibble with the book is that it is almost entirely a story of men; Abra is the only female character who is at all two-dimensional. Cathy is a cardboard cutout of evil, and Samuel's wife Liza is a stereotypical bossy wife. A 21st-century woman reading East of Eden can't help wishing for a greater female presence, but the book is a product of a male author writing in a specific time and place, and it is a masterpiece for all that.
If a story is not about the hearer, he won't listen. And I here make a rule: A great and lasting story is about everyone, or it will not last. The strange and foreign isn't interesting, only the deeply personal and familiar.
Maybe you'll come to know that every man in every generation is re-fired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger to make a perfect cup--thin, strong, translucent? . . . All impurities burned out and ready for a glorious flux, and for that, more fire. And then, either the slag heap, or perhaps what no one in the world ever quite gives up, perfection.