East of Eden is a multi-generational tale, spanning the Civil War to World War I, about two families—the Hamiltons and the Trasks. It is largely set in California, and sets of brothers bookend the story, giving readers different aspects of the Cain and Abel story, re-imagined.

We meet Adam and Charles Trask in Connecticut. Adam is a thoughtful, responsive boy and Charles is his strong, insensitive brother. Charles protects Adam, except when he might be threatened by him, in which case Adam becomes his victim. Without realizing it, they are vying for their father's love, which is never expressed to either son very well. When, as adults, they realize they cannot share the farm in peace, Adam moves to California. By this time he is married to Cathy, a girl whose own story is one of extreme evil.

Adam buys a farm in the Salinas Valley, which in its own way is as much a character as the Garden of Eden is in Genesis. It is here that Adam meets Samuel Hamilton, the patriarch of a large family, who acts as a moral anchor for all those around him. In this, he is ably seconded by Adam Trask's Chinese servant, Lee. Lee becomes the moral compass for the Trask family. He and Samuel are good friends, sharing books and engaging in philosophical conversations about seeking God and how to live as a good person.

The heart of the book is a conversation between Lee, Samuel, and Adam, dissecting sixteen verses of Genesis—from where Cain and Abel bring offerings through God's reaction after Cain has murdered his brother. This centerpiece serves to set our expectations about love, free will, good and evil, truth seeking, and God's relationship with each character.

Big themes. East of Eden is big enough to handle it.

The story progresses on to Adam's twin sons, Aron and Caleb. Again we see a dreamy, sensitive boy in Aron contrasted with a darker, more passionate counterpart in Caleb. The difference is that each has been shown more love than the boys we saw in the beginning of the story. Not a perfect love by any means, but enough to prompt great internal struggles over choosing good versus evil. In the end, we are shown a great and heroic theme of hope and free will that is life affirming and should put readers in mind of how these themes are continually echoed from generation to generation in Genesis.

The book can be difficult to read at times—Steinbeck does not allow the reader to look away from the great evil people can do each other—but never enough to derail the story. He simply tells the truth, which is always cheated when watered down.

And my father became very Chinese then. He said, "There's more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar."

Steinbeck began planning East of Eden after finishing The Grapes of Wrath, but over thirty years passed before Eden was written. Part memoir and partly for his sons, the greatest part by far serves to tell the truth about human beings:

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 new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.