AP English Literature and Composition
Summer Reading Guide
East of Eden: By John Steinbeck
In Brief—from the Publisher: No writer is more quintessentially American than John Steinbeck. Born in
1902 in Salinas, California, Steinbeck attended Stanford University before working at a series of mostly
blue-collar jobs and embarking on his literary career. He received the Nobel Prize in 1962, "for his realistic
and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception." Today,
more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures. East
of Eden, the novel he called "the big one," was published in 1952 (East of Eden Reading Guide 2008:
Steinbeck’s sprawling masterpiece covers a great span of American history, traces several generations of
families across an interesting tapestry, and analyzes in-depth family relations and the tensions within
families. The book, deeply imbued with Biblical allusion, functions somewhat as an allegory concerning the
story of the creation of man and the story of Cain and Abel. While oftentimes great literature stresses
tragedy or the flawed aspects of human nature, East of Eden has an uplifting message in the midst of the
tensions of family struggle. “Timshel” is that message. What does the word mean, and why does it possess
such great import? Intrigued? Read the book!
Suggestions for Comprehension of the Novel: Please note that these questions are to guide your reading;
you are not required to answer them as a formal graded assignment to be turned in at the onset of class, but
you should be able to discuss or write about them at the beginning of the school year.
I. Construct a plot outline that includes important events and central conflicts in the story as well as the
major settings in the novel.
II. Make a list of all the characters—and be able to identify the major physical, emotional, psychological,
and interpersonal aspects of their personalities. Pay particular attention to male and female characters
whose names begin with the letter “C” or “A” (i.e. Cain and Abel). Why does Steinbeck use this pattern
in his novel?
III. List and identify major literary techniques employed by the author and consider how such devices help to
drive the central theme of the novel.
IV. Read and review the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4: 1-26 – copied below). Keep it in mind
throughout your reading of the novel and review it upon completion of the novel.
Genesis 4: 1-26
Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I
have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was
a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain
brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of
his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and
for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said
to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well, will not your
countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you,
but you must master it.” Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain
rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your
brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. “Now
you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your
hand. “When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a
wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear! “Behold, You have
driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant
and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” So the LORD said to him, “Therefore
whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so
that no one finding him would slay him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in
the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch;
and he built a city, and called the name of the city Enoch, after the name of his son. Now to Enoch was born
Irad, and Irad became the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael became the father of Methushael, and
Methushael became the father of Lamech. Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was
Adah, and the name of the other, Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in
tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and
pipe. As for Zillah, she also gave birth to Tubal-cain, the forger of all implements of bronze and iron; and the
sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.
Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth, for, she said, “God
has appointed me another offspring in place of Abel, for Cain killed him.” To Seth, to him also a son was
born; and he called his name Enosh. Then men began to call upon the name of the LORD.
Guided Discussion Questions: Parts I – IV (Please be prepared as a means of analysis to give an in-depth
response in class discussions to these questions.)
Part One (chapters 1-11)
1. Where and how did Samuel Hamilton and his family live before coming to the Salinas Valley? Explain
Samuel’s choice of land in the Salinas Valley and how this land affects their prosperity.
2. Where did Adam Trask live before coming to the Salinas Valley? Briefly explain Adam’s upbringing.
What kind of relationship did Adam have with his father Cyrus Trask? What kind of relationship did
Adam have with his half-brother Charles? What kind of relationship did Adam have with his stepmother
3. How does Cyrus treat Adam and Charles differently? Pay particular attention to chapter three and how
Cyrus distinguishes between his two boys and whether they should join the military or not.
4. What do Adam and Charles learn about their father upon his death? How do they react to this
5. Reread the first four paragraphs of chapter eight concerning monsters and Cathy Ames (Trask). How
does the rest of the chapter support these statements about monsters and Cathy? Are there women like
Cathy in the real world or is she somewhat unbelievable?
6. How does Cathy manipulate the two brothers? How does she play one against the other? What does she
want from them?
Part Two (chapters 12-22)
1. Take a close look at the conversation between Samuel and Lee in chapter fifteen. How does Lee explain
his reasons for wearing his queue (long braid) and speaking pidgin? What does their conversation reveal
about the different experiences of Irish and Chinese immigrants in America? What does Lee say about
observation versus preconception?
2. After Adam and Cathy have their twins and Cathy leaves her family, what parallels do you see between
Adam and his own father Cyrus?
3. The scene in chapter 22 when Adam, Samuel, and Lee name the twins is central to the novel. They have
a wonderful conversation about the Cain and Abel story. What do they say about the story? How do they
support the claim that it is the most important story in the world? How do they apply the story to their
own lives, particularly to Adam’s? Note the twins’ names.
Part Three (chapters 23-33)
1. In chapter 24, Samuel and Lee talk about the Cain and Abel story again. They discuss the different
translations of the story in different bibles. In particular, they focus on the term timshel.” How is the
word defined, and what new meanings do they derive from the story now?
2. Take a close look at chapter 25 when Adam confronts Kate (his wife Cathy). How has the balance of
power shifted in their relationship? What does this shift reveal about Adam’s developing character? Has
he become less naïve? Has he become more empowered in any way?
3. How does the relationship between Caleb and Aron parallel the relationship between Charles and Adam?
4. Comment on the various Hamilton family members, both their similarities and differences. What do the
Hamiltons add to the story?
Part Four (chapters 34-55)
1. Chapter 38 is a key chapter in the novel, for Lee and Cal discuss Cal’s character and whether or not he
has a choice about who he becomes. Considering the Cain and Abel cycle in the novel, do you think Cal
will be able to overcome his “Cain” destiny? How is Cal different from his uncle Charles and his
2. In chapter 39, Cal has significant conversations with both his father and mother. What is revealed about
his developing character in these conversations?
3. The Cain and Abel motif returns in chapter 49. What “gifts” are given to Adam? Which gift does he
accept, and which gift does he reject? Looking back to the gifts accepted and rejected by Cyrus in chapter
3, section 4, what deeper meaning is revealed in these two exchanges?
4. If Cal is “Cain,” how does he kill his brother Aron (“Abel”)? At the end of the novel, what is the
significance of Adam’s final word (timshel)? Has Cal been “banished” as Cain was, or has he been
5. What role has Lee played in Cal’s development? How good a “father” is Lee to Cal?