The women in East of Eden are a varied group. "I want always balances in this book," Steinbeck wrote in his journal, "must have them." He measures the "lightness" of the Hamiltons—their groundedness—against the brooding quality he sought in his symbol people,' the Trasks. And he contrasts the women. Adam's mother and then Alice, Charles' mother, are repressed, cowed by Cyrus's power, while Liza Hamilton, rock-firm in her convictions, is Samuel's moral template. She brings sanity and balance to her own family, as do Dessie and Olive, her daughters, to their own circles.
What about Cathy/Kate?
This balance seems tipped precariously in the character of Cathy, the presence that dominates the book, "a tremendously powerful force," as Steinbeck notes in his journal. In a novel based on the Cain and Abel story, evil must seem as palpable a force in the world as is goodness. Cathy's power to dominate, manipulate and destroy is as repellent as it is fascinating—the essence of evil.
Why does Steinbeck make the female presence evil? In part, the models are biblical and literary—Lilith and Ahab in Moby Dick. But in large part the story of Cathy is Steinbeck's own story of intense love and betrayal. Cathy is modeled on Gwyn, his second wife, mother of his sons. Journal of a Novel reveals, cautiously, some of his bitterness and pain: "Cathy has great power over people because she has simplified their weaknesses and has no feeling about their strengths and goodnesses."
"The one person you are not going to understand in this book is Cathy and that is because you don't know her. Cathy sometimes tells the truth ... You can believe her lies but when she tells the truth it is not credible."
"Why doesn't Adam listen when Cathy says she will be going away? I don't know. Men don't listen to what they don't want to hear. I know I didn't and every man I think is somewhat the same—every man. I must point that out very clearly. Adam has a picture of his life and he will continue to maintain his picture against every influence until his world comes down. I know that this is true."
The Prototype for Cathy
Steinbeck met Gwyn Conger in 1939, a few months after publication of The Grapes of Wrath. The attraction was electric and immediate. Nearly 20 years younger, sensual and fun-loving, Gwyn seemed everything his first wife, the tough, witty, hard-drinking and pragmatic Carol, was not. Divorcing Carol in 1943, Steinbeck married Gwyn the same year, a marriage that lasted only 5 years. Gwyn, a professional singer before her marriage, was not as winsome and tractable as Steinbeck may have wished. Children brought tensions. Gwyn's temperament rankled—the hardworking Steinbeck complained that she was always ill, slept until noon. She drank heavily. Gwyn's flirtations with other men, finally her acknowledged infidelity, brought on a split. In the terrible year of 1948, his closest friend Ed Ricketts died and Gwyn left him. Months of emotional wreckage make their way into the book that Steinbeck wrote after his remarriage to Elaine Scott in 1950. Much of Lee is Ed Ricketts. And much of Cathy is Gwyn. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes his way out of the loss of Gwyn and the romantic ideal of love, loss of his sons and a sense of family.