A farmer by ancestry, he arrives in California about 1850. He and Liza live in San Jose for 20 years. The Hamiltons moved to the Salinas Valley in 1871, and settle in the harsh and dry foothills east of King City in about 1873. At first regarded with wariness by his neighbors as a foreigner, he earns their trust and becomes a beloved and respected figure of his community. Samuel is a handsome, robust, outgoing man, a master storyteller ("a comical genius") and lover of poetry and philosophy. An educated and wise blacksmith, carpenter and woodcarver, he is renowned for his honesty, diligence and inventiveness. But in his business dealings, he has no talent for making money. Steinbeck was two when his grandfather died, so he creates Samuel out of family stories.
Samuel's wife, she is small, slender and self-contained, mother to nine children, four boys and five girls. She "had a finely developed sense of sin. ... She was suspicious of fun. ... She felt that people having a good time were wide open to the devil. ... She had no spark of humor and only occasionally a blade of cutting wit. ... She suffered bravely and uncomplainingly through life, convinced that that was the way her God wanted everyone to live. She felt that rewards came later."
The first-born son of Samuel and Liza, he does not figure prominently in the novel. "George was a tall handsome boy, gentle and sweet, who had from the first a kind of courtliness. Even as a little boy he was polite and what they used to call 'no trouble.' ... George was a sinless boy who grew up to be a sinless man."
"Dumpy and stolid," Will is conservative in all matters and enterprising. "Will had little imagination but he had great energy. From childhood on he was a hard worker, if anyone would tell him what to work at, and once told he was indefatigable. ... Certain individuals, not by any means always deserving, are truly beloved of the gods, things come to them without their effort or planning. Will was one of these." He ends up owning a Ford dealership in the valley, a rich and powerful man. His prosperity puts him at some remove from his family. He died while on vacation abroad.
Sensitive and impulsive and a compulsive reader, Tom, third-born son, is most like his father. "Tom was as inventive as his father but he was bolder. He would try things his father would not dare. Also, he had a large concupiscence to put the spur in his flanks, and this Samuel did not have. Perhaps it was his driving sexual need that made him remain a bachelor. It was a very moral family he was born into. It might be that his dreams and his longing, and his outlets for that matter, made him feel unworthy, drove him sometimes to whining in the hills." He committed suicide by shooting himself near the family ranch. Uncle John in The Grapes of Wrath is also modeled on Tom Hamilton.
He was "a kind of mooning boy, greatly beloved and protected by the family." He early discovered that a smiling helplessness was his best protection from work. His brothers were tough hard workers, all of them. It was easier to do Joe's work than to make him do it. His mother and father thought him a poet because he wasn't good at anything else." Because of his helplessness, Liza loved him best. Joe will later go off to Stanford University, like Steinbeck himself, and have a career in advertising in Chicago.
She is "a thoughtful, studious, dark girl. ...Of all his daughters Una was Samuel's greatest joy. Even as a little girl she hungered for learning as a child does for cookies in the late afternoon. Una and her father had a conspiracy about learning–—secret books were borrowed and read and their secrets communicated privately. Of all the children Una had the least humor." She married "an intense dark man," a photography chemist, who had contempt for the Hamiltons. Her death in Oregon is a crushing blow to Samuel.
Named after her mother, she is unlike any other Hamilton. "She early seemed to find a shame for her family. She married young and went away and thereafter was seen only at funerals. Lizzie had a capacity for hatred and bitterness unique among the Hamiltons. She had a son and when he grew up and married a girl Lizzie didn't like she did not speak to him for many years." She was born in New York and came with her mother in 1851 to California.
"Her laughter was so constant that everyone near her was glad to be there because it was more fun to be with Dessie than with anyone else." She becomes a dressmaker and returns to the farm after her business fails. She dies in 1907 of acute kidney disease (Bright's disease) at the King City ranch. Her brother Tom blames himself, leading to his suicide five years later.
The mother of author John Steinbeck—the author and one of the narrators of East of Eden—she is also a character in his own book. Olive Hamilton becomes a teacher who yearns for metropolitan life. "She was as intuitive as a cat. Her acts were based on feelings rather than thoughts. She had her mother's firm chin and button nose and her father's fine eyes. She was the most definite of any of the Hamiltons except her mother. Her theology was a curious mixture of Irish fairies and an Old Tetament Jehovah whom in later life she confused with her father. ... External realities of a frustrating nature she obliterated by refusing to believe in them, and when one resisted her disbelief she raged at it."
Mollie is "a little beauty with lovely blond hair and violet eyes." It was she who gave John Steinbeck Malory's Morte d'Arthur when he was nine years old.
In Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, Steinbeck writes about naming this family: "I do not have the name yet. I think it might be Canable. No, that is a double or rather a triple meaning I don't want. The name is so important that I want to think about it. I remember a friend of my father's—a whaling master named Captain Trask. I have always loved the name. It meant great romance to me."
Cyrus Trask is, like Samuel Hamilton, the patriarch of his family. He leaves a pregnant wife behind when he is inducted in the Union Army in 1862 during the Civil War. On his return, soon after the birth of his first son later that year, he is missing a leg and has the clap. He "is something of a devil—had always been wild." He proceeds to rule his household with an iron hand, and wildly exaggerates his participation in the war, lying so persuasively that even he seems to believe his own fabrications. By mastering military matters, he becomes a prominent advisor in Washington, D.C. His bequest to his sons after his death amounts to more than $100,000. How he acquired that much money is a subject of speculation in the novel.
Cyrus's first wife is Adam Trask's mother. "Mrs. Trask was a pale, inside-herself woman. No heat or sun ever reddened her cheeks, and no open laughter raised the corners of her mouth. She used religion as a therapy for the ills of the world and of herself, and she changed the religion to fit the ill." She contracts Cyrus's disease and commits suicide by drowning, convinced that she has been punished by God for her imaginary "nocturnal philandering" while Cyrus was away.
She becomes Cyrus's second wife at age seventeen and gives birth to Charles Trask, Adam's half-brother. "She was not very pretty so there was no need to watch her. Her eyes were pale, her complexion sallow, and her teeth crooked. ... Whether she liked children or not no one ever knew. She was not asked, and she never said anything unless she was asked. ... She never offered any opinion or statement, and when a man was talking she gave a vague impression of listening while she went about during the housework." She suffers from tuberculosis and dies years later.
Son to Cyrus and Mrs. Trask, "young Adam was always an obedient child. Something in him shrank from violence, from contention, from the silent shrieking tensions that can rip at a house." Adam is good-natured and retiring, pacifist and idealistic, fearful of both his father and half-brother. His father forces him into the army to fight Indians in the West. He marries the arch-villain of the novel, Cathy Ames, falling for her pretense of innocence and goodness, and fathers the twins, Aron and Cal, who are born near Salinas, where "Adam went happily about building and planning his Eden." For part of East of Eden, Adam is Abel to his half-brother's (Charles's) Cain. Later, in the Salinas Valley, as patriarch of a family, he will assume the role of the Biblical Adam, even as his sons, Cal and Aron, suggest Cain and Abel.
"[Adam's] half-brother Charles, only a little over a year younger, grew up with his father's assertiveness. "Charles was a natural athlete, with instinctive timing and coordination and the competitor's will to win over others, which makes for success in the world." Violent, cold-blooded and manipulative, Charles nearly kills Adam out of jealousy. He pines for Adam when Adam is away. He lives a lonely and tortured existence on the farm; unlike Adam, he loves Cyrus. Evil Cathy Ames, rightly or wrongly, regards him as a "soulmate." Unbeknownst to Adam, he sleeps with her and may have fathered Caleb, one of Adam's twin boys. Upon his death, he leaves money for both Adam and Cathy.
"I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents," the narrator tells us. Cathy is one, among the greatest villains in all of American literature. Lacking even the slightest conscience and manipulative of weaknesses in others, she is a consummate liar. Cathy is capable of seeing only the bad in others. Feigning innocence, she makes "a painful and bewildering stir in her world." As a child in a small town in Massachusetts, she "learned when she was very young that sexuality with all its attendant yearnings and pains, jealousies and taboos, is the most disturbing impulse humans have." At age ten, she is discovered, by her mother, with her hands tied and naked to the waist in a barn with two fourteen-year-old boys. At fourteen, she so seduces her Latin teacher that he blows the top of his head off with a shotgun. At sixteen, she becomes cold to her parents and declares that she will no longer be going to school. She kills them in a craftily staged fire in which robbery is suspected. The townspeople frantically search for her missing body. She runs away, becomes a whore, marries Adam Trask, has sex with his half-brother, tries to abort her twins, shoots her husband and abandons her children, before ending up as the madam of a house of prostitution in the Salinas Valley.
Like his father, Aron—son to Adam Trask and Cathy Ames—is big-hearted and sensitive. "Adam drew love from every side. He seemed shy and delicate. His pink-and-white skin, golden hair, and wide-set blue eyes caught attention. In the schoolyard his very prettiness caused some difficulty until it was discovered by his testers that Aron was a dogged, steady, and completely fearless fighter, particularly when he was crying. ... He was unchanging once a course was set. He had few facets and very little versatility. His body was as insensitive to pain as was his mind to subtleties." Aron is the Abel figure in the latter part of the book. When he falls in love with Abra, he fails to commit himself and retreats into religion; when he learns of the identity of the mother who has abandoned him and his brother, he leaves off studying at Stanford, joins the army and dies in battle during World War I.
Possibly fathered by Adam's half-brother, Charles, Caleb is possibly Aron's half brother. He is very much Aron's opposite. "Cal was growing up dark-skinned, dark-haired. He was quick and sure and secret. Even though he may have tried, he could not conceal his cleverness. Adults were impressed with what seemed to them a precocious maturity, and they were a little frightened at it too. No one liked Cal very much and yet everyone was touched with fear of him and through fear with respect. Although he had no friends he was welcomed by his obsequious classmates and took up a natural and cold position of leadership in the schoolyard." Jealous of his more likeable brother, Cal is manipulative and brutal; yet he struggles with his dark side, haunted by the thought that he may have inherited his mother's evil. As a Cain figure, he unwittingly kills his brother by revealing their mother's unsavory identity—a prostitute: abysmally distraught, Adam joins the army only to meet with his death in World War I. At the end of the book, he is blessed by his father with the all-important principle of timshel, "thou mayest": free will, the capacity to choose how you will live your live, given the struggle between good and evil within and without.
He is Adam Trask's loyal and devoted Chinese manservant, his parents having emigrated from China as indentured servants. The story of Lee's violent birth may suggest something of Steinbeck's other family's history: Steinbeck's paternal grandfather, John A. Grosssteinbeck was born in 1832 in Dusseldorf, Prussia, went to Palestine as a missionary; the family compound was attacked by tribesman and his sister-in-law was raped brutally. Out of Lee's violent past, however, goodness emerges—the men who raped his mother care for him. Lee plays many roles in the novel: surrogate mother, wife, loyal friend and sage. He is wise in the ways of the world and shares this wisdom with Samuel Hamilton, whom he befriends. Lee is inscrutable to the likes of Cathy Ames; he unnerves her. He is responsible for the upbringing of Aron and Cal, as Adam becomes aloof when Cathy abandons him and the children, and for the maintenance of the Trask estate. He seems content with his servitude, yet also has his own dream, to run a bookstore: "I don't know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of the philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love." A lover of books, he is the novel's chief interpreter of the doctrine of timshel. He is a confidant not only to Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask, but also to Aron, Caleb and Abra Bacon.
Highly sympathetic, compassionate and solid, Abra is the daughter of a man whose life begins to crumble, guilty as he is of embezzlement, and possibly vulnerable to blackmail for participating in the tawdry "circus" in Cathy's whorehouse. "Two features would be with her always. Her chin was firm and her mouth was as sweet as a flower and very wide and pink. Her hazel eyes were sharp and intelligent and completely fearless." She falls in love with Aron, but in the wake of his failure of commitment and retreat into the Church, she is drawn to Cal. She challenges Aron's insistence on imagining her as a virgin-goddess, in much the same way that Adam had imagined Cathy. Like Cal, she worries that she has inherited her father's propensity to sin. Together, at the end of the novel, they are free to determine and embark upon their own joint destiny, to embrace the principle of timshel, as a new version of Adam and Eve.