John Steinbeck Common Themes

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Born in 1902 in Salinas, California, Nobel Prize winner, John Steinbeck, was one of the most important writers in America during the 20th century. In his novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck explores what it takes for a person to find true happiness in life. Steinbeck addresses the pursuit for happiness in one’s life—the American Dream—, by questioning modern idea of it being achieved through material items and the path people take to accomplish it. Steinbeck also addresses the happiness people find in relationships and how connecting to someone can affect a person’s decisions in life. To communicate his ideas with the reader, Steinbeck creates the storyline of his novels, connecting his themes with his characters. In his novels, John Steinbeck addresses the themes of the American Dream and the importance of relationships through various characters in the stories.

In his masterpiece, East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s theme of the American Dream focuses on a person’s desire to make a better life for his or her children. Adam Trask greatly portrays this theme when he tries to start an icebox business: “Adam was a fool. These know-it-all dreamers always got into trouble…People who inherited their money always got into trouble. And if you wanted any proof—just look at how Adam had run his ranch. A fool and his money were soon departed” (East of Eden, p. 438). In the novel, it becomes clear that Adam, among many Americans, believes strongly in the idea that money buys happiness. Adam’s yearning to gain money in his name demonstrates his plan to leave a large inheritance for Aaron and Cal, as his father had done for him and his brother. Ultimately, though, Adam’s business proves a failure, making him one of the many who have fallen to the lure of the American Dream. Furthermore, the brothel owner, Faye, also conveys the desire to create a better life for her child. She displays this theme through her adoption of Cathy: “’I have to have the money.’ ‘No, you don’t.’ ‘Of course I do. Where else could I get it?’ ‘You could be my daughter…’ ‘…But I have to have money.’ ‘There’s plenty for both of us, Cathy. I could give you as much as you make and more…’” (East of Eden, p. 229). Faye’s lack of close friends creates a weakness in her, which Cathy uses to manipulate Faye into seeing her as a daughter figure. As displayed in the quotation, Faye’s newfound motherly sense sparks a need to provide for Cathy. To Faye’s knowledge, Cathy has lived a depressing life and Faye, being sympathetic to Cathy’s cause, wants to create a better life for her. Eventually, Cathy’s manipulation of Faye works and she receives Faye’s inheritance, fulfilling her own American Dream.

The importance of relationships in East of Eden also proves to be a theme Steinbeck conveys through his characters. Adam’s brother, Charles, displays the effect relationships can have on someone when he confronts Adam about their Father’s birthday presents: “What did you do on his birthday? …Did you spend six bits or even four bits? You brought him a mongrel pup…That dog sleeps in his room. He plays with it while he’s reading. He’s got it all trained. And where’s the knife? ‘Thanks,’ he said, just ‘Thanks.’” (East of Eden, p. 30). In this quotation, Charles demonstrates the absence of a relationship between him and his father. Although it becomes evident in the novel that Charles’ father does love him, he chooses not to display it, forming the idea in Charles’ mind that no one loves him. Because of his feelings, Charles becomes jealous of Adam, whom their father openly displays affection towards. This draws in Charles an upmost hatred of his own brother, which Charles uses to harm Adam: “The footsteps came close, slowed, moved on a little, came back. From his hiding place Adam could see only a darkness in the dark…Charles raised the match and peered around, and Adam could see the hatchet in his right hand” (East of Eden, p.31). In...
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