East of Eden (1956): Symbols and Messages

John Steinbeck’s book, East of Eden, was published in 1952, the year in which Member of the Wedding was released.  Elia Kazan’s film, a family melodrama, centering in two siblings, is a suitable companion piece to Fred Zinnemann’s Member of the Wedding, which explores a young female’s adolescence.

The protagonists of these films share a similar name, Adam. In Member of the Wedding, it’s Frankie’s last name; in East of Eden, the patriarch’s first name, Adam Trask. There is another link: Julie Harris, the star of Member, plays Abra, the girl both boys love. The two films also exhibit similar ideology concerning the “cure” they prescribe for the problems of loneliness, identity formation, and integration into the larger society. The film suffers from excessive theatrical sensibility, stemming from Paul Osborn’s career as a playwright and Kazan’s as a stage director who uses theatricality in his films. Unlike Rebel without a Cause (the other movie Dean made in l955), East of Eden has not aged well, but it is the film that established Dean as a star.

A major source of tension in town is racism: When the U.S. joins the War, a mob attacks Mr. Albrecht, a German-American and previously a respectable citizen; it’s Cal who interferes and thus prevents bloodshed. Sheriff Sam Quinn is a benevolent and liberal figure (like the police officer in Rebel), a far cry from the image of authority figures in films of the l960s and l970s. The sheriff functions as a sensitive paternal figure, understanding Cal better than his biological father, advising and interfering when he is needed. Sheriff Quinn is the one to confirm Cal’s suspicion that Kate is his mother, and to tell him how his father went into a shell after she left him.

The symbols in this film are heavy handed. For instance, the icehouse could be seen as Adam’s cold and emotionally empty life following his wife’s abandonment. Interestingly, the romance between Aron and Abra takes place in the icehouse, an enclosed industrial space, signifying emotional chill and lack of intimacy. Watched by Cal, the scene evolves into violence, when he literally attacks the ice, sending huge blocks of it down the chute. Cal’s violent act could be interpreted as an act ending his previously icy life, now shattered. By contrast, the romance between Cal and Abra is carried out in Nature, in the open fields, or late at night, outside her bedroom in a scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet; they exchange their first kiss in an amusement park.

East of Eden is an overtly message film: In the next to last scene, Abra explains to the stroke-blighted Adam what needs to be done to “cure” his son’s problems. “You have to give him some sign that you love him,” she says, “or else he’ll never be a man.” “It’s awful not to be loved,” she says, “It makes you cruel.” Cal is not a rebellious kid, all he wants is to gain the love and respect of his father, for which he is willing to sacrifice himself completely. The film comes to a resolution, when the dying Adam asks Cal to get rid of the nurse: “Don’t get anyone else. You stay with me. You take care of me.” Cal, the allegedly weaker son, turns out to be emotionally stronger than his brother. Learning the truth about their mother shatters Aron completely; in a spasm of hysteria he shatters a window with his head. The narrative ends with a role reversal. Cal, the outsider, becomes insider, fully integrated in his family and town. Aron, the former insider, literally becomes an outsider when he enlists into the Army (out of despair, not idealism).