“East of Eden” – the Search for Identity far from Paradise

East of Eden


Title: “East of Eden”

Release Date: 1955

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Richard Davalos, Jo van Fleet etc.




“East of Eden” is one of Elia Kazan’s most outstanding films. The adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, thanks to its use of the archetypal biblical model, becomes a universal story about the drama of the human condition and the importance of family roots in every individual’s fate.

“East of Eden” is considered a masterpiece of American cinema. In this film, Elia Kazan showed the depth of his talent, as well as his uncanny sense for finding real pearls among actors. It was none other than Kazan who discovered Marlon Brando and gave him a role in the outstanding work “On the Waterfront” (1954), and James Dean in “East of Eden”. The character of Caleb Trask created by Brando is the central protagonist of the story and focuses on the most important senses of the film.

Caleb is a young boy raised on a California farm by his strict father, who adheres to the Protestant work ethic. He suffers from a lack of parental love – he hasn’t known his mother since he was born, and his father clearly favors his brother Aaron. Caleb attributes all the worst traits to himself, idealizing his father and Aaron. When he learns that his mother did not die, but abandoned her family to devote herself to the oldest profession in the world, he becomes convinced that he has inherited her nature.

East of Eden movie review

“East of Eden” – Biblical archetypes

Kazan, following in the footsteps of Steinbeck, stretches the plot on the pattern of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, two brothers competing for God’s favor. The very title of the film alludes to this story – the land “east of Eden” became a place of Cain’s exile after he committed a crime on his brother. The film also contains many direct references to this myth. Particularly significant is the scene of Adam Trask’s name-day party, which takes place just after the farmer’s bankruptcy. Both of his sons have gifts for him: Aaron announces that he has just become engaged to the beautiful Abra, while Caleb offers his father a huge sum of money. As it turns out, he earned it by getting rich selling beans, the price of which has risen due to the U.S. joining World War I.

And this is where the biblical words come to mind: “the Lord looked upon the sacrifice of Abel”, for the father is happy about Aaron’s upcoming wedding, but he does not accept Caleb’s gift and orders him to give back the money he believes he earned dishonestly. In a frenzy of jealousy, Caleb reveals to Aaron the truth about his mother, a brothel owner. Aaron enlists in the army and goes to the front. When his father asks Caleb where Aaron is, Caleb utters the telling words of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?

“East of Eden” – reinterpreting the myth

Kazan’s film, however, is not a simple repetition of the biblical myth in a modern costume; on the contrary, the director makes a significant reinterpretation of it. Admittedly, Caleb is a bizarre character, but no evil can be ascribed to him; rather, he is an alienated outsider who engages in risky behavior. He hangs out at nightclubs, doesn’t hesitate to do dirty deals, and has numerous love affairs. The darkest aspects of his nature are revealed when he meets his mother, from whom he expects not love, but money.

East of Eden film analysis

Despite this, it is Caleb who loves his father unconditionally and does everything to gain his approval. The rejection by the progenitor of the family has a dramatic dimension for the young man and becomes the source of the most tragic events. The origin of evil is not in the inherited nature, but in the lack of love. It is the father (and transcendentally, God) who, by rejecting his child, makes him unhappy forever.

Paradoxically, the moral reason is on the side of Caleb, who from early childhood bears the wound of rejection by his own parents. Adam and Aaron’s idealism, on the other hand, seems cold and inhuman. Kazan thus considers the relationship between good and evil in the film. Evil is not inherent in human nature – there are not, as the Bible says, “people of good and evil seed”. On the contrary, amorality has its source in the overly strict observance of God’s law, in its reduction to a heartless letter. The only refuge of goodness can be love, which cannot be replaced by any other value; for, as Saint Paul proclaims, “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and do not have love, I am nothing”.

“East of Eden” – the mystery of identity

“East of Eden” deals with the problem of human identity in a very interesting way. It turns out that a person builds it always on the basis of knowledge about his or her own roots, in this case both national and family. This is a very frequent issue raised by Kazan – to what extent do ethnic and family factors make us distinct in a given community. The Trask family itself has Irish roots and is among the settlers on American soil. Nevertheless, they are firmly assimilated into the local population. Ethnic separateness, however, can at any time turn out to be the cause of tragedy, as in the case of the German merchant who, after the U.S. enters the war with Germany, becomes an unwelcome and persecuted person in a small American town.

East of Eden film 1955

Family seems to be even more important in the context of human identity. Understanding oneself, Elia Kazan seems to say, means as much as uncovering the mystery of one’s origins. Caleb does not feel torn, because he attributes his nature to inheriting it from his wicked mother. In contrast, Aaron, who feels like a walking embodiment of virtue as the son of a righteous man and an angelic woman. But when he finds out the cruel truth about his mother, the construction of his identity is shaken. Aaron feels tainted by his own genes and deceived. He cannot accept this flawed, and therefore purely human, element in himself, which leads him to the tragic decision to go to the front.

“East of Eden” – acceptance of human weakness

In the end, Caleb wins, gaining his father’s forgiveness and the love of Aaron’s fiancée. Contrary to biblical myth, he does not go into exile, but stays with Adam to care for him on his deathbed. This does not mean, however, that she remains in Paradise; for the world shown in the film is a reality that has long been marked by human decline. And it is acceptance of this state of affairs that is the only tool to fight the darkness of evil. Man has strength but also great weakness, and only by facing it can he build his true identity.

For this reason Abra ultimately chooses Caleb, for she cannot love a man with whom she feels perpetually less than perfect. The most mysterious character in the film remains Kate – calculating, cynical, and yet fascinatingly strong and painfully suffering. Of course, she is the embodiment of the archetype of Eve – the foremother of sin, the woman who brought misfortune and God’s wrath upon mankind. It is in her that all the conflicts and subconscious fears of the protagonists focus. It is not without reason that Jo Van Fleet received an Oscar for this role.