East of Eden: Being Good or Bad



Director Elia Kazen had the magic touch in 1950s Hollywood, even with the “red scare” of communism that threatened to knock him out of play. So many brilliant, award-winning films were brought to life at his hand: On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, Splendor in the Grass, A Streetcar Named Desire, and, of course, East of Eden.

A film awash with dark intensity and silent, desperate passions, East of Eden is one of Kazan’s finest cinematic triumphs. The story of Cal Trask (James Dean) resonates even today. Brimming with confused emotions, Cal is a dreamer no one understands, not even the father, Adam (Raymond Massey), that he so desperately seeks to please. Cal and Adam are as different from night and day. Cal’s emotional outbursts and his angry, brooding silences only serve to confound Adam, driving the wedge farther between them.

Cal is desperate for someone to understand him, to love him. That’s all he really wants—the love of his father who has always favored his brother Aron (Richard Davalos). The entirety of Cal’s existence is caught up in earning his father’s love, the father who is never able to fully give it despite being such a generous, kind man. Cal is left drifting, frustrated at how bad he is compared to Aron, the perfect son and brother. Only after Cal meets the mother he assumed had died, does he realize where his badness comes from, as if being bad is something you can inherit. Restlessness has nothing to do with being bad or good, but Cal can’t realize that because no one in his life realizes it.

There is something so lost about people like Cal. People who ache to be loved, so much that it eats them up from the inside. They will stop at nothing to garner the affection they desperately crave. For Cal, love is more important to him than food, air, or anything else we can imagine or desire. Cal is cold, full of repressed fury and angst.

Then the girl his brother loves, Abra (Julie Harris), extends compassion and friendship to him, even though he scares her. Cal’s loneliness holds greater sway over Abra than her fear, so she reaches out to him because she must. She’s always looked sideways at him, slightly afraid yet compelled towards him. Is it the agonized glint in his eye? The carefree laugh he can give when he isn’t feeling pressure to fake being something he isn’t? Whatever the reason, Abra’s gentle spirit cannot stand by and watch someone suffer, even though she knows it might end her relationship with Aron.

The closer Cal comes to release and fulfillment, the more reserved Aron becomes. They switch places in terms of emotionalism and detachment. The carefree Aron grows morose and angry while the melancholy Cal discovers a modicum of joy and self-worth. In the end, the one more loyal to the other is not Aron, the choir boy of goodness, but Cal, the black sheep. It is the truly good people in the world who can hurt us the most if they try. And it is Cal who survives the horrible truth of his origin where Aron falls apart when ugly truth confronts his perfect life.

Stories like East of Eden cannot end happily, but they aren’t mean to end that way. They’re meant to make us pause and consider the lessons learned. Cal felt he couldn’t be himself. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t as unswervingly good as Aron. It’s called sin nature, and Aron has it too, as does Adam, and Abra. She is courageous in her admission of, “I guess I don’t know what is good and what’s bad. I mean, Aron is so good… and I’m not. Not good enough for Aron anyway. Because sometimes when I’m with him, well Aron likes to talk about our being in love and think about it, and that’s all right… well, maybe I don’t know what love is exactly. I know love is good the way Aron says, but it’s more than that, it’s got to be.” Like Abra, I don’t even know fully what’s good or bad because I know myself and the struggles that roil around inside of me sometimes.

No one in this story can fit into the cookie cutter version of goodness presented in East of Eden. It’s impossible to be that kind of good because it stems out of our own attempts instead of a spiritual, heart change. Being good is not a lack of darkness but an overwhelming abundance of light. Cal will always feel a pull of darkness inside him, but he can push back if he has something to push back with. That’s what is lacking in his life, a real, genuine reason to be good. Not to please his father or to Abra, but something beyond them.

Though fulfillment in East of Eden is finally brought about by Cal reconciling with his father, in real life, that hole inside can only be filled with one thing: God. A burdensome, brewing emptiness inside consumes not only the person who carries it, but also everyone else. And no amount of human love can ever fill that type of hole. I know because I’ve been there. The very real struggle to plug that hole is what draws me to stories like East of Eden because it reminds me how very desperately we all need Christ, whether we admit it or not. Once you have Him, it’s okay if you falter and misstep and are good one day and bad the next because Christ is there to pick you up and put you back on your narrow road, offering unrelenting forgiveness.

To this day, East of Eden remains one of my favorite films because it handles so many different struggles and fears, all in one setting, with a stellar cast headed by James Dean whose life was snuffed out too early. ♥


Carissa Horton spends her working hours at Compassion International whose tagline reads “Releasing Children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” She is an avid crafter, a prolific blogger on Musings of an Introvert about all things literary and film-based, and dreams of getting her stories published.


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