Essays and Criticism
The Literal and Symbolic in The Pearl
Perhaps the most outspoken cntic of The Pearl has been Warren French, who criticized author John Steinbeck for using a traditional tale (the legend of the Indian boy who accidentally finds a large pearl) to make his "cautionary points" about the dangers of materialism. According to French, Kino's struggles would be more meaningful to readers of the Woman's Home Companion, where the story was first published, than to Mexican listeners of the original folk tale. French's criticisms are only partially valid.
Kino's discovery that the economic value of the pearl is controlled by a few powerful men can be read as a critique of a capitalistic economic system that embraces material values. Naively, Kino believes that he will be a rich man because he has discovered the "Pearl of the World." He plans to finance a church wedding, to purchase clothes, a rifle, and an education for Coyotito. Yet, when he tries to sell his pearl in La Paz, he receives an offer of only 1,500 pesos. So Kino sets out for the capital in order to find traders who will pay him the full value of the Pearl. By challenging the status quo in La Paz, he sets off a chain reaction of events that will force him to reevaluate what he defines to be "valuable."
Juana is less naive about the value of the pearl than Kino is, at least initially. She is quick to grasp that the Pearl, if given more value than, say, human...
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Thematic Structure in The Pearl
Before advancing to thematic material, it may be well to establish immediately what we hold as the structure of the novel. Although the structure could be shown schematically, let us use words. Each chapter contains a central incident which has both cause and effect, tying together the action. In Chapter I the central incident is accidental, the scorpion's stinging Coyotito, and results in the need to find a pearl with which to pay for a doctor's treatment. The discovery of the pearl, the fruit of purposeful action for something good and the central incident of Chapter II, has the effect of making Kino everyone's enemy, the townspeople's becoming a threat to Kino and his family. Chapters III and IV have as central incidents the attacks upon Kino for possession of the pearl. These attacks are both physical as well as emotional (the doctor's "treatment" of Coyotito) or intellectual (the pearl buyer's attempt to take advantage of Kino's ignorance), and they arise from a human evil, greed. These incidents result in the growing conflict between Kino and Juana over the pearl. In Chapter V the turning point is reached in the central incident of that chapter, the destruction of what we call existence for Kino, caused by purposeful action for an evil goal. The effect of this incident is Kino's forced emigration from the community. The central incident of the final chapter is the death of Coyotito, again, as in the first chapter, an accidental incident, which results...
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The Pearl: Realism and Allegory
[Nothing] more clearly indicates the allegorical nature of The Pearl as it developed in Steinbeck's mind from the beginning—as the various titles attached to the work—The Pearl of the World and The Pearl of La Paz. Although the city of La Paz may be named appropriately in the title since the setting for the action is in and around that place, the Spanish word provides a neat additional bit of symbolism, if in some aspects ironic. In its working title, the novel tells the story of The Pearl of Peace. When this title was changed to The Pearl of the World for magazine publication, although the irony was partially lost, the allegorical implications were still present. But Steinbeck had apparently no fears that the nature of the tale would be mistaken when he reduced the title to merely The Pearl....
Steinbeck knew that the modern fabulist could write neither a medieval Pearl nor a classical Aesopian Fox and Grapes story. It was essential to overlay his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems. Realism as a technique requires two basic elements: credible people and situations on the one hand and recognizable evocation of the world of nature and of things on the other. Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly in the second of these tasks but perhaps does not come off quite so well in the first. In supplying...
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