The Pearl Essay - Essays and Criticism

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 relationships, can bring both greed and misery. "This thing is evil," she cnes. "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.... Throw it away, Kino." Kino refuses to throw away the pearl, because he wants to use the pearl to purchase social status and freedom from oppression for his family and community.

The novel also contrasts the value of the pearl with the value of Kino's family, specifically of Coyotito. The narrator says that for Kino and Juana, the morning that Kino will sell his pearl is "comparable only to the day when the baby had been born." Because the statement follows a paragraph foreshadowing that the pearl will destroy the family, because the reader is likely to believe that there is no greater moment than the birth of a child to a father, the narrator's observation seems ironic. How can one compare the monetary value of the pearl with the value of one's family? It is no coincidence that Coyotito sacrifices his life when Kino insists upon keeping the pearl. Coyotito's sacrifice (death) provides further evidence that French is right. Steinbeck is critiquing materialism and its values.

After Kino has killed a man and the family has been forced to flee, Juana says, "Perhaps the dealers were right and the pearl has no value. Perhaps this has all been an illusion." On a material level, she may be conceding that the pearl really does not have any monetary value. On a spiritual level (if one defines spirit to be a human being's essence), Juana may be suggesting that, even if the pearl's monetary value is 50,000 pesos, it is still of no value to the family, which craves spirit, not matter. Juana's questioning of the value of the pearl mirrors the questioning of the value of the pearl that occurs throughout the novel. Again, this is consistent with a reading of the story as a critique of materialism.

When Juana suggests the pearl may have no value, Kino replies, "They would not have tried to steal it if it had been valueless." In this ironic moment, both the narrator and readers will see that Kino's logic is flawed. He is assuming that thieves steal valuable things, which may or may not be true, and which is only relevant if someone is willing to pay the thieves for their stolen items. Kino must become more sophisticated, more aware of the evil that man is capable of, more aware of the forces that render him and his family helpless.

Again, Kino's naive nature provides support for French's criticism that the novel makes "cautionary" points that are more meaningful to readers in the United States than in Mexico. Contemporary readers in industrial societies are probably more likely to see the irony in Kino's logic than readers from less-industrialized countries. Contemporary readers who have a basic understanding of economic principles are also more likely to see that Kino's major conflict is whether or not he will accept or reject the social, economic, (and by extension, materialistic) values that currently determine his choices in life.

However, at this point, the novel begins to resist French's literal reading. By not recognizing the impact of the forces of capitalism upon their lives,...

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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 in Kino's return to the community and the destruction of the pearl.

With this structure in mind, let us turn now to the central theme. Just as the pearl is an "accident," so is man's existence, and that existence has meaning within human relationships, basic of which is the family. Just as the pearl is good or becomes invested with evil because of the ways men use it, so man himself appears, becomes, emerges as good or evil because of the ways men use other men, nurturing or destroying the human relationship between them, validating or invalidating the meaning of their existence.

We have attempted to trace two manifestations of this theme through the novel. The first follows Steinbeck's use of music as a symbolic representation of the theme paralleling the basic story. The second manifestation is found in Steinbeck's use of description to suggest the relationships between Kino and his community and between the community and the town as social embodiments of the theme again paralleling the basic story.

Steinbeck has established three main songs that are named: the Songs of the Family, of Evil, and of the Pearl. Schematically, these three melodies can be envisioned as originating on three separate planes, with the Song of the Family in the middle and the Song of Evil on a parallel plane, but imminent. From a plane below both, the Song of the Pearl is created and, as the story itself progesses, moves forward to become one with the Song of the Family, then to transcend it and join with the Song of Evil....

As symbolic representation, the musical parallel must now be related to the central theme. Within the human relationship where Kino's life has meaning, the Song of the Family is warm, clear, soft, and protecting. Herein the Song of the Family represents completeness. It continues to have these qualities as long as the Song of The Pearl does not overwhelm it. As Steinbeck writes, "they beautify one another." When the human relationship is threatened and destroyed (the crisis: Juana attempts to toss away the pearl, Kino strikes her, Kino is attacked and commits murder, Juana realizes the irrevocable change and accepts it to keep the family together, and the change is manifested in the destruction of the old ties of boat and home, and the pearl becomes both life and soul for Kino), the Song of the Family is interrupted and then becomes secondary to the Song of the Pearl. But because life's meaning is now dependent upon the pearl rather than upon human relationships, the Song of the Pearl becomes the Song of Evil opposed to the Song of the Family, which is now harsh, snarling, and defensive—a fierce cry until the Song of the Pearl is stilled and the human relationships are restored within the original community.

Through the suggestive power of Steinbeck's description, the second manifestation of the theme becomes clear: the close harmony in the human relationships within Kino's community and the parasitic relationship between that community and the town....

Even in what might be termed indirect description, Steinbeck has pictures of the parasitic relationship between the community and the town. In the first instance of metaphors from the animal world, Steinbeck reports how an ant, a social animal working for the good of its colony, has been trapped by an ant-lion, living near the ant colony to prey upon it for his individual needs. In the same way the individuals of the town have built "traps" to take advantage of the ignorance of the Indians and to prey upon them for whatever they have of wealth, labor, or services....

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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...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)