Does the setting of John Steinbeck's The Pearl affect the character's view of himself or herself?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of John Steinbeck's The Pearl absolutely has an impact on how Kino and his wife Juana see themselves, and the best example of that is found when they are compelled to go to town to seek medical help for their son.

When the baby, Coyotito, gets bitten by a scorpion, Juana insists that Kino go get the doctor. All their neighbors, gathered out of concern, are amazed at her request.

A wonderful thing, a memorable thing, to want the doctor. To get him would be a remarkable thing.The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses. Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town?

Knowing the doctor will never come to them, Kino and Juana take their son to town, hoping the doctor will see them. They move from the brush huts of their tiny village to the plastered walls of the nearby city. People see the young couple, know they are poor, and follow them to the doctor's house, just to see the spectacle.

Kino hesitates a bit before he knocks on the door, knowing the doctor is

not of his people. This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race, and frightened it too, so that the indigent came humbly to the door. And as always when he came near to one of this race, Kino felt weak and afraid and angry at the same time. Rage and terror went together. He could kill the doctor more easily than he could talk to him, for all of the doctor's race spoke to all of Kino's race as though they were simple animals. And as Kino raised his right hand to the iron ring knocker in the gate, rage swelled in him, and the pounding music of the enemy beat in his ears, and his lips drew tight against his teeth--but with his left hand he reached to take off his hat. 

Even when Kino feels enough anger to want to kill, his fear keeps him docile, as demonstrated by his removing his hat before he speaks to anyone in the house. 

This sense of servility is a consistent pattern in this novella, and it is demonstrated most when Kino moves from his brush hut village to the town. The village huts have dirt yards and are spartan, in contrast to the town. At the edge of the brush houses is a harsh divider, plaster walls which remind Kino and his people that they are not like the town-dwellers. Inside the plaster walls, the town contains

inner cool gardens where a little water played and the bougainvillea crusted the walls with purple and brick-red and white. They heard from the secret gardens the singing of caged birds and heard the splash of cooling water on hot flagstones. The procession crossed the blinding plaza and passed in front of the church. 

Despite the perceived grandness and superiority of the town, especially by the villagers like Kino and Juana, Steinbeck reminds the readers that the town is not a superior place just because it is full of non-villagers. 

On the beach the hungry dogs and the hungry pigs of the town searched endlessly for any dead fish or sea bird that might have floated in on a rising tide.

Note that the dogs and pigs are wild and hungry, and dead sea creatures float in the water nearby. This is a reminder to readers that Kino, Juana, and the others are not lesser human beings than the townspeople, though it would be difficult for Kino's people to believe it after being treated as second-class, sub-human creatures (animals) for centuries.