How does Steinbeck incorporate the living conditions, customs, and traditions into his novels?

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In The Pearl, John Steinbeck combines the realism that had characterized his earlier fiction with an allegorical orientation in which the story and the characters symbolize larger, spiritual issues. Steinbeck had gained much of his knowledge of California and Mexican environments through his own work, travels, and, especially, reporting. For example, in The Harvest Gypsies, he went to migrant labor camps and interviewed the kinds of families he would later fictionalize in The Grapes of Wrath. In The Pearl, while he portrays the social world of La Paz, a small Mexican town, faithfully in terms of social and racial divisions. Steinbeck is not striving for a fully realistic treatment. His selective presentation of details and ambiance helps him drive home his points.

The simple home in which Kino, Juana, and Coyotito live is one example. He sketches the “brush house” with a few key details, such as the grinding stone on which Juana made the corncake meal, the shawl in which she “hammocked” the baby, and the braids she ties with a “thin green ribbon.” He mentions the pigs, chickens, and roosters in the year. Kino drinks “pulque” with his corn-cake breakfast. Summing up the meal, Steinbeck conveys both their Mexican identity and their poverty: “That was the only breakfast he had ever known outside of feast days….”

After the scorpion stings the baby, and they decide they need the doctor, the neighbors are sure he will not come. Through a brief description of the doctor’s patient’s house, Steinbeck also conveys some major differences between the parts of town. The doctor has ample work, just “to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town.” Then to emphasize the contrast, he describes more fully the lushness of that neighborhood.

[There] the city of stone and plaster began, the city of harsh outer walls and inner cool gardens where a little water played and the bougainvillaea 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.

Then they reached the doctor’s house.

They could hear the splashing water and the singing of caged birds and the sweep of the long brooms on the flagstones. And they could smell the frying of good bacon from the doctor's house.

In the second part, by repeating the description and adding the “good bacon,” Steinbeck nails down the contrast of poor and rich. Throughout the novella, by choosing a few features to emphasize and a small amount of description, or piling on ample verbiage, Steinbeck conveys the important characteristics of lifestyles and social status, and the vast gulf that separates Kino and Juana from “the race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race, and frightened it too….”

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