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I think that this becomes one of the fundamental challenges that Steinbeck brings out in Pepe's characterization. Pepe has few, if any, skills to help him survive. He has little idea as to what struggle actually looks like and how he will be able to survive on his own. When he leaves to the town and believes himself "to be a man," it is a hollow statement. It is a moment in which Steinbeck is bringing out the idea that one of the follies of youth is to believe that they are ready to accept and deal with what lies ahead. In a sense, Pepe flies on "borrowed wings" only to come crashing down to Earth. The only possible skill he possesses is with a knife, something that brings despair and pain to him in the end. When Pepe is out in the wilderness, he loses everything in terms of those vital elements which would help him live. He has little idea as to what needs to be done. He is shown to be almost an animal being hunted down. He does not demonstrate any skills that help him survive. One can argue that the ending in which he recognizes the moment of his own death with his hands in the air is the only skill that he possesses, again reflecting that the only skills he possesses bring about his own doom. In this, Steinbeck's characterization of Pepe is one in which modern youth is shown as being ill- equipped to deal with the crushing realities of the world of which they are to be a part. The optimism with which he leaves is contrasted with the lack of focus he displays in the battle for survival, reflecting how overmatched he is with reality.
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