What is Realism according to Steinbeck?John Steinbeck was influenced by this movement. The Pearl by Steinbeck

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his works, John Steinbeck employed Social Realism as the viewing lens for his readers to become conscious of the plight of man.  Here is a definition of this genre that befits Steinbeck's writings:

Social Realism... is an artistic movement expressed in the visual and other realist arts, which depicts social and racial injustice, economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles; often depicting working class activities as heroic.

Having studied biological phenomena in his travels with a friend, greatly influenced by philosophical ideas and psychology, Steinbeck became aware of the evolutionary process along with the importance of the "unconscious" in man.  The conflicts of his narratives involve expectations against change and the unconscious memory or dreams against altered circumstances.  Because these real conflicts are what all people experience, Steinbeck, thus, generates an empathy in his readers towards his characters. 

In The Pearl, for instance, though Steinbeck utilizes a fabular form, he yet captures the "biological" conflict of the Indian whose pastoral world is endangered, the ethnic Indian whose dignity and culture is threatened.  As a means of expressing this conflict, Steinbeck uses what Jung termed a "visionary style," one of dreams, songs, recurring myths, and symbolic characters, such as the doctor and the pearl buyers, who represent the invading culture and the capitalistic way of life. 

Always in Steinbeck's works there is the call of a lost Eden, the haunting psychological dream of every person, a call, however, that is in conflict with contemporary society. For instance, in The Pearl, Kino hears the Song of the Family, "but no new songs were added."  As the narrative progresses, Kino and Juana hear the Song of the Evil.  Kino's brother tells him, "There is a devil in this pearl." So, finally, in a desperate effort to reclaim their lives and to regain their lost Eden of familial love and contentment as well as his manhood because the pearl has "become [his] soul," Kino flings the pearl into the sea from whence it came.

For Steinbeck, realism is the concern, not just with the social situation, but also with the heart and soul of man as he informs readers of circumstances that threaten man's cultural and personal identity.