Beneath the surface, realistic detail of this story, John Steinbeck develops the moral allegory of a boy growing into manhood. The opening events resemble the simple plot of a fairy tale: A boy leaves home on a journey of initiation, he undergoes a trial, he returns a man. Steinbeck, however, brings the tale to a new conclusion: In this society, the achievement of manhood can demand the life of the protagonist. Built within the framework of society is a code by which the individual must act—but the individual may well die as a result of this action. Thus, to choose to be a man by society’s definition of manhood can have tragic consequences.
That Steinbeck has chosen a paisano for his hero is significant. Steinbeck defined the paisano as a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted European bloods—someone whose ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or more years. These people are poor by the Anglo’s materialistic standards, for, by and large, they do not subscribe to the Anglo work ethic but live in a different moral structure, one in which a man’s behavior is much more important than his possessions. The focus in this story is on the nature of that behavior: To be a man can require action that society must condemn, and the paradoxical nature of this requirement is what makes for the possibility of the tragic figure. When that figure struggles against society with honor, he achieves an individual dignity that elevates him to a tragic status. Thus, in his final days in the mountains, Pepe becomes the symbolic tragic hero of his society.
The concept of a powerful society overwhelming the individual—the guiding idea of the literary movement known as naturalism—works its way through this story. Steinbeck viewed society as a huge organism that operated by natural laws, unmindful of the individual’s wishes and desires, yet he also viewed the individual as being capable of acts that bring him human dignity. Pepe’s story is the result of Steinbeck’s artistic exploration of these contradictory truths.