Critical Overview

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The long term critical reputation of John Steinbeck rises and falls on the relevance and apparent ability evinced in his greatest two novels, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. However, his endurance as a great American writer is also found in his lesser works such as The Red Pony and The Pearl. The latter, Steinbeck called "a black and white story like a parable," and the felicity with which he crafted the work claims its readers to read it again and again. Indeed, for many critics this story has revealed the bedrock of Steinbeck's personal and political philosophy.

John F. Kennedy was one such early friend who summed up Steinbeck's literary philosophy as a "reverence for life." That was the reason for his popularity, said Kennedy; Steinbeck wrote of "life and living." This critic was not about to simply say Steinbeck was a naturalist or social realist and, thereby, repeat again that he was a champion of the working man. In fact, Kennedy refutes these claims. Steinbeck was too sentimental in his regard of humanity to be a realist. Thematically, Kennedy rather likes Steinbeck's work until he comes to The Pearl.

Harris Morris provides a close reading of Steinbeck's use of allegory and symbolism and chronicles the publication history of the fable. The title, for example, went from being "The Pearl of the World" to "The Pearl of La Paz." The overstatement of irony involved in a title "The Pearl of Peace" was unnecessary and finally the title shortens to its present form. Morris makes a great deal of Steinbeck's role as a modern fabulist who wrapped his tales in realism knowing the modern world would view any imitation of Aesop as childish. Therefore, he "overlays his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems." Then, through a discussion of the use of animal allusions, night, day, and the journey, Morris finds that the effort to overlay realism actually exaggerates the allegorical tendencies while undermining the "realistic aspects of the hero."

For Todd M. Lieber, Steinbeck has remained true to his basic themes throughout his work and he does not see anything new in this parable. Instead, Lieber is interested in Steinbeck's reliance on talismanic symbols to bring his characters to his larger theme of "becoming aware of the individual's relation to the whole." Talismans are objects "that men believe in or go to for some kind of nonrational fulfillment." Throughout Steinbeck's works, characters come to identify with places and with objects as a part of their becoming conscious; "identification results when man transfers part of his own being to his symbols, when an object becomes suffused with human spirit so that a complete interpenetration exists." This is done most successfully in the parable where the pearl becomes an "emotional prop" and "a principle of right action in the world." Lieber views Steinbeck in some awe as a writer able to "penetrate to the sources of human thought and behavior and present in the form of some objective correlative the archetypal and mythopoeic knowledge that lies deep in the mystery of human experience." The talisman psychology is one of those correlatives.

A very different approach was that of Peter Lisca, who notices Steinbeck's disillusionment with the "Kiwannis, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce definition of noble character." He sees that Kino finds himself possessed of the means to buy into that world but he also finds "his house burned down, his wife physically beaten, his only son killed, and the lives of three men on his soul." Rather than continue toward dissipation, Steinbeck has the man and wife make a true escape. Kino had been seeking to escape the low-level economic and social position but willingly returns to that same "repressive society" though "at a higher level." Lisca decides, as Steinbeck perhaps intended, that the "primitive" man's position is the right one to occupy. From there, they see the basic violent and destructive logic of those who repress them. "They return to their village, throw The Pearl of Great Price back into the sea, and return to the edge of unconsciousness, an unthinking existence governed by the rhythms of sun and tide."

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Essays and Criticism