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The Literal and Symbolic in The Pearl

(Novels for Students)

Perhaps the most outspoken cntic of The Pearl has been Warren French, who criticized author John Steinbeck for using a traditional tale (the legend of the Indian boy who accidentally finds a large pearl) to make his "cautionary points" about the dangers of materialism. According to French, Kino's struggles would be more meaningful to readers of the Woman's Home Companion, where the story was first published, than to Mexican listeners of the original folk tale. French's criticisms are only partially valid.

Kino's discovery that the economic value of the pearl is controlled by a few powerful men can be read as a critique of a capitalistic economic system that embraces material values. Naively, Kino believes that he will be a rich man because he has discovered the "Pearl of the World." He plans to finance a church wedding, to purchase clothes, a rifle, and an education for Coyotito. Yet, when he tries to sell his pearl in La Paz, he receives an offer of only 1,500 pesos. So Kino sets out for the capital in order to find traders who will pay him the full value of the Pearl. By challenging the status quo in La Paz, he sets off a chain reaction of events that will force him to reevaluate what he defines to be "valuable."

Juana is less naive about the value of the pearl than Kino is, at least initially. She is quick to grasp that the Pearl, if given more value than, say, human relationships, can bring both greed and misery. "This thing is evil," she cnes. "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.... Throw it away, Kino." Kino refuses to throw away the pearl, because he wants to use the pearl to purchase social status and freedom from oppression for his family and community.

The novel also contrasts the value of the pearl with the value of Kino's family, specifically of Coyotito. The narrator says that for Kino and Juana, the morning that Kino will sell his pearl is "comparable only to the day when the baby had been born." Because the statement follows a paragraph foreshadowing that the pearl will destroy the family, because the reader is likely to believe that there is no greater moment than the birth of a child to a father, the narrator's observation seems ironic. How can one compare the monetary value of the pearl with the value of one's family? It is no coincidence that Coyotito sacrifices his life when Kino insists upon keeping the pearl. Coyotito's sacrifice (death) provides further evidence that French is right. Steinbeck is critiquing materialism and its values.

After Kino has killed a man and the family has been forced to flee, Juana says, "Perhaps the dealers were right and the pearl has no value. Perhaps this has all been an illusion." On a material level, she may be conceding that the pearl really does not have any monetary value. On a spiritual level (if one defines spirit to be a human being's essence), Juana may be suggesting that, even if the pearl's monetary value is 50,000 pesos, it is still of no value to the family, which craves spirit, not matter. Juana's questioning of the value of the pearl mirrors the questioning of the value of the pearl that occurs throughout the novel. Again, this is consistent with a reading of the story as a critique of materialism.

When Juana suggests the pearl may have no value, Kino replies, "They would not have tried to steal it if it had been valueless." In this ironic moment, both the narrator and readers will see that Kino's logic is flawed. He is assuming that thieves steal valuable things, which may or may not be true, and which is only relevant if someone is willing to pay the thieves for their stolen items. Kino must become more sophisticated, more aware of the evil that man is capable of, more aware of the forces that render him and his family helpless.

Again, Kino's naive nature provides support for French's criticism that the novel makes "cautionary" points that are more meaningful to readers in the United States than in Mexico. Contemporary readers in industrial societies are probably...

(The entire section is 5,813 words.)