Historical Context

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America after World War II
The Peace Treaty signed on February 10,1947 officially ends World War II. America emerges as a world superpower. It is capable of an incredible industrial capacity and, in addition, America commands the most powerful military in the world: the greatest Navy, the largest standing Army, the best Air Force, and the only nuclear arsenal. The United States military becomes even stronger when Congress passes a law unifying the Air Force, Army, and Navy under one Secretary of Defense. Adding another weapon to America's might, Congress creates the Central Intelligence Agency.

Culturally, American literature, music, art, movies, and eventually television gain popularity around the world. The isolationism of the prewar days is gone and the city of New York emerges as a world center. Visitors to the city experience the tastes and sights of the capital of American publishing, the infant television industry, and the glamour of Broadway shows. They view Abstract Expressionism, maybe bump into a Beat Poet, and revel in the sound of Bebop or blues.

Supply and Demand Economics
With the end of the war, the rationing of goods ends and people demand to be supplied with goods that were unavailable during the war. Industry scurries to provide these goods. One immediate demand is housing. The soldiers coming home are taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to attend college. They use the same rights again to procure financing for adding their tract house to that other New York invention—the suburban sprawl. The military industrial complex quickly retools to offer prefabricated housing components, appliances, and civilian cars and trucks. All of this consumption, however, wreaks havoc on economic forecasts. Price controls are abandoned too quickly and inflation rises. As men reenter the work force, pressure to raise wages increases and strikes happen frequently.

President Harry Truman's popularity declines drastically with inflation's rise and the liberal coalition formed under Roosevelt—which had brought together business and government so effectively to fight a war—unravels. Fortunately, the worldwide demand for goods is so great and the capacities of America and Canada so vast that boom times are bound to come. Republicans aim to push back the New Deal legislation at a time when the Marshall Plan was being hammered out to help resuscitate Europe. The Democrat coalition begins splitting apart over the thorny issue of civil rights. The Southern Democrats strengthen their alliance with the Republicans to weaken the New Deal and delay action on civil rights legislation.

Despite a presidential veto, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (the Taft-Hartley Act) passes. This law outlaws 'closed shop' agreements—where the employer hires only those persons who belong to a specific union. Further, the law demands that workers must first vote by secret ballot before striking. Perhaps most fundamentally, the law made labor unions liable to court action for contractual violations brought on by stake actions.

The Cold War
Tense relations developed between the United States and their Russian allies late in the war as they raced to see who would dominate Japan. But it is not until after the war that the growing tensions would come to be known as the Cold War. In 1947, American Bernard Baruch uses the term to label the conflict between Russia and the United States that is just short of war. The Cold War resuits in technological races, political influence in lesser countries (from Central America to the Middle East), and curious exchanges at the United Nations. Both nations break the sound barrier in 1947. With the detonation of a Soviet atom bomb in 1949, an arms race begins. Later, Sputnik would cause a furious investment in math and sciences so that America arrives at the Moon first.

Disturbing domestic legislation is enacted early in the Cold War. Truman hands down Executive Order 9835, which requires the Department of Justice to compile a list of subversive organizations that seek to alter the United States "by unconstitutional means." The list includes a whole range of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, the Chopin Cultural Center, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the League of American Writers, the Nature Friends of America, and the Yugoslav Seaman's Club. Truman's order seeks investigation of those persons affiliated with those groups who might have infiltrated the United States government. Of the 6.6 million persons investigated, as a result of this program, not one case of espionage is uncovered. However, this activity paves the way for such later witchhunts as McCarthyism in the 1950s.

Setting

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The Pearl is set in and around La Paz, Mexico, a coastal town marked by economic, social, and racial divisions resulting from colonial domination of the local native population. Kino attempts to escape with his family to the capital city and seeks refuge in a cave in the wilderness, but his attempt to flee is thwarted, and he returns to La Paz, where he renders the pearl to the sea.

Literary Style

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Allegory
An allegory takes many forms. One form of allegory is that of a type of fiction more or less symbolic in feature intending to convey a meaning which is not explicitly set forth within the narrative. Allegories usually involve a journey that a character makes toward spiritual growth. Kino's story is an allegory: his journey affords him a small amount of personal growth and a variety of lessons to meditate on. The plot is simple: a man finds The Pearl of the World but he does not gain happiness and throws it back. Within this narrative are many hidden meanings. The story tells us that man is in the dark and needs to wake up. Therefore, the opening shows Kino waking in the night, which is allegorical, but because the Cock has been crowing for some time we know that he has been trying to gain a consciousness—literally wake up—to his people's plight.

Another message is that journeys should be made in communion, not just the company, of another. Kino should be in a leadership position amongst his people because of his fortuitous discovery. But he is not leading them. He tries to sell the pearl, which could have ruptured the economic system and provided economic opportunity for his people. Instead he falls prey to doubt and decides to go for the big city leaving his people ignorant of his mission. Kino decides to make his own way and is followed by his wife. He returns with her, but they are still alone and everything is the same as before.

Symbolism
The story is full of symbolism of the talismanic. allegorical, and ironic kind. The pearl itself is a symbol of escape for the poor man, but it also symbolizes the effects of greed on man. Worse than that, Steinbeck sets up the pearl to embody the whole of the European Conquest of the Americas. He does this by saying that the pearl bed in which it was found is the same pearl bed that raised the King of Spain to be the greatest in the world. Historically, then, this pearl bed represents the gold, silver, and raw resources that Spain extracted from the New World at the height of that nation's empire. Now, this same pearl bed lures in a victim of that colonialism to dream of an easy escape from poverty.

The pearl is a talisman: an object that comes to be interchangeable with a man or an idea. At one point Kino views the pearl as his soul and vows to keep it. For Kino, the success of the pearl's sale will indicate his success. The pearl stands opposite to the canoe that at once stands for his family and is a sure bulwark against starvation. When he makes it known that he will pursue wealth by venturing on his own to the great city, his canoe is sabotaged. This is a crime greater than homicide for it is a direct assault on Kino's family—worse than burning down the house.

Irony arises in the name of the village: La Paz or peace. The town is only peaceful because the majority of the people are demoralized. Their peace is one of an oppressed people. The pearl stirs up this peace and only bloodshed restores calm.

The Indians are constantly presented as innocent primitives further duped by the superstition of the Catholic Church. They are also, and Kino especially, compared to animals. In their daily habits of fishing and gathering they are like the hungry dogs and pigs described as searching the shore for easy meals. More exactly, Kino howls, the trackers sniff and whine, the baby's yelps sound like its namesake—the Coyote. Animals have roles as well. The Watcher's horse raises the European above the Indians; this advantage is used to conquer the hemisphere.

Metaphor
While the story has its symbols and large allegorical sentiments, every facet of the tale is transcribed into metaphor. Even the minds of the Indian people are as "unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf." Further, they are clouded as if the mud of the sea floor has been permanently disturbed to block their vision. Even the city as seat of the colonial administration is given metaphorical animation: "A town is a thing like a colonial animal. A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet."

In a moment of foreshadowing, Kino watches as two roosters prepare to fight. He then notices wild doves flying inland where later Kino will prepare to fight his pursuers. Juana is like an owl when she watches Kino sneaks down the cliff. Earlier, when the watering hole was described, feathers left by cats that had dragged their prey there are noticed. Those with feathers die. On the other hand, Kino is no longer an animal. Instead, when Kino kills the men who are tracking him he is a machine. He is efficient and without noise, like the cats playing with their doomed prey. He is killing to survive. The metaphor that is mixed in with this scene of tension and action is in keeping with the style of the rest of the work, while also lending it a realistic dimension.

Literary Qualities

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Kino's story is an allegory: his journey affords him a small amount of personal growth and a variety of lessons on which to reflect. An allegory may take one of many forms. One form of allegory is that of a type of fiction more or less symbolic in feature intending to convey a meaning that is not explicitly set forth within the narrative. Allegories usually involve a journey that a character makes toward spiritual growth. The plot of Steinbeck's story is simple: a man finds the "pearl of the world" but he does not gain happiness and throws it back. Within this narrative are many hidden meanings. The story tells us that humanity is in the dark and needs to wake up. Therefore, the opening shows Kino waking in the night, which is allegorical, but because the cock has been crowing for some time we know that he has been trying to gain a consciousness—literally wake up—to his people's plight.

Another message is that journeys should be made in communion, not just the company, of another. Kino should be in a leadership position among his people because of his fortuitous discovery, but he is not leading them. He tries to sell the pearl, which could have ruptured the economic system and provided economic opportunity for his people. Instead he falls prey to doubt and decides to go for the big city leaving his people ignorant of his mission. Kino decides to make his own way and is followed by his wife. He returns with her, but they are still alone and everything is the same as before.

The novel is full of symbolism of the talismanic, allegorical, and ironic kind. The pearl itself is a symbol of escape for the poor man, but it also symbolizes the effects of greed on man. Worse than that, Steinbeck sets up the pearl to embody the whole of the European conquest of the Americas. He does this by saying that the pearl bed in which it was found is the same pearl bed that raised the King of Spain to be the greatest in the world. Historically, then, this pearl bed represents the gold, silver, and raw resources that Spain extracted from the New World at the height of that nation's empire. Now, this same pearl bed lures in a victim of that colonialism to dream of an easy escape from poverty.

The pearl is a talisman: an object that comes to be interchangeable with a person or an idea. At one point Kino views the pearl as his soul and vows to keep it. For Kino, the success of the Pearl's sale will indicate his success. The pearl stands opposite to the canoe that at once stands for his family and is a sure bulwark against starvation. When he makes it known that he will pursue wealth by venturing on his own to the great city, his canoe is sabotaged. This is a crime greater than homicide for it is a direct assault on Kino's family—worse than burning down the house.

Irony arises in the name of the village: La Paz or peace. The town is only peaceful because the majority of the people are demoralized. Their peace is one of an oppressed people. The pearl stirs up this peace and only bloodshed restores calm.

The Indians are constantly presented as innocent primitives further duped by the superstition of the Catholic Church. They are also, and Kino is especially, compared to animals. In their daily habits of fishing and gathering they are like the hungry dogs and pigs described as searching the shore for easy meals. More exactly, Kino howls, the trackers sniff and whine, and the baby yelps—a sound reminiscent of its namesake, the Coyote. Animals have roles in the story as well. The Watcher's horse raises the European above the Indians; this advantage is used to conquer the hemisphere.

While the story has its symbols and large allegorical sentiments, every facet of the tale is transcribed into metaphor. Even the minds the Indian people are as "unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf." Further, they are clouded as if the mud of the sea floor has been permanently disturbed to block their vision. Even the city as seat of the colonial administration is given metaphorical animation: "A town is a thing like a colonial animal. A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet."

In a moment of foreshadowing, Kino watches as two roosters prepare to fight. He then notices wild doves flying inland where later Kino will prepare to fight his pursuers. Juana is like an owl when she watches Kino sneak down the cliff. Earlier, when the watering hole was described, feathers left by cats that had dragged their prey there are noticed. Those with feathers die. On the other hand, Kino is no longer an animal. Instead, when Kino kills the men who are tracking him he is a machine. He is efficient and without noise, like the cats playing with their doomed prey. He is killing to survive. The metaphor that is mixed in with this scene of tension and action is in keeping with the style of the rest of the work while also lending it a realistic dimension.

Social Sensitivity

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Written in the mid-1940's, The Pearl addresses numerous social issues that gained prominence at that time and that remained among the chief concerns of late twentieth century society. Among them are a growing awareness of the more sinister aspects of colonialism and the domination of native peoples by European settlers, the powerlessness of the economic underclass, and the illusory nature of the "American Dream" of financial prosperity.

Uneducated in the methods of western medicine and the victims of racial prejudice, Kino and Juana are turned away when they seek the help of the doctor in treating Coyotito's sting. The doctor, a representative of the colonial elite, compares the family to animals in a blatant expression of his racial contempt. In The Pearl, Kino's racial and economic powerlessness is further demonstrated in dealings with the priest and the pearl dealers, both of whom attempt to take advantage of his ignorance.

The Pearl also offers commentary on the blind pursuit of material wealth. Kino's obsession with attaining the best price for the pearl ultimately leads to the loss of his own innocence, to the death of his child, and to the destruction of the few possessions the family had to begin with. In other words, Kino' greed has left them spiritually, physically, and materially ruined, a situation that reflects the emptiness and alienation that many mid-century writers began to associate with modern American society and its emphasis on personal wealth.

Steinbeck also depicts Kino and Juana's growing isolation from their family and community as they are compelled to flee to the city to find a buyer for the pearl. An episode of domestic violence is portrayed when Juana attempts to get rid of the pearl. Ultimately, the parental devotion that led to their desire for material wealth and enhanced social status backfires— leading to the death of their child and turning Kino into a wife-beater and murderer. The pearl, symbolizing the pursuit of wealth above all else, may be seen to drive a wedge between the couple and their community, to disrupt family relations, and to upset nature in the premature death of their child. In a negative expression of Steinbeck's literary vision of cooperation and natural harmony, Kino and Juana end unhappily through their failure to act in concert with others and for the good of all nature.

Compare and Contrast

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1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first black American to play baseball in the major leagues when he joins the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rookie of the year and lead base stealer in the National League, he is a hero to blacks and a symbol of integration.

Today: Affirmative Action is all but discontinued while blacks retain their predominate role as sports heroes.

1947: Its troops tired of harassment by Jewish settler militias, Britain turns over the "Palestine problem" to the United Nations which allows the creation of the State of Israel months later.

Today: There is still no peace in Palestine.

1947: Britain releases its colonial jewel, India. In the aftermath, three nations are born: India Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Today: Raising the nuclear stakes worldwide, India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests and declared themselves nuclear states. Diplomats from China to Moscow fear an arms race.

1947: The Cold War begins leading to tense relations between the two largest nuclear powers.

Today: The Cold War is over but war hawks on both sides continually threaten to restart the arms race.

For Further Reference

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Baker, Carlos. "Steinbeck at the Top of His Form." New York Times Book Review (November 30, 1947): 4, 52. In this favorable review, Baker finds parallels between The Pearl and the "unkillable folklore of Palestine, Greece, Rome, China, India," and western Europe.

Barker, Debra K.S. "Passages of Descent and Initiation: Juana as the 'Other' Hero of The Pearl." In After "The Grapes of Wrath," Essays on John Steinbeck. Edited by Donald V. Coers, Paul D. Ruffin, and Robert J. DeMott. Ohio University Press, 1995, pp. 113-23. Barker argues that Juana undergoes a trial "equal to or perhaps more momentous" than Kino's as she evolves from the role of "Helpmate" to that of "The Sage."

French, Warren. "Dramas of Consciousness." In John Steinbeck, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 126-30. French defines parable, and maintains that The Pearl does not fit the definition of a parable because it contains too many loose ends.

French, Warren. "Searching for a Folk Hero." In John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 106-12. French describes the novel as offering a "highminded lesson for materialistic cultures that certainly could not have been true."

Geismar, Maxwell. "Fable Retold." The Saturday Review (November 22, 1947): 14-15. Geismar criticizes the novel as a work of propaganda rather than art.

Jain, Sunita. "Steinbeck's 'The Pearl': An Interpretation." Journal of the School of Languages (1978-1979): 138-43. In this positive review, Jain interprets the central drama in the story to be "Kino's education into manhood through the knowledge of good and evil."

Karsten, Jr., Ernest E. "Thematic Structure in The Pearl." English Journal (January 1965): 1-7. Karsten relates the novel's themes to its organization, focusing his analysis on the Songs of Family, of Evil, and of the Pearl, on the theme of human relationships, and on the essential roles of men and women.

Krause, Sydney J. "The Pearl and 'Hadleyburg': From Desire to Renunciation." In Steinbeck's Literary Dimension: A Guide to Comparative Studies Series II. Edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi. Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991, pp. 154-71. Krause says that critical responses to the novel depend on how one interprets its conclusion, which he sees optimistically as revealing how Kino's weaknesses have become his strengths. Krause classifies the novel as belonging to the "pessimistic-naturalist" tradition of Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg."

Levant, Howard. "The Natural Parable." In The Novels of John Steinbeck, A Critical Study. University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 185-206. Levant analyzes Steinbeck's narrative methods, focusing on the novella's simple structure, which, he believes, provides a necessary balance to Steinbeck's complex material.

Lisca, Peter. "The Pearl." In The Wide World of John Steinbeck. Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp. 218-30. Lisca offers an interpretation of The Pearl as both a "direct statement of events," and "as a reflection of conscious or unconscious forces dictating the imagery in which it is presented."

Meyer, Michael J. "Precious Bane: Mining the Fool's Gold in The Pearl." In The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 161-72. Meyer analyzes critical responses to the novella, in particular how they interpret the ambiguity in the tale, then offers his own interpretation: the parable acknowledges that only on his way toward death is man able to "discover who he really is."

Morris, Harry. "The Pearl: Realism and Allegory." English Journal (October 1963): 487-505. Morris investigates the appearance and reception of allegory in the past four hundred years of literature, responds to those who criticized the novella because it is an allegory or because it is anti-materialist, and concludes that Kino is a remarkable hero because he is an allegorical Everyman.

Prescott, Orville. "Books of the Times." New York Times (November 24, 1947): 21. Prescott praises The Pearl for its simple style and powerful emotional impact, and compares it to Kipling's Mowgli story, "The King's Ankus."

Steinbeck, John. "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech." In Faulkner, O'Neill, Steinbeck. Edited by Alexis Gregory. Helvetica Press, Inc., 1971, pp. 205-08. In this speech, Steinbeck considers the human need for literature, and agrees with Faulkner that the "understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer's reason for being."

Steinbeck, John, and Ricketts, Edward F. In Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. Viking, 1941. This work is the result of a marine expedition that Steinbeck undertook with his friend Ed Ricketts in 1940. It provides more insight into Steinbeck's biological theories. The expedition takes place in the Gulf of California where a story like The Pearl might easily take place.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
John S. Kennedy, "John Steinbeck: Life Affirmed and Dissolved," in Steinbeck and His Critics: A Record of Twenty-five Years, edited by E.W. Tedlock, Jr. and C.V. Wicker, University of New Mexico Press, 1957, pp. 119-34.

Todd M. Lieber, "Talismanic Patterns in the Novels of John Steinbeck," in American Literature, May, 1972, pp. 262-75.

Peter Lisca, "Escape and Commitment: Two Poles of the Steinbeck Hero," in Steinbeck: The Man and His Work, edited by Richard Astro and Tetsumaro Hayashi, Oregon State University Press, 1971, pp. 75-88.

Harry Morris, "The Pearl: Realism and Allegory," in English Journal, Vol. LII, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487-505.

Further Reading
Carlos Baker, "Steinbeck at the Top of His Form," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 97, November 30, 1947, pp. 4,52.
In this favorable review, Baker finds parallels between The Pearl and the "unkillable folklore of Palestine, Greece, Rome China India," and western Europe.

Debra K.S. Barker, "Passages of Descent and Initiation: Juana as the 'Other' Hero of The Pearl," in After The Grapes of Wrath, Essays on John Steinbeck, edited by Donald V. Coers, Paul D. Ruffin, and Robert J. DeMott, Ohio University Press, 1995, pp. 113-23.
Barker argues that Juana undergoes a trial "equal to or perhaps more momentous" than Kino's as she evolves from the role of "Helpmate" to that of "The Sage."

Warren French, "Dramas of Consciousness," in John Steinbeck, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 126-30.
French defines parable, and maintains that The Pearl does not fit the definition of a parable because it contains too many loose ends.

Warren French, "Searching for a Folk Hero," in John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp 106-12.
French describes the novel as offering a "high-minded lesson for materialistic cultures that certainly could not have been true."

Maxwell Geismar, "Fable Retold," in The Saturday Review, Vol. 30, November 22, 1947, pp. 14-15.
Geismar criticizes the novel as a work of propaganda rather than art.

Sunita Jain, "Steinbeck's The Pearl: An Interpretation," in Journal of the School of Languages, Vol. 6, Nos. 1-2, 1978-1979, pp. 138-43.
In this positive review, Jain interprets the central drama in the story to be "Kino's education into manhood through the knowledge of good and evil."

Ernest E. Karsten, Jr., "Thematic Structure in The Pearl," in English Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 1-7.
Karsten relates the novel's themes to its organization, focusing his analysis on the Songs of Family, of Evil, and of the Pearl, on the theme of human relationships, and on the essential roles of men and women.

Sydney J. Krause, "The Pearl and 'Hadleyburg': From Desire to Renunciation," in Steinbeck's Literary Dimension: A Guide to Comparative Studies Series II, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991, pp. 154-71.
Krause says that critical responses to the novel depend on how one interprets its conclusion, which he sees optimistically as revealing how Kino's weaknesses have become his strengths. Krause classifies the novel as belonging to the "pessimistic-naturalist" tradition of Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg."

Howard Levant, "The Natural Parable," in The Novels of John Steinbeck, A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 185-206.
Levant analyzes Steinbeck's narrative methods, focusing on the novella's simple structure, which, he believes, provides a necessary balance to Steinbeck's complex material.

Peter Lisca, "The Pearl," in The Wide World of John Steinbeck, Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp. 218-30.
Lisca offers an interpretation of The Pearl as both a "direct statement of events," and "as a reflection of conscious or unconscious forces dictating the imagery in which it is presented."

Peter Lisca, in John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, Thomas Y. Cromwell, 1978.
Critical look at Steinbeck's theoretical use of biological theory and mythical components in his fiction.

Michael J. Meyer, "Precious Bane: Mining the Fool's Gold in The Pearl," in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism, edited by Jackson J. Benson, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 161-72.
Meyer analyzes critical responses to the novella, in particular how they interpret the ambiguity in the tale, then offers his own interpretation: the parable acknowledges that only on his way toward death is man able to "discover who he really is."

Harry Morris, "The Pearl, Realism and Allegory," in English Journal, Vol. 52, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487-505.
Morris investigates the appearance and reception of allegory in the past four hundred years of literature, responds to those who criticized the novella because it is an allegory or because it is anti-materialist, and concludes that Kino is a remarkable hero because he is an allegorical Everyman.

Orville Prescott, "Books of the Times," in New York Times, November 24, 1947, p. 21.
Prescott praises The Pearl for its simple style and powerful emotional impact, and compares it to Kipling's Mowgli story, "The King's Ankus."

John Steinbeck, "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech," in Faulkner, O'Neill, Steinbeck, edited by Alexis Gregory, Helvetica Press, Inc., 1971, pp. 205-08.
In this speech, Steinbeck considers the human need for literature, and agrees with Faulkner that the "understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer's reason for being."

John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, in Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, Viking, 1941.
This work is the result of a marine expedition that Steinbeck undertook with his friend Ed Ricketts in 1940. It provides more insight into Steinbeck's biological theories. The expedition takes place in the Gulf of California where a story like The Pearl might easily take place.

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