Themes and Meanings
In a work so rich, there are many themes that John Steinbeck explores: for example, the Creoles’ mistreatment of the Indians, the cupidity of the Church, the survival and power of ancient religious beliefs behind a veneer of Christian rituals, the strength of the family unit in the face of adversity, the traditional view of women and the truth about feminine capabilities and understanding that it often conceals, humankind’s position in the universal scheme, the transcendental quality of tragedy, and the ambiguous nature of good and evil. Steinbeck explicitly wants the reader to view his story as a parable, that is, as a moral or religious lesson. In the foreword, he writes that the story contains “only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.” He continues, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.”
Like his good friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist with whom he first visited the Gulf of California in 1940, Steinbeck saw human beings teleologically as part of the animal order. At one point, he describes La Paz affirmatively as “a colonial animal.” Generally, however, it is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” that Steinbeck portrays: “Out in the estuary a tight-woven school of small fishes glittered and broke water to escape a school of great fishes that drove in to eat them. . . . And the night mice crept about on the ground and the little night hawks hunted them silently.” Just so, Kino is physically attacked by a series of unknown assailants, while the brokers try to prey on his ignorance. In the mountains, he is hunted down by trackers described in canine terms. Kino “became curiously every man’s enemy. The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion.” However, Steinbeck also holds that humans can transcend their animal qualities, for humans alone can reason. Humans alone can understand parables.
What lesson, then, does the pearl teach? The answer is complex. For each positive contribution the pearl makes, there is a negative, and vice versa. The pearl is pure and capable of giving Kino and his family all sorts of economic advantages, especially an education for Coyotito, so that he can become free to rise above his “station.” The pearl permits new and formerly impossible dreams, causing a dissatisfaction with the status quo of which Steinbeck approves; he calls it “one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.” However, the pearl unaccountably brings evil to the family: “The essence of pearl mixed with essence of men and a curious dark residue was precipitated.” Juana says, “The pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.” However, the pearl, by releasing new possibilities to Kino, has made him “a man,” and when he drops the pearl during the struggle, Juana recognizes that she must restore it to him. At the same time, she urges him to flee La Paz (perhaps an ironic plea because the town’s name means “peace”). The pearl finally seems “ugly; it was gray, like a malignant growth.” However, it has proved the good in Kino’s brother and sister-in-law, who have protected them. The resulting tragedy has also brought new dignity to Kino and Juana: “The people say that the two seemed to be removed from human experience; that they had gone through pain and had come out on the other side; that there was almost a magical protection about them.” Kino and Juana have fallen from innocence; the Pearl of the World is akin to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their final tragic position somehow seems more worthy of respect than their earlier, untried ignorance.
In developing his parable, Steinbeck was possibly influenced by the medieval English allegory Pearl. Curiously, the pearl of great price described in Matthew 13:45-46 seems not to have affected him. The short novel is one with Steinbeck’s other works, but it offers most interesting parallels with “The Great Mountains,” the second part of The Red Pony (1937, 1945), and “Flight.” In its use of quasi-allegory it anticipates East of Eden (1952), a more complex exploration of the Adamic fall from innocence.