John Steinbeck was the son of Olive Hamilton, a school teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck, a flour-mill manager and Monterey County Treasurer. Like other families in California’s Salinas Valley, the Steinbecks thought themselves rich because they had land; unfortunately, they could hardly afford to buy food. There were four children, but John Ernst Steinbeck, born in 1902, was the only boy. As a youth he spent much of his time exploring the valley that would become the backdrop to his fiction.
Whether by prayer, quest, or contest, humans have long expressed their desire for wealth and dreams of a better life. Many are the tales about this phenomenon and, more often than not, the tales end in tragedy. This longing for something better is the theme of The Pearl.
Kino’s belief that evil is in the night is not unusual, but one of his many foibles is that he sees himself alone in a world of struggle between good and evil. He does his best to keep good coming his way. In his mind he hears the music of his personal struggle. The Song of the Family hums in his mind when things are as they should be. The waves lapping the shore in the morning and the sound of Juana grinding corn or preparing the meal are part of this song. But when the wind shifts or a representative of the oppressing class nears, then he hears the strains of the Song of Evil, “the music of the enemy, of any foe of the family, a savage, secret, dangerous melody.” Kino listens and reacts to these songs. When the scorpion begins to come down the rope toward the baby, he hears the Song of Evil first. However, when the priest enters he is confused despite hearing the song he heard for the scorpion. He has been taught that the priest is good, so he looks elsewhere for the source of evil. This melodic tool, whatever its source, is one of many tools that Kino has in his possession but that he fails to fully utilize.
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.
Written in the mid-1940s, The Pearl addresses numerous social issues that gained prominence at that time and that remained among the chief concerns of late 20th-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.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Consider the following quote from The Pearl: “An accident could happen to these oysters, a grain of sand could lie in the folds of muscle and irritate the flesh until in self-protection the flesh coated the foreign body until it fell free in some tidal flurry or until the oyster was destroyed.” Augment this description with that of a biology text or book on marine life and interpret Steinbeck’s pearl as a trope for human development.
Another compelling fable by a famous author is Animal Farm. Published in 1945 by George Orwell, this satire is a story about farm animals who attempt to take over a farm and operate it collectively. They chase off the exploitative humans but end up under a dictatorship of pigs. Also published in 1947 was Steinbeck’s novel The Wayward Bus. Like The Pearl, this allegorical tale concerns characters who must shed the evil they have contracted. They are not even as successful as Kino and Juana. Steinbeck again returned to myth when he created the family saga of the Trask family of the Salinas Valley. East of Eden is their story as a modernization of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck regarded the novel as his crowning achievement, but his critics have been a bit reluctant to say the same of this overt allegory.