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.
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’s 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.