Poverty is identity in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and the main character Kino, a poor fisherman, manifests a transformation in his identity upon discovering a magnificent pearl, one which he believes, initially, can transform him from a poor and powerless man to a rich and self-sufficient one, beholden to no one. Kino’s suppressed desire to transcend the financial identity handed down to him over centuries of colonial rule erupts upon the discovery of the pearl, and triggers a deep seeded obsession.
Kino adopts desperate lengths to use the pearl to leverage himself, his wife Juana, and their son Coyotito out of a life mired in servitude and want. Though the pearl initially symbolizes a way to help his family, Kino soon develops intense greed in his quest to sell it, and pays for his avarice with the life of his young son.
Steinbeck describes the story as a parable in the introduction, albeit in a decidedly non-committal manner: “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it” (Steinbeck 1).
This disclaimer suggests an attempt by Steinbeck to distance himself from the traditional purpose of the parable, to instruct or demonstrate a moral or religious lesson. When read as a parable however, The Pearl definitely teaches the evils of greed, with a subtle yet unmistakable hint of classism. In essence, it appears that the moral lesson of The Pearl is for a non-European to accept his social station, or else.
In The Pearl, Steinbeck describes the world that Kino, Juana and Coyotito inhabit almost exclusively in economic and colonial terms. It is a poor world bereft of culture, wherein the other fisherman and their wives eke out a living, and even though his “people had once been great makers of songs,” as a result of the conquest, “no new songs were added” (Steinbeck 1). Money or more specifically lack thereof, restricts every movement that Kino and his wife make.
A scorpion stings Coyotito at the story’s outset, and immediately we learn that “the doctor never came to the cluster of brush homes. Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town?” (Steinbeck 4).
When Kino and Juana take the baby into town to see the doctor, Steinbeck solidifies Kino’s low socio-economic status through the eyes of “the beggars from the front of the church who were great experts in financial analysis, [who] looked quickly at Juana’s old blue skirt, saw the tears in her shawl, appraised the green ribbon on her braids, read the age of Kino’s blanket and the thousand washings of his clothes, and set them down as poverty people” (Steinbeck 5).
In town, we witness the contempt between the two classes. Kino bristles at the necessity of the doctor visit, as the doctor was “of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race…Kino felt weak and afraid and angry at the same time. Rage and terror went together. He could kill the doctor more easily than he could talk to him, for all of the doctor’s race spoke to all of Kino’s race as though they were simple animals” (Steinbeck 5).
Steinbeck’s characterization of Kino bears scrutiny here. We glimpse the stirrings of Kino’s later action in these passages. Clearly, Kino does not accept his lot, and harbors a deep malice toward the colonial class. Also, tellingly, in these passages we see his desire to join that class clearly rendered. Kino’s description of the doctor’s beautiful home reveals a deep and passionate longing for wealth and luxury: “Kino could see the green coolness of the garden and little splashing fountain” (Steinbeck 6).
Once inside the doctor’s home, Steinbeck describes the doctor’s “dressing gown of red watered silk that had come from Paris,” as well as the “silver tray with a silver chocolate pot and a tiny cup of egg-shell china, so delicate” (Steinbeck 6).
When the doctor refuses to treat Coyotito, Kino’s violent reaction portends his later action: “For a long time Kino stood in front of the gate with Juana beside him. Slowly he put his suppliant hat on his head. Then, without warning, he struck the gate a crushing blow with his fist. He looked down in wonder at his split knuckles and at the blood that flowed down between his fingers” (Steinbeck 7).
Steinbeck infuses Kino and the other fisherman with nobility, an air of the noble savage, in fact, which strikes at the heart of the parable’s intention, and also hints at Steinbeck’s rosy view of oppressed peoples. Steinbeck views these poverty stricken first peoples as inherently generous and philanthropic. After Kino finds the pearl, his neighbors “spoke of what they would do if they had found the pearl” (Steinbeck 22). Amazingly, none of them mention the material benefit such a pearl would net.
“One man said that he would give it as a present to the Holy Father in Rome. Another said that he would buy Masses for the souls of his family for a thousand years. Another thought he might take the money and distribute it among the poor of La Paz; and a fourth thought of all the good things one could do with the money from the pearl, of all the charities, benefits, of all the rescues one could perform if one had money” (Steinbeck 22).
The suggestion here appears to be that before the advent of the colonial obsession with money and material gain, the indigenous peoples enjoyed an Eden free of selfishness, avarice, and competition. “All of the neighbours hoped that sudden wealth would not turn Kino’s head, would not make a rich man of him, would not graft onto him the evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness” (Steinbeck 22).
This passage clearly defines Steinbeck’s association of material wealth, as symbolized by the pearl, as poisonous European greed forced on the earthy, natural, righteous first peoples.
Caswell tends to agree with Steinbeck’s characterization of the fisherman as docile, gentle, dignified extensions of nature. He points to the fisherman’s quiet “acceptance of a world on the outskirts of a more civilized society” (Caswell 62). In the opening pages of the novella, Caswell highlights Kino’s “connective relationship…with the elements of nature and his family” (Caswell 63).
However, when Kino takes the baby into town to see the doctor, Caswell remarks on the anger Kino displays underneath “the simple removal of…[his] hat as a sign of subservient respect to mask his inner feelings of hatred toward the doctor’s race” (Caswell 64).
Other critics have read The Pearl as a “darker, more pessimistic vision of the spirit of rebellion” (Perkins 1). Perkins highlights Steinbeck’s personal disillusionment with any act of rebellion against the status quo, and the “dark forces that can eventually crush it” (Perkins 1).
Perkins asserts, similar to Caswell, that Kino’s intention with the pearl, initially, reflects his altruistic cultural upbringing, in that he intends to purchase education for his son, and so assume power indirectly through Coyotito’s literacy.
The pearl becomes so crucial to him because he understands that the money will grant him respect, when he can afford to marry Juana, and power, when he can purchase a rifle and give his son an education. If his son can learn to read and write, Kino insists, “these things will make us free because he will know – he will know and through him we will know” (Perkins 2).
In the sense of the novella’s classist elements, Perkins understands that “Kino’s rebellious spirit challenges but cannot change the system. Unable to fight off the forces that try to oppress him, he loses his son along with his dreams of a better life for his family. The loss of the pearl at the end of the story suggests his loss of hope for the future and a loss in his belief that he can control his life and destiny” (Perkins 2).
Written in the years following World War II, Astro characterizes The Pearl as indicative of Steinbeck’s “early postwar fiction [that] reflects the vision of a man who had returned from a destructive war to a changed America” (Astro 14). Astro’s critique focuses more on the elements of parable that underpin the story, and its moral message.
The Pearl, in Astro’s understanding, details “man’s search for happiness and his need to choose between simplicity and complication, between a life in nature and a life in society, Steinbeck shows that the drive for wealth and power ends in tragedy and disappointment” (Astro 14). The theme of greed Steinbeck portrays as a European pestilence that Kino initially seeks, attracted by the idea of power, but ultimately rejects, returning instead to the land and his natural state as a poor savage, albeit a poor savage with dignity.
The Pearl presents the human dilemma; it is the study of the agony involved in man’s recognition of the vanity of human wishes. Kino, Steinbeck’s protagonist, finds his pearl and protects it from those who would steal it from him, but he pays dearly. His house and canoe are destroyed and his child is killed.
He comes to see the pearl as a gray, malignant growth, and so throws it back into the gulf. In doing so, Kino chooses what Ed Ricketts once called “the region of inward adjustments” (characterized by friendship, tolerance, dignity, and love) over “the region of outward possessions” (Astro 14).
According to Ditsky, “Steinbeck understood both hard toil and knightly quests after the ideal, and his stories set in balance the perils of both” (Ditsky 2). Ditsky’s interpretation of Steinbeck’s view of first peoples points to the author’s understanding of the risk involved in self-actualization.
When Steinbeck’s characters attempt to direct their own lives, they are met with cosmic resistance. “Here the stoicism of Indian characters, as elsewhere in Steinbeck stories set in Mexico or California, is counterpointed by the universal theme that the establishing of one’s integrity and the losing of one’s life are a tradeoff, as is clearly the case in our relentlessly violent contemporary society” (Ditsky 2).
What the selected criticism detailed above misses, for the purposes of this paper, remains the inherent prejudice displayed by Steinbeck toward the characters in The Pearl, especially Kino. The characterization of Kino immediately gives us an image of an ambitious young man. He wants the best for himself and his family.
In this aspiration, Kino bears no difference between any other newlywed and new father. What Steinbeck appears to find problematic about Kino’s ambition, is the fact that he is not of European descent. Seemingly, Steinbeck prefers to keep non-Europeans in an idyllic state of kindness, community-mindedness, selflessness, and munificence.
Let us contrast Steinbeck’s romanticized view of the fisherman and Kino’s brush huts herein: “Kino heard the little splash of morning waves on the beach. It was very good” (Steinbeck 1). We see the idealized vision of people in tune with nature. Conversely, in Steinbeck’s depiction of the pearl buyers’ offices in the town, we see the dark, dank influence of European avarice:
In their little dark offices the pearl buyers stiffened and grew alert. They got out papers so that they could be at work when Kino appeared, and they put their pearls in the desks, for it is not good to let an inferior pearl be seen beside a beauty. And word of the loveliness of Kino’s pearl had come to them. The pearl buyers’ offices were clustered together in one narrow street, and they were barred at the windows, and wooden slats cut out the light so that only a soft gloom entered the offices (Steinbeck 24).
Once Kino decides to pursue a fair price for the pearl, we witness the transformation of his identity. He becomes a man between worlds. The European world, as personified by the pearl buyers, will never accept him. They will only take from him. Therefore, his future with them remains limited. However, his own people also reject him, once Kino shows his ambition.
Juan Tomás nodded gravely. He was the elder, and Kino looked to him for wisdom. “It is hard to know,” he said. “We do know that we are cheated from birth to the overcharge on our coffins. But we survive. You have defied not the pearl buyers, but the whole structure, the whole way of life, and I am afraid for you” (Steinbeck 28).
In John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, we see an indictment of greed and the acquisition of material wealth. However, more disturbingly, we witness the author’s subtle classist and prejudicial belief that indigenous peoples do not have the right to want more for themselves or for their families.
First peoples, in the author’s view, must remain close to nature, simple, docile, and magnanimous. Ambition, in Steinbeck’s view, belongs only in the European world. His protagonist, Kino, is sorely punished for exhibiting the desire and aspiration of a European. Steinbeck’s parable appears to teach that goal setting, self improvement, and self actualization remain exclusively the domain of Europeans.
Astro, R. “John Steinbeck.” American Novelists, 1910-1945. Ed. James J. Martine. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. 1-21. Web.
Caswell, R. “A Musical Journey through John Steinback’s The Pearl: Emotion, Engagement, and Comprehension.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 49.1 (2005): 62-67. Web.
Ditsky, J. “John Steinbeck: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. 1-2. Web.
Kennedy, X. J. and Dana G. Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Third Edition. London: Longman, 2009. Print.
Perkins, W. “Critical Essay on ‘The Pearl’.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 1-2. Web.