“The Pearl of the World” first appeared in Women’s Home Companion in 1945. The 1947 revised version, The Pearl, gained immediate critical and popular attention. During the following years, the novella was attacked by some, such as Warren French in his article on Steinbeck, as being too “sentimental.” Many readers, however, continued throughout the twentieth century to praise the story’s themes and construction.
Ernest E. Karsten Jr., in his 1965 article on Pearl , praises its “combination of simple story, strongly established symbolism, social commentary, and important themes,” and argues that Steinbeck’s “beautiful writing makes this a literary work that may well become a classic and certainly as fine an introduction to the genre as could be found.” In his 1947 review of the novella for the York Times , Carlos Baker writes that the novella “fits as neatly into the list of Steinbeck’s books as the last gem in a carefully matched necklace.” Orville Prescott, in his review for the same paper, commends Steinbeck’s “artful simplicity exactly suitable to his theme” and insists that it is “the best book which Mr. Steinbeck has written since “The Red Pony” and The Grapes of Wrath .” Prescott especially praises the characterizations in the book, noting that Kino’s “devotion to his family and his courage in the face of death are deeply moving” and that these traits give the novella “a universally human quality, for they are the virtues which men everywhere have always admired above all others.” Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins explores the interplay of oppression and rebellion in the novella.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck chronicles a family’s hard journey from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the migrant camps of California. His portrayal of the plight of the Joads and that of other migrant workers is a poignant examination of oppression and the drive to rebel against it. In The Pearl , Steinbeck returns to these themes in his story of a Mexican pearl diver and his family. This novella, however, written after the devastation of World War II, takes a darker, more pessimistic vision of the spirit of rebellion. Richard Astro, in his review of the book, notes that in Steinbeck’s post-war works, including The Pearl , his “organismal view of life, his belief that men can work together to fashion a better, more productive, and more meaningful life, seemed less and less applicable to the world he saw around him.” Through his depiction of Kino and his family’s experiences with the pearl, Steinbeck celebrates the spirit of rebellion but also acknowledges the dark forces that can eventually crush it.
Orville Prescott, in his 1947 review of The Pearl for the New York Times , argues that the novella is “permeated with the special sort of impotent and sullen bitterness which only an oppressed and subject people know.” Prescott notes that Steinbeck has often turned his attention to the oppressed. “His admiration for them seems to have been a conscious protest against the decadence and cruelty and stupidity which have been so prevalent in this century among so-called civilized people.” Kino and his family suffer the cruelty of so-called civilized people because their race is different from that of the ruling class.
The members of Kino’s family, as well those of his community, have been denied basic human rights; they have been marginalized and disenfranchised. The money they earn from diving for pearls is not enough to adequately feed, shelter, and educate themselves and their families. Even though Kino determines that life is “good” when he awakens surrounded by his family and “the little splash of morning waves on the beach,” the tentative nature of this good life becomes immediately evident when a scorpion stings his child. He and his family are forced to live in a brush house, where scorpions can come and go as freely as the members of his family, posing a constant danger to their lives.
When the inevitable happens, and a member of the community faces death from a scorpion sting, medical attention is denied because there is no money to pay the doctor. Kino must face this reality after Coyotito is stung. The neighbors marvel at Juana’s call for the doctor, knowing that “the doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses” for “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.” Yet Juana rebels against this limitation for Coyotito’s sake, for her first baby. Juana’s eyes “as cold as the eyes of a lioness,” inspire Kino to join her in her fight against the rules of oppression.
When Kino approaches the doctor’s gate, however, he hesitates: “This doctor was not of his people. This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race, and frightened it too.” He admits that “as always when he came near to one of this race, [he] felt weak and afraid and angry at the same time” since “all of the doctor’s race spoke to all of Kino’s race as though they were simple animals.” The doctor proves Kino’s assertion when he complains that he will not see Coyotito, insisting, “I am a doctor, not a veterinary.” Another consequence of this type of oppression is the disruption of the community, which provides an effective way to suppress any rebellion within that community. Disruption can be seen in the behavior of the doctor’s servant who refuses to speak to Kino in their native language. Allegiance to the ruling class and betrayal of the individual members of the community emerges again when many of Kino’s neighbors are ready to take the word of the pearl dealers over Kino’s regarding the value of the pearl. This behavior leads to an acceptance of the status quo rather than a rebellion against it.
One of the most powerful tools of oppression is the denial of an education. The Indian pearl divers have no money to buy themselves an education and so do not have the knowledge necessary to successfully rebel against authority. This is evident in their passive response to the pearl dealers and in Kino’s frustrated dependence on the doctor who exploits Kino’s lack of education when he insists that the baby will die without his intervention.
Kino recognizes that education empowers individuals and that the only way he can experience that empowerment is by selling his pearl. When the doctor gives Coyotito “medicine” that he claims will cure the child, Kino recognizes that he is trapped by his ignorance “as his people were always trapped, and would be until, as he had said, they could be sure that the things in the books were really in the books.” 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.” The possibility of being able to give this gift to his son causes Kino to rebel against his oppressors. He develops “a hard skin for himself” as he stands up to the pearl dealers. Although he admits being “afraid of strangers and of strange places” and “terrified of that monster of strangeness they called the capital,” he determines to go and get the best deal for the pearl. Juana understands that he has “defied not the pearl buyers, but the whole structure, the whole way of life,” and she is afraid for him.
Kino, though, will not back down, and so risks his life to fend off those who try to steal the pearl from him. Even when Juana pleads with him to destroy the pearl, claiming that it has an evil force within it, he refuses, fueled by his dream “that Coyotito could read, that one of his own people could tell him the truth of things.” After killing one of his attackers, Kino refuses to turn himself in to the authorities, knowing that his dream would then be destroyed. He struggles mightily to hold onto the pearl and at the same time protect his family from the trackers. He insists that his community will offer support, that his friends will protect him, but Kino’s brother recognizes the power of authority to destroy allegiances when he suggests that his friends will help him “only so long as they are not in danger or discomfort from it.” 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. East of Eden , Steinbeck offers his response to oppressive political systems that try to crush the human spirit, declaring that he believes that the “free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” And so, he insists that he would fight for “the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected” and fight against “an idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual” for “if the glory can be killed, we are lost.” Steinbeck illustrates the tragic consequences of the loss of that freedom of the spirit in The Pearl , expressing a profound sympathy for the individual and the community that suffers under such an oppressive system.