The Pearl: Symbolism Analysis

God, Glory, and Gold. These are the three G’s of European colonization, and the same three G’s that would lead to the destruction of entire civilizations of native people and their forced submission to European ethnic and socioeconomic forces for hundreds of years. Amongst these forces was the power of Spain and this nation’s role in the destruction and hegemony over Native Mexicans; the drive for colonial dominance resulted in the downfall and dehumanization of millions. This is the story of western civilization and indeed the story depicted in John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl, with the narrative of Kino and his people set against the oppressive members of his community. But beyond illustrating this story literally, Steinbeck uses different literary elements to convey the complex yet destructive tolls of ethnocentric oppression. Thus, in the novella The Pearl, Steinbeck uses elements such as imagery and symbolism to demonstrate ethnocentric constructs that work against Native Mexicans.

At the core of the toll of ethnocentric constructs and the oppression of Kino’s native people is the way in which Steinbeck uses imagery to convey the submission and general attitude of Kino’s people concerning the dominating Spaniards. In chapter three, following the doctor’s malicious encounter with Coyotito as a “patient” after Kino finds the pearl, a scene is described where, “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.” The scene then further describes how the smaller fishes made “swishes” as they escaped the more prominent “splash” of the large fish with an apparent aura of distant chaos to the people in their brush houses. Although the sound may be distant, it is indeed still apparent amongst the villagers as the “slaughter” wages on in the estuary. With this, Steinbeck uses elements of sound and sight, with the fishes’ size and their sounds of greater or less prominence, to illustrate a common and core theme in the story. The big fish are the hunters, the oppressors, and with their deliberate might easily overpower the small fish with seemingly natural discourse. This is the parallel and predicament that Kino’s own people too face. There are hunted, overpowered, and weak just as the little fish are, and just as the bigger fish cause ripples and bring on sounds and sights of distant, seemingly irrelevant chaos, they are the same sounds of hunt, predator and prey that Kino also faces. This point is only further exemplified by another example on the same page, where, “The dampness arose out of the Gulf and was deposited on bushes and cacti and on little trees in salty drops. And the night mice crept about on the ground and the little night hawks hunted them silently.” (Steinbeck 33) This, too, illustrates the core way in which Steinbeck uses imagery to highlight the oppression of Kino’s people. Even as night seems to peacefully and even beautifully fall over the village, little mice hide for their lives in the hunt. Despite the situations at hand, the immediate peace of what is seen in Kino’s village, there is a dark predator. There is prey, and this prey is much more than small and big fish and weak mice and valiant hawks. The prey is also Kino’s people.

The oppressive forces that contend with Kino’s people, however, are much more than the predators of a seemingly silent nature. They are the very people that degrade Kino whilst hunting and deceiving him over his pearl. Chiefly amongst the forces of oppression against Kino’s people is the doctor, carrying the general consensus of being a selfish and generally distasteful man. Kino, seemingly from the start, is in conflict with the doctor. Even after Coyotito is bit by a scorpion and requires medical attention from the man, he remarks, “Have I nothing better to do than cure insect bites for ‘little Indians’? I am a doctor, not a veterinary” (Steinbeck 11). This quote all in itself shows the attitude towards natives this man possesses. He not only is self-centered, he respects no value towards the lives and health of natives, almost as if he does not even see them as human beings. However, this dismissal of any reasonable importance of Kino and his people only exists when Kino is without wealth, and without his pearl. As the news of Kino’s grand finding spreads throughout the city, not only do many more become interested in Kino, but many (such as the doctor) begin to see how they can personally profit. In fact, immediately following the news reaching the doctor, he stated that Kino “is a client of mine”, and “looked past his aged patient and saw himself sitting in a restaurant in Paris and a waiter was just opening a bottle of wine” (Steinbeck 22). This quote itself demonstrates the doctor’s now greedy, revamped opinion on Kino and his family. Whereas in the beginning they were poor and seemingly worthless, with a new surge of imminent wealth they are patients and indeed the doctor is interested, not because he genuinely cares about their health or even lives, but sees what he sees past his aged patient – a life of his own luxury and profit from a stranger’s personal luck. It, however, is vital to understand that the doctor is indeed not a miraculous instance of hate and greed towards the natives, but rather stands as a mighty force that only dictates and represents the hateful and greedy notions against Kino’s people. He represents the humiliation, degradation, and subhuman idealisms present amongst the community’s elite. He demonstrates not only a core strain of selfishness and appropriation, but of the ethnocentric and economic structures put against the natives in hopes to suppress and ultimately alienate them. However, the doctor also stands as a prevalent inverse against these constructs in times of Kino’s oncoming wealth. He represents deceit, exploitation, and appropriation. He is willing to reform his ideologies, at least halfheartedly, in order to profit from Kino and even go to extreme, life-threatening means to get what he wants. He first sees Kino’s people as animals, not worthy of even basic medical care, to exploitable resources with Kino’s pearl as means to justify and fund his own luxury. He is not just a lazy, selfish doctor. He is the structure and society itself, all in pursuit to antagonize Kino and his people.

All in all, however, the ultimate form of both oppression and historical constructs against both Kino and his people lies beyond the stark naturalist parallels of a distant yet close scene of predator and prey, and even beyond the greedy and symbolic role of the community doctor. The ultimate facilitator of both oppressive imagery and ethnocentric symbolism is in Kino’s very pearl itself. Predominately with imagery concerning the pearl is the stark contrast in how Kino saw the pearl in the beginning versus its representation in the end. First among discovering the pearl in chapter three, Kino remarks on how, “the music of the pearl had merged with the music of the family so that one beautified the other” (Steinbeck 24). This first poses the way in which Kino saw the pearl, and what he had hoped for in its image. He saw hope, a future, and with the Song of the Family, the very song of goodness in the world, he too heard the Song of the Pearl, showing its strive for future hope and goodness. These sounds that represent imagery and indeed visions of hope highlight the positive power of the pearl. But, this message of hope is not only challenged with the community elite’s selfish strive to possess Kino’s pearl, but indeed with what the pearl begins to represent at the end of the story. As described in chapter 5, after Kino’s deadly encounter with the trackers that results in the death of Coyotito, the pearl is now, “gray and ulcerous” and now “Kino heard the music of the pearl, distorted and insane.” (Steinbeck 89) This shifts the dynamic of hope in the pearl to its now ugly and horrible representations of death and despair. It is not only Coyotito’s life that is robbed from the devolution of the pearl, but the entirety of the goodness of Kino’s people. They are robbed of their chance. Furthermore, the role of imagery in the devolution of Kino’s pearl is only exemplified by analyzing how the pearl’s very symbolism and role in the story demonstrates the cycle of oppression Kino’s people face. With each instance of prosperity or luck, Kino is faced with immediate conflicts. Whether they be external, such as with a brawl, or internal, such as with the moral dilemma of keeping the pearl, all these conflicts serve under a central umbrella of the submissive and conquerable role of Kino’s people. Just as the pearl devolves into despair with the passage of time, it too represents the oppression of Kino’s people. Kino is robbed, deceived, and dehumanized because of his pearl, but his pearl is only the lingering reminder that Kino is a subject of the abusive and uncontrollable ethnocentric construct against his people, with its countless attempts at thievery and its aura of deceit. The pearl, in this way, is the key. The key to a better future and a better life, which only becomes the threat of the elite and the prevalence of oppression.

God, Glory, and Gold. The motivations for colonial growth, but alongside growth the consistent reality of structured oppression through abusive ethnocentric constructs. Kino’s people are a victim of this “growth”, and indeed they are a grand symbol of the reality of oppression. They, with imagery see themselves as prey against predator. They, with symbolism see themselves at the hands of the elite, dehumanized then exploited. They, even with Kino’s pearl, face imminent despair, destruction, and ultimately an endless cycle of oppression. But beyond all of these things, Kino’s people symbolize the horrible strains of human nature. They are the gears by which ethnocentrism, racism, and exploitation run unceasingly. But they, too are victims of the pearl – an item of deceitful value and indeed of deceitful nature.

The Pearl versus The Secret River

The Pearl, by John Steinbeck and The Secret River, by Kate Grenville both explore issues surrounding racism and classism. However, whilst The Pearl places a heavy emphasis on classism due to racism, The Secret River discusses racism and the preconceived ideas that those who live in a hierarchical society experience. Resistant readings, common to all texts, manifest themselves as feminism in both The Pearl and The Secret River – although more so in the former. Readings such as Marxist and pro-colonialism are also considered as resistant in The Secret River. In both texts, the indigenous populations are represented as appreciating the important things in life; such as family, love and respecting nature. Interestingly, the white population of both books is presented as corrupt and disrespectful due to their monetary system. The Pearl and The Secret River share many similarities, especially in regard to their respective issues. However, whilst their resistant readings differ, their message stays the same; everyone is equal – despite everything.

Both The Pearl and The Secret River explore a myriad of issues surrounding racism, classism and the ingrained, accepted ideas surrounding these attitudes. The former text places a heavy emphasis on racism and its effect on classism. Steinbeck implies that it is almost purely racism that drives classism and the divide this creates in society. The Pearl reflects his value on equality and the idea that classism would have no foundation if racism did not exist. His use of Kino to represent the poor, oppressed, Mexican population enables Steinbeck to present his belief that racism creates classism. He portrays the Mexican population as simple, spiritual and content with what life has given them. Although they find the divide between societies difficult, they do not harbour bitterness and instead use their energy to protect and support their own society. Steinbeck constructs the Caucasians to appear greedy, cunning, manipulative and ignorant of life’s simpler joys. This is evident in the contrast between Kino’s morning; “he squatted beside the hearth and rolled a hot corncake in his hands… the sun warmed the little brush house, breaking through the crevices in long streaks…” and the doctor’s morning; “his eyes sat in puffy hammocks as his mouth dropped in discontent… he brushed the crumbs from a sweet cake from his fingers.” Grenville has a similar attitude to money as Steinbeck does. She presents her assumption that money corrodes the soul in her text The Secret River, by constructing William Thornhill as a poor man who does the unspeakable in order to ensure his wealth as secured. She presents the white settlers of Australia – free men and convicts alike – as similar in their shared value of money. Although the social system divides them, it also unites them when they face a common enemy – the Aboriginal population who does not have a monetary system. Grenville this contrast to present the conflict that arose between the white settlers and the Aboriginal population. As she does this, she represents the white settlers to appear ignorant and too caught up in their own lifestyle to appreciate that of someone else’s. Her use of Thornhill’s child accentuates this value, as he plays with the Aboriginal children and brings home knowledge that Thornhill himself is jealous of – but too proud to learn. This longing represents the idea that humans only want to connect and find similarities – but social constructs and hierarchies prevent this from occurring naturally.

Steinbeck in The Pearl presents his staunchly anti-capitalist view through the life of Kino and the segregation he (and the other Mexicans) experience from the rest of society. He believes that classism is a direct result of racism, and that in order to prevent classism and create a free and equal world, everyone must accept and understand that no is inferior and no one is superior. This is easier said than done, but Steinbeck uses the pearl to symbolise monetary value and the corrosion this causes in society. He views greed and corruption as the children of capitalism, and believes that without capitalism the populations of the world would experience unity and harmony. The Secret River presents a similar perspective on the monetary system. The development of William Thornhill from poor waterman to wealthy nobleman is no simple journey, and his participation of the slaughter of Aboriginals is a decision that will haunt and corrode his soul for the rest of his life. Grenville uses this development to represent how deeply money, greed and lust can change us – Thornhill begins his journey as a fair, giving man who loves his wife and his happy with her and nothing else by his side. His journey ends, however, with him putting money about the happiness of his wife, but the money he has accrued does not shelter him from the horrors of his past. Grenville’s construction of Thornhill enables her to [present this perspective on money and the corruption it harbours.

A resistant reading is something that is common to all texts. Both The Pearl and The Secret River can be read with a feminist reading, although the former more so. Kino’s treatment of his wife, Juana, is questionable – although Steinbeck did not create The Pearl to highlight issues of domestic violence. Instead, it is a product of the time in which Steinbeck was writing. Despite his ignorance of his patriarchal sexism, the conflict between husband and wife is one that is distracting and takes away from the overall message of the book. In The Secret River, there is the expected sexism experienced between husband and wife. Sal is treated, although not unkindly, as inferior. Her decisions, emotions and opinions are all beneath hose of Thornhill. She is seen as too emotional to be able to capable make the appropriate choice in almost all tings. However, The Secret River also provokes resistant readings to do with communism. If communism, rather than capitalism or a monarchy, had been implemented within Australia, the harsh divide between the indigenous population and the white settlers would not have occurred. Although Grenville did not write The Secret River to intentionally portray communism as good, it does appear throughout her text as an obvious solution to the crises that occur. Interestingly, although the texts are similar in many ways, communism is a dominant reading within Steinbeck’s, and a resistant reading in Grenville’s novel.

Racism and classism feature heavily in both The Pearl and The Secret River. Steinbeck presents his attitudes and values through the characterisation of Kino and the doctor, who represent their respective races. His belief that racism in the root of classism is evident all throughout his text, despite the resistant reading of feminism. Steinbeck’s contempt for money and the monetary system is similar to Grenville’s. In The Secret River, her value of familial support and respect for all people is evident through her characterisation of both the Aboriginals and white settlers. Her assumption that money corrodes morals and the soul is represented through the development of her main character, William Thornhill. Both these texts explore, in depth, the connotation and ideas surrounding racism and classism – and their effect of society.

A Dollar Cannot Buy a Smile: Riches vs. Happiness in ‘The Pearl’

What is greed? Should family be sacrificed in return of money? Does greed ruin a person? These are all questions that are answered in the book, The Pearl, by John Steinbeck. In The Pearl, a simple man named Kino, and his wife Juana, risk their lives to protect a pearl which they believe can ultimately cure their sick son. While some may say that money can buy happiness, John Steinbeck’s narrative suggests that money cannot buy happiness because money can destroy a family and money makes people a target for evil.

After Kino obtains the pearl, Steinbeck shows that money can destroy a family. Kino wakes up in the middle of the night after hearing Juana leave their house, planning to throw the pearl in the ocean. Kino reacts swiftly to protect his wealth because he believes it will bring him happiness: “He struck her in the face with his clenched fist and she fell among the boulders, and he kicked her in the side.” (Steinbeck 76). The pearl caused Kino to physically abuse Juana. This does the opposite of making the couple happy. Towards the end of the book, Kino begins to realize the effects of having the pearl. He is looking at the pearl when he realizes the trouble that it has caused him: “And in the surface of the pearl he saw Coyotito lying in the little cave with his head shot way.” (Steinbeck 117). The purpose of having the pearl was to use it to save Coyotito. In the end it killed him.

Kino’s family was destroyed because of the pearl. The second point that Steinbeck demonstrated in his book was that money makes people a target for evil. Kino was attacked multiple times by greedy people attempting to steal the pearl. One person was so jealous of his newfound wealth that he burned down his house, along with all of his belongings: “A tall edifice of fire lighted the pathway. Kino broke into a run; it was his brush house, he knew.” (Steinbeck 81). Kino lost everything. Kino’s house getting burned down represents that greed can destroy all of a person’s possessions. Additionally, someone attacked Kino in his sleep: “Greedy fingers went through his clothes, frantic fingers searched him, and the pearl, knocked from his hand, lay winking behind a little stone in the pathway.” (Steinbeck 77). The pearl has brought more evil to Kino and his family than fortune. Kino was put in danger several times due to the pearl, which also caused Kino to lose everything.

While some may believe that money can improve one’s rank in society, Steinbeck clearly demonstrates that Kino and Juana are happy with their lives and do not desire much more. Juana describes how she feels about the pearl by saying, “Kino, the pearl is evil. Let us destroy it before it destroys us.” (Steinbeck 73). Juana thinks they do not need the pearl to be happy, that they already have everything they need. They live a simple life, but they enjoy it: “On her hard bare feet she went to the hanging box where Coyotito slept, and she leaned over and said a little reassuring word.” (Steinbeck 2). Although Kino and Juana have little, they have their son, which means everything to them. Kino and Juana do not care about their rank in society as long as they are happy.

In the end of the book, Kina and Juana threw the pearl back into the water, where it came from. This represents that Kino and Juana ended up where they started. The pearl brought them so much trouble that they had get rid of it. This also shows that money does not necessarily mean happiness. Steinbeck demonstrates this by explaining throughout his book that money destroys family relationships and that money attracts evil.