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.
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