Published in 1947, Steinbeck”s novella, “The Pearl”, has attracted much literary attention. Many critics have referred to the work as a “parable”,but how far can this classification be justified? In order to answer this question, we must first establish what is meant by the term “parable”. A dictionary defines a parable as “a short story which puts across a moral or religious truth”. We know of parables from the Bible, where Jesus told these stories to teach his followers about God”s word.
Typical features we would expect from a parable would be: a short narrative told in a simple style with little detailed description; a homely setting;nameless and undeveloped characters; and a moral or religious truth conveyed through symbolism, with everyday objects or events representing larger ideas or concepts. The basic plot of “The Pearl” is straightforward. Kino,a native Mexican fisherman, married with a child, sees his son stung by a scorpion,and a doctor demands money for treating him. Kino finds a large pearl, which he thinks will solve all his problems and save his son,but instead it leads to greed, disaster and violence.
Finally the family throw the pearl back into the sea, but not before they have lost their precious son in a shooting. In many ways, “The Pearl” conforms to what we would expect of a parable. The story is short, although not as short as the parables in the Bible;the style is simple, with little complex vocabulary or sentence structure; the main setting is the homely,if poor, Mexican fishing village and many of the characters are nameless, eg the doctor, the priest, the pearl buyers, the trackers. Even the main characters are not described in much physical detail.
All we know of Kino”s appearance is, he was “young and strong and his black hair hung over his brown forehead. ” Certainly, we can take a moral message from the tale; that the promise of wealth is a great corrupting influence in men”s lives,and such is human nature that man will often sink to great depths to gain the thing he desires. Evidence that would also mark this story as a parable is that the author uses a great deal of symbolism. Kino can be seen as representing man and all men, giving his story universal significance. His wife, Juana, has a name which means “woman”, again suggesting that she is meant to represent all women.
The child makes up the archetypal family, representing the next generation and hopes for the future. The major line of symbolism, however, centres round the pearl itself, which symbolises much more than material wealth. It becomes a crystal ball in which one can see one”s dreams and nightmares; Kino “looked into its surface and it was grey and ulcerous. Evil faces peered from it into his eyes, and he saw the light of burning……. And in the surface of the pearl he saw Coyotito lying in the little cave with the top of his head shot away”.
The whole story, in keeping with a parable, could also be seen as putting across a religious truth. It could represent man”s search for his soul, finding good and evil on the way, making a sacrifice, and finally coming to a greater understanding. Kino at the start of the book is isolated and protected. When the pearl comes into his world, he learns about loneliness, hate, greed, suspicion and evil. Like Adam, in the Fall in Genesis, Kino returns to his home at the end of the book , having gained knowledge, but changed forever,as he has sacrificed his son for this knowledge.
The idea of this book being a religious parable also seems to be borne out by the journey through the desert to sell the pearl, which is like a pilgrimage, testing the character of the pilgrim, and seems to echo the Exodus of the Israelites seeking their promised land in the Bible. Was this story supposed to be a version of the parable of the pearl in the Bible, where a merchant sacrifices everything he holds dear for a pearl of great value, and his place in the Kingdom of Heaven? As we have seen, Steinbeck”s novella has many features we would expect of a parable, but does that mean we can say it is one completely?
Looking at further evidence, we find features of the text which do not conform to those we would expect of a parable. Although the style is simple, there is a great deal more description than we would expect from a parable, some of it very poetic in style, eg “High in the grey stone mountains, under a frowning peak, a little spring bubbled out of a rupture in the stone. It was fed by shade-preserved snow in the summer, and now and then it died completely and bare rocks and dried algae were on its bottom”.
This description of a pool continues for a full page. The main characters, Kino and Juana are named and their personalities are much more developed than we would expect form a parable. This makes the story far more realistic as the characters seem like believable people with real feelings and emotions, Juana”s “face was hard and lined and leathery with fatigue and with the tightness with which she fought fatigue. And her wide eyes stared inwards on herself”. The whole story can be read as entertainment, without having to look for a message or meaning.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Steinbeck was trying to write it as a realistic piece, and not as a parable. In his book, “Sea of Cortez” 1941, he explains that he took the idea for his book from an old Californian/Mexican folk tale about an Indian boy who found a pearl. He liked the story, but said, it did not sound believable because it was “so much like a parable, or a short story with a hidden moral lesson” and the character of the young boy went “contrary to human direction”, that is, he was not realistic enough.
In Kino and Juana, Steinbeck has given us much more realistic people. In his introduction to “The Pearl”, Steinbeck himself casts doubt on his book being a parable, saying “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it, and reads his own life into it”. Looking at all the evidence, my conclusion is that although Steinbeck”s “The Pearl” has many features of a parable, it goes much further than a parable in that it exists on so many levels .
It can be seen as a realistic story of the economic and political repression experienced by native Mexicans at the hands of their wealthy conquerors and rulers. It can also be seen as a story showing how man and nature are intertwined. It can be read as an exciting adventure tale, or as a moral or religious lesson. In many ways, it is unfair to categorise this novella by putting a label on it. I prefer to see it, like Steinbeck himself, as a unique work of art that each reader can interpret in his or her own way.