From 1977 to the present, Steinbeck’s The Pearl was received differently than in the times of its initial reviews. In this period, reviews looked past whether the novella was “good” or “bad.” Instead, critics employed an interdisciplinary approach in analyzing the text. Criticisms approach the text from pedagogical, feminist, psychoanalytic, theological, and Eastern philosophical views. These criticisms influenced the past, current, and future reception of this text.
How is a text interpreted after its initial reviews? In his book, Textual Scholarship, D. C. Greetham notes a shift in current readership. One example of this is exemplified by, “Stanley Fish’s ‘interpretive communities,’ whereby textual meaning is constructed by a social contract within which the transmitted text operates, rather than by an appeal to the intentions of a now-absent author” (Greetham 337). After Steinbeck’s death in 1968, his novel The Pearl was seldom reviewed on the basis of finding out whether it was “good” or “bad.” Instead, since 1977 The Pearl has been written about in attempts to analyze the text in a variety of ways. Due to this, The Pearl has not only been redefined, but this redefinition has changed the way readers interpret it.
Many pieces of criticism of The Pearl after 1977 are based on pedagogy. These pieces describe how The Pearl should be taught at different grade levels. Claudia Johnson’s wrote the book, Understanding of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and The Pearl: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Johnson asserts that the major theme of The Pearl is “as his [Steinbeck’s] severe criticism on modern civilization” (5). Her suggestion is to teach this text as a post-modern work. In contrast, Gary Steinley, in his article “The Contemporary American Novella: An Existential Approach,” explains how The Pearl can be taught as an existentialist piece. These pedagogical articles will alter the evolution of The Pearl’s reception. As educators teach this text in different way, the influence on student readers will change too.
Articles interpreting The Pearl as a feminist text are numerous after 1977. In Debra Barker’s article “Passages of Descent and Initiation: Juana as the ‘Other’ Hero of The Pearl,” she asserts, “Juana survives the ultimate initiation experience, transforming her into a new being, a powerful character whose role is far more significant than readers have previously recognized” (115). By analyzing Juana, these articles allow readers to view the text in a different light. Readers can now understand how the issue of gender changes the meaning of the text.
Psychoanalytic theory has been applied to The Pearl as well. Many articles use Freud and Jung’s ideas on psychology. Michael Meyer looks at the text not only as an archetype, but also as one containing insight through the unconscious shadow world that Kino is a part of in his article, “Wavering Shadows: A New Jungian Perspective in Steinbeck’s The Pearl.” Meyer writes, “the philosophical Steinbeck could wish for no higher purpose than to know that his novels plumbed the complexities of human existence” (144). As readers begin searching through The Pearl to illuminate psychological ideas, they are altering the way they receive the text. For example, now readers may find that Kino’s dark thoughts may be triggered by his repression of hardships.
Several critics see The Pearl in a theological context. Mashkoor Syed’s article “Dual Duality: Kino as Cain and Abel in The Pearl” and Noboru Shimomura’s article “Guilt and Christianity in The Pearl” draw upon Christian parallels. Still, some critics assert that Steinbeck rejects theology in this work. A. Pepalla, for instance, argues that The Pearl is based on non-teleological ideas in the article, “Steinbeck’s Non-Teleological View of Life.” Pepalla writes, “It [The Pearl] is a sad commentary on the society which keeps the Mexican Indian community enslaved through the ages and treats them as animals” (46). By guiding readers to find spiritual elements within The Pearl, critics impact its understanding. How many readers could have viewed Kino as Cain and Abel by themselves?
The most prominent change in the way The Pearl was understood came from Eastern philosophies. In Japan, the John Steinbeck Society of Japan Newsletter became popular. In India, The Pearl was more widely read after Mashkoor Ali’s article “Steinbeck and the Bhagavad Gita.” Ali believes that The Pearl illustrates the Hindu beliefs of “Anasakti” [non-attachment] and “Maya” [worldly desire] (76). Stephen George altered the reception of The Pearl with his article, “A Taoist Interpretation of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.” In this article, George explains how the Taoist principles of “anti-materialism,” “anti-intellectualism,” “non-teleological thinking,” and “transcendence to a higher plane of existence” function in The Pearl (92,93). These articles diversified the population of readers. Also, non-Eastern readers can now see The Pearl through philosophies that they may not have been familiar with before.
The reader plays a crucial role in the history of a text. Without the reader, there would be no one to respond to a text. A reader’s reception can redefine the meaning of a text. Since 1977, criticism on The Pearl has made this text interdisciplinary. Tim Greene’s article “Leaders Can Be Made: Promising IT Managers Develop Leadership Skills with Help from Steinbeck, Shakespeare and Hemingway” and Michael Meyer’s article, “Harmonic Dissonance: Steinbeck’s Implementation and Adaptation of Musical Techniques” can attest to this new interdisciplinary approach. New critical influence on readers will keep changing the textual history of The Pearl. The iridescent meanings will be more numerous in the future.