Among his many travels, Steinbeck visited Mexico several times and undertook four major projects about the country. One of his early works, The Forgotten Village, explores the tension between tradition and modernity in twentieth-century Mexico. Published in May 1941, the book is a study of disease in an isolated Mexican village. Like the book, the documentary film released the same year shows how several attempts to cure patients using traditional methods proved ineffective. However, when doctors from Mexico City arrive with modern medicine they are not welcomed. Juan Diego, a young man who believes in science, brings his sister to be cured by an injection of modern medicine and is then banished from his home by his father who disapproved of these new methods. Juan Diego eventually decides to travel to the city to learn how to be a doctor and to bring advanced medical care to the towns and villages of Mexico. This plot was unusual because Steinbeck typically expressed more complex and nuanced perspectives on the coming of modernity (Millichap and Meyer 116).
Steinbeck’s fascination with the interface between the old and the new persisted in later works on Mexico. His time in the Sea of Cortez resulted in two books, The Sea of Cortez, and The Pearl. From March 11th to April 20th of 1940, Steinbeck and his close friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, departed on a six-week expedition collecting marine specimens from various points in the sea. In the end, what was supposed to be a scientific expedition turned out to be much more for Steinbeck; it was also a social experiment (Nakayama 281).
Through The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck articulated the philosophy on life that he and Ricketts held, grounded in a deep love of humanity and keen interest in social justice. Steinbeck articulated his perspective by describing the parallels between marine life and human life. Ricketts had a lasting influence on the book’s ideas. After Ricketts passed away in 1948, Steinbeck decided to include a long essay, “About Ed Ricketts,” in a new nonfiction edition, titled The Log From the Sea of Cortez, in tribute to his dear friend (Etheridge 334-336).
During his travels in the region, Steinbeck also found the inspiration behind The Pearl. Steinbeck and Ricketts visited La Paz, Mexico where Steinbeck heard a tale of a young Mexican boy and the terrible misfortune that followed his glorious discovery of The Pearl of the World (Etheridge 335). While Steinbeck was in La Paz, he witnessed firsthand the negative impact of American business and culture on indigenous communities. As a whole, Steinbeck’s experiences shaped The Pearl’s themes of greed and good versus evil.
In The Pearl, Steinbeck explores the relationship between greed and corrupt power by showing how the pursuit of wealth hurts people. As one of the main characters, Kino, attempts to enhance his own prestige through the pearl, he loses his moral compass and sacrifices his indigenous culture for shallow materialism (Burkhead 103-104). The broader community also struggles with the pearl; the news of its discovery, “stirred up something infinitely black and evil…like hunger in the smell of food…”(Steinbeck 253).
The theme of good versus evil is commonplace in Steinbeck’s work and builds on the narrative of greed. Steinbeck uses the symbols of night and day to represent the tension in The Pearl. The book’s first sentence reads, “Kino awakened in the near dark,” which foreshadows the events that will ultimately transform Kino’s family, the village, and townspeople (Steinbeck 233). Steinbeck expands on the theme of good versus evil in his depiction of the Songs of the Family, of the Pearl, and of Evil. In the beginning, the Song of the Family—a symbol of completeness—dominates the narrative until the Song of the Pearl overtakes it. This song morphs into the Song of Evil. As one critics explains, this happens because “life’s meaning is now dependent on the pearl rather than upon human relationships” (Karsten, 2-3).
Burkhead, Cynthia. Student Companion to John Steinbeck. Greenwood Press, 2002.
Etheridge, Charles. “Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 333-337.
Karsten, Ernest E. “Thematic Structure in The Pearl.” English Journal, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 1-7.
Millichap, Joseph and Michael J. Meyer. “Forgotten Village, The (1941).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 116-117.
Nakayama, Kiyoshi. “Pearl, The (Book) (1947).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 281-283.
Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. John Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, New York, 1994. pp. 229-305.