Analysis of Gertrude Atherton’s The Pearls of Loreto

Eventually part of the original Before the Gringo Came (1894) story collection and the later 1903 The Splendid Idle Forties Stories of Old California collection, “The Pearls of Loreto” first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in April 1893. The second of Atherton’s short stories about the Californios—the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of California not yet conquered by the Americans—it examines the advisability of adhering to societal codes for men and women and to religious dogma that produces less than Christian, moral behavior. Atherton said of these stories that she wanted to preserve a history that was quickly disappearing as the people with memories of the days before the annexation of California died. She used creative license in fashioning a fictional story based upon a traditional tale passed on from one generation to the next.

The generation and geography that serve as backdrop for this story matter. Atherton draws in as characters actual Spanish leaders of the Monterey, California, of the time (1840s): General Castro, Pio Pico, and Governor Alvarado, all of whom played critical roles in fighting against America’s annexation of California. Atherton alludes to this conflict in the horse race scene with which she opens the story, for she makes it a race of North against South, and “the South is lost!” (304) She even describes the southern horse as black and the northern horse as gold, a reference not only to color—the dark Spanish and the light Americans—but also to the gold rush that fl ooded Spanish California with fair-skinned Americans who wanted nothing more than California land and wealth after its gold lust.

Gertrude Atherton/Britannica

In this tale, however, Atherton does not deal merely with imperialist history; she also convicts society’s norms for women. The leading female character, Ysabel, “haughty, passionate, restless, pleasure-loving” (305)—in other words, independent minded, but not free to be independent—has such strong motivation to marry for economic reasons alone that she declares that she will marry no man who does not bring her “a lapful of pearls” (304). Her declaration occurs after turning away countless suitors who offer her little she thinks worth the loss of her freedom and individuality. She creates a criterion she believes no one will actually fulfill so she may remain single, and she believes if someone actually does meet the criterion, that man will have earned her devotion and the right to take her independence.

When Don Vincente De la Vega y Arillaga, the first suitor to take her mandate seriously because he truly wishes to share his life with her, enters the scene, he asks her whether it is true “That you have put a price upon yourself?” (304). Atherton’s blatant use of the word price emphasizes her conviction that marriage for economic reasons—the very system 19th-century society has put into place by refusing women economic independence, and the very material around which many sentimental novels formed—is but the sale of women. Through hyperbole, she makes such marital conventions immoral acts that commodify women. Ysabel has, of course, sold herself for the price of great pearls, and in doing so, she serves as an obvious symbol of the cost of operating under society’s norms. Don Vincente De la Vega, however, desires Ysabel so much that he decides to get the pearls, though first, he asks her to “swear to me that you will wed me when I return, no matter how or where I find those pearls” (306).

As does Ysabel, Don Vincente De la Vega, too, embraces the expectations of society by demonstrating his will to go to great lengths to provide for this woman what she wants. Again, Atherton condemns through conspicuous exaggeration, for Don Vincente De la Vega does find the pearls, and he acquires them by desecrating a sacred statue of the Virgin Mary and by murdering the monk who catches him doing so. He demonstrates the extremes necessary in order to achieve a material object with which to seal an economic, marital bargain. He compromises all moral standards by stealing and killing in, of all places, a mission church, the very symbol of Christian morality.

Yet Atherton also demonstrates the price these two and the community must pay for adhering to such falsely moral expectations. Ultimately, the community members who own the statue track and find Don Vincente De la Vega. These good Christian people have become a suddenly wild, violent, inhuman mob that seeks nothing more—or less—than violent retribution, all because of the statue and an equally violent murder. Atherton punctuates the irony and contradictions of this scene by making a friar the leader of the group and adding the unrelated townspeople to the fray, for they all “love their cross” (309) enough to seek the death of both Don Vincente De la Vega and Ysabel. To escape the mob, Ysabel and Don Vincente De la Vega jump off a cliff to their death. In choosing such a plot and such an ending, Atherton paints the dependent woman as a source of moral depravity and so makes a moral argument for women’s emancipation and for society’s use of religion as rationale for immoral acts.

Atherton, Gertrude. Adventures of a Novelist. New York: Arno Press, 1980.
———. “The Pearls of Loreto.” In Before the Gringo Came. New York: J. Selwin Tait, 1894.
———. “The Pearls of Loreto.” Harper’s Weekly 37 (April 1, 1893): 304–309.
———. “The Pearls of Loreto.” In The Splendid Idle Forties Stories of Old California. 1903. Reprint, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2002.
Forrey, Carolyn, “Gertrude Atherton and the New Woman.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1971.
Leider, Emily Wortis. California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.
McClure, Charlotte S. “A Bibliography of the Works by and about Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.” American Literary Realism, 1870–1910, 9 (1976): 119–126.
———. Gertrude Atherton. Edited by Wayne Chatterton, James H. Maguire, and Dale K. Boyer. Boise State University Western Writers Series, 23. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1976.
———. Gertrude Atherton. Edited by David J. Nordlon. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
———. “Gertrude Atherton and Her San Francisco: A Wayward Writer and a Wayward Paradise.” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy, 73–95. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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