Monday, November 22, 2010

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl by John Steinbeck
97 pages
Originally published 1947

Kino is a pearl fisherman along the Mexican gulf.  He, his wife, Juana and baby son, Coyotito, live in a small brushhouse on the edges of their small community alongside the other native pearl-fishers.  They are poor but seem contented with their lives together.  Then two things happen that change their lives forever.

First Coyotito is bitten by a scorpion.  Juana immediately jumps into action, sucking as much of the poison out of the baby as she can.  But  Kino and Juana battle between their instinct to do what their ancestors have always done and their fear that they should call on the village doctor.
"Kino hesitated a moment.  This doctor was not of his people.  This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race, and frightened it too, so that the indigene came humbly to the door.  And as always when he came near to one of this race, Kino felt weak and afraid and angry at the same time.  Rage and terror went together."
When Kino makes the decision to take Coyotito to the doctor, he is turned away at the door for lack of money, fueling Kino's rage and feeding his feelings of inferiority.

Later that same day, it appears that their lives will take a turn for the better when Kino finds a magnificent pearl that the villagers are soon proclaiming to be The Pearl Of The World.  Kino begins seeing in the pearl all his family will soon have--new clothes, a new harpoon, an education for Coyotito, and a church wedding.  But Kino knows that "the gods do not love men's plans, and the gods do not love success unless it comes by accident" and Kino has now made plans, plans easily to be attacked.  He begins to worry that others will begin to cause problems for his family, with good reason.  Soon the priest is at the door to "bless" them but also to stake his claim for the church; the doctor shows up suddenly eager to treat the baby; and dark men beginning appearing in the house, trying to steal the pearl.  Was the pearl a blessing...or a curse?

There is nothing subtle about this novella.  Steinbeck's love of the common man and his belief that power will always go to the powerful are evident throughout the book.  It almost appears as if Steinbeck is saying that even the simple wants of Kino are too much for a poor person to hope for, that he is greedy for wanting a new suit of clothes for his son.  As the book progresses, Kino becomes more cruel as he becomes more obsessed with protecting the pearl.  Is he wrong to want a better life?  But it is the greed of all men and the power of some that propel Kino along a path of self-destruction.

I loved the use of song in this book.  The "Song of the Family" represents the love and peace Kino and Juana feel at the beginning of the book.  More and more throughout the book, however, Kino is hearing the "song of evil."  Unfortunately his response to this song continue to lead him to decisions that cause more and more trouble for his family.  Steinbeck challenges the reader--how much would you be willing to risk to give your family a better life?
"In this Gulf of uncertain light there are more illusions than realities."
John Steinbeck drew on both the biblical tale of "the pearl of great price" and an old Mexican tale when crafting this parable, as well as the lessons his own life had taught him.  He wrote The Pearl it was on the heels of his huge success with The Grapes of Wrath.  That success had taught Steinbeck that becoming successful, gaining possessions, would not necessarily make a person's life easier or better.  His own success had certainly given him the financial means to make for a comfortable life but it also brought with it persecution and FBI attention.


  1. Steinbeck is a favorite and I've been slowly rereading his novels over the last few years. I remember reading The Pearl in high school, but should take a look at it from an adult perspective. Thanks!

  2. I want to read this small but great story again after so many years,

  3. Oh, this book sounds wonderful! Steinbeck is one of those authors that I feel can do no wrong, I would be really interested in reading this one to see how it all turns out. My book club read East of Eden a few months ago, and it's made me ravenous to read more of his work. Fantastic review on this book!

  4. I've never really given this one much attention. I really enjoyed your thoughts on it and may have to think about reading it at some time in my life as I've read quite a few of his other books.

  5. I haven't read this since high school. To tell you the truth, Steinbeck's greatness eluded me then; maybe because I had to read so many of his novels. I would definitely like to try him again as his writing is so accessible.

  6. I definitely must read more Steinbeck. I've only read The Pastures of Heaven. Thanks for your thoughts on this.