The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Reviewed by: Gillian Valladares Castellino

"The music of the pearl drifted to a whisper then disappeared". 
That is the last line of The Pearl.  As far as 'hooks' go, Steinbeck could not have chosen a better one to reel in a reader who tends to read last lines of books before first ones. A little gem of a book, The Pearl begins with the promise of extolling the virtues of a simple life. It delivers something quite different: an invitation to examine ugliness, beauty, inequality, greed, randomness, basically all the complexities that underpin human lives. All this and more, delivered in under one hundred short pages.

Reviews of The Pearl are quick to point out that the novella is not one of Steinbeck's critically acclaimed works despite the fact that it has been a textbook for American middle and high-schools for many years and is thought to have influenced Hemingway to write The Old Man and the Sea (1952).  The story was first published in 1945, in the Woman's Home Companion, where it was called 'The Pearl of the World.'  It is claimed that some versions are entitled 'The Pearl of La Paz.' Also, a line of thought that suggests that the novella was penned as a result of Steinbeck's interest in the teaching of Carl Jung, specifically the issues of "human greed, materialism and the inherent worth of a thing".

The best introduction to the story is in Steinbeck's own words ...
"as with all retold tales, that are in people's hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.
If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it..."
So what is the novella about?  Set around the turn of the last century, in colonial Mexico, specifically in the rural town of La Paz on the Baja Penninsula, it is the story of Kino, a young Mexican-Indian pearl diver, his partner Juana and their baby Coyotito. The plot line of the story is simple, but that is not it's point at all. It's significance and beauty lies in the "telling". 

The story begins as follows: Kino, a simple fisherman, his wife Jauna and son Coyotito live an idyllic existence until the little boy is stung by a scorpion. The town's doctor refuses to even see the child as the parents are poor. Kino in desperation dives for and retrieves a large valuable pearl. "The essence of pearl mixed with essence of men and a curious dark residue was precipitated. Every man suddenly became related to Kino's pearl and Kino's pearl went into the dreams, the speculations, the schemes, the plans, the futures, the wishes, the needs, the lusts, the hungers of everyone, and only one person stood in the way and that was Kino, so that he became curiously every man's enemy.....The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it....But Kino and Jauna did not know these things.  Because they were happy and excited they thought that everyone shared their the incandescence of the pearl the pictures formed of the things Kino's mind had considered in the past and had given up as impossible."

Without giving too much more away, let it be said that the finding of the pearl becomes a transformative event in the most foul and tragic sense of the term. After the tragedy devastates Kino and Jauna, they throw the pearl back into the depths of the ocean.

Though short in length, The Pearl deals with three major themes - First, the destructive role of greed. Second, the part that fate and human intention/action play in shaping individual lives. Though human beings may focus on and work towards specific goals, fate often intervenes in an apparently random manner and changes everything. The third theme is colonial society's oppression of native cultures. The novella depicts the arrogance, condescension, self-centredness, greed and dismissiveness that colonizers displayed towards the natives. This behaviour has a negative effect on its targets, transforming them from innocent, pious, pure societies into perverted extensions of the colonizer's mentality. Yes, despite the folkloric beauty of its prose, this is a very dark tale.

Recurring motifs in the book are nature imagery and Kino's songs, especially 'The Song of Evil' vs 'The Song of the Family'. These two motifs are used throughout the narrative to progress the plot and develop the themes.

There are also three main symbols used in the story. These are: the pearl (obviously), the scorpion (which precipitates the action) and finally Kino's canoe, which represents native cultural heritage and the spiritual understandings implied within them. Though undervalued in colonial society, for Kino, his canoe underpins who he is, providing both a means of livelihood and a means to find the pearl of great value. It's destruction foreshadows the shattering of his own innocence.

Original post on Healing Scribbles:


Edith LaGraziana said...

Ah, this one evokes memories - we read The Pearl in high school just after our return from London. How much I loved English classes at the time!

guiltlessreader said...

Everyone should read this at least once in their lifetime. A classic! Timeless themes. And yes, English class :)

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