Book Review: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl - John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)
The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

I had never read this short novella by John Steinbeck and, seeing as I have a daughter named Pearl, it seemed like it was time to cross this one off the list.

Set in an unnamed village on the Gulf of Mexico, the story follows Kino, a poor fisherman and pearl diver, who finds what comes to be called The Pearl of the World. A pearl of remarkable size and beauty. This pearl can change Kino’s life. It can allow Kino and his wife, Juana, to be married in the church. It can provide the means for his son, Cuyotito’s education and end the cycle of poverty that Kino, his family, and the other villagers live within.

The story begins just before Kino finds this pearl, when his infant son is stung by a scorpion. The doctor, knowing that Kino is poor, refuses to see the child. Amidst this tension and injustice, Kino finds the perfect jewel from the sea. Kino is right that this pearl will change his life forever but he turns out to be wrong as to how that change will occur.

The story is short and moves along quickly. Steinbeck tells it with a myth-like quality. Most of the characters are unnamed and the villains are faceless, almost shapeless, dark forms that begin to circle around Kino and his family with their unexpected wealth. Kino seems to represent his entire community – the trapped nature of poverty, the potential for something different to change their lives and the dangers that brings. When Kino thinks of his son being educated, it is with the idea that this will allow their whole community to benefit by having someone more privileged on their side.

In one scene, Kino and his brother discuss a local story of a man who tried to change his life:

“I know,” said Kino. “I have heard our father tell of it. It was a good idea, but it was against religion, and the Father made that very clear. The loss of the pearl was a punishment visited on those who tried to leave their station.

There is the pervasive feeling that Kino too will be punished for his desire to change his life, for something better. With this foreshadowing, and knowing Steinbeck, the ending of the tale isn’t necessarily a surprise. This is a brutal and tragic story, forcefully and beautifully told.

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