The Pearl

I am content as my first foray into the work of John Steinbeck reveals that he too loves a fable, and like the best of them, lets the story speak for itself.

His short novel ‘The Pearl’ is based on a Mexican folk tale about Kino and Juana, a young couple who live a basic existence, their joy of a first baby threatened when it suffers the sting of a scorpion.

Kino is a pearl diver and on the day he most needs a miracle, the discovery of a large pearl appears at first to be the answer to the couple’s prayer. However, its discovery disturbs the community’s tranquil equilibrium, it seems too much to embrace and while it is in their possession, it wreaks only havoc.

There is a sense of inevitability with this kind of tale, we know the pearl is symbolic, and we recognise that desperate grasping, clutch of desire, laced with fear and stalked by paranoia, the fleeting hope it inspires is stifled by the more pervasive greed and jealousy which quickly degenerate into suspicion and violence.

Despite the inevitability, I read with the wilful hope of an optimist, always searching for some altruistic sign, an indication of man’s humanity, the charitable gesture of an honest person. Steinbeck leads us along on this journey, as we develop our own understanding bathing in his glorious prose.

Now Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea on anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people – every song that had ever been made, even the ones that had been forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino…

Taking the pearl from its natural habitat changes its symbolism, for in nature it is pure, lustrous, a thing of splendour and inspiration, it represents the transformation of something irritable (the grain of sand) into something of divine beauty (the pearl). But removing it from the sea will corrupt everything that sees, hears of, imagines or touches it; it becomes representative of greed and avarice, the longer it stays in their possession, the greater its destructive power. But will returning it to nature undo its curse?

In addition to this enjoyable story, the book opens with a foreword which reads like a letter from Steinbeck’s wife Elaine. She shares something of the joy of his writing life, his impulsive and creative attempts to construct the perfect writing environment (including building a writing room in the back seat of his Ford Station Wagon) all of which for me, created an almost familiar context from which to begin reading the great man’s work.

Onward to his next oeuvre, Tortilla Flat awaits.

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48 thoughts on “The Pearl

  1. I recently purchased a collection of Steinbeck’s short novels, and this is the next one in the book! I can’t wait to get to it. He is definitely – and surprisingly, considering how I hated him in high school – becoming one of my favorite writers.

    And oh, if you haven’t yet, check out The Moon is Down next. Such a great story.

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      • Yes. I liked Tortilla Flat, but it was not as good as The Moon is Down. At least not in my opinion. But, keep in mind, we’re talking Steinbeck – so it’s simply a matter of varying degrees of greatness.

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  2. I can imagine the lead along. 🙂 I’ve read one of his works (Of Mice and Men) and wasn’t all that enamoured, but that was a long time ago.

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  3. What a lovely review! I first read The Pearl as a teenager, and read it again in my early twenties, but haven’t picked it up since then. I really enjoyed it and your post makes me want to revisit this classic.

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  4. I read “The Pearl” years ago, and I loved it. It’s been too long and I think I might appreciate it’s symbolism now that I’m older.

    “There is a sense of inevitability with this kind of tale, we know the pearl is symbolic, and we recognise that desperate grasping, clutch of desire, laced with fear and stalked by paranoia, the fleeting hope it inspires is stifled by the more pervasive greed and jealousy which quickly degenerate into suspicion and violence.”

    Gorgeous passage. Nice job.

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    • Thank you for that, yes it will be interesting to see how you respond to it on rereading many years later. I’ve often wondered if I would ever appreciate Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’ if I reread it now, I found nothing to love about it when reading it in school.

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  5. Great review, Claire. Since we were speaking earlier about assigned reading in school, this is one of those classics everyone seems to read in American high schools. I loved it then and much of the imagery has remained with me, but, uh… QUITE a bit of time has passed since then. Guess it’s high time to reread! Thanks for this!

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    • Steinbeck wasn’t on my curriculum, but the name is so familiar and I have ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘East of Eden’ on the bookshelf, but was tempted by these two precisely because I had never heard of them; delighted to hear from everyone already familiar with the story. It’s a great read.

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  6. I read The Pearl as a child, but its beautiful language stayed with me. But Tortilla Flat is a searing social commentary, as I remember it (again, ages ago since I read it), although I think Steinbeck’s vision of the Mexicans has been criticised as simplistic.

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    • I didn’t really have any preconceptions regarding Steinbeck, except the knowledge that his work is(was?) often chosen on educational curriculum’s which may in part have been a reason why I’ve taken this long to pick one up and then chosen a book that was slim and completely unknown to me.

      Certainly with regard to ‘The Pearl’ they could have been poor, oppressed people anywhere – where outsiders (the Doctor) come in allegedly to aid or improve their conditions but are really more interested in their own agenda.

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  7. Claire this is a reallynicely written post. I agree with your analysis. I first read The Pearl in high school and remember enjoying it very much. I may have to pick it up again. What I love about Steinbeck is how he gets to the crux of human nature. He’s like the American Emile Zola. I’ve not yet read Tortilla Flat but have heard good things about it, but I must sugest that you read my favorite Steinbeck, East of Eden. What a fabulous book! Happy reading…..

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    • I actually have ‘East of Eden’ and have also read good things about it, I will definitely read it, working my way up by reading around it first – I think the reason I found ‘The Pearl’ in the library is because someone who had studied it donated it, the French library’s English collection has a high percentage of scholarly texts and classics from both the US and the UK.

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  8. As someone forever mystified by pearls in all their beauty and symbolism, I can readily see how they find their way into fable-like stories. Your review of this one by Steinbeck makes it a must-read.

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  9. This is a great review, Claire, and makes me want to read this book. I am a bad English Major, and somehow managed to get this far in life without having read it. But it is on my son’s shelf, and we are going to Hawaii and I am gathering together my beach reading…

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    • Sounds like everything is in alignment for this to be the time for you to read it, can think of no better place than near the sea, with a mind open for reflection and someone in the family with which to discuss it 🙂

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  10. As your said…. the books Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden haven been in my bookcase for years. I did read GoW and loved it. My first Steinbeck was Cannery Row and made a point to visit Monterey Calf. just to see the town for myself . The audio book “Travels with Charley” was hilarious. Steinbeck is one of my favorites, do I hear a challenge calling? Can you read all of his greatest books?

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    • I don’t really do challenges, I’m more of an Inspiration and Spontaneity type, which is how Steinbeck ended up coming home with me from the library when I already have too many books to read; it also means one book can sometimes lead on to another, I’ve already moved from Steinbeck inspired by a Mexican folk tale to Cormac McCarthy crossing the border of Mexico. For sure I will eventually read the other Steinbeck’s on my shelf, but only when seized by a moment of inspiration, challenges feel too much like obligation to me, I value my reading freedom enormously. 🙂

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  11. Read McCarthy’s 1985 western novel: Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West …it was very good, vivdly written. I hear good things about The Road, have you read it?

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  12. Haven’t read this one yet but am now encouraged to do so. Love the graphic of the pearl hunter. I haven’t read Ray Bradbury much either so feel the need to seek out some of his. (the library shelves will be empty) So much inspiration out there.

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  13. Hi! I have enjoyed your reviews, and wish I had the time to read EVERYTHING! Also, reading that you are in Aix-en-Provence made me very nostalgic. I spent a great year there as a student when I was young and carefree – probably the best time of my life. I have nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award – hope that’s OK. Congratulations!

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    • I can imagine you have wonderful memories of Aix as a student, so many choose to come here, which accounts for the average age of the population being under 25 years 🙂 Thank you for the nomination and sharing your own inspiration.

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  14. Hello again – I guess my coffee hadn’t percolated through to my brain this morning. The main award I nominated you for is the 7×7 Link! Please accept .

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  15. The last time I read Steinbeck was in high school. I didn’t quite get into “The Grapes of Wrath” but I think if I read it now, I’d appreciate it much more. I loved “East of Eden.” Really good read!

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  16. This comment thread is so interesting. I taught “The Pearl” several years ago, and my 9th grade students didn’t appreciate it at all. It ended up being pretty frustrating, but maybe I’ll give it another shot. I adore Steinbeck. “East of Eden” is one of my all time favorites . . . ever!

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    • Well if the comments here are anything to go by, with a little dose of nostalgia, it seems to be more meaningful when read later in life – perhaps it is the optimism and enthusiasm of youth that makes it hard to retain the message, do you have any insight as to why they didn’t value it?

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  17. This is lovely… I’ve never read The Pearl, but I recently read East of Eden and thought it was absolutely incredible. I’m from California, so the landscapes and history Steinbeck writes about feel very familiar.

    I also read Steinbeck in high school (Of Mice and Men in 9th grade, and The Grapes of Wrath in 11th), and didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t say now why that is, but you might be onto something with the optimism/enthusiasm thing.

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    • I’m looking forward to ‘East of Eden’, I hope you find a copy of ‘The Pearl. Yes, the comments are very interesting regarding the difference between reading these books as a teenager and later in life.

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  18. I have never read any Steinbeck (embarrassingly) but I think after this review ‘The Pearl’ could be just the right starting point for me 🙂 I had no idea it was so fable-like…
    Am also v keen to hear what you think ‘A Moveable Feast’ – I’m considering reading it for Paris in July…

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  19. I loved ‘The Pearl’! Such a beautiful work of literature. This was my first Steinbeck as well, but I haven’t had the chance to read anything else of his. Where would you recommend I go next? (if you’ve read more since then)

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  20. Thanks for bringing back memories of a book I had to read in high school (1969) and never forgot. I was disappointed that my older son did not have to read The Pearl. I think Of Mice and Men which I also read in high school, is a masterpiece (and Gary Sinise did an amazing job of turning it into a film), but now that we have an adult son with developmental disabilities, it’s almost more than I can take. It’s a beautifully translated tragedy that is as unforgettable as it is depressing. Don’t read it when you’re feeling low.

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    • Thank you for sharing your memories Julia, I loved this little fable and have heard good things too about Steinbeck’s other work which I look forward to reading eventually. Thank you for the tip regarding Of Mice & Men, it is amazing how books can mean different things at different stages in our life. And at this time of year, uplifting tales are recommended, I just read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which got me through a week of flu 🙂 I hope you have books to turn to which you know will life the spirit also.

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  21. Pingback: Of Mice and Men | Word by Word

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