Classic Corner: The Pearl


Name: The Pearl

Author: John Steinbeck

Year: 1947

Genre: Novella

The Pearl is the 1947 Novella by John Steinbeck and is the second book that I have read written by him, following Of Mice and Men and is part of the series of short classic books that I planned to read in 2022.

This short story begins in Mexico and the main characters are Kino, his wife Juana and their son Coyotito. They live in a shack in the slum area of La Paz, Baja California Sur. In the opening chapter Coyotito is stung by a scorpion so Kino and his wife take him to the doctor who refuses to see him because he is so poor. Resorting to taking care of him themselves, Kino and his wife are out diving for pearls shortly afterwards when Kino finds “The Pearl of the World”, a large perfect pearl that should be the answer to all of their problems.

News of Kino’s find travels fast around the town  and there is a growing feeling of bitterness in his neighbours at Kino’s good fortune though he is unaware of this. The doctor makes another appearance having heard about the pearl and claims Coyotito is still experiencing the effects of the scorpion bite and gives him some medicine, a white powder which causes him to be ill overnight, making Kino call for the doctor again. The doctor visits and appears to be trying to work out where the pearl is located so Kino sends him away.

Later that night Kino and Juana are attacked by a thief who tries to seal the Pearl which makes them agree to sell the Pearl as soon as possible. The next day, Kino travels into town to see the pearl dealers. Unbeknownst to him, the dealers aren’t competing against one another and have been a large conglomerate for many years, with the prices offered therefore appearing competitive when they are actually undercutting the price.

Kino visits the dealers but works out he is being cheated so refuses to sell the Pearl. That night Juana tries to throw the pearl into the sea but is stopped by Kino when they are attacked again by thieves who have come looking for the Pearl but things take a dark turn when Kino kills one of the men in self-defence, finds his boat vandalized and their shack has been set on fire.

The family hide at Kino’s brothers Juan Tomas’ shack as news of the fire spreads, hoping to slip away at night to travel to one of the major cities and sell the Pearl there. That night, the family set off and walk through the night. The next morning they are resting in some bushes at the side of the road to wait for nightfall so they can continue when Kino realises three men are tracking them and as they are out in the wilderness they are in mortal danger. Kino and Juana run off road towards the mountains to try and lose them.

When they get there Kino spies the men are still in pursuit and decides the only thing they can do is kill the three men so that they can carry on to the city. Kino accomplishes this but in horror realises a stray shot from one of the men has hit his son Coyotito and he’s dead.

Kino and Juana return to La Paz and decide to throw the Pearl into the sea.

One of the highlights of this book for me is it has a very clear parable and moral message throughout that money cannot buy happiness and there are many dangers that come with new found wealth and good fortune with people around Kino and Juana turning into vultures as they try to steal their luck for themselves.

It reminded me quite a lot of stories you read in the newspaper of people who suddenly find themselves wealthy such as lottery winners who lost it all, whether through toxic investment, bad habits, poor accounting or runaway spending – there are plenty of people who lose everything as a result of good fortune – though perhaps not to the extent Kino and Juana do in the story.

I also had a structural preference over this book to Of Mice and Men in that it actually has distinct chapters whereas the previous John Steinbeck book I read was one long piece of narrative so this book is for more distinct in it’s pacing.

Kino and Juana are also very likeable and relatable characters, Kino is in some ways a bit of a dreamer who imagines what his life will be like now he has found the pearl and how it will solve all of his problems whereas the more level-headed Juana sees the problems that it could bring before Kino does. The novel is also very much of it’s time in that Kino doesn’t listen to Juana due to her being a woman and his wife in a male-dominated world but if he had listened to her wise counsel he wouldn’t end up in the terrible situation at the end.

There is some oddities within the novel, this was explained in the foreword in my edition but could put off some readers. Steinbeck uses music references throughout the novel such as the “Song of the Family” and the “Song of Evil”. The novel was originally written as a screenplay so it is quite possible that these songs are actually directions for the musical score in the film (in fact the film was released that same year and starred Pedro Armendariz, who later played Kerim Bey in the movie adaptation of the James Bond novel From Russia With Love).

Some reviews I have read online have also stated that the writing style is quite dry and also they hope for a more positive resolution than the book gives so that could suggest that it isn’t suitable for everyone. However I found it quite easy to read and the fact people will for a positive resolution and it doesn’t come is to me a good thing as it shows there is some relation to the characters (I also saw this in common with students who remember doing the book in school – so I would say for an older audience it would probably make more sense).

If you have read The Pearl, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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