The Pearl was not only the very first John Steinbeck novel I read, it was one of the books assigned to me by my favorite high school teacher, Wilda Walker. So, it’s a pretty special novel for me.
This is the story of Kina, a very poor pearl diver, and his wife and their baby. The day the baby is stung by a scorpion and refused treatment by the doctor is also the day Kino finds “the pearl of the world,” a gem of magnificent size and quality. Naturally, everyone wants the pearl. Some try to steal it. Some try to cheat Kino when he goes to sell it. When Kino kills a man trying to rob him, he flees his village with his family, but the curse of the pearl follows him into the wilderness.
This was Steinbeck’s follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath and many critics were upset that he “reverted” to such a simple tale that was not a protest novel. That’s a shallow view, though. Steinbeck fled his success and went to Mexico for a while, where he obviously became very acquainted with the racial issues there and those are reflected in The Pearl. More to the point, though, I think the pearl itself is symbolic of the success Steinbeck found with his previous few books, particularly Grapes. Like Kino, once he found huge success, everyone wanted something from Steinbeck.
As far as Steinbeck novels go, The Pearl is a little different in that it has a real, obvious resolution. Sure, there are still some questions the reader can ask, but the ending is not as ambiguous as that of Grapes or East of Eden or The Winter of Our Discontent. The ending is the only ending the story can have and the reader will see it fairly early on, and that’s part of his point, too. Everyone can see how the story has to end except poor Kino.
The Pearl is very short and can probably be read in one sitting by most people. I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve never given Steinbeck a try before.