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The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Why It's a Masterpiece (Week 5)

By Annie KapurPublished 19 days ago 8 min read
Top Story - March 2024
From: Biblio

‘The Pearl’ is a well-known by under-read classic and, as a teacher, many of my students have absolutely loved it. Not just because it is short, but because it presents a storyline that is interesting and corrupting. Easy to read and easier to analyse, ‘The Pearl’ is one of Steinbeck’s hardest hitting classics with an underlying message about protecting what is actually important. By the end of the book, the reader is left defeated and believing in the wrong thing. The idealism around this book is incredible and it is so dark too. For a long while you are supporting the wrong people, thinking in the wrong way and the whole story becomes one long act of misdirection by Steinbeck to show in a ‘Monkey’s Paw’ fashion why we should never chase wealth and status.

Published in 1947, it is sometimes called a parable not just about greed and wealth but also about the farce of the class system and how people understand their place in the world. Based on a Mexican folk tale that Steinbeck had heard in La Paz, it makes for a great story and is one of the only stories by Steinbeck not set in California or any other parts of the USA.

“The Pearl” has become one of the most obscure well-known novellas by John Steinbeck and is up there with ‘The Red Pony’ with being a great shorter work by the author. Though the plot is simple, it has a great amount of depth that the reader can ponder on.

The Plot

From: Wikipedia

The story is about a diver named Kino and his wife, Juana. They have a child named Coyotito who is stung by a scorpion and they cannot afford to take him to a doctor. Then, on a whim and a prayer, the diver Kino finds a huge pearl and automatically becomes the talk of the town. It changes their lives in the eyes of others, where they thought they would gain respect and stance they actually gained jealous eyes and envious looks. After a while, things really are not working out as expected and before they knew it, they had to get out of town. Pursued and chased, Kino’s obsession with the pearl will slowly send his family into complete ruin. In this tragedy novel, Steinbeck tells us another cautionary tale.

Into the Book

From: Amazon

There are many great themes and symbols in this book that are regarded as important not just at the time it was written and published, but are constantly important to the human experience no matter the time and place. The first theme I want to look at is the theme of paradoxes. Steinbeck is known for his paradoxical standpoints at the end of novel.

For example: at the end of the novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ George performs the ultimate act of friendship to Lennie by shooting him in the back of the head so that he is not caught by Curley and his supporters. At the end of ‘The Pearl’ there is a paradox of whether the pearl itself was really worth the care Kino was taking and whether that care could have been spent better on his son who was, at the start of the book, stung by a scorpion. As soon as he gains the pearl, he begins to treat the people around him with disdain and though he gains an item of monetary value, he begins to abuse his wife and ignore his son. He wants this pearl to get him away from life’s problems but paradoxically causes many, many more by his selfish and abusive actions.

“They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind. And, 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.”

- The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Another one of the themes that I thought was pretty well conducted by Steinbeck in this novel was perseverance. In many of Steinbeck’s novels, perseverance is not only a key for the characters actually progressing the novel, but the different levels of it are seen in different ways. A lack of perseverance or when it is focused on the wrong thing more than often destroys a character.

Let me take you back to week one where we looked at ‘Of Mice and Men’ and saw that maybe Curley’s wife persevered on the wrong things - so very focused on her looks, paradoxically it would be this very perseverance that would lead to her death. Now, though we feel empathy for her because she doesn’t even get a name, it is not the same case with a character like Kino. Kino perseveres at his job and works hard for a below-average life for his wife and young son. Be that as it may, everything in his life is in perfect balance.

The moment he gets the pearl, he seeks other avenues apart from working hard, instead he works hard to keep the pearl and no longer goes out to his job. This causes the balance in his life to break, and thus Kino stops having a key purpose. As he seeks out a different route rather than hard work, Kino becomes moody and angry - showing that a lack of purpose and work can lead to the downfall of man.

“In the pearl he saw Coyotito sitting at a little desk in a school, just as Kino had once seen it through an open door. And Coyotito was dressed in a jacket, and he had on a white collar and a broad silken tie. Moreover, Coyotito was writing on a big piece of paper.”

- The Pearl by John Steinbeck

One of the key symbols I enjoy reading and re-reading in this novel that I wanted to share is the image of the scorpion. In the Bible, the scorpion represents the destruction and loss of innocence and has little to do with the want for human agency. This is why some cultures believe that scorpions are something evil sent from the gods.

The Christian symbolism of Coyotito being touched by evil coincides with the event of Kino finding the pearl, showing the child is marked and marred by his father’s wants for life rather than the requirements of gains through good. This means that this symbol of the destruction of innocence and that breakage in the family unit is actually a very small form of foreshadowing, growing bigger through Juana’s wrapping of the child’s wound in seaweed - representing the idea that the natural world created by the Gods is not enough to save the child.

“The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it.”

- The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Why It’s a Masterpiece

From: Kobo

I do not think that this book is a masterpiece because it is written by John Steinbeck but because Steinbeck’s writing adds a sense of weird awe to the story that is both plain and emotional. The story itself is an age-old one of being careful what we wish for and in the end, we still do not get it and it is told again by someone else. I think it is by human nature that we are drawn to these tales of tragedy because at least we can say ‘I’m glad that wasn’t me’. However, I do think that this book is a masterpiece because of it’s presentation of character and description.

The characters are entirely unbearable. This is something I have heard time and time again about this book. The character of Kino is absolutely unbearable but that is because you are supposed to dislike him. You are meant to not see too much about him before he gets the pearl and when he does, all of a sudden you absolutely despise him. He beats his wife, he hates his kid but still perseveres in trying to get them a better life through tragic means. After he gains the pearl, he all of a sudden becomes shallow and loses his soulfulness. It is one of the key things about this story that makes it so good. The character change is just massive.

The description of shadow and light is almost southern gothic. This is another thing I have heard before. There are many different descriptions of shadows, light and how light turns into dark. The tension increases as different shadows move different ways and the darkness becomes a cover for wrongs rather than a comforting nighttime sleep. It’s like all the poison creeps out once the sun goes down and before the moonlight comes out.

So, the things that make this book a masterpiece include what people like about it and what they dislike about it. This is because disliking certain things about the book is the entire point.


From: Amazon

As one of the most thought-provoking novels that Steinbeck has ever written, ‘The Pearl’ is relatively short and though it tells an interesting story what it actually is seems to be a snapshot in the life of very normal people in a very normal place. Steinbeck has constantly used his lack of backstories and his vernacular to create the everyday and everyman personalities of his novels. But I think personally, that this is one of the best examples of that in all of his fictions.

Next Week: Animal Farm by George Orwell


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

195K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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Comments (9)

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  • Andrea Corwin 16 days ago

    You do such great reviews and this is one of the BEST! I vaguely remember reading this book but your review lays it out and brings the underpinned story to light. I like how you formatted this review. Congrats, Annie, on TS!

  • Caroline Jane16 days ago

    I am hooked. This is excellent! I saw your story and went away and read The Pearl in one sitting. It is a Steinbexk book.that I had not heard of until I saw your TS. Love your analysis and I agree, it is a masterful tragedy! Can't wait to read your animal farm review..I have read that!

  • ROCK 17 days ago

    Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Anna 17 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • Sid Aaron Hirji18 days ago

    Was definitely a good read and grats on ts

  • Kendall Defoe 18 days ago

    This is a Steinbeck book I have not read, but it always intrigued me. I will take a look. And I look forward to your thoughts on the Orwell!

  • Ameer Bibi18 days ago

    Congratulations 🎉 for top story ".Keep penning your truth, and watch as your words illuminate the path for others to follow."

  • angela hepworth18 days ago

    Okay, you’ve thoroughly convinced me to read The Pearl. Great writing!

  • Sajan ali18 days ago

    Nice dear

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