Kino deftly slipped his knife into the edge of the shell. Through the knife he could feel the muscle tighten hard. He worked the blade lever-wise and the closing muscle parted and the shell fell apart. The lip-like flesh writhed up and then subsided. Kino lifted the flesh, and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. it captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world. -From The Pearl, page 26-
Kino, his faithful wife Juana, and their young child Coyotito live in a small fishing village in Mexico. Their simple lives are transformed overnight when Kino finds “The Pearl of the World” in the sea one day.
Steinbeck has written a parable about how wealth may erase innocence and bring evil into our lives. With his lyrical and beautiful prose, he brings the story to life. Juana symbolizes wisdom and common sense – she is Kino’s partner and supports his dreams and idealism while being wary of the pearl’s lure. Kino’s brother is the voice of reason and caution – he represents the history of his people, recognizing that they will always be cheated and must not show too much ambition lest everything that is good will be torn from them. In less than 100 pages, Steinbeck pulls the reader in and makes her care deeply about the characters – we reluctantly turn the pages knowing that only disaster awaits Kino and his family as the pearl becomes Kino’s soul and desire. The tale is archetypal as it represents ideas common to all people – greed and desire for wealth. Steinbeck uses the idea of music (the song of family, the song of evil, the song of the pearl) to create a dreamlike story. His attention to detail adds complexity to his character, as when Kino and Juano prepare to go out to sell the pearl.
The Pearl is felt to be a deeply personal story for Steinbeck who wrote it soon after his overnight success with The Grapes of Wrath. Disillusioned and overwhelmed by the reaction to that novel, Steinbeck turned inward to examine his own motivations. The Pearl also reveals Steinbeck’s understanding of people of poverty, including the underlying discrimination he witnessed against the Mexican people in the 1940s.
The Pearl is another masterpiece by this Nobel Laureate.