Review: “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck

Nothing is permanent except change.

~ Heraclitus

Every Christian remembers and recognizes the famous parables of Jesus Christ.  In each of them, Jesus repeatedly draws comparisons from everyday life in terms of the spiritual and morality, a method of preaching that even atheists may admire.  One parable pertains directly to the mysterious “kingdom of heaven,” a state of being or a place that Christ emphasizes throughout all his teachings as one everyone ought to strive for.  “The pearl of great price” is a very memorable example, where a merchant finds a rare, valuable pearl and sells all he owns to buy it.  However, John Steinbeck’s contemplative and rather cynical interpretation of the parable draws even more attention to this saying in The Pearl.

Kino, a poor fisherman, literally finds a pearl of great price, perfect and chilling in its deep beauty.  Naturally, Kino returns to his family and prepares to pursue the promised “kingdom of heaven” with this wondrous object in order to live happily and comfortably for the rest of their lives.  Unfortunately, the moment that Kino tries to sell his precious pearl is when a torturous path of desolation and despair winds around everything he loves and gradually destroys it.  This newfound wealth just within Kino’s reach creates avarice wherever it is seen and poisons even his best friends with selfish envy.  Determined to claim what is his, Kino is driven to rage and desperation when all he attempts goes horribly wrong in the pursuit of justice.

When Kino’s only son becomes fatally ill, the attending doctor purposely cheats Kino and causes the infant to die.  Kino’s wife Juana becomes emotionally separated from Kino as she personally witnesses him transform from a naïve innocent into a suspicious and dangerously angry madman.  Although one of the main themes in The Pearl is the power and cruelty of avarice, Steinbeck’s storytelling makes use of dramatic irony expertly as he demonstrates that the happiness the family so desires is just beyond their grasp, but always taken away by pervading circumstances and the degradation of their village.  The pearl eventually changes from being a symbol of good to a symbol of evil and pain, although it resembles more the paradox of wealth that the author discusses in The Pearl.

Morally, wealth is not the key to happiness, but realistically, people cannot survive in this world without money.  Kino and his family are constantly plagued by poverty, and just when an opportunity for change arises, the gleaming possibility of endless financial security unwittingly ruins them because most people are dishonest.  This miserable truth rings true throughout the plot, for Kino’s life is indeed changed forever because he finds a treasure.  However, the question is if financial security and happiness are even attainable in the midst of unalterable selfishness.  Steinbeck’s simple idea of metamorphosing Christ’s parable into a profound novella makes the complexity of The Pearl amazing and intriguing, a story that deserves to be remembered just as acutely as the original “pearl of great price.”

Original review: Part 1: ‘The Pearl’ versus ‘Of Mice and Men’Part 2: ‘The Pearl’ versus ‘Of Mice and Men’,


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