The Pearl by John Steinbeck


I taught The Pearl at summer school this year. Although I have read a couple other Steinbeck novels, I’d never read this one. It’s a great little novella to teach because of its simplicity and easily recognizable themes of greed and hope.

Kino and his wife Juana lead a simple life in La Paz, Mexico around 1900. Kino is a pearl diver, depending on the canoe passed down through the generations and his own work ethic.  He’s a man content with his lot in life because he appreciates what he has. When his infant son, Coyotito, is stung by a scorpion it sets off a chain of events that not only ruins Kino, but upsets the delicate balance of the natural world (if only metaphorically) and the community in which Kino had so happily lived.

The Pearl is an accessible novel. It gave us lots to talk about – do you need money and possessions to make you happy? Should you judge a man by the clothes he wears or his character? Is violence ever justified? Today’s teens often do think that money buys happiness and if ever there was a novel to disprove this assumption, The Pearl might well be it.

If I were just reading it for pleasure, though, I might have been disappointed. I’m not a gigantic fan of Steinbeck’s writing at the best of times (although he certainly deserves his place in that list of great American writers). The Pearl is simplistic and at times unrealistic (which likely has to do with the fact that it’s a parable which comes from the oral tradition of storytelling). As it teacher it offered me lots to work with; as a reader it was less enchanting.

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