The Pearl is a fairly simple tale, a parable, of the destruction wrought upon a family by colonialism, capitalism, and wealth.
Kino is a hardworking, but impoverished, man who works as a pearl diver. When his infant son, Coyolito, is stung by a scorpion, Kino seeks help from the village doctor. They are turned away for lack of funds, and Kino and is wife, Juana, make the best of the situation with an herbal poultice. He returns to the ocean in the hopes that he’ll find a pearl that will afford his son the medical attention he needs, and discovers a pearl the size of a goose egg – the largest pearl anyone in the village had ever seen.
What follows is a series of tragedies placed upon the shoulders of Kino and his family. Like “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs and many other such tales, The Pearl is about how wondrous gifts can not only spell doom for the blessed few who receive them, but end up destroying what they once could have redeemed. The pearl, itself, isn’t the saving grace Kino had hoped for, but an evil portent that destroys everything Kino had cherished.
Fundamentally, this story is by the same John Steinbeck who excoriated the degradation of society resulting from capitalism in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Here, like those other works, there is a moral imperative that belies the American Dream. Kino imagines that the pearl contains his families salvation: that it will improve their lives and give him the chance to provide his son with an education and a better future. The corruption that befalls his life, however, is rooted in this newfound wealth, which causes him to abandon the virtues that made him human.
John Steinbeck, I think, is (at his best) a polemicist. His critique of America is at the center of his best works, for as much as they may revel in the bleak and downtrodden existence of Depression-era America, they focus not on desperation, but on hope for our ability to overcome what our society’s corruption has wrought.
There is much of Steinbeck in The Pearl, and I think the resonance of his soul makes the book not only worth a read, but deserving of rumination.
An aside: I don’t know if Hemingway was inspired by this story, but there seems to be a kind of common thread between the two that I can’t quite place my finger on. Maybe it’s no more than the reliance by each protagonist on the wealth of the ocean and the close proximity in which I read both, but I can’t help comparing the two. As far as that goes, for all their differences, I think The Pearl is considerably more interesting and better written.