The Pearl

Number of lessons: 5; compatible text for study guide: all texts are compatible (you may order the text below). Guide prepared by Robert W. Watson.
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THE PEARL represents John Steinbeck’s belief about the American Dream. The illusion of easy wealth and carefree living is an alluring dream; but it is simply that—a dream. If one having known only poverty were to have a windfall of riches, the wealth would soon be consumed, because the accumulation of wealth has its own natural laws. The poor, who are typically consumers and not investors, do not understand these laws, and thus are destined to remain in poverty unless the laws of wealth are studied and obeyed.

While he became rich through his writing, Steinbeck has a preoccupation with poverty, which he explores not only in The Pearl but also in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Even if many of his readers do not seem to understand about money, Steinbeck is aware that riches and wealth bring their own set of problems. Indeed, the wealthy are not lucky; they just happen to understand the power of money.

John Steinbeck was a Californian, who chose to abandon college life and become a common laborer while he pursued a career in writing. For this reason, his novels have a touch of authenticity regarding the “common” man, even though his socialist views are evident in many of his works. The Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1962 he received the Nobel Prize for literature. His later works like East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent did not receive as much acclaim as his works during the Depression. The “hero” of The Pearl is Kino, a poor Mexican, who represents the common man, or the Everyman, with his typical concerns about life and family. As you read, note how Kino’s contentment with his station in life changes as the story progresses. Steinbeck uses a lot of symbolism in this story such as the scorpion and the doctor. Be aware of these symbols, and discover why they are significant.

One of the many motifs throughout The Pearl is the conflict between modern mores and past heritage. Whether intentional or not, Steinbeck gives more credence to the way of the past in contrast to the modern money-based society. While modern society is unstable and immature due to its constant and incessant urge for change, honored traditions and heritage offer the soul a place of refuge, a place of certainty and stability. When his life looked its darkest, Kino returns to his community, his neighbors, and his home.

Another common motif found in this story is light verses darkness. However, Steinbeck surprises the reader by oftentimes reversing the roles of light and darkness. There are other conflicts such as foreigners against natives, merchants against pearl drivers, and nature against man. All of these conflicts are not exaggerated at all and are part of the common lot of mankind.

One question that should be asked and resolved as you read The Pearl is whether inanimate objects can possess goodness or evil. Things can be powerful symbols, but are they inherently good or evil in themselves? Kept this in mind as you read. Also, some critics suggest that Steinbeck is using the biblical parable of the Pearl of Great Price as the basis for his story (Matthew 13:45–45). Look for evidence that either supports or refutes the critics. As usual, you should try to glean biblical lessons and precepts from reading. You will find The Pearl is replete with such lessons.