Dan Sandman

15: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

In Books, Fiction on 11/04/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Pearl by John SteinbeckThe Pearl by John Steinbeck is an elegantly crafted, concisely written parable about the corruptive powers of civilised society. Set in Mexico, in a poor part of town, the story focusses on the fate of Kino, an innocent and illiterate pearl diver. During the opening chapter, Kino’s baby boy Coyotito is taken ill by a scorpion bite. When Kino’s wife Juana seeks the help of an unsympathetic colonialist doctor, the doctor rejects the patient with the following words.

“Have I nothing better to do than cure insect bites for ‘little Indians’? I am a doctor, not a veterinary.”

As a poor and uneducated member of early twentieth century Mexican society, Kino is powerless and suffers from colonial prejudice. The cruel and dehumanising words of the doctor illustrate Kino’s debilitating position outside of civilised society. Kino’s dream is to become rich and to pay for his son’s education, therefore releasing Coyotito from poverty. And so, when at the end of chapter 2, Kino skilfully dives from his boat and finds a pearl “as large as a sea-gull’s egg. […] The greatest pearl in the world”, he is optimistic. However, as the novella progresses, Kino’s optimism is shattered by corrupt merchants and stalking thieves.

I enjoyed reading this short book and was moved by Steinbeck’s storytelling skills and descriptive powers. There is a musical sadness at the core of the work, but also a sincerely held moral to the story with biblical reference to the Pearl of Great Price. Persecuted by the American state during the Cold War and attacked for being unpatriotic, I think Steinbeck is questioning the moral values of the American dream. The Pearl beautifully illustrates the potentially dangerous influence of capitalist ideals upon a town and upon a people.

Essential and accessible.


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