“The Pearl” by John Steinbeck
(First publication: 1947 / This edition: Penguin Books, Steinbeck Centennial Edition 2002)
Taken with hot coffee, flowers from our building, and an essential oil reed diffuser I just got from B-sa-B 🙂
And, as with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts,
there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.
The first time I heard about “The Pearl” was a few years ago…during an episode of “The Desperate Housewives”. (sorrynotsorry.) The character in the show (Paul Young) mentioned that it’s a sad story though, so that kind of put me off reading it. Even though I’ve been on quite a #SteinbeckSpree, I just didn’t find this one too appealing—because why would I want to intentionally put myself in a depressing mood, right?
But…there are six books in this Penguin Steinbeck Centennial Collection, and I’d read four already. The only two left to read were “The Pearl” and “Travels with Charley”—which I’d never heard about until I found about this collection; so I decided to go with “The Pearl” first.
Classic Steinbeck case… the story just makes you freaking feel so freaking much.
Reading it, it reminded me of a supernatural, eerie short story I read back in 8th grade (Wow, I just realized that that was already ten years ago). The story called “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs is about a family suddenly getting “the monkey’s paw” talisman that, supposedly, would grant them three wishes. However, as they make each wish and each one comes true, they realize that messing with fate can cost them a terrible, unthinkable (gruesome) price.
The story’s so haunting I’m even too scared to think about it in too detailed, ten years later.
Anyway, so “The Pearl” reminded me of that. The story is told as like a legend or a folk tale about a family and a giant pearl—”The Pearl of the World”—that they discovered in a time of desperation. They frantically hope that this pearl will bring great things to their lives and better their future. However, the pearl becomes like a bad-luck charm and their lives become disastrous, dangerous, and eventually, ruined. It took around three big events before they would finally accept that the pearl won’t give them what they wished for and instead, brings bad luck to them.
It’s different from the other Steinbecks I’ve read (“East of Eden”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Cannery Row”) because:
1. Like I said, it’s told like a legend or a folk tale.
2. The setting and characters are Latin American.
3. While it’s about poverty and struggle, there’s no “The Great Depression” neon sign blasting everywhere in every scene in every dialogue.
4. It’s a short story—one that’s close-ended. “Cannery Row” and “Of Mice and Men” are also short, but you’re left kind of wondering what would happen next.
5. I enjoyed it and I would recommend it. I was impressed with it…but not as impressedmindblownamazedastonishedstunned as the others. I wasn’t as absorbed and didn’t feel I could “relate” as much. I think Steinbeck explored human emotions and behavioral psychology in greater depths in his other works and that’s what I love most about his writings. “The Pearl” definitely made me emotional and it’s a thrilling read—as there’s a whole “escape for their lives” vibe—but I guess that since it’s such a short story and there’s so much action and so much happening packed into this “legend”/”folk tale”, I wish I got the chance to know more about the characters and their thoughts.
I really enjoyed his vivid nature descriptions. Just classic Steinbeck…he describes “nature” and all the environmental atmosphere so vividly that it’s like reading poetry—you just get this sudden, powerful appreciation for the earth and Mother Nature when you read his naturey passages.
I would recommend this book if you are a Steinbeck fan, just to read something that’s pretty “different” from his other stuff. If you haven’t any Steinbeck yet, I’d recommend to go with something else first. It definitely is a depressing story—kind of like Jeffrey Eugenide’s “The Virgin Suicides” (yes, I know, completely different, polar, books) where you’re left wondering, “Why does it have to end that way?”
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
A town is a thing like a colonial animal. A town has a nervous system and a head a shoulders and feet. A town is a thing separate from all other towns, so that there are no two towns alike. And a town has a whole emotion. How news travels through a town is a mystery not easily to be solved. News seems to move faster than small boys can scramble and dart to tell it, faster than women can call it over the fences. (pg. 21)
My son will read and open the books, and my son will write and will know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know—he will know and through him we will know. (pg. 25)
Luck, you see, brings bitter friends. (pg. 33)
It is wonderful the way a little town keeps track of itself and of all its units. If every single man and woman, child and baby, acts and conducts itself in a known pattern and breaks no walls and differs with no one and experiments in no way and is not sick and does not endanger the ease and peace of mind or steady unbroken flow of the town, then that unit can disappear and never be heard of. But let one man step out of the regular thought or the known and trusted pattern, and the nerves of the townspeople ring with nervousness and communication travels over the nerve lines of the town. Then every unit communicates to the whole. (pg. 40)