The Pearl

April 25, 2009 at 5:20 PM 5 comments

She knew there was murder in him.

The Pearl is a famous novella by John Steinbeck. It features a man named Kino, his wife Juana, and his son Coyotito. They are a poor family, but happy. Kino dives for pearls, while Juana bakes meals and minds Coyotito. One day, though, Coyotito is stung by a scorpion! The family wants the help of the doctor, but they are too poor to afford him. Kino goes diving for pearls, and he finds a magnificent pearl. It is hailed as the great Pearl of the World, and Kino and Juana believe it is worth a lot of money and is the answer to all of their problems. Of course, in reality, their troubles have just started…

Their problems go from bad to worse:

  • The doctor, who they can now pay, realizes that Coyotito has recovered from the scorpion bite. he wants more money, though, so he poisons Coyotito under the premise that it’s a cure for the relapse that he says, lying, that Coyotito will suffer. 
  • The pearl dealers, working to together, decide to cheat Kino out of the money for the pearl. 
  • The pearl causes Kino to become possessive and nasty, even hitting and kicking Juana.
  • Kino then kills a man at night who, he suspects is coming to steal the pearl.

Kino and Juana then attempt to go to the capital, to escape the corrupt citizens of the town and its law enforcement. They bring a few essential supplies, the pearl, and Coyotito. In a complex situation involving a group of trackers, Kino, and Juana and Coyotito hiding in a cave at night, Kino grabs a rifle from one of the trackers and shoots them. He then discovers Coyotito’s head has been half blown-off and that he is dead from the tracker’s shot. He and Juana then go back to the town, after having thrown the pearl back into the water. All is forgiven by the townspeople, and they decide to live in the town again.

Kino, due to the pearl, ends up worse off than he started. His son is dead. His house has burnt down. He has to reforge connections with the other villagers. There are several different problems with this story. The first is the confusion of Coyotito’s death. It requires several rereads to see whether the tracker or Kino shot Coyotito. The second problem is the one-dimensionality of the stories characters. The only character with any depth in him is Kino. No one else has much depth, and even Kino is not that interesting to read about. It really reads more like a fairy tale or a folk tale than a novel or novella. The third problem is the moral of the story. For something that so clearly is supposed to be folk tale of some sort, the moral is not so evident. “Money is bad?” “Be careful what you wish for?” “The world should adopt a barter system?” “It’s a hard life being poor?” “Poor people shouldn’t try to improve their lots?” It’s just not obvious. This is the sort of story that would be better as an oral tale of a bedtime story of old (the bloody Grimms…) than it is as a novel!

My Rating: 38/100


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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alex Hiam  |  April 26, 2009 at 2:24 PM

    I enjoyed your critical review of The Pearl. It’s considered a classic so people don’t usually feel at liberty to criticize it honestly. You’re right that the characters don’t really come to life. It’s I imagine intended by Steinbeck as an allegory, and so in theory the main character (Niko) learns something or attains some spiritual growth. However, in a cynical manner, Steinbeck does not seem to allow for much growth. The tragedies seem to teach Niko that he should not dream of bigger things because he will be punished for his hubris. It’s I suppose a modern allegory because of this circular journey the main character makes.
    Keep reading and reviewing, I’m enjoying your work.

  • 2. bookwormandlurline  |  April 26, 2009 at 2:48 PM

    Thanks for the comments, Alex. I do agree with you that most people don’t criticize the classics. By and large, the vast field called “the classics” are good, but some of them, I believe, are a bit more highly touted than they should be. I do intend to examine them critically, both those I love and those I don’t.
    I agree with you that Steinbeck is acting cynically here. He is purposely depriving the reader of the moral, whatever he thinks it is, (if there even is a moral), but I just personally don’t find it a good read. I have to say, the trait I appreciate the most in a book or story are interesting characters, which this doesn’t really have. by the way, I’m positive it’s Kino, not Niko. I just checked in my copy.
    Thanks for reading my reviews.
    A new one will be up later today on The Light Fantastic!

  • 3. Marjie  |  April 26, 2009 at 6:35 PM

    I hate to admit this, but I’ve never read Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”. Certainly I have had opportunity and access, and felt that I really should, with it being a classic. But now I can rest my 30+ years of guilt and move on. That said, I think you’re a terrific reviewer and I’m looking forward to reading more. I might even read some you recommend; out of curiousity or for future introduction for my son (who is only 8 and not yet ready for teen books, but still a good reader). You might consider having your own Teen Book Review column in the Gazette?

    Great work!


  • 4. A. Nonny Mouse.  |  October 3, 2009 at 9:52 PM


  • 5. Maude - Friend of a friend  |  January 21, 2010 at 4:30 PM

    Hmm… I read this book earlier this year for English class. It wasn’t terrible, and I agree about the character structure, but then again, I’m not a big Steinbeck fan. I interpreted it very differently however. In the end of the book, when Coyotito is shot, I don’t believe it tells you who fired that one shot. I was actually under the impression that Kino, accidentally, by firing shots into the open, had, himself, killed his child. That would make for a better story in any sense. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it specifically said it was fired by a tracker. In the book, Kino is NOT hiding out with his family in the cave, he is protecting them, and cannot see them, because he is out in the open, firing shots, so it’s possible he could have shot Coyotito, then discovered it afterwards.
    Either way though, I think it’s made for a good end to a book I wasn’t too fond of.

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