The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Abandon hope…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Following in the tradition of generations of his family, Kino fishes for pearls on the Gulf coast, earning just enough to provide for his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito. One day, Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. He dreams of new clothes for Juana, a rifle for himself and, most importantly, Coyotito will be able to go to school and learn the secrets that will enable him to help bring his small community out of their hard existence into the modern world. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare…

OK, Steinbeck writes beautiful prose, I grant you. But oh my, he’s depressing! He’s the kind of guy that would look at a birthday cake and see it as a symbol of encroaching mortality. The only good people in Steinbeck’s world are the poor and ignorant. Give them wealth or knowledge and they are instantly corrupted by the evils of discontent and greed. I’m not sure what exactly his political philosophy was. It’s always suggested that he leaned, at least, towards communism, but (I speak of the philosophy, not the actuality, here) communism is exactly about trying to lift the poor out of poverty and ignorance. In this bleak little story, I’m guessing he’s maybe trying to say capitalism is A Bad Thing, but it comes over more as if we should all just stay wallowing in our ancestral dirt since any attempt to rise out of it will inevitably lead to tragedy. As I say, depressing – the kind of antithesis of the American Dream.

Book 6 of 25

In length, it falls somewhere between short story and novella, but the limited number of characters means there’s plenty of time for us to grow to care about what happens to the little family, while the simplicity of the fable-like story allows Steinbeck room to play to his major strength, of describing nature and man’s place in it in with great beauty and emotional resonance. In a very short space, he creates a clear picture of the lives of the villagers, largely unchanged for centuries, but with the modern capitalist world encroaching ever nearer. We see the bottled up resentment of these peasants, victims of wave after wave of invaders, each out to exploit. We see the outward deference that forms a thin veneer over their feelings of helplessness and bitterness. And we see how easily one event can break that veneer, releasing all the pent-up hostility of the oppressed for their oppressors.

I don’t exactly know why Steinbeck always annoys me so much. I always say it’s because he’s emotionally manipulative and I realise the vagueness of that, because of course all fiction writers hope to manipulate their readers’ emotions to some degree. I think it’s that he treats his characters so cruelly to create that emotional wrench. If they have a flash of joy, you know they’ll quickly learn to bitterly regret it. If they have momentary hope in their heart, they will soon be forced back to their natural despair. If they feel love, then you can be about 99% certain the object of that love will die, horribly. Dead dog syndrome taken to extremes, and somehow it all leaves me feeling angry and a bit soiled.

John Steinbeck

Despite that, I admire his prose, and I find it fascinating that such an anti-capitalist should be so revered in America, a country that, when it judges a man’s worth, is more likely to be considering his bank balance than the content of his character. A country where “socialist” is seen as the vilest insult you can hurl at someone, and yet Steinbeck is taught in schools. Why, I wonder? And I wonder too how much Steinbeck’s utterly joyless depiction of the apparent pointlessness of attempting to seek a better life for oneself and one’s family plays subconsciously into the American distaste for socialism. Just once, I’d like to see one of his characters succeed in improving their lot – not to become a fancy billionaire President with three wives and a porn-star mistress, perhaps; we can’t all achieve the American Dream – but to have a child grow up healthy and happy and educated and able to lead a productive, moral life. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, in Steinbeck’s grim view of the human condition, it is.

A great writer I wish I could love more, but I fear our view of the world is too different for that to ever happen. I shall continue to drink from my half-full glass while Steinbeck and his poor characters die agonisingly of thirst. East of Eden next. Must make sure I get in extra chocolate supplies…

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Book 18 of 20

60 thoughts on “The Pearl by John Steinbeck

  1. I read this decades ago and it is really only a feeling of sadness and loss of hope that remains in my memory, and of unfulfilled beauty. Sometimes sad times are rich reading because they honour and even uplift the depth of human experience, but here it’s more a sense of punishment for over reaching.

    • Yes, that’s it exactly! I do believe there’s a lot of bad in the world but I also believe there’s good, and I just wish Steinbeck would show that occasionally too, even if he still wants to go for a tragic ending. It’s the grinding hopelessness of it all that irritates me – hope is such an essential part of what it is to be human. Grrr! He makes me angry! 😉

  2. If I’d read your review before reading The Pearl recently I might not have bothered! You’re right in calling Steinbeck a glass half empty sort of fellow. Life is hard and then you die. Might need some chocolate now…

  3. I’ve not read Steinbeck for years and I should definitely get back to him, but I do remember having the reservations you mention. Such a powerful writer, but although I like his work I can’t adore it.

    • I do love his prose, but not his attitude to life. If it really was all as hopelessly miserable as he paints it, what would be the point? Even in tragedies I like their to be bit of hope and a bit of kindness along the way…

  4. I don’t think I’ve read any of his short fiction, and only a couple of his novels. I can cope with misery in short fiction, so this sounds tempting. Nice review. Hope you’ve got quality chocolate in to accompany the novel.

    • I still haven’t read a lot of his stuff, mainly because it makes me so angry! Certainly the prose compensates for some of the misery, so it’s worth reading – hope you enjoy it if you give in to temptation! Hahaha – I think for East of Eden I’ll need to buy in bulk… 😉

  5. I know what you mean, FictionFan, about Steinbeck’s way of writing without much hope. Optimism and a positive outlook are not really a part of his stories, are they? And, yet, he writes so effectively, so that you get drawn into it all. For me, that’s his greatest strength. And I do like the way he develops characters. That said, though he’s not one you read for uplifting stories…

    • Ha! No, I don’t imagine he was always looking on the bright side of life! I do love his prose and he’s a great storyteller, but oh, I wish he didn’t make everything seem so bleak! There’s lots of badness and misery in the world, of course, but there’s surely also goodness and occasional moments of joy. Grrr! He makes me so angry! He’s so lucky he’s already dead… 😉

  6. I’ve never quite been able to completely warm to Steinbeck’s writing, probably for the reasons you have described here. I appreciate him intelectually, and find myself becoming invested in his characters, but there is a missing link somewhere which has so far prevented him from becoming one of my favorite writers. It is a while since I’ve read him though, so I might give this a try sometime.
    You have really made me think about emotional manipulation within writing. I think you are right, every author is doing this on some level, but are some perhaps more overt than others?

    • Yes, I love his prose – sometimes it’s truly sublime – and I always find his stuff very readable. But oh, he makes me so angry – he’s so horrible to his characters! I reckon characters ought to form a union so they can go on strike if authors treat them too badly. Maybe they could also sue for emotional trauma…

      The only other author I can think of who had the same effect on me is Rohinton Mistry – I felt exactly the same about how he treated his characters to manipulate the reader’s emotions. I felt he used them like puppets rather than people, and again, found myself getting angry rather than heartbroken. He also killed a dog just to make us all feel worse – a fictional dog, of course! Grrr!

  7. Lovely, thoughtful review, FF! I’d not thought of Steinbeck in quite that way before, but I can see your points. I’m surprised I don’t have a cat named Steinbeck! 😂 Wonderful review, my friend! I actually still need to read this book!

    • Of Mice and Men was the first one I read, ways back in school, and it had exactly the same effect on me as this one – great prose, heartbreaking story, and made me angry at how he treated his poor characters! I don’t think Steinbeck and I would have been friends… 😉

    • Yes, that’s exactly how I feel too. I think his prose is wonderful, but I can’t love him as much I’d like to – it’s so annoying! But maybe East of Eden will be the break-through… or maybe not! 😉

  8. I was slightly scared when I saw you’d reviewed this – and with justification. Of course the review itself is up to your impeccably high standards, FF, but I am clinging desperately to my Steinbeck bubble, in which the beauty of his writing transcends the bleakness of his characters’ lives, and I just knew you would continue to chip away at that.. I continue to NOT read him despite saying how much I want to; I need to bite the bullet. One way or t’other, at least then I’ll know which side of the fence I sit. It’s painful perched here on the top of it 😣

    • Haha – I’m sorry! 😉 I must say that the majority of people do seem to find that the prose and characterisation transcends the misery, but he steps on my optimistic toes and I end up angry at him every time. Of course life is horrible and miserable and bleak and awful… but not all the time!! Sometimes it’s fun or contented or even just dull! If there is no hope, can there really be despair?? Grrr… where’s the chocolate…?? 😉

  9. I remember reading East of Eden, and I fear your impression of Mr. S. won’t be changing much. Still, he does have a way of wringing emotion out of a story and that, I suppose, is what we consider valuable. But gee, kicking the poor and downtrodden when they’re already suffering feels like overkill to me. I’m voting for LOTS of chocolate!

    • Hahaha – oh dear, I can’t say I’m surprised! His prose is wonderful and he’s excellent at describing misery, but can’t his poor characters be allowed just a little bit of hope occasionally? Or even fun?? I think I’m going to have to get the chocolate delivered in bulk… 😉

  10. I feel sure I read Steinbeck in school at some point (Of Mice and Men, maybe?), but I know I never read this one. I don’t think I’ve even seen any film adaptations of his work. I read depressing stuff when I need to (for book club) and usually am glad I did in the long run, but I’m just not up for anything like this right now. Have you read any Wallace Stegner?

    • I read Of Mice and Men at school and felt exactly the same way about it as about this one – loved the prose, broke my heart over the characters, got angry at Steinbeck! There ought to be a law against character abuse, I think… 😉 I tried to watch the film of The Grapes of Wrath but it just had all the misery with none of the beautiful prose, so I didn’t make it through the whole thing. No, I haven’t heard of him. Is he good? Is he… miserable? 😉

      • We read Big Rock Candy Mountain in our book club and from what I know about The Grapes of Wrath, would liken the two. Another Stegner that many tout (and I have sitting in my TBR pile) is Angle of Repose. In answer to your question… miserable. 🙄 Angle of Repose might conveniently get buried in said pile.

        • I’ve had a little look at the blurbs and they do sound a bit Steinbeck-ish. Haha – I don’t know that I could take more misery till I’ve recovered from this one, but I’ll bear him in mind then for the next time I’m feeling too happy… 😉

  11. Haha, I like the birthday cake analogy! I don’t mind reading depressing books though and your mixed review hasn’t discouraged me from reading more Steinbeck.

    Having worked in a world, where money are plentiful, I can confirm that people are greedy and easily get corrupted. 🙁 Of course that can hardly be blamed on capitalism, you see corruption under communism as well. I have also traveled in many poor and relatively uneducated countries, on balance I don’t see their moral standards being any better or worse.

    Ooops, sorry, now I sound as negative as Steinbeck, actually I am a quite positive person. But I don’t suffer any false illusions about the human species…

    • Haha! I had this vision of me clapping my hands and saying “Yay! Chocolate frosting!” and Steinbeck, in a voice like Eeyore’s, replying “One year nearer the tomb…” 😉 I do love his prose and can quite see why other people love him but I fear he makes me so angry!

      Yes, all agreed. BUT… there are also people who are generous and kind, and make sacrifices to help others. And there’s laughter and joy sometimes… and hope!! I do hate the idea that all rich people are automatically bad and all poor people are good – I reckon people are more complicated than that, whatever political system they live under. Thank goodness! I don’t take an overly rosy view of life generally speaking, but Steinbeck’s so pessimistic he brings out my inner optimist as a kind of protest…

  12. Steinbeck’s subjects and themes are about the down and out and marginalized and make for realistic reading, so I guess there is no hope for the optimist!

    Too bad we don’t live closer, I bought some excellent chocolate yesterday 🙂

    • Oh, no, there’s always hope for the optimist!! Haha – I do agree he chooses subjects more suited to misery, but then does he have to make them even more miserable?? Grrrrr! 😉

      Ooh, now I’m jealous! I do however have a chocolate doughnut awaiting my urgent attention… 🍩 😀

        • Oh, thank you! Unfortunately I doubt if I’ll ever go to California – I seem to be more and more reluctant to travel with each passing year – but I’ll enjoy having a look around the website, and maybe it will help me to appreciate him more! 😀

  13. This was a book chosen for one of those One Read One Community things about 15 years ago and I HATED IT. For the unrelenting despair you mentioned. I did like East of Eden, so who knows? Hopefully you”ll get along better with that one.

    • Well, that’s good to hear – maybe East of Eden will be the one that finally lets me love him the way I’d like to! Yes, this one is utterly depressing and really, what’s the point of it? I don’t mind feeling bad for characters in a book, but I hate when it feels as if making me feel bad is the only point… Grrrr!! Where’s the chocolate??

  14. I read this at school and it put me off reading anything else by Steinbeck for years! I did read East of Eden recently and loved it, though, so I’ll be interested to hear what you think of that one.

    • We were given Of Mice and Men at school, which I loved and hated at the same time and for the same reasons as this one – great prose, heartbreaking story, made me angry at Steinbeck for the way he made his characters suffer. That’s good – Laila also said she loved East of Eden, so maybe it’ll be the one that finally wins me over! 😀

  15. I really liked all the Steinbeck books that I’ve read – until I got to The Pearl. I can’t imagine why he felt the need to do a rewrite on a traditional tale, which I’m sure is what he did.

    • I haven’t read much of his stuff yet – just Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath – but I must admit this one seemed depressing even for Steinbeck! I don’t know what he was trying to do, but he seemed to be saying that we might as well all give up and go jump off a cliff since there is no hope in the world… gah! I’d rather push him off a cliff… 😉

  16. I definitely don’t enjoy reading books than have unremitting misery piled upon the characters (although for what it’s worth, I still remember reading this story in school unlike many other well known authors 🙂 – however I grew up knowing older family members who survived unremitting hardships in their early lives, where any good thing literally disappeared, overshadowed by everything else life threw at them. Hence I feel Steinbeck is portraying lives more like these, ones without benevolent social systems, which makes me at least respect his bleak books.

    • I know what you mean – even although he annoys me, I do find his characters unforgettable. It’s not so much that he portrays miserable lives that gets to me – I think it’s important to do that. It’s just that I think it’s very rare, even for people in real poverty and oppression, to never have any moments of joy or to have no gleam of hope. My father spent six years at war in his youth and while there were plenty of horrors he preferred not to talk about, he was happy to tell stories where funny things happened or where he had a good time with his army friends. I just always think Steinbeck only shows the bleak bits…

  17. Well, I like Jean Rhys, Richard Yates and Kafka, so unremittingly bleak is OK with me. But yes, I have to admit that Steinbeck can be really hard going at times. I suppose he is showing the cruelty of a society with few if any safety nets, but I never thought of it in terms of emotional manipulation. I suppose it is, really. Maybe he was writing like that to make the public of his time more aware of the injustices?

    • I do think he always had a political agenda, but I always feel as if somehow he doesn’t offer any answers, or even hope. I’m not devoted to the idea of happy endings, but if there’s no possibility of one, then I find the tragedy seems lessened, if that makes any sense – if life is so unremittingly awful, is death really so bad? And I’d love him to show a rich person who’s good occasionally – there must be some… 😉

  18. Really interesting questions about why Steinbeck is so revered. I happen to love his writing, but you’re right, there’s a socialist bent to it… maybe it’s ok in literature because it’s not “real”? I read The Pearl in junior high here in Canada and don’t recall if we touched on the political aspect.

    • It just seems so odd to me since the Americans are so anti-socialist – they almost seem to think of socialism and communism as being the same thing. Maybe because his books aren’t overtly pushing a socialist message? Although they’re definitely anti-capitalist, I’d say…

  19. extra chocolate supplies are always a good thing! I’ve never read Steinbeck (yikes!) but I know what you mean, there are those particular writers who just can’t have happy characters, as soon as something good happens you know it’s going to get ugly soon. I think chocolate IS the only answer in those cases.

    • We were forced to read Of Mice and Men at school, but I never read anything else till very recently. He is a great writer, but too depressing for my taste. Bad things happen in the world, of course, but good things happen too!! Sometimes there just isn’t enough chocolate to compensate… 😉

  20. So I read this when Pearl was a baby because of her name and, yikes! I feel like it is one of his very bleakest stories (though I may have been extra sensitive). That is an interesting question as to why Steinbeck is so revered in a country that think socialism is a dirty word. I’ve never thought of him as a particularly socialist writer and he certainly isn’t taught as such in Canada. (Not like Orwell, for example.) I wonder how schools approach him in the US?

    • I haven’t read much of his stuff but yes, this was bleak even for him! Ha, I’m reading a book called Mother of Pearl at the moment, and every time I pick it up it reminds me of you… 😀 I know he was suspected of having communist leanings, but I don’t really see it in his writing either, though he’s definitely anti-capitalist. But Americans think anyone who feels people have a right to food or healthcare is basically a commie… 😉 It would be interesting to sit in on one of those classes…

      • I just discovered there is a new translation of a Middle English poem called Pearl and I feel like I should read it. But Mother of Pearl might even be better!

        The Steinbeck book I read this year, Winter of Our Discontent, was interesting because it was much more capitalist leaning but also in a pretty negative way. At that point he seemed fairly resigned that capitalism ruled and everyone was at least a little terrible.

        • So far Mother of Pearl is excellent but I’ve been distracted by Britain’s political meltdown this week so haven’t been reading much!

          I always wonder if he was that much of a misery in real life or if he turned into the life and soul of the party once he’d written his thousand words for the day… 😉

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