The novella follows Kino, a Mexican pearl diver who lives in a poor town with Juana and their infant son, Coyotito. One day, Kino makes a miraculous discovery: the enormous, valuable 'pearl of the world'. When news of his new riches spread to the townspeople and pearl dealers, the small family is suddenly surrounded by jealousy and greed. Forced to flee from the violence that now follows their every step, Kino comes to see the pearl as a dangerous, cursed object.
"Oh, the music of evil sang loud in Kino's head now, it sang with the whine of heat and the dry ringing of snake rattles. It was not large and overwhelming now, but secret and poisonous, and the pounding of his heart gave it undertone and rhythm." [page 105]
The Pearl is good, for what it is: a parable. The tale is didactic, beating the reader over the head with the message that wealth only brings misery and that a simple life is better than one filled with fear. Steinbeck not only imparts this lesson, but also manages to squeeze in some social critique of class hierarchy, giving the story more depth and relevance. This is acheived mainly through the figure of the doctor, who uses his power to either save or spare lives, depending on the sick person's ability to pay. His presence at the beginning of the novella acts as a warning - should Kino give in to the pearl's promise of wealth, he too will soon come to disregard the rights of others.
All in all, I'm glad I read The Pearl. Not only did it sit unread for too long on my shelf, I can now judge Steinbeck by more than a hazy memory of the misery brought on by assigned summer reading.
The Pearl © John Steinbeck and Viking Press, 1945.