John Steinbeck (1902-1968), born in Salinas, California, came from a family of moderate means. He worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925 he went to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck first became widely known with Tortilla Flat (1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos.
Steinbeck’s novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books, which does not always agree with his matter-of-fact sociological approach. After the rough and earthy humour of Tortilla Flat, he moved on to more serious fiction, often aggressive in its social criticism, to In Dubious Battle (1936), which deals with the strikes of the migratory fruit pickers on California plantations.
This was followed by Of Mice and Men (1937), the story of the imbecile giant Lennie, and a series of admirable short stories collected in the volume The Long Valley (1938). In 1939 he published what is considered his best work, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, moved to California where they became migratory workers. John Steinbeck wrote The Pearl during the time in which he was at the height of his fame.
He had completed The Grapes of Wrath, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was renowned and reviled as a subversive, unpatriotic man who threatened the national interest through the socialist themes of his novels. This view of Steinbeck was inconsistent with his soft-spoken nature, but by 1944, when Steinbeck began to write The Pearl, Steinbeck had come to reconcile this aspect of his fame. Steinbeck wrote The Pearl based on his personal convictions, and based the story on the biblical parable of a ? pearl of great price.
‘ In this story, a jewel for which the merchant trades everything he owns becomes the metaphor for Heaven. Everything in the merchant’s earthly existence, however, becomes worthless when compared to the joys of living with God in Heaven. However, Steinbeck uses the parable as a meditation on the American dream of success. Steinbeck, who himself had risen quickly to prosperity, explores how Kino, the protagonist of The Pearl, deals with his newfound prominence in the community and riches. Steinbeck found a second inspiration for The Pearl in the tale of a young Mexican boy told in Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez.
However, the boy in the original form of the story wished to use the pearl to buy clothing, alcohol and sex. The story contains several similar plot points, including the rapacious dealers and the attacks on the boy to find the pearl, that would recur in the story’s final form. The Pearl derives much of its force from the descriptions of the impoverished lifestyle of the Mexicans of La Paz, the location of the story. The plight of the impoverished is a consistent theme in Steinbeck’s work, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.
Although these novels dealt with white protagonists, Steinbeck turned to the plight of Mexicans for The Pearl based on the 1942 and 1943 Zoot Suit Race Riots in Los Angeles. By the time that Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, he had gained an interest in writing screenplays, and thus wrote the novel in a form suitable for easy adaptation to film. The story has a simple plot structure and an economy of characters, but unlike The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden, Steinbeck did not adapt The Pearl.
Instead, Steinbeck focused on screenplays written originally for the screen for his subsequent works The Pearl, which takes place in La Paz, Mexico, begins with a description of the seemingly idyllic family life of Kino, his wife Juana and their infant son, Coyotito. Kino watches as Coyotito sleeps, but sees a scorpion crawl down the rope that holds the hanging box where Coyotito lies. Kino attempts to catch the scorpion, but Coyotito bumps the rope and the scorpion falls on him. Although Kino kills the scorpion, it still stings Coyotito.
Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbors, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay. Kino and Juana leave the doctors and take Coyotito down near the sea, where Juana uses a seaweed poultice on Coyotito’s shoulder, which is now swollen. Kino dives for oysters from his canoe, attempting to find pearls. He finds a very large oyster which, when Kino opens it, yields an immense pearl. Kino puts back his head and howls, causing the other pearl divers to look up and race toward Kino’s canoe. The news that Kino has found an immense pearl travels fast through La Paz.
The doctor who refused to treat Coyotito decides to visit Kino. Kino’s neighbors begin to feel bitter toward him for his good fortune, but neither Kino nor Juana realize this feeling they have engendered. Juan Tomas, the brother of Kino, asks him what he will do with his money, and he envisions getting married to Juana in a church and dressing Coyotito in a yachting cap and sailor suit. He claims that he will send Coyotito to school and buy a rifle for himself. The local priest visits and tells Kino to remember to give thanks and to pray for guidance.
The doctor also visits, and although Coyotito seems to be healing, the doctor insists that Coyotito still faces danger and treats him. Kino tells the doctor that he will pay him once he sells his pearl, and the doctor attempts to discern where the pearl is located (Kino has buried it in the corner of his hut). That night, a thief attempts to break into Kino’s hut, but Kino drives him away. Juana tells Kino that the pearl will destroy them, but Kino insists that the pearl is their one chance and that tomorrow they will sell it.
Kino’s neighbors wonder what they would do if they had found the pearl, and suggest giving it as a present to the Pope, buying Masses for the souls of his family, and distributing it among the poor of La Paz. Kino goes to sell his pearl, accompanied by his neighbors, but the pearl dealer only offers a thousand pesos when Kino believes that he deserves fifty thousand. Although other dealers inspect the pearl and give similar prices, Kino refuses their offer and decides to go to the capital to sell it there.
That night, Kino is attacked by more thieves, and Juana once again reminds Kino that the pearl is evil. However, Kino vows that he will not be cheated, for he is a man. Later that night, Juana attempts to take the pearl and throw it into the ocean, but Kino finds her and beats her for doing so. While outside, a group of men accost Kino and knock the pearl from his hand. Juana watches from a distance, and sees Kino approach her, limping with another man whose throat Kino has slit. Juana finds the pearl, and they decide that they must go away even if the murder was in self-defense.
Kino finds that his canoe has been damaged and their house was torn up and the outside set afire. Kino and Juana stay with Juan Tomas and his wife, Apolonia, where they hide for the next day before setting out for the capital that night. Kino and Juana travel that night, and rest during the day. When Kino believes that he is being followed, the two hide and Kino sees several bighorn sheep trackers who pass by him. Kino and Juana escape into the mountains, where Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino, taking his clothes off so that no one will see his white clothing.
The trackers think that they hear something when they hear Coyotito crying, but decide that it is merely a coyote pup. After a tracker shoots in the direction of the cries, Kino attacks the three trackers, killing all three of them. Kino can hear nothing but the cry of death, for he soon realizes that Coyotito is dead from that first shot. Juana and Kino return to La Paz. Kino carries a rifle stolen from the one of the trackers he killed, while Juana carries the dead Coyotito. The two approach the gulf, and Kino, who now sees the image of Coyotito with his head blown off in the pearl, throws it into the ocean.