Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Book Review - The Pearl

It's been many years since I'd read anything by Steinbeck. I read Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men back in High School. I've re-read Mice and Men once since then. In my ongoing effort to read through more works by the "classic" and "modern classic" authors, I picked up The Pearl. I didn't have any real preconceived notions going in and I definitely don't remember anything of Steinbeck's style so I can't really compare this to his other work or comment on it in terms of other fiction of his day.

My initial reaction to the writing were mixed. It had a strange balance of being both simple/rough and also containing well-crafted writing. I wasn't sure if the moments/scenes of stumbling words were perhaps intentional to let the structure of the work comment on the poverty and lack of education or status of the characters or if maybe Steinbeck's overall style is less of a refined, polished work and more a raw compilation of language. Whatever the case, even though some segments felt a bit oddly structured, I found the reading to be very easy and fluid and I was quickly drawn into the tale.

The story felt VERY familiar. So much so that I wondered many times if, perhaps, I actually had read this book before. Commentary says that it's based on a Mexican folk tale, so I suspect I've either read this book before or else some other story based on the folk tale. The plot of the story is one of those tales that felt to me to be something that could have influenced countless other stories either directly or indirectly. In spite of the setting this is an almost timeless tale of greed, aspirations and jealousy that could be set in any location or time and follow the same arc.

Even though (or perhaps because) the story felt so familiar and flowed so naturally, I was able to find additional depth in it as I thought on the possible moral trajectories the story would take. The initial pages introduce us to a very poor family living in a poor fishing village. The baby boy is stung by a scorpion before the father can stop it and they are unsure if they will be able to save their son. Their poverty leaves them in a very tight place as they interact with the affluent doctor and townsfolk. While the mother applies natural remedies, father goes fishing and discovers an immense pearl. Both mother and father are certain the pearl will bring amazing changes into their lives. The mother fears it is a sign of evil while the father is sure it will provide wonderful opportunities.

As you might expect, news of the valuable pearl spreads and suddenly the family is dealing with advances from not only the well-to-do people like the doctor but other desperately poor people in the village. The story continues as you might expect and finally ends with pain and tragedy that came in a slightly different direction than I initially predicted. The conclusion of the book very clearly takes a stance on the effects of such windfalls of wealth and the nature of mankind. And yet, it is up to each individual reader to internalize and decide what moral message to take from the book. Most of the characters are embodiments of greed and manipulation but a few of them represent potential redemption and show that even amid dark times there can be influence for good.

Even though I don't remember Steinbeck's other works well, I do remember that his themes and tones are emotional downers. This book follows that same trend. From the beginning to the end there is one tragedy after another. And even in the pages without physical tragedies and struggles we are still given moral difficulties to wrestle with as we watch a father filled with the good, pure desire to provide for his family but struggling with the best way to do so.

The simplicity of the story and length of the book make this very accessible. However, the heavier theme and somber events may limit the audience. As such, I can see why schools have students read Mice and Men instead of The Pearl even though they are very similar in length. Still, this story does have a worthwhile moral to think about and is a great piece of literature to stimulate discussions on the nature of good and evil within humanity. If you have a little time to spare, give it a read. It will leave you pondering for a while.

3 out of 5 stars

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