Study Guide

The Pearl Introduction

By John Steinbeck

The Pearl Introduction

A word of warning: this novel is about to make you think way less of those beautiful luminescent balls of sand and oyster spit that Vermeer liked his models to wear.

A second word of warning: this novel will make you hate (and we mean loathe) the colonial history of the Americas.

Hopefully, you'll come back around to liking pearls. They're really very pretty. But we can't say we'll mourn the fact that you'll be forever bummed out when thinking about colonialism on the Baja Peninsula and, well, everywhere else. 

This slim novel was penned by a genius and all-around Renaissance man named John Steinbeck. It's based in fable: Steinbeck first heard the legend of the pearl while he was collecting marine biology specimens in the Sea of Cortez in 1940... because he was such an interesting man that he just went around doing awesome things like collecting marine biology specimens in the Sea of Cortez.

His initial inclination was to make the story into a film, but fortunately for the world of literature, he wrote a novella instead. Published in 1947, The Pearl functions as a parable about greed and evil, telling a simple story to get a big ol' point across. 

But before we tell you more about The Pearl, lets give you a little more insight on how kick-butt Steinbeck was, and how The Pearl fits into his larger pattern of kick-buttitude.

Steinbeck wasn't above getting his hands dirty: this guy wasn't an ivory tower-type writer, but a guy who worked as a farmhand, fisherman, tour guide and even manufactured mannequins (creepy). All this experience gave him a startlingly on-point moral compass, as well as a desire to tell people about the hardships he'd witnessed.

And so he did. Steinbeck made a career of exposing the cruelty inflicted on those less fortunate (and how being "less fortunate" essentially boiled down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time).

The Pearl is no exception: the story focuses on a poor man and his wife who find an enormous pearl... only to have their entire village turn against them. Many read the text as a critique of the American Dream, which meant Steinbeck wasn’t too popular among certain nationalistic, pro-capitalist crowds. But hey—Steinbeck had been angering people with his searing exposes of injustice for years by the time he wrote The Pearl. And, despite political bad blood, the novel was a great success.

So was Steinbeck's career. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 for, among other things, his "keen social perception." And nowhere is this laser-sharp social perception on display than in The Pearl.

What is The Pearl About and Why Should I Care?

Here's a grim little story: a man wins big in the lottery. $30 million dollars big. He's "befriended" by a woman who steals his winnings... and then kills him.

Here's another grim little story: a man tells people he won $20,000 in the lottery. (He may have been lying.) A man is charged with breaking into his house, attempting to steal the money, and killing him.

Here's a third: a man finds a crazy-huge, invaluable pearl. The entire town tries to either steal the pearl or swindle him out of it. He's attacked. His boat is destroyed, and his house is burned down. He's tracked through the mountains, and his child is killed.

We'd like to play the old Sesame Street game "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others." We, know. We know. They all sound alike. They're all grim, horrible tales of greed.

But one of these is a novel by John Steinbeck.

The Pearl is a parable about the horrors of greed and how we—people in the world—corrupt the things around us. It's our fault. We can't blame the lottery for these senseless deaths, no more than we can blame the titular pearl. Sorry to depress you.

And The Pearl is also a parable about the American Dream. And, like with the lottery tickets and the pearl, the conclusion isn’t that the American Dream is wrong, but that our world makes it impossible for it to function as intended. The American Dream operates on some basic assumptions: opportunity is always equal, competition is always healthy, and individuals are necessarily good. If these idealistic starting conditions end up, well, less than ideal, we’re going to run into some issues. Sorry to depress you.

But sometimes you've got to be sufficiently depressed in order to change something—be it our own greed or the myth of the American Dream. And the first step is to recognize the problem. Luckily The Pearl is right here to help you come to terms with a few of the huge problems we all face. (Double-lucky: The Pearl is a beautifully written novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author.)

The Pearl Resources

Movie or TV Productions

1947 Movie
La Perla won a Golden Globe award along with a variety of awards in Mexico.


Another photo of the author.

Judging This Book By Its Cover
Dramatic boating!


The National Steinbeck Center
This website has plenty of information on Steinbeck, including a biography, timeline, and information on his awards.

Today in Literature: Steinbeck
Today in Literature provides stories on Steinbeck as well as recommended links and further reading.

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