Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Reasons abound to read the classics of literature. In Leland Ryken’s words, “they have a multiplicity of both content and technique that makes them inexhaustible.” Classics are the literary equivalent of the automotive “Best in Class.” Nina Baym observes that classics possess “a display of great craftsmanship [and] striking originality [thereby creating] a powerful and emotional impact…and leave behind a larger understanding of our past experience and perhaps a new way to think about our lives… as touchstones by which we interpret the world around us.”
The Pearl by John Steinbeck, along with the rest of his critically acclaimed writing, is such a book. It is a work of near-perfect balance, length, nuance, and description. I say “near-perfect” because no human work is actually perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed to identify any imperfections in this book. Much of its excellence lies in both its superb craftsmanship and its profound thematic exploration of the depths of human depravity, but Steinbeck’s brilliance is best seen in the way that his craftsmanship is always in service of the theme, never the other way around.
Kino, a young husband and pearl fisherman, is a contented man – except for the remote but ever-present prospect of finding the mythical great pearl. Against all odds, he does find the pearl (called the Pearl of the World in the story) and his life is forever changed. To avoid a plot spoiler, I will simply state that this book is Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist meets William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, set in Central America. I should also mention that I am not a big fan of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or his Of Mice and Men. My enjoyment of The Pearl came at somewhat of a surprise, but I am glad I gave Steinbeck another chance. At less than 100 pages, it is a recommended addition to your reading list.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance of Christ’s parables will recall that the Gospel of Matthew relays the parable of the pearl of great price. Would that Kino had found the pearl of great price – Christ himself – rather than the Pearl of the World. Here is biblical commentator Matthew Henry on the pearl of great price:
All the children of men are busy; one would be rich, another would be honourable, another would be learned; but most are deceived, and take up with counterfeits for pearls. Jesus Christ is a Pearl of great price; in having him, we have enough to make us happy here and for ever. A man may buy gold too dear, but not this Pearl of great price. When the convinced sinner sees Christ as the gracious Saviour, all things else become worthless to his thoughts.