The Pearl Summary

The Pearl is a short novel by John Steinbeck in which Kino attempts to pay for his son's medical bills with a valuable pearl. However, the pearl attracts the greed of others, who pursue Kino in hopes of obtaining it.

  • Kino's son, Coyotito, is struck by a scorpion.
  • Kino hunts for a pearl valuable enough to cover Coyotito's medical bills.
  • Kino finds a pearl, but is unable to sell it because of the greed and corruption of his competitors.
  • When Coyotito is killed by someone who wants the pearl, Kino throws the pearl into the sea, realizing that it's more trouble than it's worth.

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1580

First published: New York: Pantheon Books, 2005

Genre(s): Novel

Subgenre(s): Literary fiction

Core issue(s): Fasting; forgiveness; guilt; love; purity; sacrifice

Principal characters

Maria Meyers, a former political activist and a single mother

Pearl Meyers, Maria’s twenty-year-old daughter

Joseph Kasperman, Maria’s lifelong friend and Pearl’s surrogate father

Mick...

(The entire section contains 1580 words.)

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First published: New York: Pantheon Books, 2005

Genre(s): Novel

Subgenre(s): Literary fiction

Core issue(s): Fasting; forgiveness; guilt; love; purity; sacrifice

Principal characters

Maria Meyers, a former political activist and a single mother

Pearl Meyers, Maria’s twenty-year-old daughter

Joseph Kasperman, Maria’s lifelong friend and Pearl’s surrogate father

Mick Winthrop, an American performance artist

Stevie Donegan, Mick’s illegitimate son

Breeda Donegan, Stevie’s Irish mother

Overview

In a 2005 interview, Mary Gordon called herself “a practicing Catholic. . . . The church is in my blood and my bones.” Nevertheless, she refuses to be identified as a “Catholic writer,” a term she considers marginalizing; she prefers to work with ideas rather than doctrine. Her sixth novel, Pearl, begins in New York City on Christmas, 1998, when childhood friends Joseph Kasperman and Maria Meyers have reached their fifties.

Joseph, a quiet, responsible man who hesitates to say what he really thinks, is Maria’s financial guardian and a surrogate father to her daughter Pearl. Maria, who was an activist and protester during the Vietnam War years, inevitably rebelled against her conservative father and his Catholic faith, abandoning both. Later she had a brief affair with a Cambodian doctor who had managed to flee the brutal Pol Pot regime for the United States. After he returned to Cambodia with critically needed medical supplies, he vanished, unaware that she was pregnant with Pearl. Having chafed under her father’s strict surveillance, Maria refused to bring up her beloved daughter in any religion. She has always protected Pearl from life and the Catholic Church.

On Christmas, Maria waits impatiently for Pearl’s holiday phone call. Instead she receives an emergency message from the State Department informing her that her daughter, a linguistics student in Dublin, has just chained herself to a flagpole at the American embassy. For six weeks Pearl has been fasting and now refuses water as well. Horrified, Maria quickly boards a plane for Ireland.

Religion and politics lie at the heart of a centuries-old conflict that culminates at this time between the six counties of Northern Ireland, mostly Protestant and loyal to Britain, and the fiercely Catholic Irish of the south. The year before, when Pearl arrived in Dublin, she learned of the rebel Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army martyr who had starved to death protesting the British rule of Northern Ireland. His story fascinated her, particularly “his faith in the power of suffering.” Pearl informally joined a splinter group of revolutionaries calling themselves the Real IRA. Among them was an older American, Mick Winthrop, who still spent most of his time with his wife and children in the United States. Some years ago, Mick had admired Breeda Donegan, the sister of another jailed rebel, and had donated money to the revolutionary cause in exchange for her buying his membership in his idol’s family and fathering an illegitimate son, Stevie Donegan. Pearl befriended Stevie, teaching the dyslexic youth how to read and to fold the origami birds that still hang in his flat.

On Good Friday, 1998, Irish voters accepted a proposed peace treaty between the Catholic IRA and the Protestant Unionists. Breeda, an innocent just beginning to think for herself, quietly supported the agreement, as did Pearl. However, the Real IRA did not, cruelly bombing the marketplace of Omagh in protest; nearly thirty were killed and hundreds wounded. Gentle Pearl was appalled. After Mick and the others decided to play a crude joke to shift blame to the police, Stevie was unluckily involved, caught, and humiliated. Because Pearl lost her temper and insulted Stevie, she blamed herself when he subsequently died in an accident, and Breeda, his mother, cursed her bitterly.

At present, chained to the flagpole in front of the American embassy, Pearl is neither anorectic nor suicidal, but like Bobby Sands, by self-starvation she is publicly witnessing Stevie’s death and protesting the violence. She recognizes that she too is tainted with “the human will to harm.” She wants to die; she has gained a purpose. Believing her death will be more meaningful than her life, she has planned it for Christmas to create maximum effect. Even as an ambulance crew attempts to hydrate her, she is convinced that she is dying.

Pearl is calm, sure, and euphoric from fasting—all of which disappears once she is freed from the flagpole and fed intravenously. The book then follows the struggle to keep her alive. Even as she manages to pull out her feeding tube in the hospital, she experiences fear, shame, and finally hunger as she begins to heal.

Meanwhile, Maria is temporarily barred from seeing her daughter. In frustration she recalls her father, with whom she refused all contact even in his final illness, and begins to comprehend the nature of his love. No longer sure of herself, Maria is forced to recognize that she has no control over this situation. Always she has tried to protect her daughter with love, but it has not been enough. Joseph, who has joined them, adores Pearl and desperately wants to save her but does not know how. He attempts to take control in order to protect her, but Pearl is really the one who gains control; she must be the one to decide whether she will live.

Christian Themes

Religion underlies nearly all of Gordon’s writing, creating a moral and ethical structure against which her characters react. Pearl is laden with obvious biblical allusions to the Holy Family, many of them used ironically. Maria is the flawed single mother of a divine victim—a sacrificial Child so pure she seems almost to glow, suggesting Saint Matthew’s “pearl of great price” (13:46). Pearl herself has an absent father, a “ghost” who vanished almost immediately after her conception, and a loving foster father who cares for her welfare. (Joseph also identifies himself with Judas.) This family model is distorted further by Mick (the absent father), Breeda, and the boy Stevie (who perhaps evokes Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr). The will to harm that Pearl identifies in herself may likewise correspond to the stain of Original Sin.

Gordon likes to deal with concepts; she has said, “I seem always to be writing about a sense of failure in achieving an ideal.” One such ideal is purity, which can be easily perverted, a powerful double-edged sword that may protect or maim. Maria’s concept of purity is simplistic—sexual purity or childlike innocence, the Church’s definition and also her father’s. Pearl, who never makes demands for herself, seems the pale embodiment of purity, especially in the hospital when her hand appears translucent from her fast. In Joseph’s eyes she has always been pure; his disastrous offer of marriage is a misguided attempt to shelter her spiritual purity from the world. A negative manifestation of this ideal appears in the actions of Cambodian leader Pol Pot, for whom purity means revolution, the purging of outside contamination through the slaughter of doctors, intellectuals, and dissidents.

Gordon has noted her mistrust of “the religious impulse unmediated by reason,” and it is this error that Joseph, Pearl, the Real IRA, and even Breeda make—choosing moral but extreme positions amid powerful emotions but without the aid of reason. The two women experience intense guilt as a result of Stevie’s accident; Joseph and Maria (who is more rational than spiritual) likewise suffer guilt for the mistakes they have made.

After Pearl begs Maria to contact Stevie’s mother, Breeda assures Maria that she has forgiven Pearl and that it is only “an accident of time” that prevented Pearl and Stevie from reconciling before his death. Maria then becomes aware that a similar situation exists between her and her dead father. She thought him overprotective before she herself experienced the anguish of a distraught parent, and she realizes that forgiveness is a choice. Surrendering her anger, she prays: “Father, forgive me. Keep her safe. There is nothing I understand; there is nothing I can do.” At this point, when Maria has finally reached this state of humility, she is truly able to comfort her daughter.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bennett, Alma. Mary Gordon. New York: Twayne, 1996. The first full-length study of Gordon’s work examines her thematic treatment of sacrifice and the religious impulse.
  • Booklist 101, no. 3 (October 1, 2004): 282.
  • The Boston Globe January 16, 2005, p. C7.
  • Bush, Trudy. “Hunger Strike.” The Christian Century 122, no. 8 (April 19, 2005): 24. A perceptive analysis of Maria’s conflict between her loss of faith and her need for the structure and patterns of religion.
  • Bush, Trudy. “Notions of Purity: An Interview with Mary Gordon.” The Christian Century 122, no. 8 (April 19, 2005): 23. Gordon discusses positive and negative concepts of purity in Pearl, ultimately defining it as “giving one’s utmost . . . doing whatever we do for the thing itself.”
  • Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 20 (October 15, 2004): 977.
  • Library Journal 129, no. 17 (October 15, 2004): 53-54.
  • Ms. 14, no. 4 (Winter, 2004/2005): 89-90.
  • The New York Times Book Review 154 (February 20, 2005): 28-29.
  • The New Yorker 80, no. 43 (January 17, 2005): 91.
  • Publishers Weekly 251, no. 42 (October 18, 2004): 45.
  • Reich, Tova. “A Comfortable Martyrdom.” The New Leader 87, no. 6 (November/December, 2004): 33. Extensive exploration of the religious symbolism in Pearl, including Pearl’s biological father Ya-Katey, whose name suggests “the YK of the divine ineffable name” in Jewish tradition.
  • The Washington Post, January 30, 2005, p. T6.
  • Zinsser, William, ed. Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Includes the text of Gordon’s speech “Getting Here from There: A Writer’s Reflections on a Religious Past” and a list of religious writings that have influenced her.
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