Download The Pearl Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Pearl grew out of an anecdote Steinbeck had heard during his visit to La Paz, which he recorded in the log section of Sea of Cortez (1941, 1951). An Indian boy discovered an exceedingly large pearl and saw in it a future of drink, many girlfriends, and, ultimately, personal salvation. He refused to sell the pearl for the ridiculously low price he was offered, and after he had been beaten and searched for two nights running, he angrily threw the pearl back into the gulf. Afterward, “he laughed a great deal about it.” Steinbeck mused: “This seems to be a true story, but it is so much like a parable that it almost can’t be. The Indian boy is too heroic, too wise.” In developing The Pearl, Steinbeck tried to avoid the incongruities he had sensed in the original tale. He moved the story into a sort of timeless past and changed the happy-go-lucky boy into a responsible father and husband. In the process, the tone became tragic instead of comic.

From the beginning, Steinbeck had seen The Pearl as a basis for a film by the Mexican director Emilio Fernandez. Throughout the story run musical leitmotifs (which were actually used in the film), particularly three: the Song of the Family, which Kino hears each time he looks at his wife and especially his son; the Song of Evil, “the music of the enemy,” which sounds every time they are threatened; and the music of the pearl itself. The story’s visual sense is strong. The town, the gulf, and the sierra are described in sharp colors and high relief. Such scenes as Kino’s dive into the sea, the flight into the mountains, and the daily life of the people demand cinematographic treatment.

Steinbeck’s writing is deceptively simple, avoiding complexities of emotion and characterization. Only Steinbeck’s occasional philosophical meditations and ironic asides could not be easily filmed. Shot on location by cameraman Gabriel Figuero with an all-Mexican cast, La Perla was premiered in 1946. To coincide with the film’s release, the story was reprinted in book form under its present title and with illustrations by the great Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco, one of only three books he so honored.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

America after World War II
The Peace Treaty signed on February 10,1947 officially ends World War II. America emerges as a world superpower. It is capable of an incredible industrial capacity and, in addition, America commands the most powerful military in the world: the greatest Navy, the largest standing Army, the best Air Force, and the only nuclear arsenal. The United States military becomes even stronger when Congress passes a law unifying the Air Force, Army, and Navy under one Secretary of Defense. Adding another weapon to America's might, Congress creates the Central Intelligence Agency.

Culturally, American literature, music, art, movies, and eventually television gain popularity around the world. The isolationism of the prewar days is gone and the city of New York emerges as a world center. Visitors to the city experience the tastes and sights of the capital of American publishing, the infant television industry, and the glamour of Broadway shows. They view Abstract Expressionism, maybe bump into a Beat Poet, and revel in the sound of Bebop or blues.

Supply and Demand Economics
With the end of the war, the rationing of goods ends and people demand to be supplied with goods that were unavailable during the war. Industry scurries to provide these goods. One immediate demand is housing. The soldiers coming home are taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to attend college. They use the same rights again to procure financing for adding their tract house to that other New York invention—the suburban sprawl. The military industrial complex quickly retools to offer prefabricated housing components, appliances, and civilian cars and trucks. All of this consumption, however, wreaks havoc on economic forecasts. Price controls are abandoned too quickly and inflation rises. As men reenter the work...

(The entire section is 5,357 words.)