So, this one is one of Steinbeck’s most famous stories. It’s probably easily his most read; it’s really a novella, not a full novel, so it’s the perfect length for school assignments. And, for this reason, I think, I have the impression that there’s a sort of backlash against it as being way too pretentious and ponderous. It’s the tale of a simple South American man and the troubles that come his way when he finds a large, incredibly valuable pearl. It’s very self-consciously a “parable;” Steinbeck himself calls it that. I suppose it’s supposed to symbolize the way good fortune can bring evil fortune or say something about the human condition. Whatever. I didn’t read it in school.
What I can say is that I think it’s unfair to the story to burden it with all this metaphysical, symbolic weight. Yes, even though Steinbeck himself was happy to burden it that way. What it does function incredibly well as, even if I couldn’t care much less about the parable aspects of the story, is a taut, suspenseful, doom-laden story about a family in a bad place. As the story unwinds and forces slowly close in on this man and his wife and small child, one emotion really comes to the fore and that emotion is dread. Steinbeck is really at his best creating mood, particularly dark mood, and this story is a great example of it. It has all the energy of a great noir film, hurtling its characters towards what you know can only be a horrific ending, despite all their best efforts to escape with their souls intact. It’s an incredibly dark story and while I found Steinbeck’s prose here to be a little too self-conscious in its “authentic & simple & honest” voice of the people style, I can’t deny the real emotional impact of the story. My advice is to forget all the classroom discussions and metaphors and symbolism and just experience it as what it is: a darn fine story. A great one, in fact. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – utterly bleak, emotionally draining story suffers from all the arm-chair analysis it’s gotten over the years, but if you can set that aside and enjoy it at face value, it’s a taut, suspenseful masterpiece. 4 stars.