[Warning: This post contains some spoilers about early events in the novella. The ending of the story is not disclosed.]
There is something about John Steinbeck's style that makes me read faster than usual. Before I know it, I am zipping along ever more feverishly until I come to a point when, unable to grasp the flow of the words, I have to stop and go back over the last few paragraphs. Then, the whole process repeats. It was the same today morning, as I neared the end of The Pearl, Steinbeck's morality tale about the corrupting power of wealth. The presence of a talisman, so important to Steinbeck in Winter of Our Discontent and Tortilla Flat, is again seen here, in the form of an exquisite pearl found by the fisherman Kino. The symptoms of greed are what one would expect – Kino alternates between visions of better days, and the strained anxiety of possessing a treasure; the trader turns trickster; the doctor yearns for a quick buck, thugs crawl out to maim and steal; trackers become bloodhounds on a scent; and the treasure brings on curses unimaginable in poorer but simpler days.
To my mind, what rescued – and elevated – The Pearl, is the stifling sense of place. As in Winter …, there is no way for me to tell if the places described in the novel are authentic, but in the book they are vividly, inescapably real. When Kino buries his treasure in his hut, you wonder if the concealment left a visible mark, a darkening of the earth floor; as he hacks through the undergrowth, you look back to see if he has shaken off his pursuers; as he clambers up a rock face on a hot day, you notice the gritty sweat on his back; as he kicks Juana in the river, you are looking at the wet clothes on the wincing body. Steinbeck says little about the Song of the Place, but it is always there, as horrible and claustrophobic as the Song of the Pearl is evil.
I cannot say whether Steinbeck meant for the ending to be redemptive, or if it is only the wishful thinking of the publishers and redemption-hungry readers. For Kino and Juana, there is a Realization – a costly one, surely – but to call it Redemption lends the ending a quality of sudden closure, which is not really there.