Biographical and Textual Resources

by Maria and Marina 

                                                            Composition History Overview: 

Biographical and Textual Resources


Steinbeck: “I think that writing may be simply a method or technique for communication with other individuals; and its stimulus, the loneliness we are born to. In writing, perhaps we hope to achieve companionship.  What some people find in religion, a writer may find in his craft or whatever it is, - absorption of the small and frightened and lonely into the whole and complete, a kind of breaking through to glory.” (from “A Rationale” published in Steinbeck and His Critics).  


John Steinbeck composed The Pearl in 1944 after thinking about the project for four years.  The book was finally published in 1947 in conjunction with the release of the film version La Perla



            A small “gem” of a book, The Pearl took John Steinbeck four years of contemplation before he ever began writing.  The story is intended as a parable that examines the relationship between good and evil, and because of this message, many schools have embraced this work as part of their curriculum.  However, New Yorker columnist Judith Thurman noticed that some students found this moral tale depressing, for they miss the subtlety of Steinbeck’s somewhat hopeful ending.  She cites her twelve-year old son’s book report, where he comments, “This novel is depressing.  The moral is that when something really, really expensive is involved, evil triumphs over good” (Thurman “The White Ball”).  Although Will Thurman understands the book on a cursory level, John Steinbeck’s work is far more subtle, starting with the inspiration behind this masterpiece.

The creation of John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl was largely inspired by the author’s travels with his friend Ed Ricketts in California and Mexico while studying the local environments.  From these experiences, Steinbeck wrote a scientifically based book, whose narrative section published in late 1940 is generally known as The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Railsback and Meyer Encyclopedia of John Steinbeck 281).  In this work, Steinbeck recalls a curious legend he heard in La Paz, Mexico, in which a poor young man encounters the psychological and social consequences of sudden fame and fortune, after discovering an extraordinarily valuable pearl.  The tale was quite simple as Steinbeck recalled it:

An Indian boy by accident found a pearl of great size, an unbelievable pearl. He knew its value was so great that he need never work again…In his great pearl lay salvation, for he could in advance purchase masses sufficient to pop him out of Purgatory like a squeezed water-melon seed…He took his pearl to a broker and was offered so little that he grew angry, for he knew he was cheated.  Then he carried his pearl to another broker and was offered the same amount.  After a few more visits he came to know that the brokers were only the many hands of one head and that he could not sell his pearl for more.  He took it to the beach and hid it under a stone, and that night he was clubbed into unconsciousness and his clothing was searched. The next night he slept at the house of a friend and his friend and he were injured and bound and the whole house searched. Then he went inland to lose his pursuers and he was waylaid and tortured.  But he was very angry now and he knew what he must do.  Hurt as he was he crept back to La Paz in the night and he skulked some like a hunted fox to the beach and took out his pearl from under the stone.  Then he cursed it and threw it as far as he could into the channel.  He was a free man again with his soul in danger and his food and shelter insecure.  And he laughed a great deal about it. (Lisca “Steinbeck’s Fable of the Pearl” 292)

Steinbeck mulled over this legend for four years, eventually deciding to use it as the basis for The Pearl, adding several characters (such as the priest, the doctor, and Kino’s brother) and incorporating various themes.  Steinbeck noted of the original, “This seems to be a true story, but it is so much like a parable that it almost can’t be.  This Indian boy is too heroic, too wise.  He knows too much and acts on his knowledge.  In every way, he goes contrary to human direction. The story is probably true, but we don’t believe it; it is far too reasonable to be true” (Lisca 292).  Finally, in 1944 Steinbeck began working on The Pearl, for he realized how to adapt the story to allow for greater interpretation.  After being published as a short story in a women’s magazine and waiting for the film version to be completed, the novella is released in 1947 (Railsback and Meyer 281). 

            Steinbeck’s changes and additions to the text helped elevate this tale to great literature.  The most important alteration to the original story was Steinbeck’s desire to include cinematic elements to the novella, thus providing for an easier transition to the film project.  Some of these additions include musical references (the songs of the family, the pearl, and evil) along with detailed descriptions of physical surroundings.  Additionally, Steinbeck challenged conventional narratives by physically shifting a reader’s perspective rather than utilizing dense prose scenes (Wagner-Martin “Introduction” viii).  Also, Steinbeck relied on meaningful, simple language to make the story akin to an oral and visual tale, thus paying homage to the original legend but also elevating the message to one for all time.  The result was a narrative that Steinbeck described as being “full of experiments [of] which I had no idea whether they would come off at all,” (Steinbeck  Steinbeck: A Life in Letters 281).  These filmic elements add to the many themes Steinbeck explores such as the literal “price” of success along with the racial tensions exhibited in the small town. 

Since Steinbeck wanted many readers to identify with the novella’s themes, he also incorporated Western ideas.  One such example was alluding throughout the novella to the Biblical parable of the “Pearl of Great Price” (Wagner-Martin viii), thus making the story more relevant to his American audience.  The Biblical references also cause readers to realize that Kino experiences a spiritual struggle as he decides what to do with the pearl – either retain this new power that causes him to do evil things or return to the simple life in which he was loved and supported (xvii).  He also turns the original Indian boy into a married man named Kino who must provide for a young son.  Thus, the crushing poverty of Kino is made even more devastating and readers applaud his strong moral decision to rid himself of the pearl which has so drastically altered his life (x).  By including Kino’s goals that can only be achieved with the selling of the pearl, Steinbeck also alludes to the “American Dream” and the many struggles to overcome poverty, a topic he covers in many other works (xxii).  All of these elements serve to elevate the tale from the original ending where the boy laughs about his turn of fortune to an examination of the complexities of seemingly positive changes in one’s life.    

Although Steinbeck was not an author known to comment heavily on his works, he does provide some insights about The Pearl.  In the opening foreword to the book, a succinct reflection is offered, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it” (“Foreword”).   Steinbeck reworked the tale to make the story accessible to a more universal audience as noted with the use of the Biblical passage.  This idea corresponds to the fact that critics have cited that much of Steinbeck’s writing relies on “sentimentality” or a desire to impart values (Lisca 295).  Moreover, one can see how using the piece as a way to convey ethical ideas is again repeated in a description of The Pearl Steinbeck offers five years after publication, “I tried to write it as folklore, to give it that set-aside, raised-up feeling that all folk stories have” (Lisca 292).  Steinbeck’s meaningful language hints to readers that the story is more than just an anecdote but includes a moral lesson.  Finally, some critics argue that throughout The Pearl, Steinbeck is offering extensive comments on his own life, for he too faced troubling success after being placed in the limelight with the success of The Grapes of Wrath (Wagner-Martin viii).  Without Steinbeck’s corroboration or vivid hints in the text, readers cannot be certain of these similarities. 

However, what is definitively known about The Pearl is that Steinbeck encountered many dark moments while writing the book and finished it in a burst of energy.  In 1944, Steinbeck was again moving around the country, finally settling for a while in a new adobe in Monterey, California called Soto House.  One critic notes that much of the early scenes of The Pearl were composed with Steinbeck “sitting in his unheated woodshed [at Soto House] and writing by a kerosene lantern – an echo of days long past” (Benson True Adventures of John Steinbeck: Writer 560).  Friends quickly provided the author with a small, quiet office space downtown and Steinbeck progressed faster on the novel outside of his home.  Steinbeck, however, was still unsatisfied with the writing, noting to his editor, “I’ve gone into a slump on The Pearl and that bothers me even remembering that I always go into two or three slumps on every book…It’s always the same and it’s always new.  I never get used to it [12/29/44]” (Benson 561).  Partially the slumps that the author noted were related to the initial negative response to his previous book, Cannery Row.  Additionally, Steinbeck was restless to begin work on the film version in Mexico.  Biographer Jay Parini speculates, however, that the negative press angered the author and actually “lit a fire under Steinbeck” to finish this new novella to turn the favor of the critics (John Steinbeck: A Biography 291).  By the end of the book, Steinbeck had overcome any concerns and was able to write to friends, “The Pearl is really in its last stages.  It’s a brutal story but with flashes of beauty I think” (Steinbeck 279).  This commentary aptly summarizes the emotional tone of the book.

Though the novella was done, the screenplay work had only just begun.  The adaptation and film shoot itself became tedious, preventing the release of the book until 1947.  On editing the screenplay, Steinbeck writes, “It is the last one I shall do. It amounts to reducing your story to the most literal terms possible so that a camera can take it. And since most of my work depends on suggestion rather than literalness this is a little tiresome to me” (Steinbeck 283).  Steinbeck’s comment is indicative of the series of revisions undertaken over the course of The Pearl’s composition.  The original manuscript’s appearance further illustrates this point, for the manuscript (or “holograph”) is written in both pencil and ink on sixty-seven folio leaves and indicates some of the many changes between the early composition of the piece and the published book. While the novella contains six untitled chapters, the original manuscript, entitled “The Pearl of La Paz,” possesses fourteen chapters, several of which are titled, e.g., “The Sea.” The original manuscript also contains, “everything from numerous specific word changes,” to alterations in the “general arrangement of chapters and paragraphs.”  Additionally, the manuscript possesses an abrupt ending that differs from the published novella (Pearl manuscript). Unfortunately, the manuscript does not provide authorial comments regarding the exact reasons for the changes made and no additional drafts or proofs exist.  

Regardless, Steinbeck was pleased when the book was finally completed and published in 1947 to correspond with the film release.  Some of Steinbeck’s most important readers, his editor and agent, enjoyed the book, to which the author responded that he was “both glad and frankly relieved” (Steinbeck 281).  Steinbeck also received praise of The Pearl from his editor, who wrote, “This undoubtedly contains some of your best prose” (Fensch Steinbeck and Covici 47) before facing the first round of negative reviews that quickly turned positive.

For those that did not appreciate his works, Steinbeck had a rather interesting way of reflecting on negative criticism.  Before The Pearl’s Christmastime release, one critic notes Steinbeck’s attitude towards reviews, stating, “John Steinbeck wrote to his agents, McIntosh & Otis in 1937…’don’t forget that criticism of my work now is not aimed at the thing itself, but is conditioned by the others’; meaning the other books he had written.  In this John Steinbeck who has been perceptive and humble about his writing, was of course absolutely right” (New York Herald Tribune).  With this idea, one assumes the author is also reminding himself about the imperfect nature of critiques, for Steinbeck understood any negative reactions to his works needed to be placed in the context in which they were written. 

Finally, with the completion of The Pearl, Steinbeck quickly moved on to work on other masterpieces, offering little comments on this piece.  Today, the book has been republished countless times, for many readers (other than young Will Thurman) have been enthralled with this novella that covers such deep and important topics.