A parable is a brief, didactic story with flat characters, passed down orally from generation to generation. To what extent is The Pearl a parable?
On the surface, The Pearl resembles a novella. Its length, its attention to a protagonist’s inner life, and its occasional moments of lyricism are hallmarks of that literary form. On the other hand, Steinbeck’s style is often conversational and bland, as if he were speaking the story instead of writing it. His characters have little depth, each showing a remarkably consistent pattern of good or evil actions, each illustrating Steinbeck’s idea that wealth is a force of corruption. By grafting the conventions of a parable onto the structure of a novella, Steinbeck creates an awkward hybrid that lacks the finer qualities of either genre.
The Pearl has some superficial aspects of a novella. Its length—eighty-seven pages—and its division into short chapters suggest that it is a novel in miniature, a piece of prose that concisely portrays one character’s soul. Its moments of interior description, the sounds of “The Song of the Enemy” and “The Song of the Family” beating in Kino’s ears, lead us to believe that Steinbeck is interested in Kino’s psychology. The lyrical scene-setting passages—the “shimmering scarves” of the hot yellow sun—have the rich, literary quality of a novella, instead of the plainness of a parable. For these reasons, it’s tempting to classify The Pearl alongside Steinbeck’s own classic novella Of Mice and Men, a slim volume that probes the inner life of the impoverished worker George.
Yet large portions of Steinbeck’s writing are colorless and monotonous, as if he were recalling the story around a campfire. Again and again, sentences begin with “And”—an incantatory device that appears frequently in English translations of Biblical parables. There are four “And” sentences on page sixty-seven; five on sixty-four. Steinbeck also repeatedly strings together independent clauses with “and”: “Kino held the great pearl in his hand, and it was warm and alive . . .” “Kino looked into his pearl, and Juana cast her eyelashes down . . .” Steinbeck eschews the syntactical variety—gerunds, colons, long sentences interspersed with short—that we would expect from a literary artist. The flatness of his style recalls the plain, repetitive language of a parable.
More striking is the shallowness of Steinbeck’s characterizations. Frequently, when he writes about the evil doctor, the doctor is sitting in bed dribbling chocolate on his sheets. The doctor’s interactions with Kino—denying him help, then offering it when he suspects he can make money—are predictably immoral; Steinbeck does not attempt to humanize him or explain why he acts in such a consistently cruel way. The pearl buyers are interchangeable; each beady-eyed buyer denies Kino a fair deal, and Steinbeck does not make clear distinctions among their personalities. Even Kino, the protagonist, lacks a convincing inner life. Steinbeck’s shorthand for Kino’s feelings toward Juana and Coyotito—the mysterious strains of “The Song of the Family”—makes us wonder what is happening in Kino’s head, what he thinks about his wife, and how his ever-shifting thoughts affect the smallest details of his domestic interactions. Steinbeck uses the doctor, the money-lender, and Kino to show the demoralizing influence of wealth on all mankind. Like a writer of a parable, Steinbeck does not try to convince us that these characters are human beings.
By blending conventions of the novella and the parable, Steinbeck writes a ninety-page lecture on the evils of material wealth. The length and lyrical descriptions lead us to anticipate a novella, complete with the subtlety and psychological insight associated with that genre. On the other hand, the simple characters and oral quality of the writing lead us to anticipate a parable, with the force and concision associated with that genre. The Pearl’s awkward combination of literary styles may account for its poor reception among many critics, who have argued that Steinbeck stopped writing well after The Grapes of Wrath.