Even though The Pearl is outwardly a simple and beautiful book, there are several ways in which it can be read and appreciated. First, there is, as was just suggested, the beauty and power of the narrative itself. One need go no further than simply noting the power, the restraint, and the beauty with which Steinbeck narrates this simple story. The entire book rings with authenticity. As noted above, Steinbeck was thoroughly familiar with his material, and thus the novel, through its narrative and characterization, conveys a sense of the very essence of primitive life with all of its trials and rewards.
Second, some critics consider the novel from an ecological point of view. Just before writing this novel, John Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts were exploring the seacoast in terms of the ecological functions of the various organisms that existed there. It was during this exploration that Steinbeck first heard of the story of the "Pearl of the World," a large pearl which was eventually tossed back into the sea from where it was originally taken. Because of Steinbeck's interest in ecology at the time, some critics have understandably viewed the novel as Steinbeck's statement about the need for the ecology to be left as undisturbed as possible. When one takes a great pearl from its natural setting, then one is destroying a part of the natural order of things, which could result in some type of disaster.
Third, there is the obvious sociological interpretation. In many of his previous novels, Steinbeck was interested in the relationship between the worker and capital. In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath both show the plight of the working man at the hands of unscrupulous and evil landowners. Also in this novel, we have a conflict between the simple and naive pearl fishers and the pearl buyers, who use their position to exploit the powerless natives. Likewise, there is the doctor and the priest who have shown no particular concern for the dreadful plight of the natives until there is the rumor about the Pearl of the World. Earlier, the doctor had selfishly and callously refused to treat Coyotito's scorpion bite because the child's father, Kino, had no money to pay. Likewise, the priest had used his church authority to teach the natives that they were to be content with their station in life because it blended with God's concept that everything has its own place in the world. Immediately upon hearing about the pearl, however, the priest begins to think about the repairs in the church that could be attended to with the price of the great pearl.
Then, too, there is the obvious level of the parable, or the allegorical or symbolic level of interpretation. The pearl is a pearl of great price. It represents the vanity of human wishes. With the pearl, Kino can do all the things that he has never dared to do before. But then, as Steinbeck writes in the introduction: "If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it." Steinbeck's warning is especially true when we remember that since the Middle Ages, a pearl has been used in literature to represent spiritual purity and chastity, and the possession of a great pearl is a perfect symbol, then, to symbolize the goodness of the world. Yet, Steinbeck reverses this symbol here because his pearl represents evil, and only by casting it away can Kino regain a spiritual sense of well-being.
Philosophically, the novel is concerned with life and death and the meaning of both. During the course of the story, a simple family, through no particular fault, is brought to a tragic end. Their pearl is supposed to be used to bring their child out of darkness and into the world of light; he will be able to learn to read and write, and he will then be able to help all of the natives. Instead, the pearl becomes the direct instrument of the child's death.
In conclusion, while reading the novel one can find aspects of the story which will support any of the above interpretations. The greatness of this novel is that at any level, or at all of them, it is a beautiful tale told with wonderful precision and perfect simplicity.