By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Pearl of Love’ is a 1925 short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946). In 1927, Wells told the Sunday Express that this story, and his ‘The Country of the Blind’, were his two favourites among his short stories. Although it’s not his best-known story, it’s one of his most intriguing because the ultimate meaning of this very short tale remains so elusive.
What is ‘The Pearl of Love’ about? Is this short story, about an Indian prince who builds a vast shrine to his dead wife, only to have it all knocked down after years of work on it, about love, art, or both?
You can read ‘The Pearl of Love’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Pearl of Love’: plot summary
The story begins with the narrator telling us that moralists declare the pearl to be the most brilliant gemstone because it is made through the suffering of a living creature. However, the narrator says he doesn’t understand the fascination with pearls. He then begins to tell the story of The Pearl of Love, a vast monumental tomb built by a young Indian prince in memory of his beautiful wife.
After they had been married for little over a year, the princess died from the ‘sting’ of a venomous creature (probably a snake or a scorpion). The prince ordered a large ‘sarcophagus’ or tomb built for his wife’s body, which grows to become a vast shrine which is known as the Pearl of Love.
He devoted years to building and adorning the Pearl of Love, which was built among the snowy wilderness of the mountains. The sarcophagus was made of alabaster, and this was placed beneath a pavilion, with pillars of ‘strange and lovely stone and wrought and fretted walls’ being set around the pavilion.
As the years wore on, the prince matured and changed in his tastes and attitudes, using different materials to make the Pearl of Love as perfect as possible. It became an awe-inspiring structure. But then, one day, the prince began to take the structure apart, until only the central sarcophagus remained. And then the prince ordered his workmen to take the sarcophagus away too.
‘The Pearl of Love’: analysis
Many of H. G. Wells’s stories – which are often either science fiction or fantasy, in a loose sense – carry the force of modern myths or fables. And ‘The Pearl of Love’ is an intriguing parable which reads almost like an allegory: that is, a story whose meaning operates on two levels.
But early on in ‘The Pearl of the Love’, the narrator claims that he is unable to decide ‘whether The Pearl of Love is the cruellest of stories or only a gracious fable of the immortality of beauty.’ The key paragraph to Wells’s story is the second one, in which the narrator briefly discusses the potential meanings of the tale:
The story is a short one, though the commentary upon it is a respectable part of the literature of that period. They have treated it as a poetic invention and they have treated it as an allegory meaning this, that, or the other thing. Theologians have had their copious way with it, dealing with it particularly as concerning the restoration of the body after death, and it has been greatly used as a parable by those who write about aesthetics. And many have held it to be the statement of a fact, simply and baldly true.
So if ‘The Pearl of Love’ is an allegory, they ‘key’ to unlocking its secondary meaning is not forthcoming: it remains an open-ended story, then, which could be about a number of things. But which things? Let’s examine some of the most persuasive interpretations.
‘The Pearl of Love’ can be analysed as what C. S. Lewis later called (in his 1936 book of that name) an ‘allegory of love’: the prince decides to build a vast shrine not just to his dead wife but to the power of romantic love in general.
It is the ‘Pearl of Love’ because the structure represents love: its power over us, but also its ability to leave us desolate when someone we love dies. Here, the narrator’s opening words about the ‘suffering’ that goes into the creation of the pearl are relevant.
A pearl is created when some kind of irritant finds its way into a particular species of oyster (sometimes a mussel or a clam). The oyster, in order to mount a defence against this foreign body, secretes a fluid which coats the irritant. Layers of this fluid coat the irritant and eventually, the lustrous thing we call a ‘pearl’ is formed. In other words, a creature (the oyster) has to suffer infection and sometimes even death in order for the pearl to be created.
So it is with the prince. The layers and layers of materials which the prince has built and added to the shrine represent his attempt to block out and swamp the irritant that is his grief over the loss of his beautiful wife. In this interpretation, the Pearl of Love might as easily be named the Pearl of Grief: a monument to love is created through his attempt to mount a defence against his own unbearable grief over the death of the princess.
In this interpretation, the prince’s decision, after much thought, to have not only the shrine but even the sarcophagus itself taken away may either represent his coming-to-terms with his grief (he has, finally, reached the end of the grieving process and is able to move on) or his realisation that the Pearl of Love will never be grand enough to blot out the grief he feels. It has either done its job, or its creator has realised that it will never be able to achieve its aim. So, even in this analysis, the ending of the story remains ambiguous.
Alternatively, we might throw the emphasis in a slightly different place and view ‘The Pearl of Love’ as an allegory for art and artistic creation. In this interpretation, the prince’s love for his wife, and subsequent grief over her death, are merely the spur for him to create a colossal piece of architecture which is as much a quest for perfection (think of the prince spending years changing his mind over the materials used as he tweaks the shrine’s design) as it is a declaration of love.
Art involves suffering – as the French writer Montherlant once said, ‘happiness writes white’ – and, like the oyster which responds to its ‘suffering’ by creating something beautiful, the prince decides to channel his energies into building something that will inspire awe in everyone who sees it.
The difference between these two readings is clear. In this second interpretation, the prince almost seeks to forget his love for the princess by building a shrine to her: he loses himself in his work, seeing the opportunity for the shrine-building to become what Sigmund Freud would call an ‘object cathexis’ (the investment of one’s libido or energy in objects outside the self, such as a person, or, here, an activity or undertaking).
Given the natural conjunction of these two interpretations, it perhaps makes sense for ‘The Pearl of Love’ to be ultimately ambiguous: we are left to wonder (or decide, like the narrator) whether the prince loses himself in his work in order to honour love or whether he loves his work because it provides an opportunity to forget his wife.