I begin this post with a somewhat humorous aside: my copy of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, lovingly dedicated by one Ms. B to a friend “for adding so much to E.’s memorial,” was scooped up by yours truly at a Connecticut book fair some years ago for the grand total of one American dollar. Apparently, The Pearl–Ms. B’s favorite book–didn’t have quite the same impact on her friend.
The Pearl is my introduction to Steinbeck, and I can perhaps understand why, if Ms. B’s friend had likewise never read him before, she might have decided to donate the book to her local library. Not to say that The Pearl is poorly written–in fact I think quite the opposite–but Steinbeck’s quiet, thickly descriptive, somewhat plodding beginning could certainly shoo an impatient reader away:
“Kino awakened in the near dark. The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east. The roosters had been crowing for some time, and the early pigs were already beginning their ceaseless turning of twigs and bits of wood to see whether anything to eat had been overlooked. Outside the brush house in the tuna chump, a covey of little birds chittered and flurried with their wings.”
The opening pages of Steinbeck’s 92-page novella are full of these slow-moving, panoramic portraits, which doesn’t really take off until Kino’s newborn baby boy is bitten by a scorpion. And then, just like that, as suddenly as the scorpion’s pincer, Steinbeck’s story jolts us to attention. Desperate for money, Kino’s finds “the great pearl, perfect as a moon,” which he believes to be both the salvation of his child’s health and his poor family’s marginal economic and social status. His optimism is intoxicating: “We will be married–in the church”; “We will have new clothes”; “My son will go to school.”
But The Pearl isn’t about good luck and chance economic downfalls–it isn’t a naive narrative offering before the altar of Lady Fortune. Rather, Steinbeck’s novella is a studied psychological portrait of the impact of a proud, disenfranchised man’s sudden and unprecedented economic hopes. It’s a story that’s familiar to us still, 60-odd years after it was written. We hear variations of it sometimes in the news: someone who has never had any money in his life suddenly winning the lottery, only to go bankrupt shortly thereafter. Though for Kino, bankruptcy would probably have been preferable to what actually happens.
Indeed, Kino doesn’t get that far; he never makes any money at all. The town’s pernicious pearl dealers collude with one another to artificially deflate the price of Kino’s pearl; and rather than selling “The Pearl of the World” for a fiftieth of what he considers its value, he decides to leave the village with his wife and his son for the capital city, a city that “lay over the water and through the mountains, over a thousand miles.” Despite his wife’s bitter and repeated protestations, Kino cannot give up on the chance to realize his increasingly dubious economic dreams. As The Pearl’s narrator knowingly explains:
“By saying what his future was going to be like, he had created it. A plan is a real thing, and things projected are experienced. A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities–never to be destroyed.”
And yet while his wife’s initial prudence cannot deter Kino from following his dream, the fatal consequences of his attempted journey finally do. In the end, Kino returns to his village asunder: “Kino’s lips were thin and his jaws tight, and the people say that he carried fear with him, that he was as dangerous as a rising storm.” Kino flings the Pearl of the World back into the ocean, and just like that, life goes back to the way it was before–or so the reader can hope. Steinbeck’s ambiguous conclusion is as telling as Kino’s grand epithet for his treasure: the worlds’ we envision are never as certain as they seem.Powered by Sidelines