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.