Thursday, February 2, 2023

A (Sort of) Appreciation: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl’

Few works of fiction left so little impression on me in my adolescence as The Pearl. In no small way, in its simple style and obvious symbolism, the 1947 novella by John Steinbeck reminded me of another short work of fiction: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

The reaction of Steinbeck’s contemporaries, as summarized by the Nobel Prize laureate’s biographer Jay Parini, could also have applied to Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning book: “naïve” and “simplistic.”

Quickly dismissing both books, I thought little about them for many years, especially after reading longer, more complex works of their creators—erven though, over time, I would continually see them in bookstores and libraries because of their presence on high school or young adult reading lists.

But, re-reading The Old Man and the Sea about a decade ago, I found numerous passages that reminded me of why I was drawn to Hemingway at his best: lean, pure, powerful prose. Similarly, Steinbeck’s empathy for the common man and bone-deep familiarity with their work routines and aspirations for a better life—undoubtedly developed in hours of manual labor in childhood, youth and early adulthood—shine through so much of The Pearl.

At heart, both authors were consciously striving to answer their critics by demonstrating that recent mediocre work did not mean that their best days as writers were behind them, that fame and success hadn’t softened them. At the same time, they transformed their naysayers into malign forces threatening their principal characters (interestingly enough, Latino males who become stand-ins for their creators’ creative midlife crises).

Hemingway’s humble Cuban fisherman Santiago finds himself beset by sharks as he hauls back a marlin, the biggest fish he’s ever caught. Steinbeck’s Mexican-Indian pearl fisherman, Kino, must deal with his fellow villagers, all of whom want a piece of his expected wealth from discovering a priceless pearl, —with some even plotting to kill him for it.

Like other writers who produced prolifically while constantly challenging themselves, Steinbeck’s output could be uneven—marked by highs (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden) and lows (The Wayward Bus), with his energy often dissipated by outside projects such as film work.

But, if The Pearl doesn’t possess the power of, say, Of Mice and Men, it tells a simple story vividly, with the timeless force of a Biblical parable.

The novella centers on Kino, who, despite his poverty, has lived happily in a hut in a rural village of La Paz in northwest Mexico, with his wife Juana and baby Coyotito.

Then a scorpion stings Coyotito, and though Juana sucks out the poison, the wound keeps swelling, forcing the family to seek emergency medical attention to save the boy’s life.

What I didn’t notice when I first read The Pearl around 45 years ago—but what struck me with full force now—was Steinbeck’s deep compassion for Kino and Juana, who yearn for the freedom from insecurity enjoyed by Anglos. It comes to the fore when the fisherman goes to seek help from a white doctor:  

“This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race, and frightened it too, so that the indigene came humbly to the door.”

The doctor, stout to the point of caricature because of his greed (“His voice was hoarse with the fat that pressed on his throat”), won’t attend to the baby without payment.

A miracle seems to present itself when Kino comes upon the pearl. But it’s not just any valuable object: it’s a giant “Pearl of the World.”

When Kino celebrates his good fortune by dressing to show off, it shifts the entire social fabric around him, because it enters “into the dreams, the speculations, the schemes, the plans, the futures, the wishes, the needs, the lusts, the hungers of everyone, and the only person that stood in the way and that was Kino, so that he became curiously every man's enemy.”

No wonder that “All manner of people grew interested in Kino—people with things to sell and people with favors to ask.”

What had been a basic use of the money that could come from the pearl—just enough to save a life—has rapidly degenerated into the community’s greed and Kino’s paranoia about protecting his treasure.

Several aspects of this tale made me remember what a compelling voice Steinbeck was for me when I first read him as an adolescent:

Nature: Steinbeck was enthralled by California’s rivers, coast, and farms from an early age, and his novels frequently reflect this sense of awe in the presence of the environment and how it interacted with its inhabitants, as seen in this passage from The Pearl: “The dawn came quickly now, a wash, a glow, a lightness, and then an explosion of fire as the sun arose out of the Gulf. Kino looked down to cover his eyes from the glare. He could hear the pat of the corncakes in the house and the rich smell of them on the cooking plate.”

Sympathy for the underprivileged and marginalized: Steinbeck did something fairly daring for his time—put at the center of his narrative not just the kind of “forgotten man” so often found in fiction beginning with the Great Depression, but a Latino. Even more so than today, a member of such a group would have been dimly understood, at best, by Anglos. Having traveled to Mexico many times—and encountering so many immigrants from Mexico in the Thirties and Forties—he could render their struggles with great understanding.

Toxic masculinity: Women can bring shake and shatter men with their seductiveness in some Steinbeck novels (Of Mice and Men, East of Eden), but more often they stabilize families grown unexpectedly shaky by the weakness of men. In The Pearl, he dissects how false dreams lead men to abuse their partners—specifically through Kino, whose fury at the sensible Juana results in physical brutality, expressed through similes with Biblical overtones: “Kino looked down at her and his teeth were bared. He hissed at her like a snake, and Juana stared at him with wide unfrightened eyes, like a sheep before the butcher.”

A keen grasp of communal psychology: Although a diverse city has so many different components that it is hard to ascribe a particular characteristic to it, a small community is different, as Steinbeck expertly conveys. Perhaps because of his long friendship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, he realized that towns like Kino’s were like organisms:

“A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet. A town is a thing separate from all other towns alike. And a town has a whole emotion. How news travels through a town is a mystery not easily to be solved. News seems to move faster than small boys can scramble and dart to tell it, faster than women can call it over the fences.”

Will The Pearl continue to maintain its place on today’s high school reading lists? It might. An article in my local newspaper, The Bergen Record, made me roll my eyes when teenagers offered their opinions on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (narrator Holden Caulfield was too “whiny”) and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (“boring”).

However, The Pearl seems to have escaped much of this groaning. It offers a character that many minority and underprivileged students find recognizable from their own backgrounds. 

Moreover, it conveys a lesson that youngsters of all backgrounds should learn—and adults from all walks of life should be reminded of: the most priceless things in our lives are what sustains our spirits rather than what fills our bank accounts.

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