John Steinbeck was full of surprises, but a common theme in his stories is the struggle between good and evil. His 1947 novella, The Pearl is one such story, with the battle taking place within the protagonist, brought on by what he thinks is a treasure. It’s a cliché, but our hero gets more than he bargained for. Much, much more.
Based on a Mexican folk tale, The Pearl is set in La Paz, which is in Baja California and details the story of Kino, a poor pearl diver who’s hardworking, noble, and persistent. He just wants to make enough money to provide for his son, Coyotito and wife, Juana not to mention pay for a proper wedding, since his and Juana’s marriage isn’t recognized by the Catholic Church. The three of them live in a brush house near the church, where the can see the beggars go to the steps after Mass lets out.
One day Kino is deathly afraid because Coyotito has been bitten by a scorpion, and the doctor won’t come unless he can be paid. Kino is so worried he punches the gate, but there’s really nothing he can say.
Kino and Juana tote Coyotito to the beach, where Juana leaves the baby on the sand while she and Kino take the boat out. Kino is a competent and careful diver who knows which oysters to leave and which ones to take. He can be in and out of an area without stirring up the sand, and can easily stay underwater for over two minutes. On this particular dive he brings up a good haul of mollusks, and one of the oysters seems different from the others. At Juana’s urging, Kino opens it and finds a giant pearl the size of a seagull’s egg.
Suddenly everything is different. Kino and Juana think they’ve been favored by the gods. Now they can pay for the doctor. Get married. Fix up their house. Get a better canoe. Heck, they can even pay people to dive for them. The sky is the limit. The village is excited, too, and Kino’s fellow pearl divers wonder if they’ll have the same good fortune. Suddenly the other villagers become quite solicitous, wanting to talk to Kino and sell him things. Kino takes it all in stride at first, feeling a bit awed by this new turn of events.
The big order of business is, of course, to sell the pearl and get the best price for it. Kino basks in dreams of wearing fine clothes instead of his laborer’s togs and he can’t wait to unload his bounty.
That’s where Kino’s trouble starts. One dealer tells him the pearl is too soft, another thinks it’s not of a good grade and will lose its luster. Every offer is too low for Kino’s liking, and he goes home in a huff. He makes plans to head to the city, where he thinks he’ll get a better deal.
Not so fast, say his friends. The city is a big place, and Kino might find it to be cold and heartless. At least in his village he’s among familiar faces. Kino doesn’t listen, though, and makes plans to leave. That’s when more bad stuff happens, and Kino and Juana start wondering if the pearl is cursed. It just might be, because it may end up costing them more than they ever realized.
Steinbeck first heard the folktale that became The Pearl on a scientific expedition to the California Gulf Coast with Ed Ricketts in 1940. I scoured the Web looking for the original story, but it’s just not to be found, so I have to wonder if it was only specific to the place Steinbeck and Ricketts went to. It would have been interesting to compare Steinbeck’s adaptation to the primary source. As far as I can tell, the Kino character in the folktale was a young boy, so the most major change Steinbeck made was to age him up and give him a family. Apart from a few key plot points, the folktale would probably be fairly unrecognizable.
According to A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, Steinbeck originally conceived The Pearl as a screenplay, but then changed his mind and published it as a short story instead. It first appeared in the December 1945 issue of Women’s Home Companion before being expanded into the novella. The book met with a healthy degree of success, although some critics were “meh” about it.
Besides good and evil, the other major theme of The Pearl is control. When Kino is poor, he’s a cog in the wheel of the system. His village is under the authority of the Spanish. Kino has no say in his life or what he does beyond his household or the job he does, because he is not only subject to the Spanish, but to his own poverty, as well as to the Church.
When Kino finds the pearl, he suddenly gains control, or at least he thinks he does. Suddenly he can have the doctor in because he now has money to pay him. People look at him as if he’s someone important because he found the Holy Grail of pearls. As is liable to happen to those who come into money or fame, Kino becomes addicted to the attention and goes to great lengths to preserve and cultivate his newfound notoriety.
Ergo, one has to wonder: Is it better to stay with the status quo or advance? There are risks to both, of course. Under the status quo umbrella, there’s the danger of everything becoming stale, but if one advances, what has to be given up in order to achieve? And what does one have to do to maintain integrity and self-respect? There has to be a balance somewhere.
Steinbeck’s novella eventually did become a film in 2001, a direct-to-video something-or-other starring Lucas Haas and Richard Harris. From all accounts, it’s atrocious, so it’s probably good that Steinbeck isn’t around to see it.
However, the book is the furthest thing from atrocious. It’s a lightning-fast read full of Steinbeck’s genius prose style. If anyone is looking for something short and sweet, or maybe something a bit outside the Steinbeck canon, The Pearl is well-worth it. I found myself wanting to read it over again right away, just to absorb more of its flavor.
Another review is on the way tomorrow, and it’s of a tuneful variety with a twist of Memory Lane. Thanks for reading, all, and have a great day…
A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia. Edited by Brian E. Railsback and Michael J. Meyer. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing, 2006.