The 29th book upon my Classics Club list is yet another Steinbeck novella, The Pearl. First published in 1947, The Pearl provides a departure from Steinbeck’s usual Californian setting. Set largely in a poor community somewhere in the Gulf, which consists almost entirely of ‘brush houses’, the protagonist of The Pearl is a native man named Kino, who lacks education. He lives with his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito.
When a scorpion makes his way into Coyotito’s crib and stings him, the parental roles are reversed somewhat; Juana becomes strong and authoritative, and Kino ‘hovered; he was helpless, he was in the way’. Steinbeck demonstrates the way in which Juana gains control of the situation in the following manner: ‘And they repeated among themselves, “Juana wants the doctor”. A wonderful thing, a memorable thing, to want the doctor. To get him would be a remarkable thing. The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses. Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town’. When the family travel to the doctor’s abode, and a message is sent to him – reclining with a plate full of sweets in bed – by his manservant, he is nothing short of scornful. The manservant hands him a pouch filled with ‘eight small misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers, flattened and almost valueless’, with which Kino and Juana are hoping to pay. The doctor refuses to see them.
A search ensues, using Kino’s precious canoe – the only thing of monetary value which he owns – to find a more serviceable pearl which the doctor will accept. The lack of hope in such an endeavour is exemplified thus: ‘But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both’. The family triumphs, however, finding a pearl which has the power to change their lives for the better: ‘Kino lifted the flesh [of the oyster], and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world’. News of their find soon spreads: ‘The news came early to the beggars in front of the church, and it made them giggle a little with pleasure, for they knew that there is no almsgiver in the world like a poor man who is suddenly lucky’.
As ever, Steinbeck’s descriptions are striking, and he has a real knack for capturing the world which his protagonists inhabit: ‘The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east’. Culturally, the novella is well established: ‘Kino heard the little splash of morning waves on the beach… [He] closed his eyes again to listen to his music. Perhaps he alone did this and perhaps all of his people did it… His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they thought or did or heard became a song’. Racial issues are highlighted, particularly with regard to the wealth which the white inhabitants of the area enjoy, and the poverty which the natives live in. One of the real strengths in The Pearl is the way in which the cruelty and greed which can come about when money is involved is exemplified.
The rather simplistic narrative style within The Pearl causes it to feel almost fable-like in its telling. It is not the best told of Steinbeck’s stories, but it is still vivid, particularly with regard to the descriptions given of characters: ‘Kino was young and strong and his black hair hung over his brown forehead. His eyes were warm and fierce and bright and his mustache was thin and coarse’. It is fair to say that the novella is largely concerned with the actions of its characters, rather than adding a wealth of hidden depths which many of Steinbeck’s longer works contain; at times, it feels almost like ‘he did this, and then she did this, and then they both did this’ in its style. Elements of what could be termed magical realism creep in, and I found these fascinating, particularly with regard to Steinbeck’s usual grasp of reality within his fiction.
The Pearl is a relatively engaging novella, and whilst it was by no means my favourite Steinbeck, it still contains many points of interest. It does, however, lack the majority of the strengths which are prevalent in the author’s other works, and does not hold the power of such works as Of Mice and Men and East of Eden.