The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Rating: Read on, Buddy Holly!
Summary: Kino is a poor villager on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. His baby Coyotito gets stung by a scorpion, and his wife Juana decides they are going to the doctor. The asshole doctor won’t treat the baby because they have no money. Kino dives (as he does for a living) and happens to find a giant motherfugging pearl. The future awaits! Except they can’t get a fair price and everyone wants to steal it. So the pearl causes evil and death. Whomp whomp.
Somewhere in the collective consciousness of my eighth grade class is the memory of The Pearl. It was the first book that I distinctly remember every single person in the class loathing. This vitriol was compounded by the god awful movie we were forced to watch. The parabolic nature of the story translated very poorly to screen – it was sheer melodrama with a super cheesy score. And the story itself was so simple and boring and not interesting in the least to our eighth grade minds. It was pure torture. How could a story about the ocean and people be so effing dull?
This was before I knew the pain that was The Old Man and the Sea.
Anyway, many books are forced on young minds that they are in no way ready to handle. People say “kids need CLASSICS. And this one is short – perfect!” Oblivious to the debate about canon and their own equating of length with difficulty, they cram books down the kids’ throats that they have no way of understandings. So I decided to go back and reread The Pearl, hoping I would be able to appreciate it more this time around (put that rather useless English degree to work!).
Surprisingly, I still didn’t like it. This time, for different reasons.
Let me start by saying this is something I went back to expecting to like it. I love Steinbeck’s other work and The Grapes of Wrath is one of my all-time favorite novels. The exploration of class, privilege, and family makes my little democratic-socialist heart go all aflutter. And hey – The Pearl is less than one fifth of the tome that is Grapes. But it just felt so forced and ridiculous that I cannot give it a pass.
Can we start with the characterizations? The baby gets stung by this evil scorpion, and when Kino sees it “the Song of Evil, the music of the enemy, of any foe of the family” was playing in his head. Because Kino is so simplistic that all of his thoughts come in songs. And he moves through his life, happy working songs of family and warmth and babies filling his head as he dives. It’s like he has his own movie score dictating his life. Things are good – until the strings kick in – EVIL!!
All of the townspeople seem to be simple. Steinbeck paints them as more pure than the higher class white people who live in the city; their poverty and toil make them moral. It’s the “noble savage” nonsense. And yes, I understand this is supposed to be a parable. It’s not a nuanced novel filled with fine details. But painting with a broad brush does not necessitate clumsiness. The whole thing was just so reductive and it seemed kind of insulting that the townspeople were so dumb. And I know the system is stacked against them and fighting seems useless… but did they have to be so naïve? After four centuries, they wouldn’t understand what was going on, how the white people were tricking them? Ugh.
What about the title character? Okay, it doesn’t talk or anything but I think the pearl has more details than any other thing or person in the book. It stands for a multitude of things. Kino constantly looks into and sees things reflected in its surface. At first, he sees things of beauty and truth that inspire him. He sees his family in new clothes and being able to read and write. But then he starts to see bad things; evil faces and death and destruction reflected back at him. Juana constantly moans that the pearl has the devil in it. But obviously it’s not the pearl, it’s the people. The pearl stands for greed and humans placing value on objects. After all, a pearl is just an irritation to an oyster that is coated over the years. The song of the pearl starts off sweet, but then turns sour as it brings more heartbreak to Kino & co. Except it’s just a goddamn pearl, and people are the ones causing bad things to happen.
There’s a hopelessness about this book that I struggle with. And also a helplessness. All this bad shit happens to Kino because he had the audacity to want a fair price for his pearl. (Sidenote of awesome – when Kino is imagining all the things he will buy, he envisions putting Coyotito in a sailor suit. Obviously, that’s the first thing I’d buy any male child of mine.) This turns into a fight against the system – and big surprise – Kino loses and pays an extremely high price. The couple is broken by the system, and we are left with them completely bereft on the beach. So the moral of the story is.. don’t find a pearl and don’t want anything ever and don’t try to fight because you will lose. Or maybe it’s you shouldn’t be greedy. But I will argue that Kino and Juana are not greedy, and that bad things happen to them because the system is bad. And if the system is bad… then we are all fucked. Except I knew this already, and this book imparted no new information.
Finally – my feminist self could barely handle this one part. Juana decides she is going to stop all this shit by throwing the pearl into the sea. Except Kino catches her and BEATS her. But she is okay with it because he is MAN and that’s what men do. Him being a crazy jerk “made him a man, half insane and half god, and Juana had need of a man; she could not live without a man. Although she might be puzzled by these differences, she knew them and accepted them and needed them.” Men just beat women, that’s what they do. We don’t know why; it’s a mystery! *rage rage rage* Seriously, she wasn’t even mad or afraid. Just understanding. Once more, Steinbeck oversimplifies and glosses over things. Juana passively accepts this as nature, but then fights fiercely at other points. There are so many contradictions – fight the status quo, now accept it. Pay for your choices or ignore them entirely. One moment a sympathetic character, the next a big jerkface. All to what purpose? Greed is bad. Fine – but I want something more and I won’t find it in these pages, whether as an eighth grader or a graduate student.
So there’s that – I still don’t like this book but I can actually qualify my reaction now. Just don’t expect me to pick up Hemingway anytime soon.