Inspiring Older Readers
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s novella reworks and fleshes-out a Mexican folk tale about what happens when a poor fisherman and his family find an extraordinarily magnificent and valuable pearl. The story is often used as a set text in schools because of Steinbeck’s ability to condense deep social and political meaning into his shorter fiction which allows teachers to tease out themes with students that might otherwise be difficult to get them to engage with.
There’s plenty for anyone to get their teeth into here. Kino and Juana are poverty stricken but relatively happy; they have a young child, Coyotito, and they live in a village where most people are as poor as they are. The few rich and powerful, the pearl-traders, the priests and the doctor live a separate life of distant and unimaginable luxury. When Coyotito is stung by a scorpion, the corpulent and negligent doctor refuses to treat him without being paid – money the couple don’t have. The doctor’s indifference to their plight throws Kino into a rage and he goes out to try his luck looking for pearls that will help him pay the doctors bill and save his son. In fact, Coyotito survives without the doctor and Kino has a stroke of extraordinary luck – he finds the biggest, most valuable pearl the village has ever seen.
However, rather than freeing him from his poverty, ownership of the pearl becomes a terrible monkey on his back. Suddenly everyone he thought of as his friends are jealous of his fortune and the pearl traders try to gull him and take his pearl for next to nothing. In despair he decides to go to the capital to sell his treasure only to find his canoe has been sabotaged and he is burnt out of his house. To save their lives, he and his family go on the run only to discover they are being tracked by killers intent on stealing his pearl. Kino eventually turns the tables on them but in the struggle a stray gunshot kills his young son. In despair Kino and Juana travel back to their village and throw the pearl back into the sea to rid themselves of their burden.
Steinbeck clearly saw the fable as a chance to explore the way in which the poor are exploited and oppressed. It would be tempting to come to the easy conclusion that this is a morality tale about not wishing for riches when modest or humble circumstances offer greater happiness – but that would be facile. Steinbeck is more interested in the way in which societies are structured so as to keep the poor in their poverty, the way capital sets the disadvantaged against each other and the ways in which those who have power use that power to continue their exploitation of the weak.
His writing is multi-layered and full of symbolism. Music lies at the heart of this story – Kino and Juana see their world through the music it makes, the harmonies and discords of village and family life. The surface of the world changes shape and colour and the pearl itself transmutes from beauty to ugliness in the flicker of an eye.
I have a copy of the first US edition of the book which contains original drawings by Jose Clemente Orozco which are full page black and white pen drawings done a crude, almost elemental fashion and they underscore the epic nature of this short tale. Steinbeck has taken this Mexican folk story and made it a tale of everyone who lives in poverty and exploitation and, as such, it’s a moving and sobering experience.