Does bad always follow good? Where does one cross the line between pursuing a dream and being consumed by greed? And how much influence can a small decision have in the world? The novella The Pearl by John Steinbeck explores the answers to these questions to their limits, slowly revealing a portrait of the world which is both terrifying and comforting at once. Through a twisting tale of loss, gain, greed, and – ultimately – death, a beacon of human hope and perseverance shines, making this one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.
The lives of Kino, an impoverished pearl fisherman, and his wife, Juana, are transformed forever when he discovers a perfect pearl, the “Pearl of the World.” Kino dreams of using the money it will make to improve his life in drastic ways; most importantly, sending his infant son, Coyotito, to school. However, he is unwilling to sell the pearl for any sum too small to accomplish his dreams, and the buyers are unwilling to buy it for any sum high enough to do so. The buyers have money and power to steal or kill in order to get the pearl. Kino only has his own strength, knife, and unbending will, and he little realizes how many people are all set on claiming his treasure for their own. Bit by bit, instead of symbolizing invigorating hope for the future, the pearl becomes a painful reminder of the humiliation of the past and the injustice of the present world.
One thing that struck me when I was reading The Pearl was how small, everyday actions worked together to play a surprisingly significant part in the tragic resolution of the book. One might not think that things like a doctor’s refusal to treat a poverty-stricken patient with a scorpion bite, or a furious pearl fisherman’s diving deeper than usual to burn off his anger, would indirectly cause the death of a child. But, strangely, they do: independently, these actions are only foolish; together, they are fatal. This aspect of the plot lends an unsettling – almost ominous – feel to the story. The thought It’s only going to get worse was ubiquitous in my mind as I read, and even as I could not put down the book, I didn’t want to read another page. One of the joys of reading is watching someone else’s story unfold in front of you, sympathizing with their losses and triumphs. But, aside from the discovery of the pearl, Kino and his family did not have any triumphs. As I read, their lives went from contented to unhappy to terrified to remorseful and grieved. At the resolution, there was a sense of helplessness and disappointment, of pure human weakness against the forces of ill luck and nature. One of the reasons I love to read is that it uplifts me. Watching good win over evil again and again, in scenario after scenario, inspires me. But what about when good doesn’t win over evil? What about when a sad ending is not diluted by even one small triumph? Does that mean the point of reading the book is lost? On reading the resolution of this novella – and the parts which led up to it – a second time, I think I have an answer.
The utter despondency of The Pearl‘s plot tends to overpower another element: an underlying thread of hope and shared goals which binds Kino’s family together. Whenever they receive a particularly heavy blow, they are able to rebound because – according to the narrator – Juana, Kino and Coyotito are “one thing and one purpose.” The family has suffered the same hardships and rejoiced at the same successes, and they are all working, together, toward the accomplishment of one ambition: a better life, as much for each other as for themselves. Only when Kino begins to push Juana aside does their life really begin to go downhill. In one scene, rather than give up the pearl or even hear Juana’s opinion, Kino shoves Juana down onto the boulders near the sea. He walks away, holding the pearl which she had advised him to destroy, and is attacked by thieves and almost killed. Eventually, when they flee from the village, Juana walks behind Kino. She is following him because she cares about him, and knows that she cannot change his mind; but she also knows that they are no longer working together toward the same goal, that they are no longer “one thing and one purpose.” When Kino and Juana come back to their tiny hut at the ending, they walk side by side instead of one behind the other: equal again – perhaps more equal than before – and sharing one last bitter loss. Their quiet acceptance of defeat as they walk into the village, heads down, seems like the most incredibly sad ending possible. But when one dries one’s tears and more closely examines the image, a second thing, showing itself even in the way they walk, comes to light: equality and love have been restored between Kino and Juana. Even more importantly, they have learned the importance of what they had lost and have now regained – and how much it can positively influence their lives. In a way, good has won over evil: the anger and greed which had torn their family apart is gone, and though the couple has lost much, they are rich in the things which matter most.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Penguin Random House, 1947. Buy the book here and support Stone Soup in the process!
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