Friday, January 18, 2013

Pearls Of...Wisdom?: John Steinbeck's Perplexing Classic

Last year, a friend of mine, someone who is more well-read than I'll probably ever be, read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for the first time. This omission struck me as shocking, not out of any judgement, but out of amazement, since it seems to be a staple of every high school literature class. I haven't read it in years, but I'd likely consider it an old favorite, even though it's a book I really don't think about all too often. This led me to think about a subject I've mentioned more than once on this blog, the idea of "Classics With a Capital C:" there are some books that virtually everyone, even the most casual of readers, has picked up at some point. Of course, we all have our gaps, and as I'm wont to say, there are some titles I'm genuinely troubled to admit that I haven't read as of yet. Last year, I knocked out a couple of classics, namely Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I even started Somerset W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but was unable to finish it (yet it formed the basis of my first true analysis of "assumed classics"). As I was setting my 2013 reading goals, I found myself glancing at my bookshelves and taking note of the titles I've acquired over the years but haven't read. Tucked between two other books was John Steinbeck's The Pearl. I have no idea how it came to rest in my collection, and I figured it was a classic that everyone besides myself has read--my bookstore always stocks it because of high school summer reading lists. After finishing it, I was surprised, and not in a good way.

The Pearl is a very slim novella, a folk tale about a poor Mexican pearl diver. He, his wife, and his infant son live in poverty, but are proud, happy people. When the baby is stung by a scorpion, he and his wife are turned away by a local white doctor who cannot be bothered by the poor neighbors. Steinbeck's atmosphere manages to be ahead of its time and dated at the same time; he explores white racism, but injects just enough imagery of simplicity to downplay the mentalities of the Mexican citizens. Perhaps this is because I'm reading an older work through my twenty-first century lens--it's probable that Steinbeck was attempting to render the whole work in simple themes, but it does border on pandering at times.

"Juana went to the water and waded in. She gathered some brown seaweed and made a flat damp poultice of it, and this she applied to the baby's swollen shoulder, which was a good a remedy as any and probably better than the doctor could have done. But the remedy lacked his authority because it was simple and didn't cost anything. The stomach cramps had not come to Coyotito. Perhaps Juana had sucked out the poison in time, but she had not sucked out her worry over her first-born. She had not prayed directly for the recovery of the baby--she had prayed that they might find a pearl with which to hire the doctor to cure the baby, for the minds of the people are as unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf (Steinbeck 15)."

During their next pearl dive, Kino (the husband) finds a large, beautiful pearl, one that could be worth the money to acquire clothing, a gun, and future schooling for his baby. The locals learn about the pearl very quickly--word spreads, and Kino becomes paranoid and jealous. Juana quickly becomes fearful, since the changes the pearl will bring will ultimately be bad luck, not wealth and security. The doctor, realizing he could be in for a substantial payday, concocts a fake diagnosis of the baby's sting. Steinbeck, to his credit, does offer small, telling observations:

"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 (Steinbeck 22)."

After an agonizing stretch of time, Kino finally takes the pearl to be priced, and finds that it's worth a lot less than he anticipated. He refuses to believe not one, but two pearl appraisers. After returning to find their home destroyed, Kino decides to take his family to the capital to sell the pearl. As the novella ends, the family is being followed, which leads to the accidental death of the infant. The husband and wife return to their small town, return the pearl to the sea, and begin their uncertain lives under a cloud of sadness, loss, and with less than they started out with before acquiring the pearl.

Even though I haven't read much of Steinbeck's work (I've yet to read The Grapes Of Wrath), I know he was equally at home in short works as well as longer pieces. Of Mice and Men was a small work that contained a ton of ideas about class, work, and perceptions into a beautifully written package. The Pearl, however, seems intent on making its themes obvious. The story behind its conception has Steinbeck hearing a Mexican folk tale in California and then writing his own take on it. But reading it today, it almost feels like he was writing with future high school students in mind--the ideas are carefully laid out one by one for easy highlighting and underlining. For example, here's a passage that appears after Kino finds the pearl. Steinbeck repeats the ideas over and over to the point of the reader thinking 'okay, I get where you're going with this.'

"But now, by saying what his future was going to be like, he had created it. A plan is a real thing, and things projected are experienced. A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities--never to be destroyed but easily to be attacked. Thus Kino's future was real, but having set it up, other forces were set up to destroy it, and this he knew, so that he had to prepare to meet the attack. And this Kino knew also--that the gods do not love men's plans, and the gods do not love success unless it comes by accident (Steinbeck 29)."

The last line and its subsequent manifestations troubled me greatly. Kino and his family suffer setbacks and despair due to his greed and paranoia, but there's an underlying assumption that any attempt at all to provide security for his family is wrong. In Steinbeck's time, an easy similarity would be the plight of black Americans. Black citizens were admonished and held back for trying to elevate themselves and not "knowing their place." While Steinbeck creates a correlation between greed and troubles, that's not the only realization. The reader gets the understanding that Kino's desire for any change is bad. He's a poor pearl diver, and he should be happy and content with that. This is both implied and explored quite literally:

"'I know,' said Kino. 'I have heard our father tell of it. It was a good idea, but it was against religion, and the Father made that very clear. The loss of the pearl was a punishment visited on those who tried to leave their station. And the Father made it clear that each man and woman is like a soldier sent by God to guard some part of the castle of the Universe. And some are in the ramparts and some far deep in the darkness of the walls. But each one must remain faithful to his post and must not go running about, else the castle is in danger from the assaults of Hell (Steinbeck 46).'"

Again, I'm reading this with a twenty-first century mindset. But seriously?

While Steinbeck might have merely been retelling a tale without changing its themes or morals, it's hard to stomach, since the majority of his work has sympathized with people dreaming for better stations in life. Is The Pearl supposed to be a random snapshot of the dark side of this dream? Or is it merely a reflection of the ideas of the townspeople? At the end of the tale, the general idea is that Kino suffers not only for his greed, but for his ambition as a whole.

The Pearl doesn't totally lack in redeeming qualities. Some of the passages, while simplified, contain beautiful descriptions. But even for a folk tale or parable, and written by someone of Steinbeck's stature, the work is frankly too simplified, and in the pages, there are too many perplexing ideas that are meant to be accepted at face value. Steinbeck should have gone in one of two directions--The Pearl could have been a good short story or a full-length novel with more insights, descriptions, and complexity. Instead, we're left with a little book that might be the last remains of a tale handed down through generations, but serves as an easy collection of plot points tailor made for early high school literature classes. Perhaps this is why I never read this in high school--my teachers knew when to challenge us and knew that we could get more out of substantial, challenging works. I don't mean this to sound like I'm a grumpy old man railing against today's students, but I remember even my most detached classmates coming alive through studies of better texts. A work like The Pearl simply goes through the motions.

Work Cited:
Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. Copyright 1945 by John Steinbeck. Copyright renewed 1973 by Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck IV, and Thom Steinbeck.

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