Of Hope and Disillusionment
(A Book Review of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl)
Although February is a few days over, I’m still on the last stretch of reading John Steinbeck’s works, the previous month’s featured Author of the Month. As a finale I’m walking down memory lane as I chose to reread the one and only high school required book reading which I’ve come to love over the years and is at the top of the books I definitely call Dark Chest of Wonders: The Pearl.
John Steinbeck’s novella first appeared in the December 1945 issue of Woman’s Home Companion with its former title “The Pearl of the World”. The Viking Press published the book form, which bears its present simplified title, later in December 1947 and a motion picture based on the novel was released simultaneously.
The Pearl tells the story of one man’s search for freedom, wealth and security. Kino, a simple fisherman, and his wife, Juana, lives in a humble but happy life with their only child, Coyotito. One day a scorpion stings Coyotito, but the only doctor in town refuses to treat him because Kino cannot afford to pay his fees. Kino, as usual goes to the pearl beds with his wife and son. He finds extreme luck and excitement in his day’s find — the pearl of the world!
Kino sees in the pearl the realization of his dreams: education for his son, a decent marriage to Juana, a fine house, clothes and a gun for his protection. He sees in the pearl his salvation, his “Paradise,” until the great pearl brings him damnation instead and rejects it after suffering disillusionment.
Of course, I have no way to recall whatever it is that I wrote on my book report, but the gist and the moral lesson of the story still stays with me up to this day. For me the pearl symbolizes an illusory dream of the good life bordering on Paradise. Kino’s pearl is his ambition dashed to pieces; he found the means to secure his Eden, but the social environment he was thrown into would not allow him to; the institutionalized social vultures were too strong, ganging up against their weak prey. The social vultures in the story is represented, foremost, by the doctor, whose race maltreat and disregard those of Kino and his townsfolk; the priest, whose sermons discouraged all his initiates to improve their lowly status in life; his neighbors, who began to watch Kino’s every move after he found the precious pearl, envious and secretly coveting it; and finally, the cartel of pearl buyers who connived to devalue Kino’s pearl and force him to capitulate because of need. Kino defied all these abominable vanguards of the materialistic world or social order, but in the end he hurt himself badly.
As a social commentary, The Pearl functions as a protest to which Steinbeck, through his pen half a century ago, strike against the HAVES who took advantage of the native and the HAVE NOTS; we are still clamoring against this few who glory in their ability to exploit the profits of another man’s labor up to this very day.
After reading the book, I thought it would let reminisce a bit on my sophomore year, the time when I was first introduced to Steinbeck. However, it seems that Kino and what he has gone through will not let me go just that easily, as a question about the book’s message began to form in my mind: Where goes initiative then and individual ambition if in order to survive, one has to cease the struggle and live “in harmony” with a social system which is revolting to one’s principle?
Honestly, I don’t even have an answer for this, nor will I even try it. And this is but one of the numerous questions and themes Steinbeck tries to bring up in this slim volume. I think The Pearl’s universal appeal — despite it’s brevity and simplicity — lies in the power and beauty with which Steinbeck narrates this tale, further enhanced by his poetic prose, terse sentence structure giving bare details with rich, underlying meaning and superb imagery that enables the reader “to see” the various scenes as if they were actually happening before the reader’s very eyes. As stated by Steinbeck in the preface of the book: “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it,” he intends that the reader should look beyond its simple plot in order to find a deeper message. This, I believe, makes The Pearl pertinent, even after I read it almost a decade ago, in that it doesn’t only stand for a single interpretation. Perhaps the book’s ending is not conclusive, but it does serve as a kind of record of the conflicts experienced by people — conflicts with in themselves and the system under which they live.
This has been a pleasant month Mr John Steinbeck! What do you say we do it next year, eh? 😉
Book #5 for 2011
Published by Penguin Books
(Mass Market Paperback, 1992 Edition)
Started: February 27, 2011
Finished: February 28, 2011