This was quite an emotional rollercoaster packed into a small book. Steinbeck crammed a lot of life into a mere 118 pages. I came across this book when I was at home a few weekends ago. The Pearl, in tattered old paperback form, was sitting on the family room coffee table. My mom was reading it. I asked her how the book was and she said something like, “It’s good, but kind of depressing.”
Ahh, I love classic lit that’s short and “kind of depressing.” It’s right in my wheelhouse – reference Where Angels Fear to Tread.
WARNING: PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW
This is the story of Kino, an impoverished pearl diver living near a small coastal town in Bolivia. His home is a grass shack, which he shares with his wife Juana and newborn son Coyotito.
Good people, these. Kino appreciates the small things in life, like the morning sun and the sound of his baby awakening. They fill him with joy. Sure, his life could be better if he had a little more disposable income. In fact, it would allow him to afford a doctor to treat the nasty scorpion bite on his son’s shoulder. Other than that, he seems to be doing okay with what he has.
Then, shortly after the obese town doctor rejects Kino’s request to assist his ailing son, Kino finds a massive pearl during his first dive of the day. He screams out in victory at its discovery, and the fortunes of Kino and the small town surrounding him change forever. About the town, Steinbeck says:
The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld. The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it.
But that only describes how the town changed with news of the pearl. The changes in Kino were just as riveting. When asked what he plans to do with all of the riches bestowed upon him by the pearl, he speaks of getting a proper wedding and making sure that his son can read. And lastly, he says that he wants to buy a rifle. Steinbeck explores the rifle:
It was the rifle that broke down the barriers. This was an impossibility, and if he could think of having a rifle whole horizons were burst and he could rush on. For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.
These two passages occur early on and the sense of doom never leaves you. The rest of the book is an exploration of how a man can change when one moment he is poor and the next moment he is rich. Steinbeck’s study is gender specific to the man. The only significant digression into how his wife Juana is dealing with the situation occurs after she is beaten by Kino when he finds her attempting to throw the pearl back into the sea. From the book:
Juana dragged herself up from the rocks on the edge of the water. Her face was a dull pain and her side ached. She steadied herself on her knees for a while and her wet skirt clung to her. There was no anger in her for Kino. He had said, “I am a man,” and that meant certain things to Juana. It meant that he was half insane and half god. It meant that Kino would drive his strength against a mountain and plunge his strength against the sea. Juana, in her woman’s soul, knew that the mountain would stand while the man broke himself; that the sea would surge while the man drowned in it. … Sometimes the quality of a woman, the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation, could cut through Kino’s manness and save them all. She climbed painfully to her feet, and she dipped her cupped palms in the little waves and washed her bruised face with the stinging salt water, and then she went creeping up the beach after Kino.
That’s intense. But nothing compared what’s coming. Juana leaves the beach to find that Kino has killed a man who tried to steal the pearl. With this, they have to flee the town.
Despite all of Kino’s precautions, three men pursue them – a man with a rifle on horseback and two trackers. Kino is boxed into a corner and he figures that his only option is to get his wife and child to higher ground and take the pursuers down.
With his wife and son hiding in close proximity, Kino goes on the attack. In one furious and stunning moment, Kino plunges his knife into the rifleman’s throat, wrests the rifle from his hands, crushes the skull of a second man, and shoots the third man as he is scrambling away. The third man was only injured, so Kino walks up to him and sends a bullet between his eyes. For a brief moment, Kino probably thinks he has triumphed. However, he soon discovers that his shot that winged the third man, also found his son’s skull.
It was a horrible tragedy. In the aftermath, Kino and Juana walk back to town and throw the pearl back into the sea. That’s how it ended.
It makes you think. Am I satisfied with what I have?