Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steinbeck's 'The Pearl' and Human Nature

The PearlThis is a short story I put on my 100 Classics List because I have been told it is a perfect exercise of imagery and symbolism. For a Western reader, the characters and setting of The Pearl may seem exotic and foreign, yet at the centre of the short story are the very human emotions of fear and greed.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Kino is a poor diver, gathering pearls from the gulf beds that once brought great wealth to the kings of Spain and now provide Kino, Juana, and their infant son with meager subsistence. Then, on a day like any other, Kino emerges from the sea with a pearl as large as a sea gull's egg, as "perfect as the moon." With the pearl comes hope, the promise of comfort and of security....
A story of classic simplicity, based on a Mexican folk tale, The Pearlexplores the secrets of man's nature, greed, the darkest depths of evil, and the luminous possibilities of love.
There is a whole variety of themes that come together in this novella. There is something truly impressive about how Steinbeck brings together greed, love and violence in a way that is extremely recognizable. Steinbeck adapted a folk tale he heard during a visit to Mexico into this novella. Folk tales very often have social issues at their heart and The Pearl has

I was very interested in the character of Juana, Kino's wife and the only really female character in the novella. On the one hand she seems to be very submissive to her husband and to only exist as her husband's wife and her son's mother. However, if one accepts this part of her character, there is a lot more to be found. Quite often Steinbeck makes her the moral anchor that holds Kino back from loosing it without sacrificing her ability to act to that morality. Women, too often, are shown to be paragons of virtue, more symbol than human. This severely holds female characters, and women in general, back from being seen as fully-formed human beings. What Steinbeck does in The Pearl is very interesting on this point. On the one hand we have the virtuous Juana who does as she is told and falls into line. But rather than leave it at that, he gives the reader an insight into her thought process, revealing she has a lot more going on than we might consider. I've quoted a relatively long passage below:
He had said, "I am a man," and that meant certain things to Juana. It meant that he was half insane and halfgod. 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. And yet it was this thing that made him a man, half insane and half god, and Juana had need of a man; she could not live without a man. Although she might be puzzled by these differences between man and woman, she knew them and accepted them and needed them. Of course she would follow him,there was no question of that. Sometimes the quality of woman, the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation, could cut through Kino's manness and save them all.
There is a lot happening in the above passage. This scene happens shortly after Juana tries to destroy the Pearl of the World and Kino beats her. Juana is very honest about Kino's violence and for her the constant clash between their characters is exactly what she needs. In some ways she is 'the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation' which keeps Kino sane, but on the other hand she is as much a part of this chaos. What I think is very clever about this passage is that Juana is as flawed as Kino is. Her logic hurts her, the way that Kino's need to help his family is part of his undoing. Is Juana "right" or is she even acting in a way that is good for herself? Quite possibly not, but she is flawed, which I think is key in character descriptions.

Steinbeck uses the idea of music a lot in The Pearl. Rather than be overly literal and moralistic about his characters actions he allows music the represent greed or family. It was a very nice way of bringing the folklore aspect into a story that is very advanced, in many ways. Songs represent family or greed and thereby allow Steinbeck to clearly bring these themes into play without it becoming too obvious. Occasionally it feels like Steinbeck is using The Pearl as an exercise for allegory and imagery, but most of the time he makes this imagery part of the narrative, makes it crucial to understanding the narrative. It also helps that he weaves it into a genuinely interesting story that seems to strike a chord in everyone.

I won't rate this novella since this post is an analysis rather than a review. However, I think this is the kind of story everyone should be reading. Maybe not necessarily The Pearl, but a story that so clearly delves into human nature and exposes parts of our characters which we might not necessarily want to see. I'd definitely recommend picking this story up, though, because Steinbeck isn't a bad place to start your moral education.

1 comment:

  1. A nice review....of Steinbeck I've only read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, and I think both are masterpieces. I'll have to add The Pearl to TBR list.