Monday, February 13, 2012

The Pearl (1945)

     John Steinbeck's novella The Pearl (1945) was one of those books assigned in 6th or 7th grade (please excuse my memory; it is scarily specific on things that absolutely don't matter but failing on anything that pertains to my earlier education).  I may have read it completely back then.  I have an odd feeling that I read both The Pearl and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952) in the same year for the same class – and finished both – but I more clearly remember almost finishing The Grapes of Wrath (1939) in 7th grade and considering that an accomplishment at the time.  Anyway, I had some familiarity with The Pearl.
     There is nothing subtle or nuanced in Steinbeck's novella.  In that regard, it is proper fare to be assigned to 12-13 year olds – especially if the teacher giving the assignment is hellbent on the students finding and analyzing the symbols and tone of the piece.  However, for an adult – and one who doesn't have to give a detailed report proving that he gets what the author is saying – it is somewhat frustrating.   
     The Pearl presents Mexico, or at least its localized region, less critically than Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory did.  Sure, Steinbeck gets points for expressing the type of internalized colonialism that sets the elites against the natives, but that point seems lost in his greater picture of self-destructive greed.  Indeed, it is lost completely when the elites lose only hired hands and potential immediate profit – nothing real to them; there will always be more money to be made and people to be hired to do the dirty work that passes for business.  Steinbeck doesn't need a proto-Communist Revolution to place the well being of his characters in danger.  The danger is as real and as present as the human condition, but it is revealed along the way in such heavy handed prose that it doesn't read as those it was intended for a sophisticated audience.
     While making that criticism, I will fully own the fact that the least of Steinbeck's fiction is undoubtedly better crafted than the best of mine.  In this instance, however, too much of his is awkward.  The description of the action scenes seems to take the reader away from the story and its meaning.  The lack of familiarity between the pearl divers and the villagers, while plausible, doesn't paint the picture of two sets of beings inhabiting the same space.  Worst, the most important scene in the book is glossed over with no reasonable explanation for how it actually happened given that the description of where characters were before the event would render it impossible. 
     The Pearl presents an insanely simple story, but it takes a long time to tell it (for it being so simple).  Yes, greed is bad; it can corrupt a person if all he or she does is want for more.  But Steinbeck tries to play some false nobility into being so poor and ignorant as to not know that one is being exploited, that surviving and being happy with squalor is better than aspiring for something more if it means that there are moments of unhappiness and it restricts the gain of others. 
     Still, it is an easy and quick read.  I started it on my train ride into the city and finished it on the train ride home, with about 15 minutes to spare.  I would recommend The Power and the Glory over The Pearl, because it is a much better book and has more mature points to be made.  I prefer my tales not be structured so black and white, but I understand why Steinbeck wrote this that way.

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