In re-reading some of John Steinbeck’s stories I came across “The Pearl,” which I had not read before. It is a fascinating story, well told, like all of Steinbeck’s stories, and one with a deep and disturbing message.
The story is about a young man, his wife, and their new-born baby who live in a poor village near the sea where the father makes a bare subsistence by diving for pearls. One day the young man, Kino, finds the “Pearl of the World,” a huge pearl that all pearl divers dream of but never actually find. But he has found it and with that discovery his life changes forever. He dreams of the wonderful things he will be able to buy with the pearl. And he dreams that he and his wife will finally be able to be married in the Church and their baby can be baptised. Previously they could not afford this. But with the dreams comes a creeping fear and anxiety. The entire village, and eventually the entire town, learn about Kino’s find and while the villagers are happy for him, there are those who would steal it because if its immense value. Steinbeck carefully creates the atmosphere in which Kino and his family are now living:
“In the brush houses by the shore, Kino’s neighbors sat long over their breakfasts, and they spoke of what they would do if they had found the pearl. And one man said that he would give it as a present to the Holy Father in Rome. Another said that he would buy Masses for the souls of his family for a thousand years. Another thought he might take the money and distribute it among the poor of La Paz; and a fourth thought of all the good things one could do with the money from the pearl, of all the charities, benefits, of all the rescues one could perform of one had money, All of the neighbors hoped that sudden wealth would not turn Kino’s head, would not make a rich man of him, would not graft onto him evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness. For Kino was a well-liked man;it would be a shame if the pearl destroyed him.”
Kino sleeps uneasily at night and hears evil music in his ears while others from the town plot to steal the pearl. There are several attempts to steal the pearl from his home, which is burned to the ground in the process. After he has returned from the town where he had gone to sell the pearl only to be told it was worthless and offered a fraction of what he instinctively knew was its real worth, he is attacked and kills one of his attackers. With his wife and baby in tow, he leaves the village in the dark of night and heads over the mountains to the city where he hopes to find an honest dealer who will buy the pearl for its true value.
Kino and his family are followed by a man with a rifle on horseback and two professional trackers who eventually catch up with the small and desperate family. After a violent altercation in which Kino kills the man with the rifle, takes it and shoots the other two men, his baby is killed. He and his wife return to the village with their dead son wrapped in a blanket. They walk through the town and the village to the seaside and Kino flings the pearl into the ocean.
The story is fascinating in so many ways. Its message to all of us is crystal clear. Indeed, it almost seems like a lengthy parable from the New Testament. We do not own things; they own us. They take possession of our souls and dictate our feelings and actions; they displace such things as compassion and fellow-feelings, just as Kino can no longer hear the family music and feel in harmony with his world: he hears only the evil music, is anxious, and cannot find peace. Until we free ourselves from the burden of our possessions we cannot be truly free. It’s ironic that so many in our culture are convinced of the opposite: that it is the things we buy that will make us free. But, as Kino discovers, those things bring fear and uncertainty, worry over things unseen and unheard, specters in the night. We bar our houses and change our passwords. We sleep uneasily and we make sure that the doors are locked tight. Kino never felt fear until he found the pearl. He was never free from that fear until he had flung the pearl into the sea. But in the meantime his infant son was killed and his house burned to the ground while he and his young wife lived through a nightmare only to discover that true happiness was theirs before they found the pearl. And it might never be theirs again. As I say, Steinbeck tells a remarkable story that is deeply disturbing in so many ways.