The Pearl by John Steinbeck

“The Pearl” is a novella by John Steinbeck, first published hot on the heels of the second world war. The story is a re-visioning of a Mexican folktale, sometimes called a parable. This story is widely studied in American high schools so much has been posted elsewhere about symbolism and themes. My focus is on the structure and storytelling techniques, from a writer’s point of view.



The following song is based on John Steinbeck’s story.

THE ILLUSION OF CAUSALITY

This story reminded me of a half-forgotten memory. I’m four or five, sitting on the carpet in the living room at my Nana’s house. Nana goes to her bedroom, comes back with a ring and says, “See this ring? That’s yours when I die.” I can’t really see the ring from where I sit on the floor, but I nod obediently. A year or so later, Nana is killed by a car while crossing the road to buy milk at the dairy. I never see that ring again, because my father insists it’s cursed. First it belonged to an auntie of his — an auntie who died. Now his mother has died. Obviously, to his mind, the ring itself is bad luck.

That’s how inheritance works, of course — a ring isn’t passed down until its owner dies. If everyone were affected by the same cognitive bias as my father we wouldn’t see older women walking around with hands full of inherited rings.

The illusion of causality is at work in Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”, too, as humble villagers are corrupted by greed as soon as they come into some material good fortune. The oversized pearl itself is blamed, when in fact pearls are just pearls. Bad deeds are carried out by imperfect humans.

CHARACTERS OF “THE PEARL”

Kino — small build, wears a suppliant hat, native to Mexico, no money. Owns a canoe and spends his days diving for pearls and fishing to feed his family.

Juana — Kino’s obedient wife who has recently given birth to their first baby. Her life revolves around her baby. Juana is your classic Female Maturity Formula. She realises the evil in the pearl much earlier in the story, functioning as a Cassandra character. If only she weren’t under the thumb of her husband, who knows best according to the laws of patriarchy, they could’ve returned the pearl to the sea and their baby would have lived.

Because of the Female Maturity Formula, authors like Steinbeck are often let off the hook, because, as the following Goodreads commenter says:

In …The Pearl, Juana is the true hero of the story whose place is behind her man until the end, when they walk “side by side” when before, she always had to walk behind him. They only survived each scenario because of her and her ideas. Based on that, you make the call.

Goodreads

I disagree that Juana is ‘the true hero’. The viewpoint character is Kino, Steinbeck spends the first chapter getting us to side with Kino, and Juana remains unrounded. We never see her interiority at all. The same has been said of Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan, as a get-out-of-sexism free card for the creators, but I don’t buy ‘women as true/secret/sleeper heroes’ precisely because of the long history of unrounded woman characters.

Coyotito — their baby (At first I thought Coyotito referred to a bird! Just me?)

The Doctor — a French man who considers poor people animals, and whose fat body symbolises his greed.

Juan Tomas — Kino’s brother

Apolonia — Juan’s wife

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PEARL”

The story begins with two characters waking up. Many children’s picture books open with the beginning of a day, and end with our main character falling asleep. There is an inherent cosiness to a story which takes place over 12 hours — as if to say, “This too shall pass — tomorrow is a brand new day.” This story takes place over a number of fraught days, but we don’t know that yet.

It is difficult to write an original waking up scene. It has been done many times before. Here, Steinbeck is describing an idyllic morning — at least for Kino, who gets to sit around watching ants while his dutiful wife, always awake before him, sets about preparing their breakfast.

It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.

This is Steinbeck describing the iterative. He is yet to switch the reader to the singulative. This technique of opening with the iterative is again very common in children’s books, because it feels cosy. Routine is reassuring.

The first clue we have that not all is perfect in this world is mention of the ‘poisonous air’ of night-time. It was common long ago around the world for people to believe that illness was caused by ‘night vapours’. Darkness itself was feared, as much as the things that come out of the dark.

MAKING USE OF THE MINIATURE

John Steinbeck likes to remind readers of differential scales — he did it in “The Leader Of The People” and he does it in the opening, as Kino observes the ants, transforming himself into ‘god’.

The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him.

For more on The Miniature In Storytelling see this post. But why does Steinbeck use it in this particular story? Abundance does not cause satiation in humans; it causes anxiety and greed. The size of the pearl, and the size of Kino (godlike in comparison to the ants), coupled with the dream of the massive book with giant letters, all serve as symbols of (over) abundance.

The pearl in this story is as big as a duck egg, beyond anything known at the time. FYI, the world’s biggest clam pearl was found in 2006 in the Philippines and sold for $130 million. The pearl in Steinbeck’s story should, by market value, provide Kino’s entire community with enough to live on for generations to come.

SHORTCOMING

Kino and Juana are classic fairytale underdogs — they show no moral shortcoming. Nor do they show much in the way of psychological shortcoming, other than Kino taking his anger out on the gate and splitting his fist. (He may suffer from a self-destructive temper.) Instead, this pair have a problem: Their baby’s life is in danger after being stung by a scorpion. Apparently scorpions can cause convulsions and shortness of breath — these two are right to be worried about their baby.

Their related problem is that they have no money to pay the doctor.

Chapter One, which ends with Kino punching the fence in frustration, is almost a self-contained story in its own right, complete with problem, desire, plan, opponent, big struggle and a tragic ending. The only thing it doesn’t contain is the anagnorisis. For that we must read the rest of the novella.

However, though my modern lens, I find Kino’s violence wholly unacceptable. I put forward two main reader interpretations of Kino’s character after we see him punching the fence:

  1. Kino is expressing his frustration in an appropriate way, since fences are not able to feel pain and he is justifiably angry.
  2. Kino’s physical expression of rage hints at an uncontrolled temper, dangerous for his wife.

I went with number two, because I don’t trust people who punch anything out of rage. Sure enough, later in the story Kino bashes his wife’s face to the point where her wounds are attracting flies the following day. To me, Kino was never a pure-hearted fisherman corrupted only after the pearl was found. I suspect he was always a wife beater, hence his wife’s manic vigilance, conveyed via the creepy spectacle of her watching her husband each morning, then springing into action with a cooked breakfast once he awakes.

However, is this what a typical mid-century reader would have thought? Just 50 years ago doctors were recommending men beat their wives as ‘temporary therapy’. Kino is clearly depicted as an increasingly flawed human in this story, similar to the ‘breaking’ of Walter White, but I feel it would be a mistake to assume mid 20th century readers would have roundly criticised Kino for punching his wife in the face. I suspect judgement of Kino would have come later in the story for many.

DESIRE

This is a story of escalating desires, and the human tendency to be dissatisfied, which Steinbeck’s narrator tells us is the reason we are elevated above the animals (who are happy with their lot). Permanent lack of satiety is both our shortcoming and our strength.

Because this is a major theme, Kino’s desires escalate as the story progresses, beginning with a man who wants for nothing.

  1. Kino and Juana are happy as they are, but when their baby is bitten by a scorpion they would like a doctor to make their baby better.
  2. They would like money or a valuable pearl to pay the doctor.
  3. After finding the pearl, they want to fetch enough money to pay for their son’s education.
  4. Kino wants to escape the faceless, unnamed evil coming after him in his own village.

OPPONENT

The first opponent is the doctor who refuses to heal their baby without payment. He tries to persuade Kino that their baby’s eye is blue. I’m reminded of the people who call from ‘Microsoft Windows’, who then tell you to go into the bowels of your computer to view all sorts of normal running messages, then try to tell you that your PC is riddled with viruses.

The second opponents are the pearl buyers whose mission is to pay as little as possible for anything, despite being salaried themselves. Like the doctor, these are tricksters who make use of Kino’s lack of knowledge about pearls to try and persuade him that his pearl is defective under a magnifying glass. Anyone with basic knowledge of pearls understands that pearls are supposed to look unusual when magnified — this is the very thing that distinguishes them from fakes.

Even the obedient wife Juana becomes Kino’s opponent when she tries to get rid of the cursed pearl.

Why are the pursuers faceless and nameless? Wouldn’t it be more thrilling if the reader knew who these men were and what they are capable of? Perhaps, in thriller tradition, yes. But by remaining faceless these men better symbolise the evil that resides within Kino himself.

PLAN

The plan to take their baby to the doctor fails so Kino and Juana try their luck finding a valuable pearl. They are magically rewarded with a massive pearl, which seems to cure their baby instantly.

Kino plans to sell the pearl so he takes it to local pearl sellers, but he can see they are trying to swindle him.

The next plan is to take it to the city, which scares him. He has never ventured outside his own village. But that night he his thwacked in the head. Juana tries to throw the pearl into the sea but Kino stops her and hits her.

When Juan accidentally kills a man who attacks him he and his small family take refuge in his brother’s hut while everyone else speculates about what happened to him.

BIG STRUGGLE

After an exciting chase sequence, the baby has the top of his head shot off by the men on horses who pursue Kino.

When Kino and his family are chased into the wilderness, this is a metaphor for Kino entering deep into his own subconscious. Very Freudian. Very fairytale.

ANAGNORISIS

Kino comes to the conclusion (too late) that his wife was right — the pearl brings evil. He gets rid of it. He has seen the evil in humanity and within himself, no longer godlike, as he saw himself at the beginning of the story, overseeing those shiny black ants.

NEW SITUATION

Back in the village, this couple will lead a miserable life, forever changed by the murder of their firstborn, and also by the hopes and dreams held temporarily after securing a valuable pearl.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

There are many folk tales about greed, in which we learn that more does not mean better. This moral never gets old, and is only more salient today.

A picture book example is More and Better by Margaret Neve.

“King Bait” by Keri Hulme is a short story for adults, similarly fabulist, in which abundance immediately corrupts.

John Steinbeck was a renowned misogynist and it’s difficult to read his wife’s description of him without mapping Steinback himself onto Kino.

There are a lot of similarities between Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Kino — both men tell themselves that they’re doing what they do for their family. But there’s a saying that there are always two motives for doing anything — one is the noble one, the other is the real motive. The ‘noble’ motive in both cases is ‘I’m doing what I do to provide for my family’ but the real motive is ‘power’.

The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.

Perhaps Jeremy Fisher even had an influence on this piece by Ohara Koson, Frog Sumo, ca. 1930s



STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER

JEREMY’S HOUSE

Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)

STICKING PLASTERS

I was surprised to read that when Jeremy gets mildly injured he reaches for the sticking plasters. I didn’t think they’d have been around that long. I looked up ‘when were sticking plasters invented’. Certain American websites think they didn’t exist until Johnson & Johnson made them, but the adhesive plaster has a much longer history in England. These days I don’t hear kids talk about ‘sticking plasters’ — Band-aid seems to have suffered the fate of generification.

Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.

SYMBOLISM OF WATER

Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER

SHORTCOMING

Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.

Jeremy’s Shortcoming is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.

Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.

DESIRE

Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.

OPPONENT

Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)

PLAN

  1. Dig in the garden for worms
  2. Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
  3. Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
  4. Catch minnows
  5. Take minnows home to cook for dinner

He gets as far as 3.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.

ANAGNORISIS

Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.

Jeremy’s Anagnorisis is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.

NEW SITUATION

But we’re given a nice cosy New Situation, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.

The Nightfish by Helen McCosker

The Nightfish Helen McCosker

The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature. Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.

STORYWORLD OF THE NIGHTFISH

The setting of this picture book is an interesting mixture of cosy and scary. The little fishing village, nestled at the end of a bay, is cosy. The off-kilter perspective can go either way in illustrations, seeming either childlike or scary, depending on context. The colour palette of purples juxtaposed against orange hues reflects that mixture of cosy versus scary.

Unlike Margaret Wild’s There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea, or The Sailor Dog, The Nightfish uses the depths of the ocean as an arena rather than sticking to the surface, which in many stories might equally be a flat plain of earth.

A note at the back of the book explains to fans of mimesis that the author/illustrator has taken liberties in creating her fish, which is based on the baby angler fish, usually found in far deeper waters, and here called a ‘nightfish’ rather than a ‘lightfish’. This is an interesting thing to do if your fantasy elements are a not so far removed from reality that a reader might think, “Hang on, that’s not right!” Do as you wish for the purposes of story and add a disclaimer. Simples.

This setting could easily be anywhere, but Helen McCosker has gone out of her way to make it Australian by repetition of the particularly Australian exclamation of surprise, “Hooley dooley!

Helen McCosker is also making use of the miniature in storytelling, though it’s subtle. The boy is introduced in the first line as Adrian Nicholas Timms, but on page two his name has been shortened to ‘Ant’ — ants are tiny, living vulnerably in a much bigger world than they’d realise. Our main character is therefore also tiny, depicted as such on the establishing two-page spread, but also in relation to the vast depths of ocean, hinted at throughout the arena of this particular story.

Helen McCosker depicts the night as a magical, sparkly sort of place, and it is until Ant does something he shouldn’t. I’m always interested in how illustrators depict the night-time, because if we depicted night as it really is, no one would see anything much. There’s a wide variety of palettes you can use to illustrate the dark.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE NIGHTFISH

SHORTCOMING

Ant’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t understand what he is taking.

DESIRE

He wants to collect something to keep in his own room, as a pet for himself. But he doesn’t realise the creature has its own social connections.

OPPONENT

Ant’s opponents are the scary deep sea creatures who come to collect their baby.

PLAN

Ant doesn’t have a plan, except to keep a hold of the fish. In stories like this, the opponent must have the plan. The fish tell Ant to give their baby back, and when he doesn’t…

BIG STRUGGLE

Twice, the fish wreak havoc on the village, taking first the lesser sources of light, then coming back for the main ones (the street lights and lighthouse).

ANAGNORISIS

Ant puts two and two together and realises he’d better give the nightfish back. So he does.

NEW SITUATION

This part of the story is truncated. But we can extrapolate: Now that the precious fish has been returned to the sea, the scary, deep sea fish will stop wreaking havoc upon the village.

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild

There's A Sea In My Bedroom

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984) is a classic Australian picture book, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated in realistic fantasy style by Jane Tanner.

Margaret Wild is a well-known Australian author whose subject material ranches from melancholic to funny. I have previously blogged about Harry and Hopper and Chatterbox. Jane Tanner is also a well-known Australian illustrator, and also a writer and editor.

STORYWORLD OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM

When the sea/ocean is used in narrative, it’s worth making a clear distinction between the surface and the depths, because these are two very different arenas.

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom sticks firmly to the ocean surface. Wait until* David gets seaweed — or worse — tangled around his ankles, and steps on a blue bottle. Then he might get a bit suspicious about what the sea really is all about… but best to stick to paddling for now.

*David probably turned 40 this year, if he was six in the pictures.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM

SHORTCOMING

David was frightened of the sea.

It’s right there in the opening sentence. Some advocate ‘showing not telling’ but in a picture book for very young readers, you often get both. First we’re told, then we’re shown. The image of the rough sea — and nothing else — is really quite scary actually.

Because this is a picture book, and you’ll have read plenty of picture books if you’re here at this blog, you will know from the very first line that this is a story about overcoming one’s fear of the sea.

DESIRE

An aversion to the sea is not in itself a desire, so Margaret Wild is sure to put something in that he’d rather be doing instead. David loves to collect shells, and he is quite happy doing this.

Tip for picture book authors: If your main character is afraid of something, give them a proxy desire, not directly related to the aversion. This will help the reader to feel like this is a complete and rounded story. But it does more than that: It lets us know that this is not a wholly pathetic character.

OPPONENT

You could argue that the father is David’s opponent. Dad gives David the conch shell and tells him — cruelly! — that the sea can be heard inside the shell. David then takes the shell home, and his greatest fear is inside his bedroom now.

PLAN

At home in his room, alone with the ‘magical’ shell, David goes on a carnivalesque adventure into a sea which invades his bedroom and fills it up. But this is not a scary situation, this is fun.

There's A Sea In My Bedroom bed as island

BIG STRUGGLE

The proxy for the Battle scene is when his parents come in to find him writhing around on the carpet, in some sort of imaginary play. I suspect the young reader might expect a telling-off, because presumably David is meant to be in bed trying to get some sleep.

ANAGNORISIS

A soft growly, friendly sea.

When David explains to his parents that the imaginary sea was friendly, he can transfer that positive emotion to the real sea.

NEW SITUATION

Now David is able to enjoy swimming at the beach as well as collecting shells. He has learned that the sea is friendly.

(I’d argue that the sea is not particularly friendly in Australia, but that message is not helpful in a picture book.)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Where The Wild Things Are is the archetypal picture book about a boy who goes on an imaginary adventure at sea, though this one starts at the beach and ends there, too. And There’s A Sea In My Bedroom is designed to help children overcome a very specific fear, whereas Wild Things is more a mood piece about bad feelings in general. We don’t even know what it is exactly that leaves Max in such a bad mood.

Theodore Mouse Goes to Sea and The Sailor Dog are Little Golden Books about sea adventures — one a parody, the other written straight.

The Polar Express also makes use of the trope in which a child returns from an imaginary (not imaginary) adventure to find evidence of the trip in the form of something material. I’m not a fan of this trope, because I feel intuitively that it encourages magical thinking. (There’s a line between enjoying magical fiction and actively discouraging reason.) In There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, the talisman is a small pile of sand, which works really well for a reader like me, because the sand probably came out of the shell, or his shoe or wherever. There’s absolutely a real setting reason for a pile of sand to be in his bedroom. A young reader can be helped to understand that, too, unlike in The Polar Express.