The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s best-known work, but its epic nature tends to overwhelm the fact of Steinbeck’s economy of prose. The man dealt in plain, ennobled people, and his writing was appropriately lean and efficient; In Dubious Battle's description, for instance, of a shotgunned character, that “there was no face,” is a little masterpiece of understatement that leaves everything to the imagination and nothing to miscommunication. That Steinbeck’s other instant-recall classic, Of Mice and Men, was only a little over a hundred pages long made this point a bit more obvious. Yet it is a character-driven work, and its compaction requires a certain intricacy in the scenario it sketches.
The Pearl, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Based on a Mexican folk tale and dealing in stock characters and archetypes, its narrative is freed of psychology—the dialogue is spare and mostly functional—and free to pick up other tools with which to make its point. There are literal music cues, Songs of the Family, of the Enemy, the Pearl, that weave in and out, and a dreamlike quality given to its coastal Mexican setting. But most interesting is the way The Pearl makes use of the simplicity of its almost fairy-tale-like notions of black-and-white and light-and-dark, and turns the symbolism on its head.
The Pearl is a simple story of good people, the indigene Kino and his wife Juana, seduced into evil by the discovery of the Pearl of the World, the most beautiful pearl anyone has ever seen. The story is accordingly saturated with imagery of light and shadow from the very first sentence in the book.
“Kino awakened in the near dark.”
From there we read how “Juana’s fire leapt into flame and threw spears of light through the chinks of the brush-house wall and threw a wavering square of light out the door,” and how the sun was “breaking through its crevices in long streaks. And one of the streaks fell on the hanging box where Coyotito lay, and on the ropes that held it.” In another instance, “the yellow sun threw [Kino and Juana's] black shadows ahead of them so that they walked on their own shadows.” The sun does this pervasively: “even tiny stones threw shadows on the ground.” This may well be the overriding idea of the book: try as we might to escape the darkness, the light will bring it back, out of us, and inescapably.
For even at the beginning, the book hints that not this is not just the usual strict darkness=evil equation. Kino wakes up in near darkness, but it is the beginning of the day. Yet that is no comfort; it is the beginning of the most terrible three days of his life. And what should set events into motion but a scorpion, to which the sun streak falling on Coyotito’s box seemingly points? Light is in fact no comfort at all. Kino must look down “to cover his eyes from the glare” of the rising sun’s “explosion of fire,” and later on Juana makes him a shade “to protect him from the light” and puts her shawl over Coyotito “so the hot sun could not shine on him.” The idea of the sun as a threat becomes more explicit in a long passage describing Kino and his brother Juan Tomás approaching some pearl buyers' office:
The brothers, as they walked along, squinted their eyes a little, as they and their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers had done for four hundred years, since the first strangers came with argument and authority and gunpowder to back up both. And in the four hundred years Kino’s people had learned only one defense—a slight slitting of the eyes and a slight tightening of the lips and a retirement. Nothing could break down this wall, and they could remain whole within the wall.
Their approach to the blinding sun is the same as their coping with the intimidating power of the European colonialists: to squint.
This inverted relationship between light and dark is further warped with the introduction of the pearl. Kino’s first glimpse of it is “a ghostly gleam,” not quite real and vaguely threatening. But this gives way when he extracts the object from its oyster shell and finds it, “the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence.” Even its light seems unreal, of the moon, a celestial body associated with madness, lunacy. When Kino stares into the pearl the light does not reflect reality, but “dream forms” of what could be, of the riches and the life of privilege and education his son could have. Even Kino’s thralldom to its luminescence is twisted: rather than simple greed, the desires the pearl awakens in him are entirely to benefit his son.
For a time after, light and dark seem to regain their normal connotations. Fire shadows leap across Kino’s face as Coyotito receives treatment from a corrupt, colonial doctor, accentuating tension and conflict. “[W]ooden slats cut out the light so that only a soft gloom” can enter the office of the conniving pearl buyers. Darkness itself is used as a cover by would-be thieve no less than three times. During this time the spiritual darkness in Kino’s soul becomes explicitly literal:
“Who do you fear?” Kino searched for a true answer, and at last he said, “Everyone.” And he could feel a shell of hardness drawing over him.
After a while they lay down together on the sleeping mat, and Juana did not put the baby in his box tonight, but cradled him in her arms and covered her face with his head shawl. And the last light went out of the embers in the fire hole.
The pearl, once hidden from the world by an oyster shell, becomes hidden again by Kino, himself developing a hardening shell. “This pearl has become my soul… If I give it up I shall lose my soul.”
It is not long before the pearl’s perverse luminescence goes to work again. A killing at his doorstep shatters all chance of retaining a normal life in the village. With darkness “closing in on his family,” the literal darkness becomes a welcome state. For the black of night, at the beginning of the story and now here, has been an emblem of uniformity and order, an order disturbed when Kino’s hut is set afire: “[T]all flame leaped up in the dark with a crackling roar, and a tall edifice of fire lighted the pathway.” Now squinting is no longer sufficient for dealing with the light, Kino must hide, for “[the] light made him afraid… light was danger to him.”
And so the story barrels towards its catastrophe. On the run with Juana and Coyotito, Kino shuns the daylight, the sun, for the danger it poses to them, and the darkness becomes an ally when, pursued by hunters, Kino decides to strike at their night camp. Thus, as the pearl has turned Kino and the village on each other, the light has been turned back on the trackers, with just the flash of a match or a cigarette being enough to give their position away.
Yet even as Kino prepares to strike he must race against the moon, “an old and ragged moon,” the celestial pearl that once risen will expose him with its “hard light and hard shadow.” Here Kino’s own brown skin, the emblem of his Otherness when dealing with the nasty doctor, becomes his greatest asset, allowing him to creep “silently as a shadow down the smooth mountain face.”
But the pearl is working its evil, and under darkness’ cloak are done the darkest deeds, and by story’s end Kino and Juana have been utterly consumed. The blackness inside them, conjured by the afternoon light, brings shadows long. As they return to the village “The sun was behind them and their long shadows stalked ahead, and they seemed to carry two towers of darkness with them.” The pearl, the great deceiver, has lost all luster, is now “grey and ulcerous.” No longer giving Kino glimpses of its promise of prosperity, it can only reflect immutable disaster. Fitting then that, its spell broken and its awful work complete, the pearl vanishes from sight and story.
The Pearl is only 90 pages long. It certainly does not lack for incident, but it is straightforward in its presentation. The simplicity, however, belies the richness of its interplay of light and dark. Inner darkness manifests in outer shadow. Daylight is a menace, the night a refuge. Light and vision itself are deformed and debased by the siren pearl. The indigenous skin shade, so often a colonial hindrance, becomes a benefit. All of these, while existing within a relatively traditional black-and-white dichotomy. The Pearl is in its simplicity, deceptive.