January 16, 2018

Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Pearls

On this day in 1947 John Steinbeck's The Pearl was published, to coincide with the release of the film version. Steinbeck developed his "parable" from a traditional Mexican folk tale, and in such a way as to guarantee it a permanent position on the high school curriculum, but some biographers interpret it in a more personal way. Kino, the poor-but-happy fisherman who finds "the Pearl of the World," is Steinbeck finding international wealth and fame with his previous book, The Grapes of Wrath; the ensuing confusion over values and lifestyle is reflected by Steinbeck's marriage and alcohol problems; Kino's loss of his son and his self-image are paralleled by Steinbeck's problems with his sons and his persistent feeling that he had squandered his talent. Among the evidence for all this is The Other Side of Eden, John Steinbeck IV's memoir of growing up too close to his abusive mother and too distant from his father:
    Artists by nature are not particularly gifted as parents. They can be very self-centered, very abusive, and dysfunctional when it comes to raising children. So the kid has to raise himself. Dad never had to be a parent except on his time and on his terms, and then he was very good at that, very good. Very Huck Finny. Had he had to do it day in, day out, he would have failed miserably.
The list of specific references in English literature to the all-that-glitters-is-not-gold theme starts with Chaucer and includes just about everybody. The slightly shorter list of pearl references goes back to the bible and beyond; this passage from Shakespeare's Othello occurs at the end, just before the hero makes himself pay the full price:
    . . . I pray you, in your letters,
    When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
    Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
    Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
    Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
    Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
    Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
    Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
    Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
    Albeit unused to the melting mood,
    Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
    Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
    And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
    Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
    Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
    I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
    And smote him, thus.
O, the 2001 teen movie, cuts such speeches and the long line of allusions which attend them. It probably will not challenge the popularity of The Pearl on the curriculum, but one on-line reviewer happily ranks it "The best Shakesphere [sic] film set in a high school."

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