Those who long to be rich, however, fall into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”
1 Timothy 6:9-10
In 1939 John Steinbeck wrote a novel called “The Grapes Of Wrath.” It was a runaway success and achieved commercial fame. The novel was about farmers from Oklahoma who, devastated by drought that had plagued the land, moved west in search of work that could earn them a living. Steinbeck for his time, was considered a radical California writer. This new book also brought controversy, because he seemed to be making a statement that perhaps communism was the way to settle ecomomic disparity in the United States. The book was essentially about poor people and how their lives were changed by evolving industry. The public responded with a backlash of persecution toward Steinbeck for writing about marginalized society. Instead of enjoying his fame and the money that came with success, he experienced deep self-doubt and went through a period of reexamination of American values.
As a result of this time of reflection, the novel “The Pearl” was written. The story is a parable, and it’s title is meant specifically to make readers reflect upon the biblical “pearl of great price.” In Matthew 13:45 Jesus says, “Again the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” The parable is not implying that to follow God means you must live a life of ascetisim. It is implying that there is nothing more important than to seek God himself and eternal life with him in heaven.
Steinbeck takes this parable and writes about it literally. His story revolves around three main characters: Kino, Juana and Coyotito. Kino and Juana are a poor Mexican couple. Kino earns his living by diving for pearls. Coyotito is their beloved infant son. Steinbeck cuts right to the chase and puts us in suspense in chapter one as we read about Kino and Juana watching a scorpion slowly descend on the ropes of the “hanging box” that their precious baby is laying in. With baited breath they watch it’s movement until finally the baby laughingly reaches up and grabs the rope. The scorpion falls and the thorned tail of the scorpion finds its mark on the baby’s shoulder. Steinbeck introduces a number of elements here. First we see a foreshadowing of the fragility of their “true” pearl, baby Coyotito. Steinbeck also introduces into the narrative here a device which he uses throughout. He contrasts the “song of family” with the “song of evil.” Kino and Juana are simple, illiterate, working class people. Their dialogue in the story is limited. So Steinbeck uses this “music” both to express mood and to replace dialogue. Desperate, Kino and Juana take the baby to the local doctor, who is an evil, brutish wealthy white man. He refuses to treat the baby because the couple have no money. After Juana applies a poultice, the couple do the only thing they know to do: they go out in their little boat so Kino can dive for pearls.
Juana prays that day that they can find a pearl so they will have enough money to pay the doctor. Kino, not only finds a pearl, but he finds the “pearl of all pearls.” Steinbeck describes it: “There it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world.”
The rest of the story is about the unfolding of Kino’s life after he finds the great pearl. The whole town becomes wrapped up in his story. This is the way Steinbeck tells it: “Every man suddenly became related to Kino’s pearl, and Kino’s pearl went into the dreams, the speculations, the schemes, the plans, the futures, the wishes, the needs, the lusts, the hungers, of everyone, and one person stood in the way and that was Kino, so that he became curiously every man’s enemy. The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld. The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it. But Kino and Juana did not know these things. Because they were happy and excited they thought everyone shared their joy.” Steinbeck here defines that infinitely curious thing about wealth: the one who has it is never quite sure of people’s motives in relating to him. One thing for sure, Steinbeck lets you know that people certainly aren’t happy for you if you have it.
Kino quickly understands he must sell the pearl, lest someone try to steal it. Kino also has his own dreams wrapped up in the pearl. His dreams are not for himself, but for his son. He hopes to sell the pearl so that he will have the money to send his son to get an education. Kino sees his son as the savior of the family, the one who can deliver them from poverty. The townspeople watch Kino and Juana closely. Steinbeck writes, “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 the evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness. For Kino was a well-liked man; it would be a shame if the pearl should destroy them all.” Steinbeck slowly asks us to consider shifting our perspective from the pearl being an object of great worth to an object of sheer evil.
The corrupt town doctor, learning of Kino’s find, suddenly reverses his decision and comes to “help” the baby. Preying upon Kino and Juana’s ignorance he gives the baby poison, only to come back an hour later to “save” the baby with the antidote, all the while telling them he is saving Coyotito from the scoripion venom. The doctor’s sole goal is to see if he can possibly detect where Kino has hidden the pearl. We see here that the pearl puts Juana and Kino’s greatest treaure in peril and we have already seen the fragility of Coyotito’s life. Later that night Kino awakes. Juana asks him, ‘Who do you fear?’ Steinbeck writes, “Kino searched for a true answer, and at last he said, ‘Everyone.’ And he could feel a shell of hardness drawing over him.” Juana says, “This thing is evil! This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us…..Throw it away Kino. Let us throw it back into the sea.” Later in the narrative Juana tries to do just that, and Kino ends up beating her. Thoroughout the story Juana remains the voice of reason and we see Kino’s character begin to be corrrupted by the pearl.
Kino goes the next day to sell the pearl, and runs up against another injustice: the corrupt pearl buyers. There is more than one buyer in the local town, but they all work for one man. So they try to offer each seller the lowest amount they can give. When Kino brings the pearl in they tell him that it is worthless, that it is a ‘novelty.’ Yet even in his ignorance, Kino knows this is a lie. He decides he must journey to the “big city” to see if he can get a fair price. Kino’s brother Juan Tomas, understands that the local buyers have most likely collectively cheated their people for years, yet what Kino is undertaking is very ambitious and has never been done. Tomas’ warns him, “There is a devil in this pearl. You should have sold it and passed on the devil. Perhaps you can still sell it and buy peace for yourself.” Kino tells him with eyes that are hard and bitter, “it is my misfortune and my life and I will keep it……This pearl has become my soul. If I give it up I shall lose my soul.” In an effort to keep his dreams alive, Kino has to descend into a morass of evil. Before all is said and done, he has beaten his wife and killed several men. Being hunted by trackers, he and Juana flee with their son. Kino manages to kill the trackers, which is his only hope of escape, but not before the one with the rifle ends up killing Coyotito, who is hidden away in a cave with Juana. Steinbeck describes Kino and Juana’s abysmal return into town with their dead son wrapped in a bundle. In the end, Kino with Juana at his side, throw the pearl back into the sea. Kino has learned that “power accrues to those who already have it” and also that “greed corrupts the soul.”
The Pearl is a distinctively American story that is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. How many American’s have come to the end of their lives and realized they have sacrifed too much for the attainment of this ideal we call “the American dream?” In America we often feel that the “pearl of great price” is something called “success.” Success ususally gets dumbed down in translation to “having a lot of money.” Success is the prize we run after and that is the thing we sell everything we have for. The things American’s “sell” to attain this goal are very costly. We sell our marriages, our children, our health, our time, our money, our very lives. Once success is achieved, American’s like to live their insular lives amusing themselves to death. They do not like to be reminded of something as sordid as poverty. They don’t like to admit that not everyone really does have an equal chance of achieving the American Dream. The Pearl is a direct expression of Steinbeck’s very personal experience of achieving the American dream and finding it wanting. He is asking us to consider whether the cost is worth it. Steinbeck called The Pearl “a brutal story but with flashes of beauty.” He indeed shows us the brutal toll of the corruption of greed in a simple, stark, straight-forward narrative that challenges American ideals to the core. He asks us to consider what our true treasures are. Though not a Christian, it is interesting that Steinbeck alludes to the Bible and the “Pearl Of Great Price” by choosing the title that he did for his novel. The only difference between when he wrote and today is that today many would not automatically understand that inference to scripture.
Steinbeck also certainly knocked down American’s number one idol of greed. It is clear from scripture that of all the idols that will inhibit one from finding God, greed is at the top. Jesus put is succinctly: “You cannot serve both God and money.” It is interesting to note that pearls must be searched for and that they are a rare and beautiful treasure. So although the moral of Steinbeck’s story is not to search for God, it points us in the direction of the parable of the Pearl of Great Price, and in that parable God himself tells us: Search for me! I am the rare and beautiful treasure you long for.”
Steinbeck learned the hard way that American’s set up and then love to watch the demise of their celebrities. The celebrity today is the American equivalent of the Gladiator. We put the celebrity in the ring to entertain us and then we like to watch him die. We only want our celebrities to amuse, not to make us ponder difficult questions. Upon achieving his pearl of “success” Steinbeck found it as bitter as Kino, and one wonders if he too would have like to have thrown it back into the sea.