The Pearl, John Steinbeck


What would you do with a sudden wealth?

In 11th grade, I was charged by my English teacher to read the Grapes of Wrath, a book since banned from high school reading lists in the state of Mississippi. After following the excruciating travels of a family of Okies headed to California and the promise of a better future, I realized I am John Steinbeck fan. After reading Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and The Red Pony I found a consistent look into the trials of twentieth century Americans with deep and believable characters and story lines demanding a pensive analysis. In short, Steinbeck was a literary genius. So I was excited when I found The Pearl (a pearl of my own you might say) for $1, and I am glad to report it was a dollar well spent.

Kino and his family were a part of  an American Indian tribe of fishermen, and they lived as a part of the heritage passed down for generations. “His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they saw or thought or did or heard became a song. That was very long ago. The songs remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added.” He constantly heard the song of his ancestors like a conscience guiding his family.

But then… But then his son, Coyotito, suffered a scorpion sting, and the white doctor only helped those who had things. Desperation sent Kino and his wife, Juana, pearl diving as a last resort, but as anyone watching the World Cup knows, desperation sometimes leads to survival. Their hunt was successful beyond wishing as Kino surfaced with the largest pearl their village had ever recovered from the ocean’s depths and along with the pearl came hope.

“What will you do now that you are a rich man, Kino?” Kino had to think about the question. What would he do? As I read this story, I thought about how many times the hypothetical what-ifs have popped into my head. “There has to be a way to get one million people to each give me $1,” I have remarked to my wife on multiple occasions. What would I do?

Kino looked to the pearl. Through it and the songs of his people, he envisioned his future: a church wedding, a harpoon, a rifle, and schooling for his son so that one of his people could know what the books actually say. Hope was strong, and the family set some very practical goals. No one could say that Kino asked for unreasonable things. “Greed” never entered my thoughts as I read his humble requests.

Yet the story does not progress quite like Kino expected. Now there is the threat of robbery. People pay more attention to the their family. The white doctor happened to come by to “cure” the son (They will settle the bill later). Suspicion creeps in, and the songs of the people become harder to distinguish. Paranoia is justified when the local pearl dealers low-ball Kino with their price, and he is attacked in the night. Hope turns into a dark determination to press through these obstacles to obtain the future the pearl had brought to them.

“He looked into his pearl to find his vision. “\’When we sell it at last, I will have a rifle,’ he said, and he looked into the shining surface for his rifle, but he saw only a buddled dark body on the ground with shining blood dripping from its throat. And he said quickly, ‘We will be married in a great church.’ And in the pearl he saw Juana with her beaten face [from an argument of theirs] crawling home through the night. ‘Our son must learn to read,’ he said frantically. And there in the pearl Coyotito’s face, thick and feverish from the medicine.”

In the end, the pearl destroys them. I’ll spare the details for those who have not read it, but not only does Kino’s wishlist burn, the life they had before the pearl is beyond repair. I put the book down with a heavy heart thinking about the events that transpired and then turned back to my own thoughts.

Like Kino, I like to set goals too. What would I do with new wealth? I simply want to pay my debts, a very reasonable think to wish for.  If I had that pearl in my hands, that is what I would see. Yet I have noticed that even in this virtuous aspiration there lies an ancient greed… an irritation… like a small grain of sand on its way to become a pearl of its own. Becoming debt-free is a great thing to hope for (and one I hope everyone aspires to), but not at the cost of my conscience… my children’s time… or even my mental well being.

I learned through The Pearl’s introduction that Steinbeck wrote The Pearl on the waves of his new found success in The Grapes of Wrath. His fame and wealth changed his life in ways he had not expected nor, in some sense, could recover from. The Pearl’s theme is about the fallacy of the American Dream. I believe Switchfoot’s “American Dream” put it aptly by saying, “When success is equated with excess, the ambition of excess wreck us as the top of the line becomes the bottom line when success is equated with excess. I want out of this machine. It doesn’t feel like freedom.”

I will pay off my debts at some point,  but doing so is not my life’s mission. I choose to resist the rat race mentality. Progress is not always accompanied with dollar signs.


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