This week I chose The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I remember watching The Grapes of Wrath by Mr. Steinbeck when I was in high school literature class. Since that time, I had not read or watched any other of his work. He has a variety of fiction, non-fiction, plays, and a screenplay that he wrote during his career.
The Pearl is based on a Mexican folk tale, and explores the secrets of people's nature and the depths of evil. The book focuses on Kino, a pearl diver and occasional fisherman, his wife Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito. They are a very poor family (in the material sense) in that all they have is a grass shack home, some clay cooking utensils, and Kino's boat, a valuable item inherited from his father and grandfather.
The boat is the family's livelihood, and provides the means to put a meal on the table and a few pesos for store-bought goods by selling the small pearls Kino is able to find.
Despite the family's impoverished life, they are far from being unhappy or depressed. Rather, they have a great treasure: the love they have for one other and their satisfaction with life as they know it. They have very few dreams of more expensive or greater things.
One day, their routine and quiet life is turned upside down when Kino finds a Great Pearl. Suddenly Kino can dream of better things: a rifle for himself, school for his son so he will be able to read and tell what is in the books, and a real house. As the book said:
"...Humans are never satisfied,
that you give them one thing and
they want something more."
However, dreams can be deadly things. Dreams lead to desire, and desire to greed, and greed to violence. Starting as early as the third chapter, The Pearl reveals these negative elements.
In today's world, The Pearl might be called The Lottery. A lottery ticket, like the pearl in the novella, vaults a person from the troubles of day-to-day life, and is thought to leave her/him "set for life." Unfortunately, all too often, winning the lottery is a quick financial ride up and a crash back down.
When thrust upon a person, sudden wealth - whether it comes from a lottery ticket, an inheritance, or an investment - changes the person and everyone around them. All a person's reference points, friends, and all that their lives have not prepared them for, surround, threaten, and many times destroy them.
As Juana asked Kino in the book, "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."
Even though The Pearl was written in the mid-1940s, the moral is timely and meaningful. Some people will do what they can to take advantage of you, especially if you have something they want. This message is clearly shown in The Pearl, and is a theme worth reflecting upon.
More important, taking a look at what you have - even if the material things you have pale in comparison to what others have - and being content with the things that are truly important in life, is a valuable and timeless reminder.