Friday, June 1, 2012

The Pearl, by John Steinbeck (1947)

John Steinbeck's classic novella, The Pearl, is a tale about the tragic consequences one family faces in achieving the American Dream. For many people, this dream consists of acquiring wealth, and perhaps even fame. The recent craze over the Mega Millions lottery that was going for over $500 million is proof. People dream of the kinds of things they could do with that much money. Or we dream of fame through means of acting, singing, or writing a novel. I've encountered many teens in an urban school setting who believe school doesn't matter because they'll be rich one day due to their imagined singing talent. This dream isn't critically analyzed, and these teens fail to realize that failure is more common than success, and success, anyway, doesn't always get you where you want.

Kino and Juana come from a village of pearl divers in Mexico. They have an infant child named Coyotito. The story opens up to a serene sunrise, where Juana cooks breakfast and Kino sits in the sand and waits. The novel opens very slowly, lulling the reader into a hypnotic daze, and then with a shocking suddenness, a scorpion appears, crawling towards the baby. Kino squashes it, but not before it stings Coyotito. Kino and Juana take their child into town to the doctor, but he has no compassion or patience for people who can pay him only with seashells.

Kino and Juana have no choice but to hope the venom won't spread, as Juana sucked it out as best as she could, and they go in their canoe to dive for pearls. They hope to find a pearl valuable enough to pay for the doctor. As Kino hunts for oysters, Juana sings the Song of the Pearl, and their wishes are soon answered. Kino discovers a magnificent pearl, the Pearl of the World, and they take it back to the village. With the money they can get from the pearl, Kino and Juana can get married, buy clothes, and afford an education for Coyotito. Their future path has been laid before them. Their neighbors and friends, and soon the whole town, learns about the Pearl of the World, and everyone is dreaming of what they will buy with its wealth, though it belongs to Kino and Juana. This pearl represents the dreams of everyone.

Everything quickly goes wrong. The doctor comes to their hut and plays a mean trick to make Kino and Juana believe he has cured their child of the poison, and then he gives them the bill. In the night, somebody tries to steal it and Kino has to fight off the intruder. And when they try to sell it, the pearl buyers act as though the pearl is worthless and they low-ball Kino, which angers him. Things escalate even beyond this, but I will leave the rest for you to discover.

Elements of this story may sound familiar to you. We hear how lottery winners spend or loan out all of their money in a matter of years and fall into deep depressions. We also see the consequences of fame through celebrity gossip that paints the famous in a negative light. People grow envious of the success of others and seem to find joy in seeing them topple over. Britney Spears was a beloved singer until she got married for a brief time, and Christina Aguilera had a brief stint as a dirty girl that will not go away in the public eye, despite some beautiful music she has written since. And she's put on weight, celebrity gossipers are quick to point out. There are too many premature deaths: Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley, Michael Jackson. One has to wonder what toll fame and success takes on those who achieve it.

Steinbeck sees wealth as a corrupting force. He believes in the goodness of impoverished people, like Kino and Juana. They would have been happier had they not found the pearl. I don't think Steinbeck is discouraging people from dreaming, but providing a warning that achieving your dream won't fix all that ails you. In fact, it might even make things worse.

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