I adore John Steinbeck. I’m always eager to read more of his work, and was probably the only kid in my sophomore English Lit class that was stoked to read The Grapes of Wrath. Last night, I picked up The Pearl, and I just finished it about ten minutes ago.
The Pearl is a short story (88 pages in my version), perfect for a vacation. The version I read was published by Penguin Books as part of the John Steinbeck Centennial Edition set. Besides being a gorgeous book (you know, one of those that just feels like baby skin in your hands), it’s also promoted by the Great Books Foundation that encourages discussion of classics. Bookies, take note.
The summary in the back of the book is concise: “The diver Kino believes that his discovery of a beautiful pearl means the promise of a better life for his impoverished family. His fall from innocence is one of Steinbeck’s most moving stories about the American dream.”
After having just finished Travels With Charley, I’m curious about Steinbeck’s take on the American dream. Specifically, because of his definition of “American” as something that can’t be defined. Being abroad, I’m constantly trying to explain aspects of American culture, or where exactly I’m from, or what specifically makes me American; it’s always an impossible conversation. Reading Travels With Charley made me overwhelmingly proud to be an American, yet at the same time all the more confused and if not two steps closer towards understanding my culture, then definitely two steps back.
Defining “American” is like defining the horizon: you can observe it, you can make very accurate statements, you can constantly come closer to a solid definition, but to be frank the horizon is something too abstract to force into a tangible, understandable means. This, I believe, applies to the idea of what is “American,” as well. I do think, however, that reading The Pearl has pushed me a little closer to some sort of understanding.
In the story, Kino and his wife Juana are devastated when their newborn is bit by a scorpion. After being turned away by the local doctor for not having money, they desperately take the family canoe to the water to search for a pearl. Kino finds the biggest, most incredible pearl they could have ever dreamed of. Instantly elevated to a celebrity status within the community, he struggles with the newfound power, riches, jealousy of others, and threat on his life and his family’s by thieves.
When Kino first goes to the doctor, it is only because he has forced himself. The difference of class is obvious between Kino, an impoverished indigenous man who lives in a hut, and the educated doctor who only wants patients who will pay him enough to return to Paris. Kino’s biggest struggle is the difference of edcuation. Kino is smart, but not book smart. When the doctor greedily returns to Kino’s hut, seeking to take care of the baby, he knows his strongest weapon to keep power over the family is his knowledge.
The doctor claims the baby needs more help (though little Coyotito has already started to get better). Beyond his control, “Kino felt the rage and hatred melting toward fear. He did not know, and perhaps this doctor did. And he could not take the chance of pittign his certain ignorance against this man’s possible knowledge. He was trapped as his people were always trapped, and would be until, as he had said, they could be sure that the things in the books were really in the books.” (Steinbeck, p. 30)
I believe that Steinbeck accurately represents Americans in the honesty that we view our own faults. Considering our own person, I believe Americans culturally assess their weaknesses with honesty. How can we lie to ourselves? In the story, Kino is forced by his circumstances to flee his village and bring his family to safety. Multiple times in the story he is forced to make a decision: stay or go.
Though The Pearl is based on a desperate escape formulated on one compulsive decisions made after another, all as a result of the pearl coming into his posession, I don’t believe this was Steinbeck’s commentary on the American dream. The American dream is consistentely told as a pursuit of riches, at any cost; often we carefully overlook the price that such riches come at. We lose family, friends, relationships of all sorts; we invest our time into our own growth versus the growth of a community. In the end, we are left with only material possessions, and the truly worthy possessions we once had are long gone. All of this is true, and has been told again and again. However, I don’t believe this is Steinbeck’s goal with this story.
I think Steinbeck has a particular talent at displaying Americans’ mobility in various contexts. In this story, for example, I think that Kino and Juana’s flight from the village is not unlike our past expansion into the wild frontier. Neither we nor they had any idea what they were getting into; regardless, they moved. In our modern times, (and thanks to the enormous landmass that is our country) we are never limited in life by our physical boundaries. We always have the option to move, and this is precisely what we do. For better opportunities, for better education, for better climate, for better housing, for better jobs, for better food, for better neighborhoods, we move. The motives are diverse, but usually it’s because we can all agree that something better or more promising awaits us. I think John Steinbeck’s The Pearl shows us a part of what it means to be American in Kino and Juana’s story: when we realize our potential, and are afraid of the consequences of not acting on it, we must move forward, literally and figuratively.