Beyond human nature: the bitter truth of poverty and class differences
book review of The Pearl
Almost every introduction and book review focus on the nature of the book as a “parable about wealth and the evil it can bring.” As much as the book deals with greed, evilness, the danger of wealth, what truly stands out to me as a reader is the class differences that the book reveals. Behind the human desire and greed that can sometimes drive characters frantic, the insecurity of losing the wealth and other central plots of the book altogether shows the bitter truth of class stratification, class differences, the desperation that people from the lower class experience, and the complex feelings the characters have for the pearl—the symbol of wealth and fortune (as well as evilness and greed). If we read the book in the lens of human psychology and sociology, the book would become more than a disclosure of the common unescapable human nature to desire money—Steinbeck uses the book to tell that in a world with opportunities, many can remain hopeless and desperate because of structural oppression.
From the discovery of “the Pearl of the world”, the protagonist Kino slowly becomes paranoid, constantly fearing that people would take away the pearl. Everywhere, Kino would carry “the pearl still in his hand, tightly closed in his palm,” lest that he would lose the pearl. Even when he goes outside to sell the pearl, the pearl would be “wrapped in an old soft piece of deerskin and placed in a little leather bag, and the leather bag was in a pocket in [his] shirt.” The book, an allegory about wealth, indeed tells a lot about greed and human nature. As a great writer who knew perfectly well of how to use his words to achieve the effects of moving and convincing the audiences, Steinbeck’s descriptions and multiple uses of literary devices prove the statement that “humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”
Besides the greed we see from the person who finds and fears losing the pearl, the dark side of human nature is also attached to the rest of the world under Steinbeck’s imagination. He creates a whole town where other bystanders love to gossip around. In the case of the pearl, the descriptions of Kino’s fear is often juxtaposed with the depictions of the bystanders with an omniscient perspective—always the first to know what has happened to Kino and his pearl. When writing about the town’s people, Steinbeck uses a lot of irony, hyperbole, and simile. In almost the beginning of each chapter, the story starts with the reaction or the characteristics of the town’s people. From giving enough information about the town, its people, and their behavioral patterns, Steinbeck writes a story that not only concerns the protagonist and his family but also majorly includes the tremendous effects the overall society has on Kino’s actions and thinking. In one chapter, Steinbeck describes the town as “a colonial animal”—a place with “a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet.” He further explains that “a town has a whole emotion…News seems to move faster than small boys can scramble and dart to tell it, faster than women can call it over the fences.” The constant reactions and even witty descriptions of the town’s people seem to support the popular opinion that the book is all about revealing human nature; the bystanders’ agitating behaviors show the jealousy, greed, and lousiness of common people whom Kino would also be a part of if he were not the one who finds the pearl.
Beyond the disclosure of greed, though, the book also deals a lot with poverty and the uncertainty and bitterness of life that comes along. Delving into the greed of Kino, what we see is the desire for a better life. The book is about poverty, desperation, systemic problems, the uncertainty of life; the book is about self-worth; the book is more complex than simply revealing the dark side of human nature. From the psychological descriptions of Kino and Juana when they find the pearl and from their seemingly hilarious yet bitter psychological developments, readers can understand the hardships of life and the many uncertainties faced by impoverished people. When Kino begins to hope that he would find a pearl, he also starts to think that “it is not good to want a thing too much. It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just enough, and you must be very tactful with Gods or the gods.” The hope and the resistance against such hope lest that the reality would hit hard manifest the hidden and repressed desires of the protagonists, who live a life of uncertainty, always waiting for luck to come.
Behind the desires for money are the desires to move up the social ladder and change the bitter status quo of poverty. One of the most impressive sections of the book to me is where Steinbeck juxtaposes the fantasy of the Kino with money and the sad reality. Kino repeats many times that he would spend the money educating Coyotito, his son, so that his son would become someone better. “Some day, his mind said,” Steinbeck writes, “that boy would know what things were in the books and what things were not.” Again in Kino’s dream, “Coyotito was reading from a book as large as a house, with letters as big as dogs, and the words galloped and played on the book.” Behind the greed, what really drove Kino insane are the desires for education and escaping poverty.
Through the interactions between the doctor and the protagonists, the helplessness and even racial and class prejudices come to life. When Juana uses her ways to cure her baby, she thinks that the remedy can even be better than the doctor’s but she realizes that “the remedy lacked his authority because it was simple and didn’t cost anything.” In the face of the hypocritical doctor, Kino feels outraged, but there is nothing he can do; he knows perfectly well that his only remedy would be education—education for Coyotito so that his son could escape his fate. Kino understands that “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 doesn’t only reveal the dark sides of things—he helps provide a comprehensive picture to explain things. Besides being insecure and arguably greedy, the protagonists, representing those underprivileged and impoverished, shows that the book is more than exposing greed.
Steinbeck achieves his goal in the book of bringing the audiences unique perspectives into the bitter life of Kino and his family. The pearl can represent many things depending on how readers interpret the book, but as a guiding element of the book, it helps demonstrate the complex issues of inequality and discrimination in the bigger picture. It shows the existing class and racial differences that seem to set people apart; it shows that the problems exist not only at in individual level but pertains directly to the town as a whole (and of course, metaphorically the social structure and norms.
information: The Pearl by John Steinbeck