John Steinbeck first heard the legend of the pearl while he was collecting marine biology specimens in the Sea of Cortez in 1940. His initial inclination was to make the story into a film, but fortunately for the world of literature, he wrote a novella instead. Published in 1947, The Pearl functions as a parable about greed and evil, telling a simple story to get a big point across. The story focuses on a poor man and his wife who find an enormous pearl, for which their entire village becomes greedy. Many read the text as a critique of the American Dream, which meant Steinbeck wasn’t too popular among certain nationalistic, pro-capitalist crowds. Still, despite political bad-blood, the novel was a great success. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 for, among other things, his "keen social perception."
Why Should I Care?
Although we can't speak for its accuracy, we read a news story in the Shanghai Daily that seems relevant to The Pearl. It goes like this: A couple buys a lottery ticket. Rumor spreads that the couple has won lottery. The neighbors kill the couple for the money. Turns out, the couple hadn’t won the lottery in the first place. Conclusion: The lottery is evil.
Needless to say, this would be quite a simplistic conclusion. The story doesn’t mean the lottery is evil, it means that we – people in the world – corrupt the things around us. This is a far more disturbing conclusion. It’s a lot easier to blame the lottery.
"Wait a minute," you say, "are you talking about The Pearl here or what?" Yes, we are. The Pearl isn’t a comment on the lottery, but it is a comment on the American Dream. And, like the story of the lottery ticket, the conclusion isn’t that the American Dream is wrong, but that our world makes it impossible for it to function as intended. The American Dream operates on some basic assumptions: opportunity is always equal, competition is always healthy, and individuals seeking what’s best for themselves will ultimately benefit society at large. If these idealistic starting conditions end up, well, less than ideal, we’re going to run into some issues.
So what to do? Well, to start, we could recognize the problem. We could stop blaming the lottery. We could look for real solutions instead of quick fixes. But there’s one absolutely vital, incredibly important, mindblowingly necessary action to take first: we need to read The Pearl.