Reading The Pearl (2007-05-07/09)

"I know," said Kino.... "The loss of the pearl was a punishment visited on those who tried to leave their station. And the Father made it clear that each man and woman is like a soldier sent by God to guard some part of the castle of the Universe. And some are in the ramparts and some far deep in the darkness of the walls. But each one must remain faithful to his post and must not go running about, else the castle is in danger from the assaults of Hell."
--John Steinbeck, The Pearl

A couple of years ago my birthday wish list included "Perl references, like... CGI Programming with Perl." At my birthday party a friend gave me a Steinbeck Centennial Edition of The Pearl, partly in jest. The Pearl is a fable based upon a story Steinbeck heard in 1940 when traveling in the Sea of Cortez.

Three different reviews treat The Pearl as novella version of the fable of the boy with the filberts, or the monkey with his hand in the jar. First, the Penguin Books jacket says, "For Steinbeck, Kino and his wife illustrate the fall from innocence of people who believe wealth erases all problems." Second, Wikipedia summarizes the book as telling "the story of a poor Mexican diver who finds a magnificent pearl which he hopes will improve his family's life; however, he finds that his new wealth brings only corruption of the soul and the blinding luxuries of 'civilized' life." This review calls Kino a "greedy psychopath" and a "greedy sociopath." Finally, an About.com review states that Steinbeck "made the story into a parable, warning his readers of the corrupting influences of wealth." All three emphasize Kino's obsession, greed, and insanity.

(To contradict these reviews I must fill this post with spoilers.)

While greed may lead to trouble, the protagonist, Kino is guilty of nothing more than wanting a better life for himself and his family. Below are his plans for the wealth of the pearl:
  • "We will be married--in the church."
  • "We will have new clothes."
  • "A rifle," he said. "Perhaps a rifle."
  • "My son will go to school."
It is important to note that Kino receives none of these "blinding luxuries of 'civilized' life," a phrase I can only write with irony.

In his quest for a better life for himself and his family, Kino takes the following actions:
  • He requests the aid of a doctor in healing his son.
  • He works as a pearl-diver, diving for pearls and attempting to sell the pearl he finds.
  • He chases a thief out of his house.
  • He refuses to be cheated by a pearl-buyer cartel.
  • He defends himself when attacked in the dark.
  • He flees with his family to protect them from harm.
  • He stops the trackers who would kill his family.
These actions do not represent corruption of the soul; they are neither psychopathic nor sociopathic. If Kino shows a fatal flaw in keeping the pearl, it is his refusal to accept economic, racial, and social injustice. It is other men--corrupt men with religious, economic, or political power--that are characterized by lack of empathy or conscience, and poor impulse control or manipulative behaviors:
  • A greedy doctor refuses to treat Kino's baby's scorpion bite when Kino cannot pay.
  • A patronizing priest requests a contribution to the church.
  • The same doctor poisons the baby in an attempt to extract payment from Kino.
  • A thief--informed by the doctor--attempts to steal the pearl in the night.
  • Pearl buyers collude to keep the price of the pearl low.
  • A robber attacks Kino in the dark; another damages his canoe.
  • An arsonist burns down the hut in which the family lives.
  • Trackers attempt to hunt down Kino and his family.
These behaviors--not Kino's--are the ones violating social rules and norms and showing indifference to the rights and feelings of others.

Kino and his wife fall from innocence not in the sense that they are corrupted by wealth, but in the sense that they are the victims of the corruption and greed of others. Which others are corrupted by Kino's new-found wealth? It is not his brother and sister-in-law, nor even his friends and neighbors. It is the rich and powerful in the town, those who already have more than Kino.

In Steinbeck's story, "Don't leave your station," is spoken by the rich to the poor, the powerful to the weak, the educated to the uneducated, the European to the native. It is advice designed to protect the wealth, power, and advantages of those who have them. To call Kino "greedy" is thus to speak with the voice of the oppressor. Instead of a parable about greed, I see this as a story about the injustice experienced when the oppressed attempt to better their lives.