March 27, 2003 ~ The Pearl
The Pearl by John Steinbeck. This book has been breaking my head ever since I read it a few weeks ago. Now, don't get me wrong; it is beautifully written and is a great story. It is an enjoyable, quick read. But the moral, one that I initially agree with, also has this feel of wrongness about it that I just can't shake.
Let me back up and explain what the book is about. First of all, it is presented as a parable of the town-folk of La Paz. In this parable, there is a young man, Kino, who has a beautiful mate and a perfect little baby boy. Though they are very poor and have a subsistence lifestyle, they are content and have much beauty in their lives. One day, however, a scorpion stings the baby, and fear fills their hearts. They try to take the baby to the town doctor, but the doctor will not see them--he only treats the rich white people. Afraid that their baby will die, they take their most prized possession, their boat, out into the bay, and Kino dives for pearls, hoping to find the pearl which will bring him the riches that he needs to have his baby treated. On his first dive, he finds the biggest, most luminous, most beautiful, and most perfectly-shaped pearl that anyone has ever seen, the Pearl of the World. Kino has modest goals for his newfound prosperity. He wants to pay for a church wedding. They will buy shoes. Some nicer clothes. A rifle for hunting. School for his son, so that he can read the laws of the white men and not be oppressed.
Suddenly, though, everyone, including the town doctor, is his "friend" wanting, of course, to see this amazing pearl grace their own pocket books. To sum up the entire book in a few sentences, the baby probably would have been fine, but the doctor "treats" him anyway, swindling Kino. Thieves come in the night. The pearl buyers will not give him a fair price since they have a monopoly on pearl buying in the town. Kino's hut is burnt down, his boat is wrecked, everything that was beautiful about his life is destroyed, all for the greed that others have for the pearl. Stubborn to have what is rightfully his, Kino sets off on a journey with his family to the big city far away, so that he might get a fair price for his pearl there. But he is followed. Disaster befalls them.
Now, obviously, the moral of the parable is that it is best to be content with what one has, for if one seeks after great riches, one will find sorrow, and happiness was right in front of one's nose from the beginning, anyway, and can't be bought. Which is all fine and good. Yes, be happy with what you have. Chasing after riches is not a terribly noble pursuit. One should accept one's place within society with grace and thankfulness.
But hang on just a second, here. Kino wasn't exactly a moneygrubber. All he wanted was fair treatment for his child, basic medical treatment, very basic education, and shoes to wear. He wanted to marry the woman he loved. He wanted a gun so that he may provide food for his family with ease. He wanted to sell his pearl for what it was worth (for what a white man would get for it). Kino was far from greedy. He just wanted fair treatment.
And I guess Steinbeck has an out, of sorts. He cast this as the parable that the poor townspeople tell one another. Maybe it is the story, the moral, which holds them in oppression, holds them in their poverty. But that's not exactly clear. The impression that one gets from the book is "Don't challenge the system. Doing so will bring you woe."
I don't particularly like the moral of "poverty-stricken and politically oppressed people should be happy in their poverty and oppression, and shouldn't 'rock the boat,' so to speak." That really bugs me.
Maybe I'm taking it a little too personally. Yes, I find joy and beauty in the place where I am, which, at the moment, happens to be pretty damn poor. But I don't think that I should just happily accept my station and not do a thing to change the conditions of my life. I also don't accept the idea that I don't deserve quality health care, an education, and the necessities of life that others have. (Just a side note: I am not in any fashion saying that I am as poor or destitute as Kino was in the book. I'm mainly talking, theoretically, about the overall arching theme and the way that I relate it to my life).
At the same time, I think that the book scares me. Because maybe it is right. My entire family, especially on my father's side, going back generation-to-generation for as long as anyone can remember, has been destitute and poverty-stricken. Farmers, factory workers, laborers, et cetera. My parents were constantly struggling to keep a roof over our heads and food in our mouths while I was growing up. I am the very first person in my family to go to college. My father hadn't even finished high school.
And you know what sucks? I'm starting to realize that the things that I was warned about by my high school counselors were true. College is for the children of rich people, or at least middle class people, especially small liberal arts colleges like the one that I went to. It's not for people who grew up below the poverty line. Even more apt was their warning that if one is poor and wishes to go to college, one should choose a major for the money that it will make, not for the joy and fulfillment that it brings. If your parents can't pay for college for you and you choose a major that is not profit oriented but arts oriented (like... oh... say, English / Creative Writing, for example), you will be struggling to pay off student loans for the rest of your life. Seriously. If I can keep paying these loans at the rate that I am expected to pay (which is getting harder and harder) I will be fifty-three by the time that I am done. Forget about buying a house, about a good car, about, heaven forbid, paying for my own children to go to college someday. I'm going to be paying off my student loans until shortly before retirement.
I had inside of me a beautiful pearl, my writing talent, and I was foolish enough to think that I would get a fair price for it if I brought it to the "big city" (the small liberal arts college). It turns out that the big city isn't very accessible for the poor town-folk. The struggle that I am having right now to keep a roof over my head and food in my mouth is teaching me that lesson in a rather poignant way.
I think what I'm trying to say is that the social classes of America are a lot more ridged then they look. I am not saying that I regret going to college. College was an excellent experience, and something that I will never regret. I'm just saying that my father believed in the American Dream. He told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be, if I got good grades and went to college. Well, I wanted to write, and I wanted to get a liberal arts education. So I did it. With a lot of loans, it was possible for someone of my means. But what my dad didn't know was that college isn't an instant ticket to wealth. Not if you study in the arts.
Some people, some people get lucky. And I still hope that I will. But I'm starting to accept that maybe I won't. Very likely I won't. Most people don't. Not when they start off poor.
A lot of people imply that the poor just don't work hard enough, and that's why they can't pull themselves out of poverty. I resent that. My grandmother worked hard manual labor for her whole life, and she is still eating in homeless shelters at seventy-five. My father worked long hours his whole life, plus the National Guard in his spare time, and he is hardly able to keep a roof over his head and is, most of the time, on the brink of homelessness.
I tried to bring the pearl to the city, and I still haven't gotten there yet. No one in my family has. I still believe my father's dreams, that one day I can make ends meet if I can just work a little harder, try a little more. But I realize that he did the same thing, and he is barely keeping himself alive.
And so, the two viewpoints exist side by side within me. I keep carrying the pearl toward the city, in the hopes that I will be one of the lucky ones who actually makes it. But I also realize that the world isn't set up for me to succeed, there are forces from every direction trying to push me back into my "place." Steinbeck was right about one thing. Those who seek the way to the city with their pearl, they face great peril, hardship, and very possibly great woe.