In my senior high literature class this last semester, I assigned the reading of John Steinbeck‘s The Pearl as an exercise in both early 20th century American literature and literary criticism from a Christian perspective. The research paper I assigned held this basic thesis: “Did John Steinbeck write The Pearl as an adaptation of Jesus’ parable ‘The Pearl of Great Price’ (Matthew 13:45-46); and, if so, does Steinbeck agree or disagree with Jesus’ implication?”
My choice in assigning this paper came from my own memories of reading The Pearl and viewing it automatically as antithesis to Jesus’ parable. Whereas Jesus, after comparing the pearl of great price to the Kingdom of heaven (or to the Gospel), called it something of ultimate value, Steinbeck called that same pearl intensely desirable but ultimately detrimental to human decency. In my opinion, Steinbeck saw the Gospel as something that, while advertising health and wealth, in the end only causes division and death. Wheres the man in Jesus’ parable sold all he had to claim the pearl as his own, Steinbeck’s character, Kino, eventually threw the thing back into the sea with a concluding thought of “Good riddance.”
I write this entry because one of my students came to a different conclusion. While she agreed that Steinbeck also chose to let his pearl represent the Gospel, he considered the Gospel good but the humanity who handles it bad. The pearl in both stories, she wrote, offers salvation from something (in the parable, it was spiritual salvation; in the novelette, it was physical), only in Jesus’ parable the man knew how to receive it, and in the novelette the society did not at all. The pearl in both instances was a symbol of good and a catalyst for response; what made the difference was how those responding received it.
While my student’s paper does not change my own opinion on the issue, I thought it proper to share. We cannot know who is right, and it is totally possible that we are both wrong. For all we know, Steinbeck had never heard Jesus’ parable before and made the story up completely from scratch. Either way, the book makes one think, which is exactly what good literature is supposed to do.
© 2011 E.T.