Greed in The Pearl
A sudden influx of wealth can, for some, bring joy and prosperity. However, it can also bring out the worst in one’s character. People can quickly go from being content with their lives to being overcome with greed and always wanting more. The Pearl by John Steinbeck is a perfect example of how greed can negatively affect people. It is the story of a poor pearl diver, Kino, and his family, living in La Paz in the 1940’s. They live in poverty and long for a better life for their son, but they have learned to make the best of their situation. One day, Kino is diving for pearls just as he does every other day, and he finds “the Pearl of the World”, a pearl as big as a seagull’s egg. At first, the finding of this magnificent pearl is a beacon of hope for Kino, who believes that it will drastically improve his life. However, he soon finds that the pearl brings only unhappiness and misery.
Greed for money brings out the worst in Kino, as it does with most of the other characters that encounter the pearl throughout the story. Through the actions of the different characters, Steinbeck comments on the dehumanizing effect that greed can have on people, regardless of their status in society. The people who Kino comes in contact with as he sets out to sell the pearl are the first examples of people brought to do immoral things out of greed and jealousy.
One of these people destroys Kino’s canoe, his most prized possession. The destruction of it is devastating to him; he calls it “an evil beyond thinking,” commenting that “the killing of a man is not so evil as the killing of a boat” (62). It is his family’s only means of survival, giving Kino and his family access to fish, for food, and pearls, his only source of income. Whoever destroyed the canoe must have known how vital it was to Kino and his family, but they did it regardless. Another example of immoral actions brought on by greed is the reaction of the pearl buyers in the nearby town upon learning that Kino is selling his pearl.
They make a living by convincing people to sell them their pearls for meager amounts and then reselling them for much higher prices, which they plan on doing to Kino as well. The pearl buyer that Kino meets offers only one thousand pesos for the pearl, which Kino knows is worth at least fifty times that. Kino refuses this offer; however, if Kino had accepted the low price, the buyer would have had no qualms about cheating Kino and buying the pearl for a fraction of its worth. Toward the end of the story, Kino and his family set off to the capital to sell the pearl, and shortly into their journey they discover that they are being followed by trackers from “the inland”.
These trackers were hired by someone to steal the pearl, which most likely entails killing Kino’s family in the process. They are getting paid to complete this job, so they are willing to kill an innocent family without any guilt. All of these people allow their resentment and desire for money to make them act without a second thought to the devastating impact they may have on others’ lives, showing how dehumanizing the prospect of money can be to people.
The town’s doctor is another example of someone who is negatively affected by his greed for the pearl and obsession with money. Though the doctor lives in a large house with every comfort he could desire, it is not enough for him, and “his mouth droop[s] with discontent” (11). There is clear foil between Kino, who is happy with his life though he has nothing, and the doctor, who has everything but is not content. At the beginning of the story, Kino wakes up and immediately looks toward his family and the light coming in from the door, while the doctor looks toward a portrait of his dead wife and sits in a “heavy and dark and gloomy” room. Here, Steinbeck is commenting on how the possession of money does not always make one happy with his life.
The doctor’s character is described as cruel and indifferent toward his patients, and his attitude toward Kino’s family is no different. Kino and his wife, Juana, visit the doctor for the first time when their son, Coyotito, is stung by a scorpion. When the doctor’s servant informs him that Coyotito is in dire need of help, the doctor replies, “I am a doctor, not a veterinary” (11) and refuses to treat Coyotito without payment, which Kino does not have. refusal to treat Coyotito solely because Kino can not afford to pay for his services shows the complete lack of compassion the doctor has; he has become so obsessed with money that he is willing to let a baby die. Later, when the doctor hears that Kino has acquired “the Pearl of the World”, he claims that Kino is a client of his and goes to visit Kino in his home. He tells Kino that the venom from the scorpion bite will return and gives Coyotito medicine that he claims will reverse the venom’s effect.
Soon after, Coyotito is overcome with spasms and vomiting, and the doctor returns to give him ammonia, which stops the baby’s symptoms. Though it is never proved, it is implied that the medicine the doctor initially gave Coyotito was what actually caused the baby’s sickness, again showing how little compassion the doctor has for others. He is not concerned about the chance of Coyotito dying, and instead tries to squeeze as much money out of Kino as possible. Through the characterization and actions of the doctor, Steinbeck shows that happiness does not necessarily come with wealth and how people can be brought to do terrible things for want of more money.
At the beginning of the novella, Kino is the polar opposite of the doctor; he is content with his life and values his family above all else, but the appearance of the pearl changes him into someone very similar to the materialistic doctor. In the opening pages, it is shown repeatedly how in touch Kino is with nature, which contrasts strongly with the relationship he has with his surroundings while in possession of the pearl. He goes from waking up to the sounds of nature and thinking to himself, “it was very good” (1) to feeling as though he is surrounded by “the evils of the night” (69) and grabbing his knife to protect him. This shows how dramatically his change was, which occur in the span of only a few days.
Another major change in Kino is his attitude toward his wife. At the beginning, Kino and Juana have a very loving relationship where they are comfortable enough with each other that there, “is not need for speech” (4). This is a stark contrast to their relationship once the pearl is introduced into their lives. Whenever Juana advises Kino to get rid of the pearl, he brushes her off by saying, “Believe me… I am a man… Hush” (57). This newfound tension escalates to the point where Kino beats Juana badly when she goes against his word and tries to throw the pearl away herself.
Out of all the changes that Kino goes through, the most dehumanizing is the willingness he develops to kill. When someone attacks him in the middle of the night trying to steal the pearl, Kino’s first impulse is to get his knife out and lunge at the attacker, killing him. Throughout the story, he kills four men total, whereas at the beginning he was a respected, peaceful man. These changes and events show how much of Kino’s humanity and morality has been taken away as a result of him finding the pearl
Throughout the story, most of the characters that come in contact with the pearl end up being corrupted by greed and jealousy. Though they all come from different social backgrounds and situations, each of them is stripped of their humanity by their own avarice, showing how universal the effects of greed can be. Like Kino, many people believe that acquiring more money will automatically solve problems, but this is usually not the case. By becoming obsessed with money and materialistic objects, people can quickly lose sight of what is important. Due to this, it is vital for people to stay true to their values and avoid being overcome by greed, lest they suffer the losses of the truly important things in their lives.