Life Lessons and Steinbeck
In my Literary Analysis and Composition 202 courses, we have just finished a study of John Steinbeck’s classic novella, The Pearl. The book tells the story of a man, Kino, and his simple life as a pearl diver in central Mexico. When Kino discovers an enormous pearl that is sure to change his financial status, his life is thrown into chaos. Suddenly, a wife, small child, and humble village hut is not enough. With the promise of more, Kino’s perspective begins to change. His “friends” begin acting suspicious, and the traders in a nearby town do their best to cheat him. In a matter of days, he is in a race for his life, with his wife and child in tow. He is determined to make it to the city, where he is sure he will get a fair price and become wealthy. With trackers on his trail, Kino sets out to change his destiny.
In a particularly stirring passage, Steinbeck describes the moment when Kino discovers the pearl:
Kino lifted the flesh, and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world. (p. 19)
In an age that, at times, seems obsessively materialistic, it is interesting to work with young people studying a novel that explores the psychology of greed and wealth and its effect on values and perspectives. In journal responses, discussion forums, and live chat, students were challenged to examine the effect of the pearl on Kino. Taking this a step further, I asked students to consider how the promise of great wealth might impact their own values and perspectives. To my delight, most of my students took a stand for family, faith, and relationships over wealth and fame.
During one discussion, a student commented that wealth acts as a shield, hiding the true identify of a person and causing others to see and treat him or her differently. Another student said wealth never solves life’s problems or turns unhappy people into happy people. In one of my favorite moments, a student shared a number of quotes from founding fathers, each quote reinforcing the idea that character comes from within.
One of the benefits of live online discussions is the freedom with which students can share their views. Peer pressure seems to be less of a concern, and students are more willing to open up. For an English teacher, this means greater opportunity for authentic learning when studying classic literature.