What is a parable and why do you suppose Steinbeck calls our attention to this in his preface?

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It is commonly stated that parables teach some moral or spiritual lesson. This definition has merit, but more can be said. Parables also seek to challenge a person’s assumptions. They seeks a paradigm shift, which is no small matter. We can see this point in the New Testament where the purpose of the parables of Jesus is given. Mark 4:11-12 make this point. He replied,

The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, so that they may be sever seeing but never perceiving and ever hearing but never understanding

In other words, parables confuse old paradigms and worldviews so that a new vision of the world can emerge out of that confusion.

In The Pearl, a paradigm shift is also in play in two ways. First, it is a reversal of Jesus’s parable of the pearl of great cost. In the New Testament, when one finds the great pearl, he sells everything to get it. Of course, the pearl in this context is the kingdom of God. In Steinbeck’s novel, the great pearl is just a big pearl.

Second, Kino “sells all” to get this pearl, that is, this pearl consumes him. On the surface, this act might seem like a good idea, but in the end, this pearl is deceptive. It promises much, but it only delivers pain. The reason for this is Steinbeck changed the referent of the pearl. The pearl is not the kingdom of God or something akin to this, but it represents wealth and with wealth, greed, covetousness, and other destructive desires.

If we look at the book from this perspective, then the message of the parable is to be wary of the desire for wealth. There can, of course, be other lessons. Consider them; you will be well on your way to becoming an insightful reader of texts.

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Parables are stories or images which teach some moral or truth.  Generally parables are drawn from the everyday lives of the audience.  Steinbeck wants the reader to regard the story in The Pearl as a parable – a story which tells a moral truth.  He also alludes to a specific parable used by Jesus in Matthew 13:45-46, and it is insightful to compare Steinbeck’s story to this well-known parable about a merchant who gave everything he had in exchange for one pearl.  In Steinbeck’s story, Kino will find a pearl but will give up certain things because of the pearl. 

Steinbeck uses many Biblical allusions not only in his stories but also in their titles – e.g., The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden.  So it is not out of character for Steinbeck to allude to a parable of Jesus in the preface of The Pearl.  Indeed, he would have expected his reader to understand the meaning of parable and to be familiar with the specific parable which undergirds his story.

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