Steinbeck’s greatest achievement was to give voice to the poor. Steinbeck’s critics could say he romanticized his subjects by making them all good souls who always had the high moral ground and earthy common sense, but so many of his subjects had been marginalized their whole lives that they were nearly invisible and so, I believe, deserving of a champion.
Yet many of Steinbeck’s stories end badly for the main characters, they are almost always defeated by the forces they hoped to struggle free from. For a time each character in a Steinbeck has hope for the future only to succumb to the cold reality that the rich and the powerful will remain rich and powerful and the poor will remain poor and exploited.
Yet still he gave a voice to the poor and he showed his audience how difficult it was for the less fortunate to rise out of their situation, how desperate they could be to change their lives, and how terrible it was for them to fail. Steinbeck imparts on the reader a great empathy for his characters because it is vital for us to feel the pain of these people. This is why, I believe, Steinbeck’s characters are almost always “good, honest people” because we believe ourselves to be people like his characters. And so when we see these characters struggle and fail we also struggle and fail and for a moment we empathize with these people.
Had Steinbeck’s characters been more like Tolstoy’s, full of faults and failings and hubris, he would have been less successful to get us to actually feel the pain of poverty and hopelessness because we would have had an excuse to blame the characters for their failings. Yet when the characters are a sketch, when we see only the good and watch how the bad washes over them, we understand, if only a little, the plight of people who cannot escape from their situations.
This was Steinbeck’s greatest achievement: he got us to actually care about people we might otherwise never even notice. Steinbeck didn’t need to create realistic characters like Tolstoy’s because he knew his readers were full of faults and prejudices; his job was to get those very people to not be selfish for a few hundred pages and show them how our insensitivity to the less fortunate could be devastating.
This story, like almost all of Steinbeck’s stories be updated to our own times with very few changes. Replace the pearl of the world with a lottery ticket, move the setting to an inner city or desperate country, and the truths would still be the same: the poor will be taken advantage of by the powerful and any resistance on the part of the poor will be dealt harshly by the law, no matter the justification.
And so when we ask ourselves “Why did Steinbeck never offer any solution to these problems”, then we should look in the mirror because he was actually asking us that question, he only gave us the tools to recognize there was even a problem to begin with.