The story centres on Kino, a pearl diver, his wife Juana and their son Coyotito. Although the family live in poverty they also live peacefully. Whilst out gathering pearls one day Kino finds a huge pearl. Kino tries to sell the pearl but the pearl buyers try to cheat him. Kino is attacked and has to flee. They are being followed by trackers who want to steal the pearl. Kino kills the trackers but in the fight Coyotito is killed. Kino and Juana return to their village and throw the pearl back in to the sea.
Steinbeck spent time working with immigrant Mexican workers on farms and in factories.
He understood them and their concerns. Steinbeck wanted to highlight the plight and conditions of these Mexican workers. Steinbeck uses Kino and Juana as symbolic of the community in which they live. In 1940 Steinbeck made a research trip to the Gulf of California, he visited a town called La Paz. It was here that Steinbeck first heard the tale of a boy and a giant pearl.
This tale was the inspiration for The Pearl. There is a strong moral theme running through the pearl that one should be content with one’s life and with greed comes misfortune.
Kino seeks wealth and status through the pearl; it changes him from a happy contented man in to a killer and wife beater. It is human nature to dream of a better life, this longing for something better is a theme of The Pearl but as with most of these tales it ends in tragedy for the seeker of the better life.
Finding the pearl allowed Kino to fight against his destiny. To change the natural order of his life. To step out of his culture and his society. With the pearl comes hope, the promise of comfort and security but this has to be balanced with the dangerous and disastrous effects of stepping out of the established system.
As the story begins Kino is perfectly content with his situation, despite his lack of possessions and his difficult existence. Kino’s song in his head reflects his powerful feeling or emotions. In chapter 1 Steinbeck uses the “song of the family” to tell the reader exactly what Kino is feeling. Happy and content with his life. Steinbeck uses a list of three when he say that as Kino watches his family he believes that this is “safety” , “warmth” and the “whole”, this reinforces to the reader that these 3 things are the entirety of everything Kino really needs.
It is important and significant for Steinbeck to show this early contentment as it acts as a contrast with the later panic that Kino and indeed Juana will feel once they receive the hope for a better future that comes with the pearl. Steinbeck uses several comparisons to emphasize the differences between the simple native Indians and the more cultured European types. Steinbeck provides descriptions of the village and the town both inside and outside the houses. Kino has very few possessions and lives a basic existence; they have no door just a “lightening square” which came through where the door should be.
This is in direct contrast to the doctor who has many possessions and lives a luxurious lifestyle. Whereas Kino had no door the doctor has a “big gate” with an “iron ring knocker”. Kino lives in a “brush house” but the doctor lives in a house with “concrete walls”. Kino does not have a bed he sleeps “on the mat”. The doctor, on the other hand, sleeps in a “high bed”. The village in which Kino lives is presented as one that’s very basic, untidy and shabby, all the villagers live in brush houses, all the villagers do the same job. It is a very close nit community.
The villages is open and friendly Kino’s brother lives close by and when Coyotito is stung by the scorpion, the whole village gathers round to see what’s going on. In contrast to this the doctor’s town is very expensive, and luxurious. The doctor’s house and all of the other houses are isolated by huge stone fences and an iron gate. The town has a “blinding plaza” and a “church” neither of which Kino’s village has. The village is clean and tidy; as they approached they heard the “sweep of the long broom on the flagstones”. Even the ground is paved in the town.
There is a dividing line: the city becomes a massive block of cold stone and plaster, as opposed to the more flexible brush and dirt houses of the natives. Steinbeck provides stark contrast between the foods that Kino eats compared to that of the doctor. Kino eats a simple and basic breakfast, “hot corn cakes” and “plaque”, the only breakfast he has ever known. The doctor however, eats bacon every morning, not just ordinary bacon but “good bacon”. This is a luxury breakfast that Kino has never had. The doctor eats a lot of processed foods that have a high fat content; this is why he is “growing stout”.
When the doctor pours himself a second cup of “chocolate” this illustrates greed in the doctor. The only time that Kino eats well is on feast days. On one such feast he ate cookies and they “nearly killed him”. When describing the clothing that the doctor wears Steinbeck presents it as very expensive, he describes a “dressing gown” that has come from the fashion capitol Paris and is made from “silk”. Steinbeck again illustrates the doctor’s greed and overeating by saying that it was “abit tight”. The doctor’s clothes represent wealth and over indulgence. Kino’s clothes are very old and tatty.
Steinbeck used the beggars outside the church to assess the clothes worn by Kino and Juana. They could read the age of Kino’s blanket and the “thousand washings” of the clothes he was wearing. Because of these clothes the beggars were able to categorise them as “poverty people”. However, by describing how Juana braids her hair and ties it with the green ribbon. Steinbeck is able to illustrate that although they do not have a lot they still take pride in their appearance. Steinbeck presents Kino and the doctor in very different ways when he is looking at their attitudes to nature.
Kino and his race live very close to nature, they respect nature, and their lives are controlled by nature. Kino has no electricity so the sun/nature decides their day. When they wake, when they sleep. Kino’s world is natural and free. Whereas Kino and his race represent the natural, the descriptions of the doctor suggest that he represents everything that is not natural. The doctor represents a society that is materialistic. Everything including nature is owned or controlled. The gardens are not natural, they are artificially planted.
An example of the doctors control of nature is the water fountain, not only are they controlling the water, it is also being wasted. The animals that Kino sees around his village are free. Significantly Kino sees “a covey of little birds chattered and flurried their wings” this Steinbeck perhaps uses as a metaphor for the villagers. In contrast when Kino reaches the town he can hear “caged birds” singing inside somewhere. These birds are owned, they are not free. Perhaps Steinbeck also intended them to be used as a metaphor for the town dwellers. The town dwellers seem themselves like caged birds.
Steinbeck uses basic language to describe Kino’s way of life whereas with the doctor he uses language that is more delicate and luxurious. These differences in language reflect the differences in their lifestyles. Kino’s being one of poverty and hardship, eating basic food like “hot corn cake” to the doctors life of wealth and luxury, eating processed expensive food like “good bacon” and “chocolate”. Steinbeck uses antithesis when describing the doctor’s luxurious lifestyle when he compares “cooling” and “hot”. This illustrates the controlling and wasteful nature of the doctor and the townspeople as a whole.
The use of animal imagery is very important. Kino’s interaction with the ants in chapters 1 and 6 reveal a great deal about his position and attitude, they provide an important contrast with one another. In chapter 1 during the idyllic opening scene. Kino watches with the “detachment of god” as the ants go about their business. The description of the ant caught in the sand trap is a foreshadowing of Kino’s eventual experience, being unable to escape his own ambitions. In chapter 6 however, Kino has just spent a hellish night trying to “escape to the north” again Kino is sat watching the ants.
This encounter is describing Kino after the pearl has corrupted him. He is no longer detached from nature, no longer god like. When he puts his foot in their path the ants “climbed over” and went about their business. Kino can’t change nature. These 2 interactions with ants draws a parallel between Kino’s relationship with nature and god’s relationship with him. The scorpion acts in 2 ways, firstly it establishes that Kino’s existence is precarious because it illustrates the possibility of danger that the family faces. The scorpion threatens the security and safety of the family unit.
It also forces Kino in to the town and the world of the doctor. Secondly it acts as a symbol of evil. Coyotito, an innocent child is stung by this evil. The destruction of innocence through evil. This foreshadows what is to become of Kino, because this destruction of innocence repeats itself later with the destruction of Kino’s innocence by his ambition and greed. This forces Kino in to the town and the world of the doctor. Steinbeck shows the reaction of various members of the town to the discovery of the great pearl: the beggars remember that a poor man becomes very generous when suddenly wealthy.
The shopkeepers look at all the men’s clothes that had not sold so well. The priest wonders if Kino will contribute to the church. He visits Kino only as a means of gaining some of the money for the church, when he says “remember to give thanks” he is shamelessly asking Kino to thank god with money for the good fortune he has received. The doctor announces that Coyotito is his patient and visits Kino. Steinbeck makes it clear that the doctor does not visit Kino to cure his son. He indicates that the doctor’s treatment of Coyotito might even be unnecessary.
When Kino tells the doctor that the baby “is nearly well now” the doctor is able to use superstition to frighten Kino into letting him treat the child. He suggests all sort of horrible evils that may affect the baby from a “withered leg” to a “crumpled back” Kino may be able to pay the doctor, but he is ignorant as to whether he is making the right choice. Kino is uneducated and powerless and the doctor used both of these factors to manipulate him. Kino’s desire that his son obtain an education shows that Kino recognises that education is the escape from colonial oppression.
Steinbeck presented the townspeople as negative, selfish and greedy this foreshadows what Kino’s attitude will become, negative, selfish and greedy. Kino constantly thinks of the good that the pearl will bring him. Kino’s dreams are to be married in the church, to buy a new harpoon and to have what Steinbeck describes as the “wildest daydream”, an “impossibility”, a rifle. Steinbeck tells the reader that if Kino could think of having a rifle then a whole new world will open up to him. A world more like the materialistic town then his basic village.
But Kino’s biggest dream is that his son Coyotito will be able to go to school and learn how to read and write. Kino believes that Coyotito will help free him and his family from the ignorance that makes them fear the townspeople. Kino perhaps now feels that he can be as good as them, an equal. Kino’s focus shifts in this chapter, in his single minded pursuit of success and wealth for his son Kino abandons the emotional needs of his family and cares for them in a materialistic way. Kino’s leaves Juana to care for the baby while he finds a place to hide the pearl.
He stabs an intruder who tries to steel the pearl. Kino’s life has now shifted from one of peaceful coexistence in his village to violence and suspicion. Steinbeck presents the pearl buyers as manipulative and as devious as the priest and doctor. Steinbeck doesn’t give them names or any sort of character but illustrates their personality in other ways. He use of the dark dimness of their offices with the windows barred with “wooden slats” and animal imagery when he describes Kino’s thoughts of them as “circling of wolves” and “hover of vultures” helps to set the tone of the pearl buyers.
Steinbeck uses the first buyer practising a coin trick to symbolise the underhanded nature of their personality. This trick is used at fairs and carnivals to cheat innocent bystanders and this is what they attempt to do to Kino. The pearl has changed Kino’s personality. In chapter 1 Kino was content in his poverty; a situation that Kino thought was the “whole”. He was at one with nature, part of nature but now he feels alienated from nature and everything else. As Steinbeck says “Kino has lost one world and has not gained another”. Kino is becoming like the townspeople, he is becoming materialistic.
He has to protect his possessions. When Juana takes action and tries to throw the pearl away Kino beats her. Kino steps out of the natural order and even nature is against him at the end. Kino is “happy for the wind” because it will cover their tracks but then with nature against him, the wind dies down and Kino knows that there will be footprints left behind. Steinbeck presents Kino’s race as being very poor. Kino’s race has been exploited by the townspeople for hundreds of years. They fear the townspeople who are educated and therefore have power. Steinbeck portrays Kino’s race as basically good people.
The townspeople however come across as evil. The priest, doctor and pearl buyers try to manipulate Kino with their knowledge. Steinbeck wants the reader to sympathise with Kino. This becomes harder to do after Kino found the pearl because his personality changed so much. He became ambitious and greedy much like the townspeople. Kino redeemed himself at the end of the novella when he threw the pearl back into the sea. Although it can be said by that point in the story the pearl has become an unwanted object that only causes him pain and no longer has the power to provide for a better future.