The Pearl

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The Pearl

John Steinbeck
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

John Steinbeck


Whether by prayer, quest, or lottery ticket, humans have long expressed their dreams of a better life. Many are the tales about this phenomenon and, more often than not, the tales end in tragedy for the pleasure seeker. This longing for something better is the theme of John Steinbeck's 1947 The Pearl.

Steinbeck was disillusioned in the aftermath of World War II. He realized that none of his heroes— the GI, the vagrant, or the scientific visionary— could negotiate survival in a civilization that created the atomic bomb. Repentance, as attempted by his characters in his novel The Wayward Bus (1947), was not enough. Fittingly, he reflected his disillusionment through a legend about a man who finds the Pearl of the World and is eventually destroyed by greed.

The legend tells of an Indian pearl diver who cannot afford a doctor for his son's scorpion sting. In this anxious state, he finds the Pearl of the World and is able to get medical help for his boy. Calculating the profit from the gem, the diver dreams of a better life—a grand wedding, clothes, guns, and an education for the boy. But his dream of leaving his socio-economic station leads to ruin. As he attempts to escape those that want to take the pearl from him, he is tracked by professional hitmen and tragedy ensues. No pearl is worth the price Kino and his wife pay, so they throw the pearl back. Their story is a warning to restless dreamers yearning for an easy or magical solution to their problems.

Author Biography

Steinbeck was the son of flour mill manager and Monterey County Treasurer, John Ernst, and a school teacher, Olive Hamilton, who lived in the Salinas Valley of California. Like other families in the valley, the Steinbecks thought themselves rich because they had land; unfortunately, they could hardly afford to buy food. There were four children but John Ernst Steinbeck, born in 1902, was the only boy. As a youth he spent much of his time exploring the valley which would become the backdrop to his fiction.

After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University and attended intermittently until 1925. He worked to pay his tuition and was forced to take time off to earn money for the next term. This proved invaluable; he worked for surveyors in the Big Sur area and on a ranch in King City. This latter location became the setting for Of Mice and Men. Oftentimes he worked for the Spreckels Sugar Company, thereby, receiving firsthand experience of contemporary labor issues.

The most important learning experience, however, was a summer class in biology in 1923 at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck's exposure to biology led him to develop general theories about the interrelationship of all life. Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist, whom he met in 1930, would help him with this. Steinbeck adopted his idea that people could only be fully human once conscious of "man's" place within the entirety of creation. Humans were but one animal in life's web. From there, Ricketts and Steinbeck diverged as the latter mixed socialism with biological theory to grow his literary vision: man should act in concert with others to live happily and for the good of all creation. Essentially, Steinbeck's theory was a biological twist to the growing movement of 1930s "Proletarian Realism."

Keeping with his theory, Steinbeck fictionalized human society by observing its groupings rather than by selecting an individual. Observations of group behavior showed how humans could intelligently guide their own adaptation and natural selection. Typically, his characters begin in harmony with nature but then evil, in the form of corrupt politics or greed, upsets their order. Salvation is possible when the individual sees the rationality of cooperation and agrees to act, or adapt, to being part of a group, or phalanx. Failing to work together leads to tragedy. This theory would see Steinbeck through his greatest writing. Shortly thereafter, his inspirational friend, Ricketts, died in a train accident. In 1947, his parable, The Pearl, was published.

Steinbeck secured fame and fortune with the immensely popular novel, Of Mice and Men (1937). He followed this with his best known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died of heart failure in 1968. He had three wives (Carol Henning, Gwyn Conger, and Elaine Scott) and two children (Tom and John).

Plot Summary

The Pearl opens in Kino's home in La Paz, Mexico. The sun is beginning to lighten the day, as the "tiny movement" of a scorpion catches Kino's and his wife Juana's eyes. The scorpion is heading towards Kino's and Juana's son, Coyotito.

Kino slowly reaches out to grab the scorpion, while Juana whispers magic to protect Coyotito, but the scorpion strikes anyway. The swelling of Coyotito's flesh marks the beginning of a series of events that will not only destroy the family's home, but will take them away from their family and community.

Kino and Juana take their wounded baby to see a doctor in a "city of stone and plaster." Since Kino and Juana are desperate to find help for their baby, they swallow their pride and appeal to the town doctor, who is a member of a race that has "beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race."

The doctor, a fat man whose eyes rest in "puffy little hammocks of flesh," refuses to help Coyotito, saying that he is a doctor, "not a veterinary." Kino shows the doctor's servant his money, but it is not enough to interest the doctor. In frustration, Kino strikes the doctor's gate with his bare fist and splits open his knuckles.

Although Coyotito is beginning to heal, Juana and Kino are determined to find a way to secure the doctor's help. Juana prays to find a pearl with which to hire the doctor to cure the baby. Kino is singing the "Song of the Pearl that Might Be" as he dives into the ocean in search of oysters and pearls. He finds an isolated oyster, cracks it open, and discovers what soon becomes known as the "Pearl of the World." The family's bad luck seems to be changing, for the swelling is also going out of Coyotito's shoulder.

News that Kino had found the Pearl of the World travels so quickly through the city that many people are becoming jealous of Kino before he and his family have even had time to celebrate. Kino tells his brother, Juan Tomas, that now he and Juana will be married in a church, the family will have new clothes, a rifle, and that Coyotito will learn to read.

The local priest pays Kino a visit and reminds him to give thanks to Him who "has given thee this treasure." Kino feels alone and unprotected in the world. Then the doctor arrives to "help" cure Coyotito. Both Kino and Juana are reluctant to let the doctor near their child, but the doctor claims that the poison of the scorpion goes inward and can wither a leg or blind an eye. Kino does not want to risk harm to Coyotito, so he allows the doctor to give Coyotito a white powder in a capsule of gelatin. The baby grows sicker; in a few hours the doctor returns to give Coyotito ammonia, which helps the baby's stomach.

Kino tells the doctor he will pay him after he sells his pearl. The doctor sees Kino's eyes look toward the pearl's hiding place in the floor. After the doctor leaves, Kino finds a new hiding place for the pearl. He tells Juana he is afraid of "everyone" now.

After Kino stabs a night prowler, Juana begs him to return the pearl to the ocean, calling the pearl evil. Kino replies that Coyotito "must go to school. He must break out of the pot that holds us in."

It is not easy to sell the pearl, however, as the pearl buyers all work for the same employer and have conspired to offer Kino 1,000 to 1,500 pesos for the pearl that is probably worth at least 50,000 pesos. Kino, angered, says he will go to the capital to sell the pearl.

Kino is attacked again that night, and Juana tries again to persuade Kino to get rid of the pearl. Kino tells her that he is a man and that no one will take their good fortune from them.

Early on the morning they are to leave for the capital, Juana tries to throw the pearl back into the ocean. Kino strikes her face, kicks her, and rescues the pearl. Then Kino is attacked again, and ends up killing his attacker. Kino and his family flee for their lives.

Their canoe has been splintered and their home set on fire, so the family seeks temporary refuge in Juan Tomas' home. Juan tells Kino he should sell the pearl and "buy peace for yourself." Kino refuses. "The pearl has become my soul," he says. "If I give it up I shall lose my soul."

Kino's family leaves during the night, carefully covering their tracks behind them. Despite their care, they know that inland trackers are pursing them. They travel as rapidly and stealthily as they can until nightfall, when Kino tells Juana and Coyotito to hide in a cave. Kino hopes to steal a rifle from one of the trackers before the moon rises.

Coyotito cries out, waking two of the trackers and causing the watchman with the rifle to shoot. Kino leaps on the man and kills him, but something is wrong. Coyotito is dead.

Kino and Juana return to La Paz, Kino with a rifle, and Juana with their dead baby wrapped in a blood-crusted shawl. They pass Juan Tomas. They pass their ruined canoe, and make their way to the water. Then Kino returns the pearl, which is now "gray and ulcerous," to the ocean.



A woman with a big jiggling stomach, Apolonia is the wife of Juan Tomas. She has four children and her family is a little better off than Kino's. She helps them when the robbers burn down the hut. As the nearest female relative to Kino's family she must lead the mourning. Her presence of mind after discovering Kino and Juana are alive, is crucial to their remaining undiscovered.


Coyotito is Kino and Juana's son. When he is stung by a scorpion, the resulting medical emergency prompts the parents to reach beyond their station in life. The mother will not let her only child languish and demands they go to the Doctor. His refusal of admittance leads them to pray for the means—not to heal the child—to gain the Doctor. Their prayers are answered and they have a Pearl with which they can buy a better future for the child. However, the death of the baby, whose cries could have been those of a coyote pup, finally ends Kino's fantasy: no rise in future prospects was worth the loss of his baby.

The Doctor

The "lazy" Doctor of the village is a man who thinks only of Europe and dreams, with "eyes rolled up a little in their fat hammocks," of returning there. It is to this colonial Doctor that Kino goes to seek help for his baby. However, because his pearls at that time were so poor, the Doctor would not look at the boy of a "little Indian." His attitude towards Kino, not the Indians, changes when he hears that Kino has a great Pearl—the same poor man who had come to him. "He is a client of mine," says the Doctor who then dreams of returning to Paris with the proceeds from the sale of the pearl. He then makes a house call and cures the boy. He appears to be kindly and generous, but he watches Kino closely for indications of the Pearl's hiding place. Seeing one, he sends some men back in the dead of night to steal the pearl. The Doctor represents quackery. He uses the people's lack of choice and power against them and, thereby, furthers their ignorance.

The Gate Keeper

The Doctor's servant is a man of Kino's race. He tries as much as possible to do the Doctor's bidding and thereby distinguish himself from his kind. His efforts go so far as a refusal to speak in the old language. When Kino comes to the Doctor for medical help, it is the Gate Keeper that refuses him. Kino offers worthless pearls as payment but the Gate Keeper declares the Doctor has gone out. "And he shut the gate quickly out of shame." The Gate Keeper, though economically in a better position, still feels the shame of his people's oppression but does nothing to alleviate them. Instead, he enjoys the power he gets from his position. Later, when Kino has the Pearl, this servant is responsible for telling the Doctor that Kino is the same man who had been at the gate—thus betraying his people again.

Juan Tomas

Kino's brother and nearest neighbor, Juan looks out for Kino. He stands by him when he goes into town for the Doctor and to sell the pearl. When the robbers burn down Kino's hut, he hides the family and enables them to escape by borrowing needed items.


Kino's wife, Juana, is even more simple than Kino. Her reactions are those of the instinctual mother, and her life is devoted to her duties to her husband and child. "She could stand fatigue and hunger almost better than Kino himself. In the canoe she was like a strong man." She says Hail Marys and utilizes ancient magic to ward off evil. Her prayers bring the pearl into existence. With the Pearl in hand, however, Coyotito is fine. Her thoughts about the Pearl thus turn practical. They can be married in the church and have nice clothes, but they do not need to have everything. Realizing that Kino wants everything, she begins to see their possession of the Pearl of the world as a harbinger of evil. She begs Kino to throw it away, even becomes so bold as to attempt it herself. For this, Kino hits her.

She performs her duties and follows Kino. Simple as she is, her mind has awakened to the real danger. Her boy survives the scorpion but they may not survive Kino's pearl. As soon as Kino said he was a man and would do the bidding of the Pearl, she went along. "Juana, in her woman's soul, knew … that the sea would surge while the man drowned in it. And yet it was this thing that made him a man, half insane and half god, and Juana had need of a man; she could not live without a man." She, therefore, silences her doubt. "Sometimes the quality of woman, the reason, the caution, the sense for peservation, could but through Kino's manness and save them all." That may be, but Juana, until the bitter end, does her best to maintain their confinement in ignorance and just barely survives.


The protagonist of the fable is a Mexican-Indian named Kino. He is a primitive character who will fail to benefit from the opportunity chance has afforded him to become enlightened. Kino has been perceived as colonial subject, simpleton, and oppressed man. His people were not always subjugated; at one time, they had control over their destiny, created songs, and lived in peace with their surroundings. But Kino represents his a subsequent generation—one profoundly affected by oppression and exploitation—and when the Doctor comes to him, Kino stands "in the door, filling it, and hatred raged and flamed in back of his eyes, and fear too, for the hundreds of years of subjugation were cut deep in him." Kino is aware of his subjugation but he has no way of dealing with it. He is like a caged animal and exhibits the signs of stress that accompany confinement. Unfortunately, he is not a great man about to lead his people out of the dark.

Kino is an average man in his connmunity with a quiet life diving for pearls that he sells to his colonial overlords. After his son is stung by a scorpion and the doctor refuses to treat him, he goes as usual to the pearl beds hoping that he will find a pearl so magnificent that he will be able to rise in social and economic standing. He discovers the talisman he feels he needs for such a rise in fortune; however, harassment from his oppressor and his own stubbornness foil his ability to take advantage of the Pearl.

Kino hides the pearl and attempts to sell it himself. In conversations with his brother he stops just short of revealing that the pearl buyers have been cheating the people. Everyone could have benefited from his find but he decides to risk his life to sell the pearl for a lot of money in the city. Yet when he is prevented in going to the city because of vandalism and violence, he is profoundly changed. The damage done to his boat, his escape route, is the last straw. "The killing of a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat." Seeing this assault, "[h]e was an animal now, for hiding, for attacking, and he lived only to preserve himself and his family." Yet he maintains some humanity for it never occurred to him, due to tradition, to steal someone else's boat.

The Pearl Buyer

There is only one Pearl Buyer in La Paz but there are many fingers to this one grasping hand. His representatives sit in separate offices giving the appearance of a competitive market. Each pearl buyer's goal is to buy for the main owner at the lowest price. It is each "man's function to break down a price, [and] he must take joy and satisfaction in breaking it as far down as possible … a pearl buyer was a pearl buyer, and the best and happiest pearl buyer was he who bought for the lowest prices." Keeping these sentiments enables the pearl buyers to forget that there is really only one and, therefore, they are better able to fool the people. On the day that Kino comes to sell his pearl, all the buyers know in advance what the price will be.

Kino approaches one of the pearl buyers; he is interchangeable with any other pearl buyer as the embodiment of the real Pearl Buyer. This "stout slow man" perfectly symbolizes the closed market in his habitual action of juggling a coin on his hand. "The fingers did it all mechanically, precisely," but when confronted by the pearl of the world the system breaks down. The fingers fumble the coin just as the stacked market bids far too low for the Pearl. The greed of the Pearl Buyer, who assumes Kino will take what he offers, causes them to lose the Pearl altogether.

The Priest

The Catholic Priest is a "graying, aging man with an old skin and a young sharp eye. Children he considered these people, and he treated them like children." He is another symbol of the powers keeping Kino's people down. He encourages his congregation to be submissive to authority. Hearing about Kino's luck, the priest tries to recall whether he has done service to that family and calculates how far the Pearl might go toward repairing the church. He does not remember Kino as a man but as one of his children. The priest reminds Kino of his duty to the church.

The Trackers

Like the Gate Keeper, these two men are Indians who are in the employ of the Europeans. They are regarded as subhuman and not too far above bloodhounds. They find Kino's marks and lead the Watcher to within feet of his hiding place. Kino kills them easily after killing the Watcher.

The Watcher

The merchant of the city has employed a man with a gun, horse, and two professional trackers to find Kino and the Pearl.


Good and Evil

Kino's belief that evil is in the night is not unusual. But one of his many foibles is that he sees himself alone in a world of struggle between good and evil. He does his best to keep good coming his way. In his mind he hears the music of his personal struggle. The Song of the Family hums in his mind when things are as they should be. The waves lapping the shore in the morning and the sound of Juana grinding corn or preparing the meal are part of this song. But when the wind shifts or a representative of the oppressing class nears, then he hears the strains of the Song of Evil, "the music of the enemy, of any foe of the family, a savage, secret, dangerous melody." Kino listens and reacts to these songs. When the scorpion begins to come down the rope toward the baby, he hears the Song of Evil first. However, when the priest enters he is confused despite hearing the song he heard for the scorpion. He has been taught that the priest is good and so he looks elsewhere for the source of evil. This melodic tool, whatever its source, is one of many tools that Kino has in his possession but that he fails to fully utilize.

Juana is more sophisticated yet more esoteric in her view of good and evil. She is the one who prays for protection against actions. She prays the ancient magic and the new Catholic prayers to ward off the scorpion. She does the same when she wishes for a way to pay the Doctor. She sees that the Pearl is the source of evil and that men are only evil because of the pearl.

Because Kino chose to fight alone and Juana chooses to let him, evil wins. The Song of Evil plays loudly in the silence following the deaths on the mountain—one accidental, three brutal. But instead of succumbing to Evil, Juana and Kino together trudge home, past the burnt spot where their house stood. "[T]hey were not walking in single file, Kino ahead and Juana behind, as usual, but side by side." As they walk together, the Song of the Family revives becoming "as fierce as a cry." Kino even offers to let Juana throw the pearl but she declines. He must silence the cause of his insanity. He throws the pearl and as it settles, the Song of Evil "drifted to a whisper and disappeared." Evil is banished but good has not triumphed as is indicated by the bloody package inside Juana's shawl.

Topics for Further Study

  • Consider the following quote from The Pearl: "An accident could happen to these oysters, a grain of sand could lie in the folds of muscle and irritate the flesh until in self-protection the flesh coated the foreign body until it fell free in some tidal flurry or until the oyster was destroyed." Augment this description with that of a biology text or book on marine life and interpret Steinbeck's pearl as a trope for human development.
  • Pretending that you are Kino or Juana (knowing only what they know), come up with a plan to relieve the deplorable situation of the community. Be sure to stay true to the characters as they are presented.
  • There are many references throughout the story to colonialism and race. Also, Kino embodies the trope of the noble savage and all the dialogue is stereotypically that of the newly colonized (despite the fact that we know the Indians speak an indigenous language and the Europeans speak Spanish). Are these necessary components to the story? Whether you answer yes or no, why do you think Steinbeck made use of those additional tensions?
  • What is the significance to the following line from the story: "The thin dog came to him and threshed itself in greeting like a wind-blown flag, and Kino looked down at it and didn't see it."
  • Find out more about Steinbeck's literary theory. Does he uphold or betray that theory in this story?

Knowledge and Ignorance

The Doctor, the Priest, and the Pearl Buyer do their part to keep the peasants ignorant and docile. They use whatever methods the can to accomplish this—financial instability, religious ceremonies and threats of eternal damnation, or lack of economic choice. When the Pearl is discovered, how-ever, each power controller makes the mistake of thinking he knows how to have his way with the finder. Due to this mistake, they do not allow any knowledge to escape but they alienate Kino from them. In other words, by insisting that he stay ignorant of their ways they harbor resentment and defiance. Kino is ignorant, not mentally deficient. They answer his reticence with force and are met with force.

The doctor uses an overbearing self-confidence to trick Juana and Kino into thinking their child might be still at risk from the sting of the scorpion. Kino suspects the white powder may be fraudulent but he certainly will not risk his son's life and deny the doctor. He believes in the doctor because the doctor treats the Europeans who are stronger than the Indians. They are strong in part, he reasons to himself, because of the doctor. What choice does he have but to give way? The priest is not much different. He views the Indians as children and keeps them that way by educating them only enough to be scared of the evil they will face without his help. Religions, especially Catholicism, used the devil as a tool to bring the conquered into submission. Religious reasoning was also used on slaves to make them submissive. On the one hand, the people learn enough from the priest to blend his prayers with their ancient superstitions. On the other, they are not any better for the interaction.

Lastly, the pearl buyers are the best at the charade; they have the Indians at their mercy economically. The pretense of an open market and the price wars they fake lead the Indians to think they are getting a fair shake. In this way, the Indians also believe that they are active participants in the economic order. The Indians are illiterate and cannot know how the modern world works. They are kept ignorant to be exploited.

Individual vs. Society

Kino and his people have lost their ability to function as an effectual group. The only time they come together is to form an audience to be witness to what will happen to Kino. Before European rule, they were able to act as a functional society, going so far as to create songs—which they no longer do. Their social mechanisms have been worn down by the new religious institution and, more crucially, by the new economic system. These two institutions encourage the Indians to behave as individuals who will compete with each other in making ends meet alone. Social and tribal sharing is discouraged at every turn. The narrative dramatizes this by depicting the absence of cordial social interaction amongst the Indians.

Conversely, the pearl buyers act in concert for the benefit of one man and to exert their control over the gullible Indian populace. By this comparison, Steinbeck is criticizing the market system in a way that is consistent with his other literary works. Steinbeck feels capitalism leads to monopolies. Steinbeck is also criticizing his own theories of the phalanx. In his writing before the war, he believed that only by voluntary cooperation could people live happily and at peace. The war, how-ever, showed him that people are easily tricked, bought, or coerced into working for a group when the alternate choice is to be a part of an oppressed class. The latter group, Kino's, is unable to pull together because they have been divided by their oppression.

They attempted to break the monopoly a few times when they sent single men to the big city but those men never returned. They did not try with a group of men who could have defended themselves. Kino will try this route of solitude and he will be defeated. He should have taken his brother or another man in a canoe to the city. Instead, he went with his wife and child over land and paid an ultimate price.



An allegory takes many forms. One form of allegory is that of a type of fiction more or less symbolic in feature intending to convey a meaning which is not explicitly set forth within the narrative. Allegories usually involve a journey that a character makes toward spiritual growth. Kino's story is an allegory: his journey affords him a small amount of personal growth and a variety of lessons to meditate on. The plot is simple: a man finds the Pearl of the world but he does not gain happiness and throws it back. Within this narrative are many hidden meanings. The story tells us that man is in the dark and needs to wake up. Therefore, the opening shows Kino waking in the night, which is allegorical, but because the Cock has been crowing for some time we know that he has been trying to gain a consciousness—literally wake up—to his people's plight.

Another message is that journeys should be made in communion, not just the company, of another. Kino should be in a leadership position amongst his people because of his fortuitous discovery. But he is not leading them. He tries to sell the Pearl, which could have ruptured the economic system and provided economic opportunity for his people. Instead he falls prey to doubt and decides to go for the big city leaving his people ignorant of his mission. Kino decides to make his own way and is followed by his wife. He returns with her, but they are still alone and everything is the same as before.


The story is full of symbolism of the talismanic, allegorical, and ironic kind. The Pearl itself is a symbol of escape for the poor man, but it also symbolizes the effects of greed on man. Worse than that, Steinbeck sets up the Pearl to embody the whole of the European Conquest of the Americas. He does this by saying that Pearl bed in which it was found, is the same pearl bed that raised the King of Spain to be the greatest in the world. Historically, then, this pearl bed represents the gold, silver, and raw resources that Spain extracted from the New World at the height of that nation's empire. Now, this same pearl bed lures in a victim of that colonialism to dream of an easy escape from poverty.

The pearl is a talisman: an object that comes to be interchangeable with a man or an idea. At one point Kino views the Pearl as his soul and vows to keep it. For Kino, the success of the Pearl's sale will indicate his success. The Pearl stands opposite to the canoe that at once stands for his family and is a sure bulwark against starvation. When he makes it known that he will pursue wealth by venturing on his own to the great city, his canoe is sabotaged. This is a crime greater than homicide for it is a direct assault on Kino's family—worse than burning down the house.

Irony arises in the name of the village: La Paz or peace. The town is only peaceful because the majority of the people are demoralized. Their peace is one of an oppressed people. The Pearl stirs up this peace and only bloodshed restores calm.

The Indians are constantly presented as innocent primitives further duped by the superstition of the Catholic Church. They are also, and Kino especially, compared to animals. In their daily habits of fishing and gathering they are like the hungry dogs and pigs described as searching the shore for easy meals. More exactly, Kino howls, the trackers sniff and whine, the baby's yelps sound like its namesake—the Coyote. Animals have roles as well. The Watcher's horse raises the European above the Indians; this advantage is used to conquer the hemisphere.


While the story has its symbols and large allegorical sentiments, every facet of the tale is transcribed into metaphor. Even the minds of the Indian people are as "unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf." Further, they are clouded as if the mud of the sea floor has been permanently disturbed to block their vision. Even the city as seat of the colonial administration is given metaphorical animation: "A town is a thing like a colonial animal. A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet."

In a moment of foreshadowing, Kino watches as two roosters prepare to fight. He then notices wild doves flying inland where later Kino will prepare to fight his pursuers. Juana is like an owl when she watches Kino sneaks down the cliff. Earlier, when the watering hole was described, feathers left by cats that had dragged their prey there are noticed. Those with feathers die. On the other hand, Kino is no longer an animal. Instead, when Kino kills the men who are tracking him he is a machine. He is efficient and without noise, like the cats playing with their doomed prey. He is killing to survive. The metaphor that is mixed in with this scene of tension and action is in keeping with the style of the rest of the work, while also lending it a realistic dimension.

Historical Context

America after World War II

The Peace Treaty signed on February 10, 1947 officially ends World War II. America emerges as a world superpower. It is capable of an incredible industrial capacity and, in addition, America commands the most powerful military in the world: the greatest navy, the largest standing army, the best Air Force, and the only nuclear arsenal. The United States military becomes even stronger when Congress passes a law unifying the Air Force, Army, and Navy under one secretary of defense. Adding another weapon to America's might, Congress creates the Central Intelligence Agency.

Culturally, American literature, music, art, movies, and eventually television gain popularity around the world. The isolationism of the pre-war days is gone and the city of New York emerges as a world center. Visitors to the city experience the tastes and sights of the capital of American publishing, the infant television industry, and the glamour of Broadway shows. They view Abstract Expressionism, maybe bump into a Beat Poet, and revel in the sound of Bebop or blues.

Supply and Demand Economics

With the end of the war, the rationing of goods ends and people demand to be supplied with goods that were unavailable during the war. Industry scurries to provide these goods. One immediate demand is housing. The soldiers coming home are taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to attend college. They use the same rights again to procure financing for adding their tract house to that other New York invention—the suburban sprawl. The military industrial complex quickly re-tools to offer pre-fabricated housing components, appliances, and civilian cars and trucks. All of this consumption, however, wreaks havoc on economic forecasts. Price controls are abandoned too quickly and inflation rises. As men re-enter the work force, pressure to raise wages increases and strikes happen frequently.

President Harry Truman's popularity declines drastically with inflation's rise and the liberal coalition formed under Roosevelt—which had brought together business and government so effectively to fight a war—unravels. Fortunately, the worldwide demand for goods is so great and the capacities of America and Canada so vast that boom times are bound to come. Republicans aim to push back the New Deal legislation at a time when the Marshall Plan was being hammered out to help resuscitate Europe. The Democrat coalition begins splitting apart over the thorny issue of civil rights. The Southern Democrats strengthen their alliance with the Republicans to weaken the New Deal and delay action on civil rights legislation.

Despite a presidential veto, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (the Taft-Hartley Act) passes. This law outlaws 'closed shop' agreements—where the employer hires only those persons who belong to a specific union. Further, the law demands that workers must first vote by secret ballot before striking. Perhaps most fundamentally, the law made labor unions liable to court action for contractual violations brought on by strike actions.

The Cold War

Tense relations developed between the United States and their Russian allies late in the war as they raced to see who would dominate Japan. But it is not until after the war that the growing tensions would come to be known as the Cold War. In 1947, American Bernard Baruch uses the term to label the conflict between Russia and the United States that is just short of war. The Cold War results in technological races, political influence in lesser countries (from Central America to the Middle East), and curious exchanges at the United Nations. Both nations break the sound barrier in 1947. With the detonation of a Soviet atom bomb in 1949, an arms race begins. Later, Sputnik would cause a furious investment in math and sciences so that America arrives at the Moon first.

Disturbing domestic legislation is enacted early in the Cold War. Truman hands down Executive Order 9835, which requires the Department of Justice to compile a list of subversive organizations that seek to alter the United States "by unconstitutional means." The list includes a whole range of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, the Chopin Cultural Center, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the League of American Writers, the Nature Friends of America, and the Yugoslav Seaman's Club. Truman's order seeks investigation of those persons affiliated with those groups who might have infiltrated the United States government. Of the 6.6 million persons investigated, as a result of this program, not one case of espionage is uncovered. However, this activity paves the way for such later witchhunts as McCarthyism in the 1950s.

Critical Overview

The long term critical reputation of John Stein-beck rises and falls on the relevance and apparent ability evinced in his greatest two novels, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. However, his endurance as a great American writer is also found in his lesser works such as The Red Pony and The Pearl. The latter, Steinbeck called, "a black and white story like a parable" and the felicity with which he crafted the work claims its readers to read it again and again. Indeed, for many critics this story has revealed the bedrock of Steinbeck's personal and political philosophy.

John S. Kennedy was one such early friend who summed up Steinbeck's literary philosophy as a "reverence for life." That was the reason for his popularity, said Kennedy, he wrote of "life and living." This critic was not about to simply say Steinbeck was a naturalist or social realist and, thereby, repeat again that he was a champion of the working man. In fact, Kennedy refutes these claims. Steinbeck was too sentimental in his regard of humanity to be a realist. Thematically, Kennedy rather likes Steinbeck's work until he comes to The Pearl.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first black American to play baseball in the major leagues when he joins the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rookie of the year and lead base stealer in the National League, he is a hero to blacks and a symbol of integration.

    Today: Affirmative Action is all but discontinued while blacks retain their predominate role as sports heroes.

  • 1947: Its troops tired of harassment by Jewish settler militias, Britain turns over the "Palestine problem" to the United Nations which allows the creation of the State of Israel months later.

    Today: There is still no peace in Palestine.

  • 1947: Britain releases its colonial jewel, India. In the aftermath, three nations are born: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

    Today: Raising the nuclear stakes worldwide, India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests and declared themselves nuclear states. Diplomats from China to Moscow fear an arms race.

  • 1947: The Cold War begins leading to tense relations between the two largest nuclear powers.

    Today: The Cold War is over but war hawks on both sides continually threaten to restart the arms race.

Harris Morris provides a close reading of Steinbeck's use of allegory and symbolism and chronicles the publication history of the fable. The title, for example, went from being "The Pearl of the World" to "The Pearl of La Paz." The over-statement of irony involved in a title "The Pearl of Peace" was unnecessary and finally the title shortens to its present form. Morris makes a great deal of Steinbeck's role as a modern fabulist who wrapped his tales in realism knowing the modern world would view any imitation of Aesop as childish. Therefore, he "overlays his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems." Then, through a discussion of the use of animal allusions, night, day, and the journey, Morris finds that the effort to overlay realism actually exaggerates the allegorical tendencies while undermining the "realistic aspects of the hero."

For Todd M. Lieber, Steinbeck has remained true to his basic themes throughout his work and he does not see anything new in this parable. Instead, Lieber is interested in Steinbeck's reliance on talismanic symbols to bring his characters to his larger theme of "becoming aware of the individual's relation to the whole." Talismans are objects "that men believe in or go to for some kind of nonrational fulfillment." Throughout Steinbeck's works, characters come to identify with places and with objects as a part of their becoming conscious; "identification results when man transfers part of his own being to his symbols, when an object becomes suffused with human spirit so that a complete interpenetration exists." This is done most successfully in the parable where the pearl becomes an "emotional prop" and "a principle of right action in the world." Lieber views Steinbeck in some awe as a writer able to "penetrate to the sources of human thought and behavior and present in the form of some objective correlative the archetypal and mythopoeic knowledge that lies deep in the mystery of human experience." The talisman psychology being one of those correlatives.

A very different approach was that of Peter Lisca who notices Steinbeck's disillusionment with the "Kiwannis, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce definition of noble character." He sees that Kino finds himself possessed of the means to buy into that world but he also finds "his house burned down, his wife physically beaten, his only son killed, and the lives of three men on his soul." Rather than continue toward dissipation, Steinbeck has the man and wife make a true escape. Kino had been seeking to escape the low-level economic and social position but willingly returns to that same "repressive society" though "at a higher level." Lisca decides, as Steinbeck perhaps intended, that the "primitive" man's position is the right one to occupy. From there, they see the basic violent and destructive logic of those who repress them. "They return to their village, throw the Pearl of Great Price back into the sea, and return to the edge of unconsciousness, an unthinking existence governed by the rhythms of sun and tide."


Elyse Lord

Elyse Lord teaches writing at the University of Utah. In the following essay, she argues that, while The Pearl literally dramatizes the plight of a man who is caught between the material world and the spiritual world, the novel insists upon a more symbolic reading, too.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of The Pearl has been Warren French, who criticized author John Steinbeck for using a traditional tale (the legend of the Indian boy who accidentally finds a large pearl) to make his "cautionary points" about the dangers of materialism. According to French, Kino's struggles would be more meaningful to readers of the Woman's Home Companion, where the story was first published, than to Mexican listeners of the original folk tale. French's criticisms are only partially valid.

Kino's discovery that the economic value of the pearl is controlled by a few powerful men can be read as a critique of a capitalistic economic system that embraces material values. Naively, Kino believes that he will be a rich man because he has discovered the "Pearl of the World." He plans to finance a church wedding, to purchase clothes, a rifle, and an education for Coyotito. Yet, when he tries to sell his pearl in La Paz, he receives an offer of only 1,500 pesos. So Kino sets out for the capital in order to find traders who will pay him the full value of the pearl. By challenging the status quo in La Paz, he sets off a chain reaction of events that will force him to reevaluate what he defines to be "valuable."

Juana is less naive about the value of the pearl than Kino is, at least initially. She is quick to grasp that the pearl, if given more value than, say, human relationships, can bring both greed and misery. "This thing is evil," she cries. "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.… Throw it away, Kino." Kino refuses to throw away the pearl, because he wants to use the pearl to purchase social status and freedom from oppression for his family and community.

The novel also contrasts the value of the pearl with the value of Kino's family, specifically of Coyotito. The narrator says that for Kino and Juana, the morning that Kino will sell his pearl is "comparable only to the day when the baby had been born." Because the statement follows a paragraph foreshadowing that the pearl will destroy the family, because the reader is likely to believe that there is no greater moment than the birth of a child to a father, the narrator's observation seems ironic. How can one compare the monetary value of the pearl with the value of one's family? It is no coincidence that Coyotito sacrifices his life when Kino insists upon keeping the pearl. Coyotito's sacrifice (death) provides further evidence that French is right. Steinbeck is critiquing materialism and its values.

After Kino has killed a man and the family has been forced to flee, Juana says, "Perhaps the dealers were right and the pearl has no value. Perhaps this has all been an illusion." On a material level, she may be conceding that the pearl really does not have any monetary value. On a spiritual level (if one defines spirit to be a human being's essence), Juana may be suggesting that, even if the pearl's monetary value is 50,000 pesos, it is still of no value to the family, which craves spirit, not matter. Juana's questioning of the value of the pearl mirrors the questioning of the value of the pearl that occurs throughout the novel. Again, this is consistent with a reading of the story as a critique of materialism.

When Juana suggests the pearl may have no value, Kino replies, "They would not have tried to steal it if it had been valueless." In this ironic moment, both the narrator and readers will see that Kino's logic is flawed. He is assuming that thieves steal valuable things, which may or may not be true, and which is only relevant if someone is willing to pay the thieves for their stolen items. Kino must become more sophisticated, more aware of the evil that man is capable of, more aware of the forces that render him and his family helpless.

Again, Kino's naive nature provides support for French's criticism that the novel makes "cautionary" points that are more meaningful to readers in the United States than in Mexico. Contemporary readers in industrial societies are probably more likely to see the irony in Kino's logic than readers from less-industrialized countries. Contemporary readers who have a basic understanding of economic principles are also more likely to see that Kino's major conflict is whether or not he will accept or reject the social, economic, (and by extension, materialistic) values that currently determine his choices in life.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Another compelling fable by a famous author is Animal Farm. Published in 1945 by George Orwell, this satire is a story about farm animals who attempt to take over a farm and operate it collectively. They chase off the exploitative humans but end up under a dictatorship of pigs.
  • Also published in 1947 was Steinbeck's novel, The Wayward Bus. Like The Pearl, this allegorical tale concerns characters who must shed the evil they have contracted. They are not even as successful as Kino and Juana.
  • Steinbeck again returned to myth when he created the family saga of the Trask family of the Salinas Valley. East of Eden is their story as a modernization of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck regarded the novel as his crowning achievement but his critics have been a bit reluctant to say the same of this overt allegory.
  • Ernest Hemingway's short novel of 1952, The Old Man and the Sea, is a story about a Cuban fisherman named Santiago. He has not caught anything for weeks and then he snags a great big fish. His battle to hold onto the fish leaves him too tired to do anything but tie the fish to the boat. Sharks eat away its flesh leaving him a worthless skeleton and a good story.
  • Fable telling has never fallen out of style but lately old tales have been retold according to ideologies, re-translations, or rediscoveries. Angela Carter reworked several fairy tales into a collection called The Bloody Chamber (1979). Her versions of several well-known tales are realistic, feminist, and a heroine replaces the hero.

However, at this point, the novel begins to resist French's literal reading. By not recognizing the impact of the forces of capitalism upon their lives, by not recognizing their own powers, Kino and Juana unwittingly bring about their own downfall. They lose their home and their canoe. They are forced to flee La Paz, to leave behind their families and friends.

The lessons that Kino and Juana will learn now take the form of an allegorical journey. (An allegory is a story in which the objects, people, or actions represent a meaning that can be found outside of the story.) Because Kino and Juana have not recognized their own power (they have, for example, relinquished their own very capable authority as healers to the less capable doctor), because they have not shown an awareness of the material values and powers that are dominating their lives, they are thrust into a dark (and very symbolic) night in order to be educated.

The responses of readers to the symbolism of Kino's and Juana's journey and to the symbolism of Kino's and Juana's education will take a variety of forms. The suggestive symbols in the novel, particularly the symbols of the pearl and of the journey, ask readers to move beyond French's tidy interpretation of the novel into a more psychological and fluid realm.

Not surprisingly many critics do view the return of the pearl to the ocean at novel's end to be a rejection of the material world in favor of the spiritual world. However, this interpretation largely ignores the symbolism of the pearl, which is linked in many ways throughout the story to Kino. Most strikingly, the pearl has, as Kino tells his brother, Juan Tomas, become his soul. "If I give it [the pearl] up I shall lose my soul," he says.

To follow the logic of this symbolism, when Kino rids himself of the pearl, he is ridding himself of his soul. How will readers respond to this?

Peter Lisca offers one interpretation. Kino's definition of the soul, says Lisca, is "not the usual religious definition of 'soul,' but human consciousness and potential, those qualities that cause man to separate himself from the rest of nature." When Kino renounces the pearl, he therefore "refuses the option of attaining his soul (a distinct identity) … preferring to undefine himself … thus going back to the blameless bosom of Nature in a quasi-animal existence." Other interpretations are possible, even suggested. The novel gives readers room to decide for themselves.

Jungian critics (followers of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung), with their interest in archetypes (images that occur in the unconscious minds of all humans) offer a satisfying complement to French's interpretation of the novel. Because the Jungians believe in the notion of "universal" symbols, and because they find these symbols in The Pearl, they equate Kino's family's journey with the symbolic journey of the soul. More specifically, they suggest that both Juana and Kino undergo initiations into adulthood, and that these initiations would be recognizable, as symbols, to cultures in Mexico, in the United States, and in many other countries.

As Deborah Barker points out, Joseph Campbell has documented that the archetypal hero's journey often takes the familiar pattern of departure, initiation, and then return. The initiation may involve a symbolic death, which then requires a symbolic rebirth. In the context of The Pearl, the loss of his son, home, and canoe would symbolize Kino's death, while the return of the pearl to the bottom of the sea would symbolize rebirth. This pattern of departure, initiation (symbolic death, symbolic rebirth), and return recurs throughout stories around the world.

According to Barker, Juana's initiation is a little different from Kino's. Juana undergoes a "rite of disenchantment" through her journey. At the start of the story, says Barker, Juana appears as a "submissive figure trailing after her husband with a devotion nearly dog-like." At the conclusion of the story, Juana has been elevated to a status equal to Kino's as the two return to town "side by side." In other words, Juana, as archetype, leaves La Paz as a young girl, is initiated into the "disenchantments" of womanhood, and then becomes a woman transformed. Barker reads Juana's journey primarily as a soulful one, in keeping with the notion that the meaning of the story is not solely thematic, but can be found in its images and in the patterns of its images. Again, these images recur in other stories throughout the world, thus Barker would probably disagree with French's suggestion that the novel holds localized appeal to readers of the Woman's Home Companion.

Another Jungian approach to The Pearl reads the characters in the story as symbolizing different aspects of the human psyche. Jung was concerned not just with archetypes, but with the ongoing struggle between the conscious and the unconscious. To a Jungian psychologist, harmony is achieved only when one is able to successfully confront the reality of one's unconscious.

Joseph Timmerman provides an example of a Jungian interpretation of the novel that is concerned with the ongoing struggle between the conscious and the unconscious. Timmerman reads Kino's journey as a confrontation with his own shadow (the part of his unconscious that is socially unacceptable, his darker side.) In order for Kino to access his shadow self, he must listen to the female part of his unconscious (known as his anima). Juana, who is portrayed as intuitive and wise, symbolizes Kino's anima. Juana (Kino's anima) helps Kino to express his unconscious desires, as when she forces him to, in Timmerman's words, "brave the civilized world of the doctor." As the novel progresses, she becomes Kino's "guiding power," as his anima would.

Keeping the novel's rich symbolism in mind (from this very brief discussion), one is perhaps better prepared to appreciate the themes in the novel without feeling bound by them. A thematic analysis reveals that the novel does dramatize man's struggle to know what to value, a struggle that is complicated by his trapped position between the material and the spiritual world. While this reading is consistent with the reading that Steinbeck is critiquing materialism, it can not be taken as the "definitive" interpretation of the novel. The novel contains another symbolic level that will resonate within each reader's unconscious.

When Steinbeck wrote in his preface, "If this story is a parable [an allegory that makes a moral point], perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it," he was not making an idle suggestion. Meaning in The Pearl, as some of the psychoanalytical readings have already demonstrated, extends far beyond the realm of a materialist critique.

Source: Elyse Lord, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Earnest E. Karsten

In the following excerpt, Karsten examines two of Steinbeck's major themes and their manifestations in The Pearl.

Before advancing to thematic material, it may be well to establish immediately what we hold as the structure of the novel. Although the structure could be shown schematically, let us use words. Each chapter contains a central incident which has both cause and effect, tying together the action. In Chapter I the central incident is accidental, the scorpion's stinging Coyotito, and results in the need to find a pearl with which to pay for a doctor's treatment. The discovery of the pearl, the fruit of purposeful action for something good and the central incident of Chapter II, has the effect of making Kino everyone's enemy, the townspeople's becoming a threat to Kino and his family. Chapters mI and IV have as central incidents the attacks upon Kino for possession of the pearl. These attacks are both physical as well as emotional (the doctor's "treatment" of Coyotito) or intellectual (the pearl buyer's attempt to take advantage of Kino's ignorance), and they arise from a human evil, greed. These incidents result in the growing conflict between Kino and Juana over the pearl. In Chapter V the turning point is reached in the central incident of that chapter, the destruction of what we call existence for Kino, caused by purposeful action for an evil goal. The effect of this incident is Kino's forced emigration from the community. The central incident of the final chapter is the death of Coyotito, again, as in the first chapter, an accidental incident, which results in Kino's return to the community and the destruction of the pearl.

With this structure in mind, let us turn now to the central theme. Just as the pearl is an "accident," so is man's existence, and that existence has meaning within human relationships, basic of which is the family. Just as the Pearl is good or becomes invested with evil because of the ways men use it, so man himself appears, becomes, emerges as good or evil because of the ways men use other men, nurturing or destroying the human relationship between them, validating or invalidating the meaning of their existence.

We have attempted to trace two manifestations of this theme through the novel. The first follows Steinbeck's use of music as a symbolic representation of the theme paralleling the basic story. The second manifestation is found in Steinbeck's use of description to suggest the relationships between Kino and his community and between the community and the town as social embodiments of the theme again paralleling the basic story.

Steinbeck has established three main songs that are named: the Songs of the Family, of Evil, and of the Pearl. Schematically, these three melodies can be envisioned as originating on three separate planes, with the Song of the Family in the middle and the Song of Evil on a parallel plane, but imminent. From a plane below both, the Song of the Pearl is created and, as the story itself progresses, moves forward to become one with the Song of the Family, then to transcend it and join with the Song of Evil.…

As symbolic representation, the musical parallel must now be related to the central theme. Within the human relationship where Kino's life has meaning, the Song of the Family is warm, clear, soft, and protecting. Herein the Song of the Family represents completeness. It continues to have these qualities as long as the Song of the Pearl does not overwhelm it. As Steinbeck writes, "they beautify one another." When the human relationship is threatened and destroyed (the crisis: Juana attempts to toss away the pearl, Kino strikes her, Kino is attacked and commits murder, Juana realizes the irrevocable change and accepts it to keep the family together, and the change is manifested in the destruction of the old ties of boat and home, and the pearl becomes both life and soul for Kino), the Song of the Family is interrupted and then becomes secondary to the Song of the Pearl. But because life's meaning is now dependent upon the pearl rather than upon human relationships, the Song of the Pearl becomes the Song of Evil opposed to the Song of the Family, which is now harsh, snarling, and defensive—a fierce cry until the Song of the Pearl is stilled and the human relationships are restored within the original community.

Through the suggestive power of Steinbeck's description, the second manifestation of the theme becomes clear: the close harmony in the human relationships within Kino's community and the parasitic relationship between that community and the town.…

Even in what might be termed indirect description, Steinbeck has pictures of the parasitic relationship between the community and the town. In the first instance of metaphors from the animal world, Steinbeck reports how an ant, a social animal working for the good of its colony, has been trapped by an ant-lion, living near the ant colony to prey upon it for his individual needs. In the same way the individuals of the town have built "traps" to take advantage of the ignorance of the Indians and to prey upon them for whatever they have of wealth, labor, or services. Next the author cites the example of the hungry dogs and pigs of the town which scavenge the beach searching for dead fish or seabirds, the latter here representing the Indians who live off the sea and who for all general purposes are dead because they have no power to resist, while the former represent the greedy townspeople. In a third metaphor Steinbeck describes the fish that live near the oyster beds to feed off the rejected oysters and to nibble at the inner shells. Perhaps this is the most forceful of the metaphors, for the author seems to be saying that the Indians, the rejects of modem society, thrown back after having been despoiled of their wealth by that society, are the prey of the townspeople who live nearby and who scavenge even upon the hopes, dreams, and souls of these people. Finally in the metaphor of the large fish feeding on the small fish, Steinbeck supplies a simple restatement of this parasitic relationship between the town and the community, and perhaps a picture of the inevitability of such a relationship in nature.…

In Kino's community all have a sense of responsibility to one another and a respect for the humanity of each. Coyotito's scream attracts the neighbors' sympathetic attention as well as curiosity, and the neighbors accompany Kino to the doctor's when the community makes one of its few incursions into the town. Upon the doctor's refusal to treat the child, the neighbors will not shame Kino and abandon him so that he will not have to face them. The discovery of the pearl brings them again, this time to share the joy and dreams; yet, they are more concerned for Kino than they are interested in the pearl. The neighbors again come to Kino when the doctor appears to inflict temporary illness upon Coyotito. They also go with Kino when he attempts to sell the pearl as a necessary sign of friendship; and both before and after the visit, Juan Tomàs emerges from the group to represent the thinking of the community. During the crisis, Kino could escape; but he will not commit sacrilege against the community by taking another's boat. Although the neighbors demonstrate concern at the fire and grief over the supposed deaths of Kino and his family, Kino's relationship with the community has been destroyed because of the murder; and he must leave to protect the community and his brother ("I am like a leprosy.")

The town, on the other hand, is like a separate organism, walled off from the life of the community, yet living only to drain off that life.…

In general, the townspeople as presented in the novel suggest the characteristics of parasitism, especially the retreat from strenuous struggle, the passive mode of life. In addition, the pearl buyers, as agents of a single unnamed, never introduced individual, show another characteristic, that of retreat from independent endeavor. Finally, the doctor symbolizes the unmistakable degeneration that results from parasitism.

Up to this point in the story, we can easily see that Kino's community nurtures human relationships and validates the meaning of existence for its members, whereas the town, as far as the community is concerned and Kino in particular, has consistently sought by its manipulation of men to invalidate the meaning of existence, and it succeeds by forcing Kino to leave the community. From this point the images became animalistic, because the human relationships that gave meaning to Kino's existence as a man have been left behind. The pursuers personify the animostity of the town, which in its greed and, as an example to others seeks now to destroy utterly the outsider who has defied it. Their destruction and the consequent salvation of the family, although at the sacrifice of one of its members, re-establish the humanity of and the meaning of existence to Kino and Juana only because they return to the community to begin life again by destroying the pearl.

Besides the central theme as noted above and these various expressions of it, Steinbeck has included additional themes. Let us conclude with a discussion of one of these, the treatment of man and woman in their basic roles and essential natures. Immediately we see expressed, in the reactions of Kino and Juana to the scorpion's attack, the author's statement of these roles. Kino, full of rage and hatred, acts as the avenger of the family, since, as protector, he was unable to act before the scorpion struck; Juana, on the other hand, full of caution, fulfills the role of comforter and healer for the family. And we must note that each has acted separately, not simultaneously, on instinct—first Kino, then Juana, while Kino stands by helplessly having already played his part.

Later, after the pearl has been found, it is Kino who envisions the future in the pearl, who sees what it will provide for the family, and who soon becomes tenacious of what he hopes can be his. Juana quietly watches this tenacity increase to the point of obsession and urges the healing of the family by casting away the source of infection—the pearl.

The tension caused by the growing conflict between the two roles, Kino now as provider and Juana as preserver, begins slowly during the first attack upon Kino. It has its first expression in Juana's remarks that the pearl would destroy them all, even Coyotito. But she relaxes, and the tension subsides as she realizes that they are "in some way one thing and one purpose." With the second attack in the night the tension increases. Juana strives to preserve the family, but Kino, resolute in his plan for the future, opposes her with his whole being, indeed with the very essence of manhood, in the words "I am a man." Juana is driven, although instinctively as a woman to heal the family, nevertheless in reality to act for the man to protect the family. This appropriation of the man's role by Juana, her rebellion against Kino's decision not to destroy the pearl and her attempt to do so herself, has its counterpart in the interruption of the Song of the Family.…

The unfortunate conflict in roles has made both Kino and Juana aware of each other in a new way, and this awareness is reflected in a change in Juana's role during the flight and the final return to the community. For she becomes a sharer in, rather than a follower of, Kino's planning. When the trackers make their appearance, it is Juana who goads Kino into overcoming his "helplessness and hopelessness." And again a little later when Kino suggests he go on alone while Juana and Coyotito lie hidden in the mountains, Juana says that they will stay together, and Kino submits to her strength and resolve. After the final, terrible moment of the flight, as husband and wife face the tragedy of Coyotito's death, they find renewed strength in one another. With that strength they share the difficulties of the return to the town, walking side by side, and of the re-establishment of a meaningful existence within the community.

Source: Ernest E. Karsten, Jr., "Thematic Structure in The Pearl," in English Journal, Vol. 54, No.1, January, 1965, pp. 1–7.

Harry Morris

In the following excerpt, Morris examines the relationship between realism and allegory in The Pearl.

[Nothing] more clearly indicates the allegorical nature of The Pearl as it developed in Steinbeck's mind from the beginning—as the various titles attached to the work— The Pearl of the World and The Pearl of La Paz. Although the city of La Paz may be named appropriately in the title since the setting for the action is in and around that place, the Spanish word provides a neat additional bit of symbolism, if in some aspects ironic. In its working title, the novel tells the story of The Pearl of Peace. When this title was changed to The Pearl of the World for magazine publication, although the irony was partially lost, the allegorical implications were still present. But Steinbeck had apparently no fears that the nature of the tale would be mistaken when he reduced the title to merely The Pearl.…

Steinbeck knew that the modern fabulist could write neither a medieval Pearl nor a classical Aesopian Fox and Grapes story. It was essential to overlay his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems. Realism as a technique requires two basic elements: credible people and situations on the one hand and recognizable evocation of the world of nature and of things on the other. Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly in the second of these tasks but perhaps does not come off quite so well in the first. In supplying realistic detail, he is a master, trained by his long and productive journeyman days at work on the proletarian novels of the thirties and the war pieces of the early forties. His description of the natural world is so handled as to do double and treble duty in enrichment of both symbolism and allegory. Many critics have observed Steinbeck's use of animal imagery that pervades this novel with the realistic detail that is also one of its strengths.…

Kino is identified symbolically with low animal orders: he must rise early and he must root in the earth for sustenance; but the simple, pastoral life has the beauty of the stars, the dawn, and the singing, happy birds. Yet provided also is a realistic description of village life on the fringe of La Paz. Finally, we should observe that the allegory too has begun. The first sentence—"Kino awakened in the near dark"—is a statement of multiple allegorical significance. Kino is what modern sociologists are fond of calling a primitive. As such, he comes from a society that is in its infancy; or, to paraphrase Steinbeck, it is in the dark or the neardark intellectually, politically, theologically, and sociologically. But the third sentence tells us that the roosters have been crowing for some time, and we are to understand that Kino has heard the cock of progress crow. He will begin to question the institutions that have kept him primitive: medicine, the church, the pearl industry, the government. The allegory operates then locally, dealing at first with one person, Kino, and then with his people, the Mexican peasants of Lower California. But the allegory works also universally, and Kino is Everyman. The darkness in which he awakes is one of the spirit. The cock crow is one of warning that the spirit must awake to its own dangers. The allegorical journey has often been called the way into the dark night of the soul, in which the darkness stands for despair or hopelessness. We cannot describe Kino or his people as in despair, for they have never known any life other than the one they lead; neither are they in hopelessness, for they are not aware that there is anything for which to hope. In a social parable, then, the darkness is injustice and helplessness in the face of it; in the allegory of the spirit, darkness concerns the opacity of the moral substance in man.

The social element is developed rapidly through the episode of Coyotito's scorpion bite and the doctor's refusal to treat a child whose father cannot pay a substantial fee. Kino's helplessness is conveyed by the fist he crushes into a split and bleeding mass against the doctor's gate. This theme of helplessness reaches its peak in the pearl-selling attempt. When Kino says to his incredulous brother, Juan Thomás, that perhaps all three buyers set a price amongst themselves before Kino's arrival, Juan Thomás answers, "If that is so, then all of us have been cheated all of our lives." And of course they have been.

Kino is, then, in the near dark; and, as his misfortunes develop, he descends deeper and deeper into the dark night of the soul. The journey that the soul makes as well as the journey that the living Kino makes—in terms of the good and evil that invest the one and the oppression and freedom that come to the other—provides the allegorical statement of the novel.

In the attempt to achieve believable situations, create three-dimensional characters, Steinbeck met greater difficulties that he did not entirely overcome. The germ-anecdote out of which he constructed his story gave him little more than the bare elements of myth.…

[In] Steinbeck's source [are] all the major elements of his expanded version: the Mexican peasant, the discovered pearl, the belief that the pearl will make the finder free, the corrupt brokers, the attacks, the flight, the return, and the disposal of the pearl. But there are also additions and alterations. The episodes of the doctor and the priest are added; the motives for retaining the pearl are changed. While the additions add perhaps some realism at the same time that they increase the impact of the allegory, the alterations tend to diminish the realistic aspects of the hero.

In these alterations, employed perhaps to add reality to a fable, Steinbeck has diminished realism. Narrative detail alone supplies this element. The opening of chapter three, like the beginning paragraph of the book, is descriptive.… Symbol, allegory, and realistic detail are again woven satisfactorily together. The large fish and the hawks symbolize the doctor, the priest, the brokers, and the man behind the brokers, in fact all enemies of the village people from time prehistoric. Allegorically these predatory animals are all the snares that beset the journeying soul and the hungering body. Realistically these scenes can be observed in any coastal town where water, foul, and animal ecology provide these specific denizens.

Somewhere in every chapter Steinbeck adds a similar touch.… All these passages operate symbolically as well as realistically, and some of them work even allegorically.

Kino's flight may be seen as a double journey, with a third still to be made. The journey is one half spiritual—the route to salvation of the soul— and one half physical—the way to freedom from bodily want.

The Indian boy of the germ-story had quite falsely identified his hold on the pearl with a firm grasp on salvation, a salvation absolutely assured while he still went about enveloped in flesh and mortality: "he could in advance purchase masses sufficient to pop him out of Purgatory like a squeezed watermelon seed." Kino also holds the pearl in his hand and equates it with freedom from want and then, mystically, also with freedom from damnation: "If I give it up I shall lose my soul." But he too has mistaken the pearl. The chances are very much more likely that with freedom from want his soul will be all the more in danger from sin. The Indian boy becomes free only when he throws the pearl away, only when he is "again with his soul in danger and his food and shelter insecure." The full significance of Kino's throwing the pearl back into the sea now becomes clear: the act represents his willingness to accept the third journey, the journey still to be made, the journey that Dante had still to make even after rising out of Hell to Purgatory and Paradise, the journey that any fictional character has still to make after his dreamvision allegory is over. Kino, Dante, Everyman have been given nothing more than instruction. They must apply their new knowledge and win their way to eternal salvation, which can come only with their actual deaths.

Kino is not defeated. He has in a sense triumphed over his enemy, over the chief of the pearl buyers, who neither gets the pearl nor kills Kino to keep him from talking. Kino has rid himself of his pursuers; he has a clear road to the cities of the north, to the capital, where indeed he may be cheated again, but where he has infinitely more opportunity to escape his destiny as a hut-dwelling peasant on the edge of La Paz. He has proved that he cannot be cheated nor destroyed. But his real triumph, his real gain, the heights to which he has risen rather than the depths to which he has slipped back is the immense knowledge that he has gained about good and evil. This knowledge is the tool that he needs to help him on the final journey, the inescapable journey that everyman must take.

A final note should be added concerning some parallels between Steinbeck's novel and the anonymous fourteenth century Pearl.

The importance of the medieval Pearl for a reading of Steinbeck's novel is centered in the role of the children in each. Coyotito can, in several ways, be identified with Kino's "pearl of great value." The pearl from the sea is only a means by which Coyotito will be given an education. For the doctor, who at first refused to treat Coyotito, the child becomes his means to the pearl, i.e. the child is the pearl to him. But more important than these tenuous relationships is the fact that with the death of Coyotito the pearl no longer has any significance. The moment the pursuer with the rifle fires, Kino kills him. Kino then kills the two trackers who led the assassin to him and who were unshakable. This act gives Kino and his family unhindered passage to the cities of the north, where either the pearl might be sold or a new life begun. But the chance shot has killed Coyotito, and though Kino and Juana are now free, they return to the village near La Paz and throw the pearl back into the sea. Thus the sole act that has altered Kino's determination to keep the pearl which has become his soul is the death of his child; and, as I read the allegory, Kino and Juana turn from the waterside with new spiitual strength, regenerated even as the father in the medieval Pearl.

However, I do not think that anything over-much should be made of [the] similarities. Possibly the mere title of Steinbeck's allegory brought memories to his mind of the fourteenth century poem. He may have gone back to look at it again, but he may have satisfied himself with distant evocations only. For myself, whatever likenesses I find between the two works serve only to emphasize the continuing tradition of true allegory and the modern writer's strong links with the past.

Source: Hany Morris, "The Pearl: Realism and Allegory," in English Journal, Vol. 52, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487–505.


John S. Kennedy, "John Steinbeck: Life Affirmed and Dissolved," in Steinbeck and His Critics: A Record of Twenty-five Years, edited by E.W. Tedlock, Jr. and C.V. Wicker, University of New Mexico Press, 1957, pp. 119–34.

Todd M. Lieber, "Talismanic Patterns in the Novels of John Steinbeck," in American Literature, May, 1972, pp. 262–75.

Peter Lisca, "Escape and Commitment: Two Poles of the Steinbeck Hero," in Steinbeck: The Man and His Work,edited by Richard Astro and Tetsumaro Hayashi, Oregon State University Press, 1971, pp. 75–88.

Harry Morris, "The Pearl: Realism and Allegory," in English Journal, Vol. LII, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487–505.

For Further Study

Carlos Baker, "Steinbeck at the Top of His Form," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 97, November 30, 1947, pp. 4,52.

In this favorable review, Baker finds parallels between The Pearl and the "unkillable folklore of Palestine, Greece, Rome, China, India," and western Europe.

Debra K.S. Barker, "Passages of Descent and Initiation: Juana as the 'Other' Hero of The Pearl," in After The Grapes of Wrath, Essays on John Steinbeck, edited by Donald V. Coers, Paul D. Ruffm, and Robert J. DeMott, Ohio University Press, 1995, pp. 113–23.

Barker argues that Juana undergoes a trial "equal to or perhaps more momentous" than Kino's as she evolves from the role of "Helpmate" to that of "The Sage."

Warren French, "Dramas of Consciousness," in John Steinbeck, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 126–30.

French defines parable, and maintains that The Pearl does not fit the definition of a parable because it contains too many loose ends.

—, "Searching for a Folk Hero," in John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 106–12.

French describes the novel as offering a "high-minded lesson for materialistic cultures that certainly could not have been true."

Maxwell Geismar, "Fable Retold," in The Saturday Review, Vol. 30, November 22, 1947, pp. 14–15.

Geismar criticizes the novel as a work of propaganda rather than art.

Sunita Jain, "Steinbeck's The Pearl: An Interpretation," in Journal of the School of Languages, Vol. 6, Nos. 1–2, 1978–1979, pp. 138–43.

In this positive review, Jain interprets the central drama in the story to be "Kino's education into manhood through the knowledge of good and evil."

Ernest E. Karsten, Jr., "Thematic Structure in The Pearl," in English Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 1–7.

Karsten relates the novel's themes to its organization, focusing his analysis on the Songs of Family, of Evil, and of the Pearl, on the theme of human relationships, and on the essential roles of men and women.

Sydney J. Krause, "The Pearl and 'Hadleyburg': From Desire to Renunciation," in Steinbeck's Literary Dimension: A Guide to Comparative Studies Series II, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991, pp. 154–71.

Krause says that critical responses to the novel depend on how one interprets its conclusion, which he sees optimistically as revealing how Kino's weaknesses have become his strengths. Krause classifies the novel as belonging to the "pessimistic-naturalist" tradition of Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg."

Howard Levant, "The Natural Parable," in The Novels of John Steinbeck, A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 185–206.

Levant analyzes Steinbeck's narrative methods, focusing on the novella's simple structure, which, he believes, provides a necessary balance to Steinbeck's complex material.

Peter Lisca, "The Pearl," in The Wide World of John Steinbeck, Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp. 218–30.

Lisca offers an interpretation of The Pearl as both a "direct statement of events," and "as a reflection of conscious or unconscious forces dictating the imagery in which it is presented."

—, in John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, Thomas Y. Cromwell, 1978.

Critical look at Steinbeck's theoretical use of biological theory and mythical components in his fiction.

Michael J. Meyer, "Precious Bane: Mining the Fool's Gold in The Pearl," in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism, edited by Jackson J. Benson, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 161–72.

Meyer analyzes critical responses to the novella, in particular how they interpret the ambiguity in the tale, then offers his own interpretation: the parable acknowledges that only on his way toward death is man able to "discover who he really is."

Harry Morris, "The Pearl: Realism and Allegory," in English Journal, Vol. 52, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487–505.

Morris investigates the appearance and reception of allegory in the past four hundred years of literature, responds to those who criticized the novella because it is an allegory or because it is anti-materialist, and concludes that Kino is a remarkable hero because he is an allegorical Everyman.

Orville Prescott, "Books of the Times," in New York Times, November 24, 1947, p. 21.

Prescott praises The Pearl for its simple style and powerful emotional impact, and compares it to Kipling's Mowgli story, "The King's Ankus."

John Steinbeck, "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech," in Faulkner O'Neill Steinbeck, edited by Alexis Gregory, Helvetica Press, Inc., 1971, pp. 205–08.

In this speech, Steinbeck considers the human need for literature, and agrees with Faulkner that the "understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer's reason for being."

John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, in Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, Viking, 1941.

This work is the result of a marine expedition that Steinbeck undertook with his friend Ed Ricketts in 1940. It provides more insight into Steinbeck's biological theories. The expedition takes place in the Gulf of California where a story like The Pearl might easily take place.

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