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The Pearl by John Steinbeck Summary/ synopsis
The Pearl is a novella by American author John Steinbeck, first published in 1947. It is the story of a pearl diver, Kino, and explores man’s nature as well as greed, defiance of societal norms, and evil. Steinbeck’s inspiration was a Mexican folk tale from La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, which he had heard in a visit to the formerly pearl-rich region in 1940. In 1947, it was adapted into a Mexican film named La perla and in 1987 into a cult Kannada movie Ondu Muttina Kathe. The story is one of Steinbeck’s most popular books and has been widely used in high school classes. The Pearl is sometimes considered a parable.
The Pearl, which takes place in La Paz, Mexico, begins with a description of the seemingly idyllic family life of Kino, his wife Juana and their infant son, Coyotito. Kino watches as Coyotito sleeps, but sees a scorpion crawl down the rope that holds the hanging box where Coyotito lies. Kino attempts to catch the scorpion, but Coyotito bumps the rope and the scorpion falls on him. Although Kino kills the scorpion, it still stings Coyotito. Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbors, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay.
Kino and Juana leave the doctors and take Coyotito down near the sea, where Juana uses a seaweed poultice on Coyotito’s shoulder, which is now swollen. Kino dives for oysters from his canoe, attempting to find pearls. He finds a very large oyster which, when Kino opens it, yields an immense pearl, which Kino therefore dubs “The Pearl of the World”. Kino puts back his head and howls, causing the other pearl divers to look up and race toward Kino’s canoe.
The news that Kino has found an immense pearl travels fast through La Paz. The doctor who refused to treat Coyotito decides to visit Kino. Kino’s neighbors begin to feel bitter toward him for his good fortune, but neither Kino nor Juana realize this feeling that they have engendered. Juan Tomas, the brother of Kino, asks him what he will do with his money, and he envisions getting married to Juana in a church and dressing Coyotito in a yachting cap and sailor suit. He claims that he will send Coyotito to school and buy a rifle for himself. The local priest visits and tells Kino to remember to give thanks and to pray for guidance. The doctor also visits, and although Coyotito seems to be healing, the doctor insists that Coyotito still faces danger and treats him. Kino tells the doctor that he will pay him once he sells his pearl, and the doctor attempts to discern where the pearl is located (Kino has buried it in the corner of his hut). That night, a thief attempts to break into Kino’s hut, but Kino drives him away. Juana tells Kino that the pearl will destroy them, but Kino insists that the pearl is their one chance and that tomorrow they will sell it.
Kino’s neighbors wonder what they would do if they had found the pearl, and suggest giving it as a present to the Pope, buying masses for the souls of his family, and distributing it among the poor of La Paz. Kino goes to sell his pearl, accompanied by his neighbors, but the pearl dealer only offers a thousand pesos when Kino believes that he deserves fifty thousand. Although other dealers inspect the pearl and give similar prices, Kino refuses their offer and decides to go to the capital to sell it there. That night, Kino is attacked by more thieves, and Juana once again reminds Kino that the pearl is evil. However, Kino vows that he will not be cheated, for he is a man.
Later that night, Juana attempts to take the pearl and throw it into the ocean, but Kino finds her and beats her for doing so. While outside, a group of men accost Kino and knock the pearl from his hand. Juana watches from a distance, and sees Kino approach her, limping with another man whose throat Kino has slit. Juana finds the pearl, and they decide that they must go away even if the murder was in self-defense. Kino finds that his canoe has been damaged and their house was torn up and the outside set afire. Kino and Juana stay with Juan Tomas and his wife, Apolonia, where they hide for the next day before setting out for the capital that night.
Kino and Juana travel that night, and rest during the day. When Kino believes that he is being followed, the two hide and Kino sees several bighorn sheep trackers who pass by him. Kino and Juana escape into the mountains, where Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino, taking his clothes off so that no one will see his white clothing. The trackers think that they hear something when they hear Coyotito crying, but decide that it is merely a coyote pup. After a tracker shoots in the direction of the cries, Kino attacks the three trackers, killing all three of them. Kino can hear nothing but the cry of death, for he soon realizes that Coyotito is dead from that first shot. Juana and Kino return to La Paz. Kino carries a rifle stolen from the one of the trackers he killed, while Juana carries the dead Coyotito. The two approach the gulf, and Kino, who now sees the image of Coyotito with his head blown off in the pearl, throws it into the ocean.
Steinbeck began writing the story as a movie script in 1944, and first published it as a short story called “The Pearl of the World” in Woman’s Home Companionin December 1945. The original publication is also sometimes listed as “The Pearl of La Paz”. He expanded it to novella length and published it under the name The Pearl by Viking Press in 1947. As he was writing the novella version, he was frequently travelling to Mexico where the film version, co-written with Jack Wagner, was being filmed. The film was also released by RKO in 1947 as a co-promotion with the book.
The Pearl was loosely adapted in 2001 for a film directed by Alfredo Zacharias and starring Lukas Haas and Richard Harris which was released directly to video in 2005.
Family– Throughout the novel, the plot is focused on how the family lives before and after the pearl. It is constantly the focus of the plot and many of the decisions are based on what would be best for the family. For example, the first thing that Kino desires to do with the money from the pearl was to give his wife and Coyotito a better life. This money would pay for Coyotito’s education, better clothes and better protection. Later, Kino also demonstrated devotion to his family by not selling to the pearl dealer. The second buyer was trying to get the pearl for less than it was worth, but Kino, with his family in mind, declined to search for a better deal. He always has his family in mind, whether it leads to warmth and happiness or destruction. It was the reason for the Kino getting the pearl and, eventually, him throwing it back into the ocean and it was a main theme of the novel.
Paradoxes– The theme of paradoxes is displayed through Kino’s desires. Once Kino discovers the pearl, he begins to dream about what could come from this fortune but as he tries to carry out this plan, the good wealth also brings destruction. Though Kino desires good for his family, there is a paradox of an evil reality that he does not want. Kino tries to “avoid life’s inevitable tension” between these two but he finds that he cannot separate the good and the evil.
Kino is the main character that develops throughout the novel. He begins as a simple man that has a wife, Juana, and a son, Coyotito. He is content with his life-style as a diver, though he is not wealthy, until he discovers the pearl. After discovering the pearl, Kino gradually changes to become a completely different man. Though family is still the center of his actions, he is also driven by greed. He is no longer content with his son not being educated, or his family not being well-dressed. Quickly, he becomes obsessed with material things, which was the opposite of his life before. Instead of enjoying his family and their company, as he did in the beginning, he becomes discontent and always seeks more. He is named for the missionary Eusebio Kino.
Juana is a secondary character who is Kino’s wife. She is a loving woman who cares for her husband and son. Throughout the experience, she remains loyal to her family but also perceives the evil that the pearl brings. For example, one night, she attempted to throw the pearl back into the ocean to bring back peace and happiness to her family, demonstrating her wisdom and love for her family.
The different faces of the main character in ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck
- The beginning of the novel reveals the first type of Kino — kind, focused and caring.
- He is a dreamer who believes that one day he will fish a pearl that will change his life, a dream supported by Juana, his wife.
- The author also limits the setting to the Gulf of California, in a village and in a town. In the town, people are individualistic.
By JANLYDIA WANJIRU MWANGIi
The Pearl by John Steinbeck reveals Kino, the main character, as a native American living in a village near La Paz.
His wife is known as Juana and he has an only child, Coyotito.
The first chapter provides a vivid description of this community. Realistic fantasy is evident in Kino’s life upon discovery of the great pearl. It is a wish-fulfilment plot because through the pearl, there is a possibility to fulfil his dreams. His dreams are the dreams of the village.
The beginning of the novel reveals the first type of Kino — kind, focused and caring.
He is a dreamer who believes that one day he will fish a pearl that will change his life, a dream supported by Juana, his wife.
The author also limits the setting to the Gulf of California, in a village and in a town. In the town, people are individualistic.
Therefore, when the doctor rejects Kino’s pearls as payment to treat Coyotito, it is also a rejection of the lower class in society.
Kino’s action of hitting the gate at the doctor’s house foreshadows his determination to get through the ‘gate’ that is the obstacles that have denied his son good treatment.
The blood he sheds symbolises the blood to be shed in his fight for his dream.
Another type of Kino fights the class and race war. Upon the rejection by the doctor, Kino and his wife go pearl fishing and find ‘the greatest pearl of the world’ (page 37).
The pearl symbolically makes Kino visible to the high class people of town.
The doctor visits the village to assist with Coyotito’s illness, while the priest tries to convince Kino to tithe and have a church wedding.
To Kino, illusions move from healing the child to dreams of a better life (page 44-45). The last dream is to acquire a ‘rifle’ to justify his manhood.
To his neighbours in the village, the ‘pearl of the world’ can turn into a curse if Kino is not able to fulfil his dreams and if he leaves his native village.
This view is also supported by Kino’s wife Juana after an attack by people interested in stealing the pearl (page 59,79).
The author at this point focuses on Kino’s emotions and his weakness in making the right choice about the pearl.
Another type of Kino is revealed as one who is not afraid to kill to protect the pearl.
The second attack they encounter leads to a death. The death begins the symbolic elimination of passive elements that may hinder his dreams.
Kino acquires fear for his life and his family and opts to go north to find a better value for the pearl. His neighbours’ predictions come true and death becomes inevitable. The pearl, ironically, becomes their misfortune and part of Kino’s soul (p.g 92).
The social-economic environment of the rich and the poor affects the judgment and decision about his destiny. His flight to the north directs him to his fate while his naivety makes him not to understand that he is controlled by forces of his history that he cannot escape from. As he fights them, his son dies and his dreams come to a disastrous end. They return carrying the ‘rifle’ (manhood desires fulfilled) and the body of Coyotito (page 116). He accepts his old self by throwing back into the sea the great pearl.
Source: Nation, The writer teaches English and literature at Mwanawikio Secondary School in Gatanga, Murang’aCounty
The Pearl by John Steinbeck Set book: How greed brings out the worst in us.
- It is important to mention that as this is a parable, the interpretation of The Pearl can shift throughout the text and among the audience.
- The discovery of the pearl, at first, could be termed as a counterbalance for Coyotito’s scorpion sting; as nature’s way of compensating the family for the little boy’s misfortune.
- As more people get into the picture, the neighbours calling it ‘the Pearl of the world’ and as it almost falls into the hands of thieves, the pearl seems to lose its initial good fortune and even becomes a threat to their lives.
- It loses its original value as a representative of hope to being a mere material object that needs to be sold off urgently.
By VERA OMWOCHA
John Steinbeck starts off The Pearl by setting the stage in the little town of La Paz, on the shores of the Gulf of California. He tells the story of Kino, a poor fisherman; his wife Juana, and new born son, Coyotito.
One day, he discovers something of great value, ‘the pearl of the world’. Coyotito is, coincidentally, stung by a scorpion and the town doctor refuses to treat him.
As news of the pearl travels fast in the small village, most people become excited at how they can benefit from it. The malicious town doctor suddenly ‘offers’ to treat Coyotito, but he first makes the boy ill. The town’s pearl dealers hatch a plot to cheat Kino by greatly devaluing the price of the pearl. The priest appropriately remembers that Kino and Juana did not get married in church, that Coyotito has not been baptised and that the church needs repairs. Even the beggars hope to benefit from the proceeds of the pearl.
To Kino, the pearl represents a new and better life for his family and, most importantly, education for his son, Coyotito.
Ignoring his wife’s misgivings on the danger the pearl presents, Kino, accompanied by his wife and son, sets out to the capital to get a fair price for the pearl. On the way, they are attacked by three men, all of whom Kino kills. Coyotito also dies in the commotion. Kino and Juana return to the village; defeated by fate. They throw the pearl into the sea.
It is important to mention that as this is a parable, the interpretation of The Pearl can shift throughout the text and among the audience. The discovery of the pearl, at first, could be termed as a counterbalance for Coyotito’s scorpion sting; as nature’s way of compensating the family for the little boy’s misfortune. As more people get into the picture, the neighbours calling it ‘the Pearl of the world’ and as it almost falls into the hands of thieves, the pearl seems to lose its initial good fortune and even becomes a threat to their lives. It loses its original value as a representative of hope to being a mere material object that needs to be sold off urgently.
Just as the scorpion stings Coyotito’s innocence, so does the pearl draw out innocence out of Kino’s heart; replacing it with greed and evil.
Like all parables, Steinbeck aims at washing his protagonist in a moral lesson, from which they can recover their humanity. The tale ends with a disillusioned Kino flinging the pearl back into the sea; denouncing the wealth that would have come with it; more like fulfilling a moral obligation.
Kino, the protagonist is a simple man with achievable dreams — a better life for his family, a church wedding and education for his son, Coyotito. All these dreams spur up with the discovery of the pearl. Steinbeck presents him as a character with a deep imagination and with a touch with reality — emanating from the songs in his head.
The trajectory in his life is compounded by the discovery of the great pearl and Coyotito’s scorpion sting. Kino retreats into a man driven by the desire to guard his treasure even at the expense of life. He kills to protect his pearl. Lives are lost, including his own son’s. Kino’s desires for a better life dies with Coyotito’s death.
The simple man in Kino is gradually transformed by greed and when all cannot hold, a sense of disillusionment sweeps over him, especially on losing both the pearl and his son. As aforementioned, Kino’s character can also allude to many things — how greed pollutes good morals; that one cannot dictate fate; and the struggle to preserve goodness and purity.
Juana epitomises a practical woman. Obedient, but only enough to allow for her own thoughts. Her loyalty to her husband is threatened by a foreshadow that the pearl is only a representative of evil. She tries to convince her husband to throw the pearl into the sea unsuccessfully as the pearl’s fortune is already laid out in Kino’s mind. Initially, she is also flattered by the quality and fortune of the pearl but when fate settles in, she becomes the sound of reason. Predictably, she discovers that they stands to lose more and decides to be content with their simple life. Regardless, she does not leave her husband’s side when all her plans to discard the pearl fail and even when he beats her up. In the end, when he gives her the pearl to throw into the sea, “…she looked into Kino’s eyes and said softly, ‘No, you.’” Perhaps Juana is aware that just as Kino brought misfortune into their lives through the pearl, only he has the power to cast it off into the sea.
The doctor is a self-centred; cold individual, puffed up with a sense of cultural superiority over the townspeople. He is aware of the power he holds to save or destroy lives; and this he manipulates well to suit his desires. He refuses to treat Coyotito’s scorpion sting because Kino cannot afford it but he is the first to calculatedly make it to Kino’s home to ‘treat’ Coyotito as soon as news of the pearl’s discovery reaches him.
The doctor is a representative of the European colonisers, filled with arrogance and clothed in greed. Perhaps, it is the same greed that has permeated into the minds of Kino and his people like a scorpion’s venom; corrupting the town’s purity and innocence. The doctor also represents the upper class/ the knowledgeable in society. Together with the pearl buyers, they are the inheritors of the colonial evils — greed topping the list.
Most of the characters in this text are motivated by self-interest. It is safe to mention that although Kino is driven by greed, he is more motivated by his family, especially Coyotito than self — interest.
The text seems to point out the undesirable portrait that is greed; that it only destroys that which it comes into contact with. The pearl, initially meant to be a symbol of hope; quickly turns out to be a symbol of self-destruction. Not only is Kino self-destroyed, but he leads to the destruction of the very family he seeks to protect; the death of Coyotito.
In seeking a better price for the pearl, Kino’s objective can be said to be education for his son . Arguably, it can be said that Kino’s ‘greed’ can be said to unavoidable. He does not seek more than the pearl can fetch. He is a human being presented with a huge temptation of material wealth which he cannot turn down and instead fights to protect.
Greed seems to be implanted in the people’s minds. Regardless, that need completely transforms and brings out the worst in Kino (as it does with the doctor, the priest, the pearl buyers and even Juana at the beginning). He kills those who get in his way and even beats up Juana for attempting to get rid of the pearl.
Emphasis on education is elucidated by Kino’s crave for Coyotito’s education. He realises that being ignorant in a society where knowledge is a fundamental is vain.
Fate: The villagers are primarily presented as a people in charge of what happens to them. They fend for themselves and make their own plans in tandem with their needs. At what point, therefore, does that force beyond human control take over and changes the turn of events for either good or bad? Is it Kino’s greed, animalistic behaviour and violence that comes with being in possession of the pearl that leads to their ultimate destruction? Similarly, this can be argued in different ways. That perhaps what destroys Kino is his ambition to challenge the fate that has already been laid out for him.
It is important to question the turnout of events. Is Kino responsible for what befalls him and his family in the end? How much a hand does fate have on what eventually transpires?
Source: Nation Verah Omwocha is an editor, writer, trained teacher and literary enthusiast. She blogs about books and life at https://veraomwocha. wordpress. com