Kino, a young, poor diver, lives in a small town, La Paz, with his wife Juana, and his baby son, Coyotito. When Coyotito is stung by a scorpion, Kino must find a way to pay the town doctor to treat him. Shortly thereafter, Kino discovers an enormous pearl which he is ready to sell to pay the doctor. Sadly, other forces work against Kino. Nearly as soon as he returns from sea, the whole town knows of the pearl. Everyone calls it "the pearl of the world, " and many people begin to covet it. That very night Kino is attacked in his own home. Determined to get rid of the pearl, the following morning he takes it to the pearl buyers in town. However, the pearl buyers collude together and refuse to pay him what he wants, so he decides to go over the mountains to the capital to find a better price. However, Juana, seeing that the pearl brings darkness and greed, sneaks out of the house late at night to throw it back into the ocean. When Kino catches her, furious, he attacks her and leaves her on the beach. Returning to the house with the pearl, Kino is attacked by an unknown man whom he stabs and kills. Kino is afraid that the authorities will come after him, his wife and Coyotito and most importantly, the pearl. The pearl is dropped and hidden from view. He thinks the man has taken the pearl, but Juana shows him that she has found it. When they go back to the town, they find their home has been set on fire. Kino and Juana spend the day hiding in the house of Kino's brother Juan Tomás and his wife and gathering provisions for their trip to the capital city. Only there can they hope to sell the pearl for a decent price. Kino, Juana, and Coyotito leave in the dark of the night. After a brief rest in the morning, Kino spots trackers who are following them. Well aware that they will be unable to hide from the trackers, they begin hiking into the mountains. They find a cave near a natural water hole, where the exhausted family hides and waits for the trackers to catch up to them. The trackers find the water hole and decide to rest there for the night. Kino realizes that he must get rid of the trackers if they are to survive the trip to the capital. As he prepares to attack, the men hear a cry like a baby's though they decide it's more like a coyote with a litter. One of the men fires his rifle in the direction of the crying, where Juana and Coyotito lie. Kino tackles the man, takes the gun and kills all of the trackers. Kino then realizes that something is wrong; he climbs back up to the cave to discover that the man's shot has killed Coyotito. In mourning, Kino and Juana return to La Paz with Coyotito's dead body wrapped in a sling. No longer wanting the pearl, Kino throws it back into the ocean. Because of the loss of their only child, Coyotito, Kino and Juana have become hardened and indifferent.
The story is based upon a legend that Steinbeck had heard about a boy who found a large pearl but decided to keep and hide it when the vendors offered him only a small price. After being beat up by others who wanted the pearl, the legend says the boy threw it into the ocean. Steinbeck altered the story because the boy seemed "too heroic, too wise."
He 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 Companion in 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.
Reception and analysis
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The book received initial positive response from publications like The New York Times and Library Journal.
The story is one of Steinbeck's most popular books and has been widely used in high school classes.
Jackson Benson writes that The Pearl was heavily influenced by Steinbeck's interest in the philosophy of Carl Jung. Steinbeck wrote that he created the story of The Pearl to address the themes of "human greed, materialism, and the inherent worth of a thing."
The Pearl Theme of Greed
Steinbeck paints an incredibly simplistic portrait of greed in The Pearl. It is always evil, it always corrupts, and it brings nothing but suffering. All competition in this novel is unhealthy, and everyone is motivated by self-interest, not concern for others.
The Pearl Theme of Family
Family is idealized in The Pearl – it is "warmth […], safety […], the Whole." Main character Kino protects his family above all else, even the self, and he does so with an almost animalistic fervor. Family is closely tied to gender roles in this text, since the duties of mother and father, husband and wife are an important part of identity.
The Pearl Theme of Wealth
Much of The Pearl is about pursuing wealth and the dangers that such an endeavor brings. Because wealth is so highly valued (for no good reason, the novella argues), men make extraordinary sacrifices in its name. Such blind, irrational values can only bring destruction in this text.
The Pearl Theme of Good vs. Evil
In viewing The Pearl as a parable, good and evil can be seen in very absolute terms. The family is good; greed is evil. Love is good; destruction is evil. Oppressive colonization, corrupt capitalism, and racism all go on the "evil" list, which we have to say is a tad longer than the "good" one. In this novel, the only thing that stands outside the clear evil vs. good dichotomy is the pearl itself – it simply reflects what is around it. That the pearl ends up reflecting evil is an indication of The Pearl’s grim view of the world.
The Pearl Theme of Gender
There is no ambiguity in gender roles in The Pearl. The male is the leader of the household. He is dominant, he is the decision-maker, and the family’s welfare rests solely on his shoulders. The female, on the other hand, is submissive, deferent, and nearly always silent.
The Pearl Theme of Man and the Natural World
The natural world is not to be trusted in The Pearl. The setting is composed of mirages, dream-like visions that are false representations of reality. The novel suggests that man makes what he will of the natural world; it is reflective in nature, and he sees what he wants to see. That the pearl itself is a product of the natural world is further evidence that man can corrupt what was once beautiful and pure.
The Pearl Theme of Power
Corrupted power features in The Pearl as the nasty reality of colonial domination and oppression. The Mexican natives of La Paz live on the outskirts of a town of colonizing Europeans, greedy men who keep the natives in poverty and ignorance. Many of the sorrows of this tragic tale stem from attempts on the part of the powerful to take advantage of the weak.
The Pearl Theme of Religion
Religion in The Pearl is an amalgamation of the natives’ belief in superstition, luck, and "the gods" with the colonizing Europeans’ faith in one "God." The novel effectively asks "what’s the difference," especially given the detachment and indifference of divine power to human suffering. We get a rather condemning view of organized religion through one priest who uses religion to oppress the natives of La Paz and who tries to take advantage of the protagonist’s new-found wealth.
The Pearl Theme of The Supernatural
The Pearl argues that events are essentially arbitrary – it just comes down to luck. In the universe of this story, tragedy is explainable, irrational, and unjust. The characters grasp at straws (religion, faith, karma) to justify that which, according to the parable, can not be justified.
The Pearl Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
A scorpion stings Kino’s son and the doctor refuses to treat him. OK, we’ll admit that this sounds like conflict. And in a way, yes, it is conflict – it’s just not the conflict of the novel. Instead, it sets up the circumstances in which the real conflict – Kino’s discovery of the pearl – occurs. Because of the scorpion sting, that event is couched in urgency and desperation – the conditions set by our initial situation. The doctor being a jerk sets up some of the themes and tension of the novel, as well as establishing what is essentially the initial situation of Kino’s emotional state (namely, gate-punching anger).
Kino finds the Maserati of all pearls.
You’d think this would be the climax, but the discovery of the pearl instead throws a giant wrench into Kino’s life. He can now dream big – which is great – but everyone in his town is also dreaming big – which is not so great. The townspeople are all ready to do anything to get their hands on the pearl, which spells C-O-N-F-L-I-C-T to us.
The pearl-buyers try to scam Kino; he is then driven out of town after unknown attackers destroy his boat and burn his house. That went downhill fast. What should have been a joyous, celebratory time is quickly corrupted by greed and evil.
Trackers follow Kino and Kino brings them down.
As climactic as watching Kino triumph over the trackers is, it’s a bittersweet moment. He doesn’t have a house or a canoe, and he’s on the run. As much as we may cheer for his attack moves, and as much as we identify this as the climax of the novel, it’s definitely tinged with some darker undertones.
Kino hears a "cry of death" from the cave.
Steinbeck doesn’t explain what this "cry of death" means, which means that he leaves us in suspense until the…
Kino and Juana return to La Paz. Coyotito is dead.
Now that we know that the "cry of death" from the cave was Juana mourning for the death of Coyotito, the suspense is over.
Kino chucks the pearl into the ocean.
Kino and Juana come to a tacit agreement (well, Kino is finally convinced) that the pearl is evil. He throws it out of their lives and we assume they go back to being poor, minus a canoe, house, and their son. Kino
Kino isn’t very complicated. He loves his family, he dives for pearls, and he’s obsessed with being a man. That’s pretty much it.
But while Kino never deviates from his masculine role, he does stop being entirely human. What we mean is, he gets less like a human and more like an animal. So what do you make of this? On the one hand, we can’t really expect much more of the guy; he’s out in the wilderness, his life is threatened, and his family is in danger. He has to get animalistic if he wants to survive.
On the other hand, he murders three men (in addition to earlier the one in the village) without giving it a second thought. Does the novel seem to condemn his actions or excuse them?
Let’s take a look at this super interesting line from Chapter Three: "It is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have." Man is made superior to animals by his ability to seek a better life.
OK….except Kino becomes an animal after he starts looking to climb the ladder of success. So what’s up with that? Kino is more human, more civilized by his dreaming. Just like the pearl (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory"), dreams aren’t bad per se – it’s society that screws them up. Society takes Kino and, for all his dreaming, beats him back into the ground – back into the status of an animal. He is left with no choice but to respond with the only weapons he has: instinct, physicality, and violence.