The Pearl is based on a Mexican folk tale and explores themes such as the depths of evil, the secrets of human nature, and the power of love.
Kino is a poor diver who follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He lives with his wife Juana and their infant son, and they barely make ends meet by collecting pearls from the gulf beds. These beds were once a source of great wealth for the Kings of Spain but now provide only a meager subsistence for Kino’s family.
One day, Kino emerges from the sea with a pearl that is as large as a seagull’s egg and “perfect as the moon.” This discovery fills him with hope and the promise of a better life for his family.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
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In this The Pearl book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
A young pearl diver finds a great pearl and dreams of a better life for his family, but soon learns that money often causes new problems rather than solve old ones.
Kino, a young Mexican Indian pearl diver, awakes in the “near dark” hour just before dawn. He lives in a small thatched house in a poor neighborhood outside the city of La Paz, and as he looks at his infant son, Coyotito, and wife, Juana, he feels a deep sense of peace and happiness.
Preparing for another day of diving for pearls in the Gulf of California waters off the coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, Kino listens to the splash of the waves on the nearby beach and the rustle of his wife preparing the morning fire in their hut. A beautiful, harmonious song plays in his mind: it is the Song of Family, a melody created by his ancestors to celebrate the safety, warmth, and wholeness of family life.
Kino’s tranquility is broken, however, when a scorpion climbs toward Coyotito in his crib. The Song of Evil blares a warning in Kino’s mind, yet the poisonous creature stings Coyotito before Kino can reach it.
As the baby screams, Juana quickly sucks the poison from the wound on his shoulder, knowing that it might be fatal to such a young child. Juana then does something unheard of among the impoverished Indians of the town—she calls for the doctor, a member of the white race that has long oppressed her people.
Upon learning that he will not pay house calls to poor people, she sets out for his house in the rich part of La Paz, accompanied by Kino, Coyotito, and a crowd of curious neighbors.
Upon arrival at the massive gates of the doctor’s residence, they are met by a servant, who refuses to speak “the old language” even though he is of the same race as Kino’s people. The servant tells Kino to wait while he goes to speak with the doctor. Lounging in his chamber, the doctor, a lazy, obese man dressed in a red silk robe and snacking on chocolate, demands payment in advance when he hears that a poor Indian wants treatment.
The servant returns to tell Kino and Juana. When Kino can produce only eight small pearls, the doctor refuses to treat Coyotito, announcing that he is “a doctor, not a veterinary.” Kino, ashamed of his poverty and enraged by the injustice of society, beats at the doctor’s gate until his hand begins to bleed.
There is nothing for Kino and Juana to do but to go to work, hoping that they will be lucky enough to find the Pearl of the World—the spectacular pearl that every diver dreams of finding. They place Coyotito, whose shoulder has swollen grotesquely, into Kino’s precious canoe and paddle out onto the Gulf waters.
As Kino lowers himself to the bottom, Juana quietly prays that he will find a large pearl so that they can afford the doctor. Kino skillfully searches the Gulfs bed for oysters. The usual Song of the Undersea is mixed with the Song of the Pearl That Might Be as Kino hopes for a great pearl.
Suddenly, his heart beats rapidly as he sees a “ghostly gleam” from within a very large oyster. Returning to the boat, he opens the oyster and finds within it a “great pearl, perfect as the moon” and as large as a seagull’s egg. Juana and Kino rejoice at having discovered the “greatest pearl in the world,” and as Juana uncovers Coyotito’s wound, she is amazed to see that the swelling has begun to recede.
Word of Kino’s finding the Pearl of the World spreads quickly throughout La Paz. The news “stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion.” People soon view the pearl in selfish terms: the priest sees it as a way to enlarge the church; beggars see it as a source of alms; and the doctor sees it as a way to return to a luxurious life in Paris, where he once lived.
Kino’s older brother, Juan Tomás, asks Kino what he will do with the money from the sale of the pearl. Kino, unaware of the envy and jealousy stirring among the townsfolk, announces to his brother and the neighbors who have gathered that he plans to arrange a proper marriage ceremony for himself and Juana, buy new clothes for the family, and purchase a rifle.
He also hopes to send Coyotito to school so that he can learn to read and lift the family out of ignorance and poverty.
The priest soon arrives and reminds Kino to make a donation to the church. When the priest leaves, Kino suddenly feels alone and unprotected. Kino’s fear that his new plans may be thwarted by outsiders grows stronger when the doctor arrives, claiming that the seemingly recovered Coyotito may not yet be out of danger.
Though Kino is suspicious of the doctor’s motives, he cannot know for certain whether the doctor is lying. The music of evil throbs in Kino’s head, but he lets the doctor in. The doctor, examining Coyotito, claims that the child is still in danger and gives him a strange white powder, knowing that it is poisonous. He promises to come back later, then returns to his house, where he eats chocolate and looks at his watch.
Kino, suspicious now, buries the pearl in a corner of the house. Coyotito soon begins to vomit violently, but the doctor returns and “cures” the child. Kino, meanwhile, remembers that strange white powder.
The doctor asks when Kino will pay the bill and suggests that Kino give him the pearl for safekeeping. When Kino declines, the doctor watches as Kino’s eyes involuntarily glance at the spot on the floor where the pearl is buried.
After the doctor leaves, Kino reburies the pearl, telling Juana he now fears everyone. Later, Kino awakes to find a stranger in the hut. He chases the man off, but not before receiving a blow to the head. Juana, frightened, says the pearl is evil and begs Kino to throw it back in the sea.
But Kino refuses to relinquish his dream, and as dawn comes the couple regain their hope.
That morning, Kino takes the pearl into La Paz to sell. Yet the pearl buyers, who secretly work together for one main buyer, are warned of his arrival and have developed a plan to cheat him of the pearl. The first buyer claims the pearl is too large, that there is no market for it.
He offers Kino 1,000 pesos for it, when Kino has asked for 50,000. Three other dealers also offer Kino meager prices. Kino storms off furiously, saying he will take the pearl to the capital to sell. He returns home, feeling that he has “lost one world and not gained another.” His brother warns him to be careful, now that he has defied the “whole structure” of the town.
Later that night, Kino hears the “dark music of the enemy.” While investigating a noise outside, he is badly beaten by several “dark” strangers. Juana, again calling the pearl evil, asks him to throw it into the Gulf: “Let us destroy it before it destroys us.” But Kino refuses and makes plans to travel the next day across the sea and over the mountains to the capital.
Juana awakes later that night and, thinking Kino is asleep, digs the pearl up from its hiding place. She takes it down to the Gulf, but Kino follows her and stops her before she can throw it into the water.
He then savagely beats her and heads home. Nevertheless, Juana is not angry; she knows that Kino’s plans will fail, and yet she loves him. The differences between man and woman puzzle her, but she accepts them.
On the way home, Kino is again attacked by “dark” strangers, but he manages to stab one of them before being knocked unconscious. Juana, who has followed her husband, finds the pearl lying in the path, and then sees her groggy husband beside a dead body.
Kino, realizing that he has killed a man and must flee, takes the pearl and sends Juana to fetch Coyotito. He goes to the water to prepare his canoe for their departure, but finds that someone has punched a hole in the bottom of it. Kino is enraged that this beloved link with his ancestors has been destroyed (the canoe had belonged to his grandfather), and he now feels like an animal who lives “only to preserve himself and his family.”
When he returns to the village, he is further angered to see that his house is ablaze. Juana and Coyotito are safe, however, and the three hide in the house of Juan Tomás and his wife, Apolonia, until the next night. Juan Tomás implores his brother to give up the pearl, yet Kino refuses, claiming it “has become my soul.” When it is dark, he leads his family “to the north.”
Kino, Juana, and Coyotito travel around the edge of La Paz until dawn, when Kino leads the others to a clearing off the path. As they await the next nightfall, Kino looks at the pearl’s surface, but sees only nightmarish images of the man he killed, of Juana’s beaten face, and of his ill son.
Later, he is alarmed to see three trackers heading toward them—two doglike men on foot, followed by a rifleman on horseback. The trackers pass by without spotting their prey, but Kino knows it is just a matter of time before he and his family are discovered. He suggests giving up, but Juana strongly resists, realizing they would all be murdered. The family then flee in panic to the west, toward the “stone mountains.”
As they reach the mountains, Kino suggests they split up. Juana refuses to break up the family, and her resolve strengthens Kino. He calmly leads his wife and child to a secluded pool, but as they rest, Kino sees that the trackers are again on their trail.
He locates a small cave, 30 feet up the slope from the pool, where they are able to hide. The trackers arrive at dusk and set up camp by the pool. Kino, deciding that this is his chance to attack them, says good-bye to Juana and Coyotito, and sneaks up close to the men.
But at the moment when he prepares to strike, Coyotito begins to cry. Thinking the baby’s cry is that of a coyote pup, the rifleman fires toward the cave just before Kino can reach him.
Kino wrenches the gun from the man and kills the three trackers. He then hears a hysterical cry of death from the cave: Coyotito has been killed by the rifleman’s bullet.
At sundown the following day, a bereaved Kino and Juana return to La Paz. Kino carries the rifle while Juana holds Coyotito’s body. The two seem to be “removed from human experience,” as if “they had gone through pain and come out on the other side.”
They walk deliberately through the city, followed by a curious crowd, until they reach the shore. Kino offers the pearl to Juana, but she simply says, “No, you.” He then throws the pearl into the water, where it sinks to the bottom and disappears in a “little cloud of sand.”
Strong, proud young Mexican Indian pearl diver; early 20s. Devoted husband and father. Unselfish, hardworking; feels a deep affinity for nature, ancestors, and tradition. Leads a life of ritual and harmony.
Frustrated by his poverty and inability to pay the doctor to treat his son. His newly found wealth and ambition cause only pain and tragedy; he is cheated and attacked; beats his wife; murders four men to protect his family. Loses his home, canoe, and child.
Finally gives up the pearl; learns the value of the simple, honest life that he had led before finding the pearl.
Kino’s wife; early 20s. Patient, calm, strong, wise. Obedient wife and devoted mother. Grinds corn; repeats ancient incantations to protect her family from evil. Shares Kino’s dreams when the pearl is found, but comes to see it as evil.
Suffers a beating by Kino when she tries to throw the pearl back into the Gulf. Refuses to let her family break up while being hunted. Accompanies Kino back to La Paz after their baby is killed.
Infant son of Kino and Juana. Stung by a scorpion. Killed by a tracker’s bullet. His name is Spanish for “little coyote,” which is what the trackers believe him to be when they shoot him.
Kino’s older brother; husband of Apolonia; has four children. Probably in late 20s. Patient, wise, protective of Kino. He does not believe in the pearl’s ability to bring good fortune; he warns Kino about challenging the natural and social order by defying the pearl buyers and trying to purchase a better life.
The town physician. Middle-aged; lazy, greedy, and exploitative. Treats only those who can pay. Dreams of returning to Paris and the life of luxury that he once lived there. Tries to trick Kino into giving him the pearl.
Local clergyman who treats Indians like children. Greedy, self-serving. Sees the pearl as a source of money for the church. Gives a yearly sermon on remaining at one’s station in life.
Group of four seemingly independent agents who, in fact, work for one shadowy buyer. They work together to cheat Kino of the great pearl.
Group of three hunters who track down Kino and his family. They kill Coyotito and are murdered by an enraged Kino.
Themes and Ideas
The central theme of the novel is that human happiness cannot be bought by material wealth. At the beginning, Kino and his family are happy and whole; they lead a nonmaterialistic life. After Coyotito is stung, Kino mistakenly believes that wealth is needed to cure him, even though Juana’s simple efforts prove sufficient and the baby gets better without the doctor.
When Kino finds the pearl, he believes that the potential wealth from the pearl’s sale will bring them a better life in the form of new clothes, a rifle, a wedding ceremony, and Coyotito’s education.
But wealth only serves to involve Kino and his family in a greedy, hostile, materialistic world that has a set of values sharply different from theirs. Kino comes from a society in which nonmaterialistic, spiritual values such as courage, family, and tradition are most important.
He cannot compete in the materialistic society of the doctor, priest, and pearl buyers, for whom greed, cunning, and ruthlessness are the key motivators. Kino ultimately rejects the materialistic world by throwing away the pearl; he learns at great cost that happiness has little to do with wealth or materialism.
2. Knowing One’s Place
Steinbeck believes in the existence of a natural order in which all people and things have their proper place. This is illustrated by the priest’s yearly sermon, which teaches that those who try to “leave their station” are punished and that “each one must remain faithful to his post.”
It is also illustrated by Juana’s unsuccessful attempt to throw the pearl back into the Gulf—an act that enrages Kino and leads him to beat Juana for going beyond the limits of her role as wife and mother.
As the novel begins, Kino is at his station, in his proper place; he has a good family and an honest job. With Coyotito’s illness and the discovery of the pearl, Kino wants a “better” station in life: a proper wedding ceremony, an education for his son, and new possessions.
But after he leaves his place in the natural order, he is set upon by attackers, loses his home, canoe, and child, and forfeits his peace of mind. He comes to realize that he is out of his domain in the material, competitive society, and returns to his former station when he throws back the pearl, having learned too late his station’s value.
3. Kino’s Soul
The novel traces the progress of Kino’s soul—using the pearl as its symbol—from a state of innocence to a state of corruption, and finally to a state of enlightened existence. At first, Kino is innocent and at peace: like the pearl in the Gulf, his soul is in its natural place, living simply and happily.
Then, with the scorpion’s sting of Coyotito, Kino’s soul falls from this state of innocence: he becomes restless and dissatisfied—and seeks wealth and worldly knowledge. Like the pearl plucked from the oyster and brought to the pearl buyer, Kino’s soul abruptly enters the world of greed, corruption, and evil.
Just as the pearl becomes the “Pearl of the World,” his soul is now part of a confusing, sinful world. But he is unable to find peace or happiness—only pain, destruction, and death. Kino finally realizes that the only way to redeem his soul is to return the pearl to its original place of rest.
4. Illusion vs. Reality
Steinbeck shows the difficulty in distinguishing between illusion (appearances) and reality. He asserts that “in this Gulf of uncertain light, there [are] more illusions than realities.”
Kino suffers from several illusions: he believes the pearl can bring him happiness and help his family; he originally believes the doctor to be a healer; and he believes in the honesty of the pearl buyers.
After being pursued to the mountains, he looks at the pearl’s surface and sees not illusions but the reality it has brought: danger, pain, and death. When Kino throws the pearl away, it disappears in a “cloud of sand,” thus putting an end to Kino’s faith in illusions.
Steinbeck uses Kino’s and Juana’s internal “songs” to show their connection with nature, their ancestors, and life’s rhythms. The songs show Kino and Juana to be “in touch” with the earth, to possess an instinctive knowledge that allows them to communicate and survive.
At the novel’s opening, Kino hears the Song of Family, which expresses the rhythm of family, when all is peaceful and whole. When the scorpion comes, he hears the Song of Evil.
While diving, he hears the secret Song of the Pearl That Might Be, then he finds the pearl. He hears the Song of Enemy when the doctor, priest, dishonest dealers, and “dark” attackers are near. The pearl gives off a music like a “chorus of trumpets” when Kino believes it will provide a better life, then has a “sinister” sound when things go wrong.
Steinbeck shows the existence of a strict, oppressive social order against which Kino rebels, and by which he is punished. Kino is a member of the Indian race, which for nearly 400 years has been oppressed, impoverished, and kept in ignorance by the white race, as represented by the doctor, priest, and pearl buyers.
Kino challenges the social order by wishing for his son to be educated, by being suspicious of the doctor, and by refusing to deal with the pearl buyers. Juan Tomás tells him that he has “defied not the pearl buyers, but the whole structure, the whole way of life.”
The trackers and “dark ones” are sent as a punishment for his revolt. Kino finally returns to the village and renounces his rebellion, perhaps with the knowledge that he can best resist his oppressors by leading a dignified, peaceful life.
1). The Pearl: Symbolizes (a) the characters’ hope for a better life; (b) Kino’s soul (“it has become my soul”); (c) evil (Juana says, “this thing is evil”). The pearl causes people to cheat, murder, and commit crimes.
2). Animals: Symbolizes the animalistic nature of human beings: after the doctor poisons Coyotito, Steinbeck describes “a school of great fishes” slaughtering and devouring “a school of small fishes” in the Gulf; this symbolizes the exploitation of Kino’s race by that of the doctor.
3). Poison: Shows how the pearl’s promise of wealth “infects” Kino and the townsfolk with a deadly ambition. The scorpion is like the serpent in the Garden of Eden; it is the symbolic origin of Kino’s curiosity and ambition, which eventually cause him to give up his peaceful, innocent paradise. The white powder that the doctor uses to poison Coyotito symbolizes the greed that poisons the town after the pearl is found.
4). The Canoe: Symbolizes Kino’s ties with his ancestors; its destruction shows that he is cut off from this source of strength.
1. A cautionary tale of wealth and greed
The story is a cautionary tale that illustrates how the sudden acquisition of wealth can change people and their relationships for the worse. Steinbeck’s storytelling is a stark reminder that money is not a panacea for all problems and can often lead to more significant challenges, as it did for the family in “The Pearl.”
2. Engaging plot and fast-paced action
Despite being a short work, the novella has a captivating plot and fast-paced action that keep the reader hooked from start to finish. The characters’ emotions and motivations are subtly revealed through their actions, and the ending scenes are dramatically depicted, leaving a lasting impact on the reader.
3. Skillful portrayal of human emotions
Steinbeck’s writing is emotionally charged, and his skillful portrayal of the family’s hopes and despair as they attempt to secure their future is incredibly relatable. The novella’s realistic portrayal of human emotions and relationships makes it an excellent starting point for those who have never read Steinbeck’s works before.
1. Simplistic writing style
While Steinbeck’s writing is emotionally charged and thought-provoking, the novella’s simplistic writing style may not be to everyone’s taste. The lack of dialogue and character development can make it challenging for readers to connect with the story and the characters, leading to a feeling of detachment.
2. Overwhelming use of symbolism
While symbolism can be an effective tool in storytelling, in “The Pearl,” it can be overwhelming and confusing for some readers. The heavy use of symbolism throughout the novella can be distracting and detract from the story’s overall impact.
3. Depressing and heavy themes
“The Pearl” is a depressing and heavy read, with themes of poverty, oppression, and violence. While these themes are undoubtedly important, they can be overwhelming for some readers, especially those who prefer lighter, more uplifting stories.
The Pearl Review: Final Verdict
“The Pearl” is a masterpiece that draws you into a gripping narrative about a man’s descent into conflict after finding a valuable pearl that he hopes will solve his family’s financial problems. Steinbeck’s writing is engaging, and the novella’s characters and plot are masterfully crafted. I highly recommend this book to all readers looking for an engaging and thought-provoking tale.
John Ernst Steinbeck was a writer born in Salinas, California in 1902 and known for his novels and short stories. He worked as a labourer during the Great Depression after graduating from Stanford University (1920-25).
Some of his most famous works include Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952). He also adapted Of Mice and Men for the stage with George S. Kaufman in 1937.
Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. His writing focuses on the struggle of humanity to maintain dignity in the face of social injustice and loneliness.
Buy The Book: The Pearl
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