The Pearl (novella)
|Illustrator||José Clemente Orozco|
|Cover artist||Robert Hallock|
|Country||United States, Mexico|
|Language||English, Spanish, Portuguese|
|Set in||La Paz, Baja California Sur, 1940s|
|Publisher||The Viking Press (US)|
William Heinemann (UK)
Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico and rest of Latin America)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Pearl is a novella by the American author John Steinbeck. The story, first published in 1947, follows a pearl diver, Kino, and explores man’s purpose 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.
The book was adapted as a Mexican film named La Perla (1947) and as a cult Kannada movie Ondu Muttina Kathe (1987). The story is one of Steinbeck's most popular books and has been widely used in middle and high school classes. The Pearl is sometimes considered a parable.
The Pearl, which takes place in La Paz, Baja California Sur, begins with a description of the seemingly ideal family life of the poor pearl fisherman 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 sleeps. Kino attempts to catch the scorpion, but Coyotito bumps the rope, and the scorpion falls onto him. Although Kino kills the scorpion, it stings Coyotito. Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbors, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay enough to sustain the greedy doctor's lifestyle, and because the doctor holds racist views towards the poor Amerindians.
Kino and Juana 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, hoping to find a pearl he can sell to pay the doctor. He finds a very large oyster which yields an immense pearl, and which he dubs "The Pearl of the World".
The news that Kino has found an immense pearl travels swiftly through the town of La Paz. Kino's neighbors begin to feel bitter toward him for his good fortune, but neither Kino nor Juana realizes this feeling that they have engendered. Juan Tomas, Kino's brother, asks him what he will do with his money, and Kino envisions marrying 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, hearing the news, 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 had 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 warns Kino that the pearl will destroy them, but Kino insists that the pearl is their one chance for a better life, and that tomorrow they will sell it.
The next day, Kino goes to sell his pearl. Unbeknownst to him and all the pearl fishers, the pearl dealers in La Paz are all employees of a single buying organization. The dealers are employed to make it appear as though the prices offered are competitive when, in fact, they are kept very low, and the natives are cheated. The dealers are aware through the gossip of the town that a big pearl has been found and have agreed to pretend it is a freak and worthless. They offer Kino a thousand pesos for the pearl, which Kino believes is worth fifty thousand. Kino refuses to sell to the pearl dealers and decides to go to the capital instead. That night, Kino is attacked by more thieves, and Juana once again reminds him that the pearl is evil. However, Kino vows that he will not be cheated.
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. A group of men accosts Kino and knocks the pearl from his hand. Kino defends himself with his knife. Juana watches from a distance and then sees Kino approaching her, limping. A thief whose throat Kino has slit lies dead in the bush. Juana finds the pearl on the path, and the couple decides they must leave, even though the killing was in self-defense, as they will not get a fair hearing. Kino then finds that his canoe has been vandalized, their house has been searched, and the flimsy structure has been set on fire. The family takes refuge with Kino's brother Juan Tomas and Juan's wife, Apolonia. They hide the next day before setting out for the capital at night.
Kino and Juana travel through the night and when dawn approaches find a concealed place to rest in the bush. Kino fears pursuit and, looking back, spots in the distance along a dirt road a man with a rifle on horseback and two skilled trackers on foot. The trackers miss Kino and Juana's carefully concealed hiding place and continue along the road. Kino knows they will return to search more thoroughly, so he and Juana leave the road and head into the mountains where they know they will leave fewer tracks on the rocky ground. They find a cave to hide in above a pool of water. At dusk the trackers arrive and make camp by the pool below them. Kino and Juana realize the trackers will eventually find them, and having stolen the pearl, will have to kill them to hide their crime.
Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino goes down to the trackers with his machete. As Kino approaches unseen, the trackers hear a child's cry. They assume it is merely a coyote pup and through boredom shoot in its general direction. At that moment Kino gets nervous, thinking that the trackers will find Coyotito. He attacks the tracker, who tries to shoot him with the rifle but misses. Kino kills all three in a frenzy. However, he soon discovers that the random shot fired by the trackers has hit and killed Coyotito.
Heartbroken, Juana and Kino return to La Paz. The two approach the gulf, and Kino looks at the pearl for the last time and sees in it an image of Coyotito with his head shot away. In anguish, Kino hurls the pearl into the ocean. It sinks to the bottom and is soon buried in the sand.
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 the Woman's Home Companion (December 1945). The original publication is also sometimes listed as "The Pearl of La Paz". Steinbeck expanded the story to novella length and published it under the name The Pearl (1947), published by Viking Press. 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 book takes place in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico. Unlike many of Steinbeck’s other works, it does not take place in California.
Family – One of the major themes in the novel is family. Throughout the novel, the plot discusses 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 is 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 demonstrates 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 Kino got the pearl and, eventually, the reason why he threw it back into the ocean.
Good and Evil – One of the biggest themes in this novel is the one between good and evil. This theme is displayed in other themes as well and it is shown from the beginning to the end. In the beginning, Kino lives a life of simplicity and happiness but when he discovers the pearl, he believes that good will come from it. However, a sense of evil accompanies it. After that, Kino and his family were in a constant battle against evil to preserve the good that they enjoyed before.
Paradox – The theme of paradox is displayed through Kino’s desires. Once Kino discovers the pearl, he begins to dream about what could come from this fortune as greed fills his head, but as he tries to carry out this plan, the good wealth also brings destruction to his family as he treats Juana poorly and is abusive. 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. In the end, the finding of the great prize causes him to lose another, his son.
Perseverance – The theme of perseverance is demonstrated by many characters, but mainly Kino. Before he found the pearl, he was a noble and a very determined person who sought fortune for his family. After he finds it, he is hoping to find it in a different way. Because Kino believes that this would save his family, he persists “though many obstacles” that accompany the pearl. He perseveres to keep the pearl but, in the end, it was not worth keeping.
Kino is a hard-working pearl-diver and the protagonist of the novella. He has a wife, Juana, and a son, Coyotito. He is content with his lifestyle as a diver and possesses nothing of value until he discovers the pearl. After finding the pearl, Kino gradually changes to become a completely different man. Though his family is still the center of his actions, he is also driven by his dreams of an escape from their poverty and a desire to give his son a better future. He quickly becomes obsessed with the material things that the pearl could bring. He is no longer content with his son being uneducated, or his family not being well-dressed. Instead of enjoying his family and their company, as he did in the beginning, he becomes discontent and always seeks more. He is also driven by his desire not to be cheated or slighted. Kino is named for the missionary Eusebio Kino.
Juana, Kino’s wife, is a secondary character. 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 forces that the valuable pearl attracts. For example, two nights after the pearl is found, she attempts to throw it back into the ocean to bring back peace and happiness to her family.
Coyotito is Juana and Kino’s infant son. He is their only child, and his parents do everything they can to protect him. Despite his parents’ love and effort, he is subject to much harm, both before and after the pearl is found.
The Doctor, unnamed in the novella, is a symbol of wealth, greed and exploitation. He is repulsive, fat, and also foreign-born, a native of France. Before the pearl is found, he refuses to heal Coyotito because the family is poor, though it would be easy for him to do so. After Kino finds the pearl, he personally visits the family at home, acting much friendlier than at their first meeting and even pretending to heal Coyotito's scorpion sting with ammonia. During the doctor's visit, he tries to determine from Kino's glances where in the house the pearl may be hidden, though Kino is too suspicious to reveal anything. The doctor's behavioral changes foreshadow the more serious troubles that begin after Kino's discovery of the pearl.
Juan Tomas, Kino’s brother, is wise and loyal. He is the only other character in the book to suspect the manipulation undertaken by the pearl dealers. When destruction does come, Juan Tomas does not turn away his brother but, instead, welcomes him in and protects him. He is one of the few characters that does not seek to gain from the pearl and shows he values the importance of family ties.
Apolonia is the wife of Juan Tomas who helps his brother in protecting and hiding Kino.
The pearl dealers, like the doctor, symbolize the exploitation of the native population, this time by the organized pearl-dealing cartel for which the dealers work. When Kino tries to sell the pearl, the pearl dealers claim that the pearl's size makes it worthless and offer Kino a fraction of the pearl's true worth. Kino's outrage at their barehanded lies cause him to brave the dangerous trip to the capital and seek a better price. 
The thieves and trackers are shadowy figures who attack Kino from the first night he has the pearl. Kino never recognizes who they are. They harass and then follow the family right to the end of the story. They force Kino to fight and kill to defend himself and his family and keep the pearl his own. In the final scenes, in which Kino is tracked by a posse, it is not clear in the text whether the group are thieves or law enforcement officers hunting Kino for his killing of the man on the beach.
Reception and analysis
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These publications praised the novel as a "major artistic triumph" and emphasizes how Steinbeck understands "the universal significance of life." This novel did not have as great a review later on. Although many still believe that Steinbeck's work was a unique reflection on "the human experience", there are others who disagree. Now, people like Warren French[who?] criticize the novel for "lacking both insight and worth."
It is not only used to teach students about literature, but is also used to discuss important lessons about life. Many believe the book is the easiest of Steinbeck's books to teach because the lessons are simple, yet significant, so, generally, students in middle school or early high school study this novel. Teachers instruct their students to delve deeper than surface level to learn about both the simplicity and complexity of the novel, and emphasize its themes to allow students to learn more than just literacy.
Jackson Benson writes, 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."
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