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?
Verah Omwocha is an editor, writer, trained teacher and literary enthusiast. She blogs about books and life at https://veraomwocha.wordpress.com