“The Pearl” is a novella written by the famous American author John Steinbeck and published in 1947. The story was originally published in an issue of ‘Woman’s Home Companion’ magazine and is the re-imagining of a Mexican folk tale that Steinbeck heard while traveling in La Paz, Mexico in 1940. The novella is considered a parable as it illustrates an instructive message about the evils of greed and lust. It is considered one of Steinbeck’s most famous works and was made into a Mexican film named “La Perla” in 1947.
The novella follows the story of a poor Mexican-Indian man named Kino who lives with his wife and their newborn son, Coyotito in a house made of brush. One morning as the sun is rising, Coyotito is stung by a deadly scorpion and, in fear for his life his parents rush him to the town doctor. After being turned away by the doctor for having no money, Kino and his wife, Juana take to his canoe to dive for pearls in the sea in the hopes that they will find one big enough to pay for treatment for the child.
Kino finds a very large pearl that seems to have magical properties as it heals the baby on it’s own. After Kino brings the pearl home, word spreads around the town that he has found a large pearl that is certain to make his family rich. Envy sets in, and people being trying to steal the pearl and attack the family.
Kino, Juana, and Coyotito leave town bound for the capital in order to see if they can sell the pearl but are set upon by trackers soon after they leave. There is a struggle between Kino and the trackers and though he manages to kill them all, the baby is shot during the fight. At the end of the novella, Kino and Juana return to their town with their son’s body and fling the cursed pearl back into the sea.
In the year 1900 in the village of La Paz on the coast of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico a pearl diver named Kino awakens in his bed. Kino is a Mexican-Indian man and he lives in a house made of bundles of straw. In a kind of makeshift cradle made of a box hanging from the roof of the small hut, Kino’s infant son, Coyotito sleeps soundly and his wife, Juana, sleeps beside him on their mat.
Kino listens to the sounds of the waves rolling by on the beach outside as his wife rises and checks on their baby. Kino wraps a blanket around his shoulders and goes outside to watch the sunrise. The morning is quiet and content between Kino and his wife until a ray of light shines into the hut and they realize that a scorpion is crawling down the rope into Coyotito’s crib. The couple spring into action, Kino moves to capture the scorpion while Juana says a prayer and recites a charm for the child’s safety. Before Kino can catch the scorpion, the baby spots the insect and laughs joyfully as it shakes the rope holding up the crib.The scorpion lands on the baby and stings him. Kino seizes the insect and smashes it to death on the floor.
The scorpion lands on the baby and stings him. Kino seizes the insect and smashes it to death on the floor. Coyotito begins to scream in pain as his mother snatches him up and tries to suck the scorpion venom out of the wound. The babies cries bring many neighbors to Kino’s house including his brother, Juan and his wife Apolonia. Kino asks that his brother runs to fetch the town’s doctor. This request surprises Juan, as the doctor is above the social class of the poor natives of the town that live in the brush houses and has never visited them before. Juana does not listen to these objections and begins running for the center of town with Coyotito in her arms. The neighbors trail behind them as they run.People from around town also begin to follow them as they are curious to see what the poor man’s plea to the doctor will bring.
People from around town also begin to follow them as they are curious to see what the poor man’s plea to the doctor will bring. Kino resents and slightly fears the doctor as he is a powerful man and not a friend that he is familiar with. When the crowd arrives at the gate, Kino knocks. The gate opens to reveal a servant of the doctor, one of Kino’s own people who works in the doctor’s house. This is good news because it means that Kino can converse with her in his native tongue what happened to Coyotito and hopefully get the child the help he needs. The man listens to Kino’s story and then asks him to wait while he goes to get the doctor.
Upstairs, the doctor sits in bed surrounded by his luxurious things. He is eating a meal of hot chocolate and biscuits and day-dreaming about Paris. The servant enters to announce Kino’s arrival at the gate. The doctor, furious at being interrupted, demands to know if Kino has any money to pay for treatment. Kino was only able to give the servant eight small pearls to pay with. But this is not enough for the doctor. The servant brings the pearls back to Kino and tells him that the doctor was called away to deal with a more serious case.
The crowd breaks up after this and Kino and Juana are left standing at the gate, terrified, ashamed and furious at being dismissed. Kino strikes out at the gate in anger, bloodying his knuckles. Kino and Juana have an idea to go down to the ocean and dive for more pearls with the hope that they will find one big enough to persuade the doctor to help Coyotito. Out on the beach, a long string of blue and white canoes wait in the sand. Crabs and lobsters scuttle along underneath them. Stray dogs and pigs scavenge for dead fish in the sand. The family finds Kino’s canoe, which is an heirloom from his grandfather. The canoe is Kino’s only asset in the world. As they get in, Kino lays a blanket down for Coyotito and Juana covers him with her shawl in order to protect him from the harsh sun. Juana pulls some seaweed from the water and gently applies it to her son’s wound.
Kino pushes the canoe away from the shore and the two paddle out to sea. In no time they come across other canoes searching for pearls. The others have gathered around the nearest oyster bed. Kino dives into the sea and collects oysters while his wife stays in the canoe and prays for their luck to change. Kino stays underwater for more than two full minutes, gathering all of the shells he can. He picks up an oyster that is not only very large but has a strange “ghostly gleam”.
Kino climbs back into the boat and his obvious excitement worries Juana. “It’s not good to want a thing too much”, Steinbeck writes in this passage, “It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just enough and you must be very tactful with God or the gods”. But try as she might stay aloof, Juana stops breathing as she waits for Kino to open the oyster with his knife. Inside is a large pearl, “as large as a seagull’s egg”. It is the biggest pearl that either of them has ever seen. What’s more, when Juana goes to check on Coyotito she finds that the swelling in his shoulder has gone down and the poison is receding from his body. Juana screams in shock and Kino yells at the top of his lungs with emotion. At the noise, the other canoes begin to paddle over to see what the commotion is about.
In town, the pearl is called, “The Pearl of the World” and news of Kino finding it travels quickly. People in the town of every social class – whether they are a priest, a beggar or a businessman – the dream of owning the pearl themselves and how it would improve their life.
The doctor also dreams of owning the pearl. He wants to use it to get back to Paris where he once lived. Kino and Juana know nothing of the jealousy of the townsfolk and only celebrate their good fortune with family and friends. When Juan sees the pearl he asks his brother what he will do with his sudden windfall of money. Kino tells him his very specific plans for the future. He intends to have a proper marriage to Juana in a church, send Coyotito to school, buy new clothes for his family and a new harpoon. Juana is especially surprised by the addition of Coyotito’s schooling to the plan. Kino is somewhat surprised by it himself but stands by it. The neighbors stare at the pearl in amazement.
Dusk falls on the town. The local priest stops by to bless the household. He asks that the family remember the church in their new prosperity. Juana informs him that they intend to marry in his church and the priest thanks them and leaves. After he leaves, Kino is suddenly overcome with an odd feeling. He begins to feel as though something bad is going to happen. He takes the pearl and keeps it close as he huddles underneath a blanket. The reality of the situation begins to sink in for Kino as he realizes that his family has no security and is now in danger of being robbed for the pearl.
The doctor and his servant appear and ask after Coyotito. Kino tries to refuse but the doctor sinisterly hints at the possibility for a renewal of the infection, Kino finally relents and lets him in. Juana is suspicious of the doctor, but Kino attempts to soothe her. The doctor examines the baby and explains that he has found complications. He administers a capsule of medication to Coyotito. He claims that the poison will show a resurgence within the hour and that without the medication the child may die. After this, the doctor leaves and promises to check back in one hour on Coyotito’s progress.
Once the doctor is gone, Kino wraps the pearl in a rag and buries it in a hole in the corner of the dirt floor of the house. Coyotito begins to grow worse again. Juana tries to sing to him soothingly to comfort him. Kino begins to feel the foreboding feeling once again. The doctor soon returns and administers a second medication. Coyotito immediately begins to recover. The doctor then asks when Kino will be able to pay him and Kino replies that he must sell his pearl first. The doctor pretends not to know about the pearl and offers to keep it in his safe for protection. Kino declines the offer, however, saying that he plans to sell the pearl in the morning. But when he is talking he inadvertently glances at the corner in which he has buried the pearl.
After the doctor leaves for the second time, Kino finds himself too nervous to sleep. He paces back and forth through the house, trying to stay on guard for any burglars. He decides to dig up the pearl and rebury it beneath his sleeping mat. After this, he lays down next to his wife and baby and tries to sleep. The feeling of foreboding chases him through his dreams, however. In the middle of the night, he thinks he hears an intruder scratching at the floor above the pearl. Kino grabs a knife and leaps at the intruder, grappling with him. After a fight, the intruder flees and leaves Kino hurt. Juana goes to him and prepares a salve for his bruises. Juana now believes that the pearl is a curse on them but Kino remains convinced of its virtue, saying that it will be their salvation. He manages to convince her of it, too and the two have a more cheerful morning.
That morning Kino, Juana, and the baby leave their house to sell the pearl. Word has spread throughout the whole town that they are going to be doing this and many people from the neighborhood show up to follow them into the city. Kino and Juana don their best clothes for the occasion and dress Coyotito in his best outfit. The Pearl of the World is wrapped in deer skin and placed in a little leather bag that is then put in Kino’s shirt pocket. Juan reminds Kino to be careful as he has no price comparison for how much the pearl is actually worth so it is likely that the pearl buyers will try to cheat him. Kino acknowledges that this is a possibility but points out that there is nothing to be done for it. They are here in La Paz and he does not know anything of any other villages.
As the crowd approaches the city where the pearl buyers work, the buyers begin to straighten their shops and get put papers in an attempt to look busy. They also: “Put their pearls in the desks, for it is not good to let an inferior pearl be seen beside its beauty”. The first dealer they approach is a “stout, slow man” who tells them that the pearl is worth nothing because of its unusual size. The dealer tells them that it is more of a curiosity than something of real value and that no one would actually buy it. He offers them a thousand pesos for it anyway.
But Kino is not fooled. He informs the dealer that the pearl is worth fifty times that much. The dealer tells him to try asking some of the other dealers to see what they say. A whisper goes through the crowd wondering how Kino can reject so much money and if he is being foolish by demanding more. Three more dealers wander over to look at the pearl.
The first two reject the pearl outright. One calls it a ‘monstrosity’ and the other says that he thinks it will lose it’s color in a few months because of it’s size. The third dealer admits that he has a buyer who likes things of this nature and offers a mere five hundred pesos. The original dealer gloats about being right, telling Kino that his offer still stands. Kino, angered by this, snatches the pearl away from them and puts it back in his shirt pocket. He tells them that he will go somewhere else to appraise the pearl. Perhaps even to the capital. This makes the original dealer up his bid to fifteen-hundred. But Kino refuses to hear any more. He pushes his way out of the crowd and marches home with Juana following behind him.
That evening the neighbors sit in their homes eating their dinner and going over the days events. They admit that they don’t know if Kino was being underbid or not as it looks like a fine pearl to them but they have never seen anything like it. They feel that the pearl buyers probably know best about these things. Although some praise Kino for his bravery.
Kino buries the pearl under his sleeping mat again and sits silently brooding as he thinks about the journey to the capitol. His brother arrives to warn him against going to the crime-ridden capital but Kino does not listen and Juan leaves without convincing him. That night Kino again wakes in the middle of the night with a feeling of foreboding. This time, a shadowy man stands in the doorway of their hut. Kino fights with the man and by the time Juana rises to help the man has fled and Kino lays bloodied on the ground.
Juana cares for Kino’s wounds and begs him to get rid of the cursed pearl. But Kino insists that they must get as much as they can for it. He tells her that they are going to the capital and Juana is forced to agree. However, early the next morning Juana takes the pearl and sneaks out of the hut. Kino rises just in time to follow her. Juana rushes down to the beach and just before she can throw the pearl back into the ocean Kino catches her and beats her. He takes the pearl and leaves her lying, crumpled on the beach. As Kino is making his way back to the hut he is attacked by a group of men and in the struggle the pearl has knocked from his grasp.
Juana sees this as she struggles to her feet on the beach. She sees the pearl lying on the beach and picks it up, considering throwing it back into the sea. Kino manages to stab and kill one of his attackers. Juana finds the man slumped on the road with Kino lying next to him as the others have fled. Juana pushes the man’s body into a bush and helps Kino to his feet. Kino can only lament about his lost pearl. Juana shows him that she has the pearl and says that they have to leave immediately since Kino killed a man and has committed a crime.
Juana rushes back to the house to get Coyotito while Kino readies the canoe to escape. However, he finds that someone has smashed a large hole through the bottom of the boat. He rushes back to the hut only to find it burning. Juana has managed to rescue Coyotito but nothing else. The neighbors rush to put out the fire as the family slips into the shadows. They run to Juan’s house where they ask Apolonia to fetch Juan and not tell anyone that they are there. Juan arrives shortly and asks Apolonia to watch the door make sure no one comes in. Kino explains what has happened to his brother and Juan advises him to sell the pearl as soon as possible. Kino begs Juan to let them stay in his house overnight so that they can flee the next morning. Knowing that this is dangerous for his own family, Juan hesitates, but ultimately agrees.
Most of the people in the town assume that Kino and Juana died in the fire. Juan spreads a rumor that they may have fled south. Juan brings back as many provisions for Kino’s journey as he can. Kino tells Juan that he plans to travel north and Juan warns him to avoid the coast. Just after dark the family exchange goodbyes and Kino, Juana and Coyotito set out on their journey. That night while they are resting, Kino looks into the pearl and believes he sees his future. When Juana asks him what he sees he lies and tells her he sees a wonderful future with Coyotito in a good school and them having a proper church marriage. However, he truly sees himself bleeding on the ground and Juana walking home after being beaten with Coyotito’s face swollen as if he is sick.
Soon Kino realizes that they are being followed. Kino instructs Juana to hide with the baby while he keeps going and tries to divert the trackers who are following them. But Juana, reluctant to split up, refuses and the family move forward together. Eventually, the trackers catch up with them and Kino and Juana hide in a cave to avoid detection. Late that night, the trackers make camp and two of them go to sleep while one keeps the lookout. Kino intends to take out the lookout so that his family can escape while the other two trackers sleep.
Just as Kino is sneaking up on the trackers, Coyotito lets out a cry that wakes them all. The trackers, unsure of whether the cry is from a human or an animal, decide to fire a bullet in the direction of the sound. The bullet hits Coyotito and kills him. Kino does not know of this, however, and attacks the trackers. He manages to stab one of them and steal his gun, knocking another out with a blow to the head. Kino shoots the other man as he is fleeing. Afterward the animals around the area go silent and Kino hears a cry from his wife as she realizes that their baby has been killed.
The next day, Kino and Juana walk back into La Paz with Coyotito’s body. The people of the town stare at them wordlessly, unable to say anything. They walk to the beach and Kino finally throws the pearl back into the water. Kino and Juana watch as the pearl sinks and the sun sets.
Kino – the main character of the story. In the beginning, Kino is a simple pearl fisherman whose only drive is to provide for his family. Kino is frustrated by his poverty and the European colonizers that have come into the town. Kino is content with his life and feels a kinship with the natural world and the ocean in which he works. But two occurrences that happen completely by chance – Coyotito’s scorpion sting and the finding of the great pearl – work to change Kino’s life and open his eyes to the larger world outside of his town. After finding the pearl, Kino immediately begins to see the bigger picture and think about what he wants as a rich man. Kino’s simple life becomes more and more complicated by greed and violence as the story continues. By the end of the story, Kino’s relationship with nature has become perverted and changed. This is evidenced by the fact that he now finds the animal sounds in nature threatening rather than comforting. On the most basic level, Kino’s character represents the dangers of greed.
Juana – Kino’s wife. Juana is more spiritual and fanciful than Kino. She prays regularly when confronted with issues. However, she still manages to retain enough presence of mind to treat Coyotito’s wound with a seaweed poultice. Juana is an obedient and submissive wife, bowing to Kino’s commands and accompanying him to the capital even though she sees it as a great danger. Juana is the first person to recognize the pearl as a threat to their way of life. She tells Kino that she believes that it is cursed and eventually admits that she sees it as a symbol of evil.
As the story continues, Juana begins to believe that the pearl is an unnecessary change to their way of life and that things should remain the same as they were before the pearl was found. Just as Kino seeks to change their lifestyle, Juana seeks to return it to the way it was before. This is why she tries to throw the pearl back into the ocean, perhaps planning to lie to Kino about its whereabouts or perhaps intending to own up to what she has done in the hopes that he will see that they are better off after all.
The Doctor – the doctor is an important character in the story although he is only in half of it. The doctor’s character represents the oppression that Kino and his people face under the European colonizers. In the story, the doctor is the face of the greedy, condescending colonizers who see the natives as animals. The doctor has only come to the area to make money, he does not intend to spend any time with the natives and has no interest in learning about them. The doctor’s refusal to treat Coyotito’s wound revolves around his greed as he feels that the family will not have enough money to offer him. The doctor is portrayed as being obsessed with European culture and wishes to return to Paris more than anything.
Juan – Kino’s brother. Juan spends most of the story trying to look out for Kino and warns him about the consequences he could face from having something so valuable in such a desperate town. However, Juan still shelters the family after the neighbors burn down their house and does his best to help them find provisions for their journey to the capital.
John Ernst Steinbeck Biography
John Ernst Steinbeck was an American novelist and short-story writer, who described in his work the unending struggle of people who depend on working in the soil for their livelihood. Steinbeck was born on February 27th, 1902 in Salinas, California and educated at Stanford University. As a young man, Steinbeck worked on a ranch as a fruit picker.
In 1925, when he was in his early twenties, Steinbeck moved to New York City and began trying to form a career as a writer. He was unsuccessful, and 3 years later moved back to California to work as a tour guide at Lake Tahoe. It was there that he met his first wife, Carol Henning and the two married two years later in 1930. He soon moved into a cottage owned by his father and began writing with the gift of paper from older family members. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Steinbeck later claimed that he and his wife survived off of fish that he caught himself and vegetables from his own garden.
In 1929, Steinbeck’s first novel ‘Cup of Gold’ was published. It is a novel based on the life of privateer Henry Morgan. In the early 1930’s, Steinbeck produced several shorter novels and in 1935 he produced his first successful novel called, ‘Tortilla Flat’. The novel won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Metal and in 1942 the book was adapted into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. It was also during this time that Steinbeck began writing a series of so-called ‘California novels’ and Dust Bowl fiction that were set among normal, salt of the earth people during the time of the Great Depression. These included, ‘In Dubious Battle’ (1936), ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1937) and, Steinbeck’s most famous work, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1939).
‘The Grapes of Wrath’ became the best-selling novel of 1939 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among other esteemed awards. Both ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were also adapted into Academy-Award winning films. Throughout the 1940’s, Steinbeck continued to write while also serving as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and working with the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Steinbeck befriended many soldiers and commanders during World War II and was present for many actual battles in Italy and Germany.
After the war, Steinbeck returned with some psychological trauma and shrapnel wounds and began writing again. By this point, Steinbeck had divorced Carol Henning and his second wife, Gwyn Conger with whom he had two sons, and married Elaine Scott, his third and final wife. In 1952 ‘East of Eden’, Steinbeck’s longest novel was published it was also made into a movie which became the famous actor James Dean’s film debut. In 1961, Steinbeck published his last novel, ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ which was not a success as the public felt that the tone differed too much from his earlier work.
However, the next year, 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature. John Steinbeck died on December 20th 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66 year old. He was cremated and interred near his parents and grandparents graves in Salinas, California. To this day he remains a literary icon and many of his books are still considered classic literature.