“In the town they tell the story of the great pearl-how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, of his wife Juana, and of the baby Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, has taken root in every man’s mind. And, as with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.
If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it. In any case, they say in the town that…”
A parable is defined by dictionary.com as a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. It may also be a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by use of comparison, analogy, or the like. Stating the tale is a form of oral history implies that it has become a method for each local to shape their own version of the truth. Some may continue to deny the evil which exists in the story while others immediately recognize the ways in which the message of the story of Kino, Juana their baby Coyotito came to represent the larger context of bad versus good, or in this case, the colonist versus the native in society.
The beauty of telling a story the way Steinbeck chooses to do with this novella lies in the simplicity of the plot and actions, and dialogue within the narrative which instead of taking away from the text, add to its profundity. Told from a third person omniscient narrator, Steinbeck communicates the idea that any person having witnessed the struggle of the family or heard of their plight years in the future might be qualified to convey the importance of maintaining values of the old (ancient) ways when destructive forces threaten. Although they may live in poverty, Kino and Juana live contently, according to their indigenous traditions on the sea coast of the village of La Paz. There is a certain mode of perfection displayed in the description of the life of the family. They have no need to communicate with language, for they have an intrinsic connection to the world of nature, sounds and Songs of things which allow them to communicate with the world around them and each other. Looking into each other’s eyes, listening to breathing, observing daily rituals, sensing and feeling touch, are all manners of comprehension and communication. ‘Kino could see things without looking at them.’ Both Kino and Juana sing and hear an ancient song, which connects them to something greater than themselves. These sounds and cycles from a perfect rhythm and unity which must not be disturbed.
The connection with the spirit world allows Kino to immediately recognize a shift has occurred when he senses the Song of Evil enter their brush house. A scorpion comes and bites the baby Coyotitio on the shoulder. For the first time, this family must consider turning outside of the Indian village for assistance. They know the French doctor will most likely turn them away, but for their first born child, they will cross the line between ancient and modern practices in order to save him. When they arrive, the doctor sits inside his lavish home feeling sorry for himself because he is no longer living the ‘civilized life’ of a Parisian. When he finds that an Indian family is waiting the doctor refuses the poor suffering infant treatment. ‘I am a doctor, not a veterinary.’ In this moment, Kino is forced to try to pay for his son’s life. ‘He brought out a paper folded many times. Crease by crease he unfolded it, until at last there came to view eight small misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers, flattened and almost valueless.’ They are ripped from his hand and the door slammed in his face. While Kino is angry and his mind from that time on is set earning money, something which never occurred to him before-the reader is stunned. Not because the exchange is surprising, it is heartbreaking enough to make one cry (and I did) due to its horrible reality.
The only way Kino and Juana have to pay for the doctor to treat Coyotito is with to use of their canoe, their only means of sustenance. They take the baby out to the water with them to search for something which can help save him. Kino finds what he now believes he needs-The Pearl of the World. He looks down in the boat to see the baby’s fever residing. While Kino has only ever considered money for Coyotito, after he has the pearl, he begins to wonder how much it is worth and later, what he will buy with the money he receives.
As soon as the pearl is discovered, word quickly spreads around the village. People want
to know what Kino will do with the money. At first, he will only buy clothes and shoes for his family. Soon he decides he must have more and more. Although their family has never been unhappy, gazing at the pearl causes thoughts of discontent with his place in the world to be reflected back to Kino. Coyotito cannot read and Kino imagines his child going to school like the children in the town. ‘This is what the pearl will do.’ In describing these dreams to his neighbors, not only Kino’s ideas, but his demeanor changes. Kino begins talking instead of remaining silent indicating he is giving up on his traditions. Kino is naïve to believe that sacrificing his old life and trading it for the money the colonists in town will give him for something they use as a status symbol will make things better. The shift from ancient to modern ideals is mirrored not only in the pearl itself, but in the events which begin to take place which indicate that the pearl not only brings a bad omen to Kino and Juana but that it (and the modernism it represents) does not belong with them.
Kino senses that keeping the pearl might not be the best idea. His pride gets in the way of his mind when he makes the decision to go into town and ask to sell it. His people have been mistreated, ostracized, brutalized, and worse for many years now. He wants to stand up for himself, his family, and his ancestors. When he is told that the pearl is worth nothing, after feeling like a victim for the doctor’s mistreatment of his son, Kino has had enough of the colonists. He will go to the capital for money. Later that night, someone enters the brush house to steal the pearl and Kino chases him out to the beach and kills him in self -defense. Looking back to the house they find it in flames. Despite Juana’s pleas that he give up the evil pearl, Kino is too caught up in the things people have already taken from them to give this one away so easily, even if it is bringing the bad luck to them. “This pearl has become my soul. If I give it up I shall lose my soul.’
They must leave the village if they are to be safe now. He wants to flee alone to keep Juana and Coyotito safe, but she will go along. The fastest way to travel north is by boat. When they reach the canoe Kino inherited from his grandfather, they find it too has been destroyed. ‘This was beyond evil thinking. Killing a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat.’ They set off with trackers on their trail. The family runs and climbs into the mountains. Finally they can go no more and Kino decides to approach the three men while two of them sleep. One of them has a rifle. As Kino grabs the rifle, it goes off and he hears a cry above him in the brush.
When the family returns from their journey, they are two instead of three. The beloved baby they began the search for the Pearl for in the first place is lost. Instead of Juana walking behind Kino as she did before, she walks beside him. He is no longer wiser than she is. Had he listened to her when she told him to release the pearl in the first place, none of this would have happened. There is no question after all the losses they suffered, the pearl must go. ‘And the pearl was ugly; it was gray like a malignant growth. And Kino heard the music of the pearl, distorted and insane.’ Kino and Juana finally take the pearl to sea and Kino throws it as far as he can never to see or hear from it again.
Although the narrative is short, in the end the message is not as straight forward as one
might at first assume. In the introductory quotations, Steinbeck mentions good and evil, that there is no in between. But he also says that people make their own interpretations of the story. When Kino and Juana first find the pearl they see it is organic magnificent, alluring, beautiful. It isn’t until his own decisions, bitterness, violence and occur that the reader finds out that it is ‘ugly and malignant.’ What did it really look like? Did it ever have power of evil or good or does this lie within people?
I found myself wondering about the message Steinbeck sends regarding Kino’s desire forhis family to better themselves according to European standards. It is saddening for a reader living in a modern society, one that has for the most part embraced colonialism, to feel sympathy for a character wanting money and education when the author is trying to point out that he should not need feel dejected for lacking these things. Just because I think I need these things to be happy doesn’t mean they are essential for all humans.
Final Rating 4 out 5 Stars
Karson, Jill, ed. Readings on The Pearl . San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1999.
Steinbeck, John. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (new edition). New York: Penguin, 2001
Benson, Jackson J., ed. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1990.