The Pearl | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Pearl | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The Pearl takes place in a community of fishermen in the town of La Paz in the southern part of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The story occurs around 400 years after the Spanish colonized Mexico, so sometime during the mid-20th century. The story begins as Kino, the young indigenous fisherman who is the novel's protagonist, awakens one morning before dawn. He sleeps next to his wife, Juana, on the earthen floor of their brush hut. Their baby, Coyotito, sleeps in a box hanging on the wall. Kino wakes to the sounds of the natural world outside, and he begins to "listen to his music" in his head. He hears "the Song of the Family," which Juana also hums as she lights the fire and makes their usual breakfast of corncakes. It is "a normal morning and yet perfect among mornings."

As a scorpion moves toward Coyotito, the "song of the Family" is replaced by "the music of the enemy" in Kino's head. Juana murmurs both "an ancient magic to guard against such evil" and a Hail Mary, a traditional Roman Catholic prayer. Kino is unsuccessful in intercepting the scorpion, which falls on the baby's shoulder, stinging him. Kino grinds the scorpion into the earth as the baby screams and "the song of the enemy roar[s] in" Kino's ears. Juana sucks the poison out of the baby's wound.

The commotion draws the neighbors, including Kino's elder brother Juan Tomás and his obese wife Apolonia, out of their homes. News of Coyotito's scorpion sting sweeps through the crowd as it assembles at Kino's hut. Often surprised by his wife's strength, Kino is surprised again when Juana demands the doctor. Kino and the whole crowd of assembled people know "the doctor would not come" to this neighborhood of poor fishermen. Juana is undaunted: "Then we will go to him."

Juana carries Coyotito in her blue shawl against her body, followed by Kino and the procession of neighbors. The procession grows as more people join in town, and they pass into "the city of stone and plaster" where the doctor lives. The four beggars who live in front of the church and know all the town's secrets join. These "great experts in financial analysis" and "endless searchers after perfect knowledge of their fellow men" are curious to see the coming "drama." They want to see what will happen when Kino and Juana, being "poverty people," seek the help of the "fat lazy doctor."

Standing before the doctor's gate, Kino hears the "music of the enemy" and feels rage. The doctor is of "a race which for nearly four hundred years" has abused Kino's people. "He could kill the doctor more easily than he could talk to him," but nonetheless, Kino removes his hat and knocks. A servant appears and hears Kino's request for the doctor. He is one of Kino's own people but refuses to speak to Kino in the old language.

Inside the house sits the doctor, who is growing steadily obese and is discontent in his "heavy, dark, gloomy room," full of religious decorations. He is obsessed with a "memory and longing for France," which to him represents "civilized living." Presented with Kino's request, the doctor grows angry, exclaiming, "I'm a doctor, not a veterinary. ... Has he any money?" The servant returns to Kino, who presents him with "eight small misshapen seed pearls ... ugly and grey." Moments later, the servant returns from inside to tell Kino, in the old language, the doctor has left to attend to a "serious case." He shuts the gate "in shame."

Shame spreads throughout the crowd, which disperses so as not to have to witness "the public shaming of Kino." After putting on his hat, Kino punches the doctor's gate in rage. Blood flows down Kino's fist.

Analysis

The plot of The Pearl is simple, and two major events happen in this first chapter. Coyotito is stung, and the doctor refuses to treat him because his parents are too poor to pay. This lean plot, however, is grounded in layers of context and detail which elevate its meaning toward universal themes. Steinbeck confronts his readers with issues of good and evil, rich and poor, and the human, the natural, and the mystical. In this first chapter Steinbeck sets up the action for the story while introducing these contexts to the reader.

Like Kino's people, whose livelihood is the sea and whose homes are made of plants and earth, The Pearl is a story firmly grounded in nature. The importance of the natural world, its nonhuman creatures and cyclical processes, is underscored by Steinbeck's use of the opening paragraph to describe the coming dawn. Just as Kino wakes, so does the rest of nature. Kino watches the world wake, and it is "perfect." Nature is in fact what sets the plot into motion—Coyotito's scorpion sting is an event that is entirely natural, though unfortunate.

Although Steinbeck depicts nature with the attention to detail of a scientist making observations, he also weaves into the narrative an important strain of mysticism. Kino, the man, is the conduit through which the natural is transformed into the mystical. The "music" Kino hears is a reflection of the natural world around him, as well as an expression of his own emotions. The music first begins when Kino hears "the little splash of morning waves on the beach." In various moments, Kino hears both "the Song of the Family" and "the music of the enemy." The music in Kino's head guides his actions as it guided the actions of his people since "very long ago."

In addition to being grounded in the natural and the mystical, The Pearl is grounded in the historical context of postcolonial Mexico. Spanish colonialism in Mexico began with first contact in the 1530s and did not end until Mexican independence in 1821. Steinbeck sets his novella "nearly four hundred years" after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. Kino is living in postcolonial Mexico, but the conditions of colonialism, as well as old scars, continue to define the experiences of Steinbeck's characters. These conditions manifest in the rage and fear Kino feels at the doctor's gate and in the doctor's characterization of Kino's people as "simple animals." Readers can also see this legacy in the rituals Juana uses when Coyotito is stung. Juana's prayers are themselves a product of colonialism and reflect the conflict and pain of the process. She offers "an ancient magic ... against ... evil," but she also "mutter[s] a Hail Mary between clenched teeth."

Such uneasy contrasts are a signature feature of the novella, just as they are a feature of the life in Mexico that Steinbeck seeks to depict with authenticity. The family and the enemy, life and death, the old magic and Catholicism—Steinbeck places these contrasts side by side to create meaning through tension in The Pearl.
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