The Pearl | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Pearl | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

The chapter begins with the narrator's description of the gulf and its surroundings, where Kino and Juana live, as a place of illusion and mirage. On the beach are the traditional canoes of the fishing people. The narrator describes the marine ecosystem and goes on to describe the "uncertain air" of the gulf. Because of it, "all sights were unreal and vision could not be trusted." Therefore, the narrator speculates "the people of the Gulf trust things of the spirit and things of the imagination," but not what their eyes show them.

Juana has prayed that Kino would find a pearl so he could pay the doctor for Coyotito's treatment. She and Kino embark later than normal in their canoe. It is Kino's most prized possession and was once his grandfather's. Before embarking, Juana makes a seaweed poultice for Coyotito's swollen shoulder. It was "as good a remedy as any" but one that "lacked [the doctor's] authority because it was simple and didn't cost anything."

Kino dives down to search the pearl "bed that had raised the King of Spain to be a great power ... in past years." Pearls are accidents, formed when a grain of sand irritates an oyster. To find a pearl was "luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both." Kino works quickly, hearing the lovely music of the undersea, which contains "a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible ... sweet and secret and clinging": "the Song of the Pearl That Might Be." Meanwhile, Juana is "making the magic of prayer" above to "tear the luck out of the gods' hands." Kino spots a huge single oyster protected under a rock ledge.

Kino hauls up the oysters with anticipation. He and Juana are "reluctant" to see what is inside, knowing wanting a thing "too much ... sometimes drives the luck away." But Juana urges him to open it, and inside lies a pearl "as large as a sea-gull's egg ... the greatest pearl in the world." Moments later, the parents note that their baby's swelling is subsiding, and Kino cannot then contain his joy. He lets out a scream that sends the other pearl divers "rac[ing] toward Kino's canoe."

Analysis

The psychic landscape of the fishing people is a reflection of the natural world of which they are a part. The qualities of the light and the air lend themselves to creating visual illusions. Kino's people understand this, and so they place their trust in a different kind of knowing or seeing than that of the physical eye. Their trust, says the narrator, is "perhaps" in "things of the spirit and things of the imagination"—like Kino's songs. Deception and illusion are qualities not just of the Gulf ecosystem, but also of the conditions of colonialism and postcolonialism with which Kino's people live. Although Kino in the previous chapter addressed the doctor as a "healer," he doesn't trust him, and he is wise not to—as the beggars' knowledge of the doctor as a man of greed and sin confirms.

Kino and Juana go out in search of a pearl because Juana will not be at peace until the doctor has seen Coyotito. The doctor will not see Coyotito unless Kino and Juana can pay. So the couple turns to the sea, their source of sustenance and their only possible means of making any money. The reader will note the narrator's attitude comes through in the description of Juana's need for the doctor. The narrator sometimes refrains from making definitive statements, instead presenting observations or judgments as speculations, using words like "probably" and "perhaps." In contrast, the narrator does make a definitive statement about "the minds of people": they are "as unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf." Juana is in conflict because her firstborn's life is seemingly at stake. Though she knows the doctor is not to be trusted, the layers of illusion and mirage in her mind compel her to seek his help anyway. She must do everything she can for her child, even when it means calling on a doctor who thinks the native people are animals. Similarly she uses the Hail Mary, the petition of the colonizer's religion, in her prayer.

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