The Pearl | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Pearl | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Because of the unusual nature of Kino's find, the whole town waits to see how Kino and Juana will be changed by it. They say it would be "a shame if the pearl destroyed" them. Everyone fantasizes about what they would do with the pearl. The fishermen do not go to work because Kino going to sell the pearl is an event they wish to be present for.

Like the day their son was born, this is an important day for Kino and Juana, and they wear their best clothing. Juana wears her wedding outfit and puts Coyotito in his baptismal clothes. A procession of neighbors accompanies them for the "historic moment" as they walk to the pearl buyers' shops.

Juan Tomás walks beside Kino, and they discuss the inevitability of being cheated on the prices. He recounts how their elders had tried to defeat this system by having a single agent sell everyone's pearls. But after two agents robbed their pearls, the elders had given up. Kino has heard the story; the priest has preached about how this loss was "punishment" for Kino's people trying to "leave their station" in life.

The strip of pearl dealers' shops in the "city of stone and plaster" is deceptive. There are not many buyers, but rather each one works for the same proprietor while pretending to be operating independently. The pearl dealer they visit is doing sleight of hand tricks with a coin behind his desk. He is practiced in the arts of sympathy and deception. He declares Kino's pearl "only a curiosity," saying it is too large and no one will buy it. When he offers a thousand pesos, Kino is outraged and accuses him of cheating. Kino claims the pearl is worth fifty thousand pesos.

The dealer invites the other dealers to come examine the pearl, claiming they will independently come to the same conclusion that the pearl is worth little. Kino, feeling helpless, draws strength from Juana as the other dealers, one by one, show contempt for the pearl and point out its flaws. "This is not a pearl, it is a monstrosity," says one. Angry, Kino says he will take his pearl to the capital to sell it rather than be cheated. The neighbors share their opinions with one another. Some claim Kino is foolish for not taking the offer, and others feel he is "brave," "courageous," and "right."

Kino buries the pearl. He is fearful, knowing "he had lost one world and had not gained another." Because he said he would go to the capital, he must. However, he has never been there, and he fears that "monster of strangeness." Juan Tomás tells Kino, "We do know we are cheated from birth." He is also afraid for Kino because Kino has "defied the whole structure, the whole way of life." They agree Kino must leave. Kino says "My son must have a chance." He is unwilling to give up his son's bright future, claiming "That is what they are striking at." Resigned, his brother tells him to "Go with God."

That night, Kino sits by the fire, alert with "the deep participation of all things, the gift he had from his people." Juana remains "silent" and "near," at times singing the Song of the Family as protection against evil. Sensing something outside, Kino goes out and engages in an altercation with an unknown person in the darkness.

Juana finds him alone, lying wounded on the ground. The narrator describes the feeling of danger: "Evil was all about, hidden ... crouched ... in the shadow hovering in the air." Juana begs Kino to throw the pearl back "in the sea where it belongs." Her pleading strengthens Kino's determination to keep the pearl: "No! ... I will fight and win ... I am a man" He protests, "We will not be cheated." Juana responds, "I am afraid. A man can be killed." Kino hushes her, and "his voice was command." Juana says she will go with him when he starts out for the capital at dawn.

Analysis

Juana wanted the pearl so they could pay the doctor to treat Coyotito. Now, Kino has the "Pearl of the World," and the baby is better. The original need has been resolved, and now their lives have become embroiled in the complications that have arisen from the pearl itself. This is because Kino has seen in the pearl the possibility of undoing 400 years of subjugation for his people. He clings to this dream that always seemed an impossibility before. It is his determination that "his son have a chance" that compels him to hush Juana when she begs him to throw the pearl away. The pearl has aroused greed for money in the doctor, the priest, and all those members of the colonizer's community. In Kino it aroused a different kind of greed that could hardly be called greed—the desire for knowledge, education, and a better life. Still, it is wanting what one does not have, whether money or education, that binds all Steinbeck's characters together in an uneasy trap. It is this wanting, in fact, that is at the root of evil that now surrounds Kino and his family.

As Juan Tomás points out, there is a historical precedent to Kino's desire. In the time of the "old ones," the fishing people attempted to organize among themselves in order that they could get a fair price for their pearls. This community effort, however, resulted only in calling out the individual greed of the appointed pearl-selling agent, and the subsequent losses were borne by the whole community. The futility of the effort was recognized. So Kino's forefathers went back to the way things were before, accepting the impossibility of defying the whole structure of society.

Kino now wants to defy society on his own, and both he and his brother know this is a dangerous thing to try to do. It forces Kino's exile from his home and community. It makes him deaf to Juana's wise words. He uses his patriarchal authority to hush her, even though Juana seems to be speaking the truth. Because she is a devoted wife, she will go along with her husband—even when it arouses her fear and goes against her better judgment.

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