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The Pearl | Symbols

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The Pearl

Kino's enormous pearl is the novella's titular symbol and is so strong a presence that it almost rates as a character. For all its power, however, the pearl is but a mirror. Wrested from its secret hiding place under the water and brought to the surface by Kino, the pearl causes a similar movement to happen to each man who contemplates it. It brings to the surface that which lies hidden within, whether it is good or evil. In this way, the pearl seems to contain the whole world. This truth is reflected in persistent references to the pearl as "the Pearl of the World" (Chapter 3).

The pearl itself is neutral, neither good nor evil. In fact, it is an "accident": nothing more than the oyster's natural response to an irritating grain of sand. Only in the hands of men does the pearl become powerful. In Chapter 3, Steinbeck describes how "the essence of pearl mixed with the essence of men and a curious dark residue was precipitated." In the economy of men, the pearl means money. Where there is money, there is greed, and all the other dark parts of the human soul are called forth by this greed. In fact, Kino finds the great pearl in the very oyster bed that "had raised the King of Spain to be a great power." The Spanish empire grew rich on these pearls. The search for similar riches was the impetus for the colonization of Mexico, and Kino and his people continue to live with its legacy of oppression and violence.

Steinbeck describes the pearl itself in terms of the music it brings to Kino's ears and in terms of its appearance. These descriptions shift from beautiful to horrific as the plot progresses. The reader understands it is not the pearl itself that has changed, although Steinbeck presents it as if it had. Rather, the actions of men have become evil, and the pearl merely reflects this. In Chapter 3, Kino sees "in the incandescence of the pearl," with its "lovely gray surface," visions of "things Kino's mind had considered in the past and had given up as impossible." It carries with it a beautiful music: it is "warm and alive" as Kino holds it, and "the music of the pearl" joins with "the music of the family so that one beautified the other" (Chapter 3).

After Kino kills the man who tries to take the pearl, the only visions the pearl shows him are of evil things. He sees in "the shining surface ... only a huddled dark body ... with shining blood dripping from its throat." At the same time, the pearl's music becomes "sinister" and "interwoven with the music of evil." When Kino finally throws the pearl back into the sea, he sees the pearl is "ugly" and "gray, like a malignant growth," with a music "distorted and insane." But as soon as it falls to the ocean floor, its music "drift[s] to a whisper and disappear[s]" (Chapter 6). Out of the clutch of men, hidden by something as slight as the movement of a crab on the sea floor, the pearl's true impotence is revealed.

The Rifle

In Chapter 3 Kino speaks aloud his desires regarding what the pearl will bring him. It is clear Kino longs to progress in the ways of the world—he wants to marry Juana in the church, and he wants new clothes and new fishing equipment. Each of these things costs money, and the community can understand Kino's wanting these things. But when Kino utters his desire for a rifle, it is as if a line has been crossed. The narrator notes Kino's "mind could hardly make the leap" to the idea that he might have a rifle. He speaks this desire "hesitantly," even as he sees himself in the pearl's surface "holding a Winchester carbine." This desire for a rifle "broke down the barriers," being "an impossibility." The narrator notes if Kino "could think of having a rifle whole horizons were burst and he could rush on."

Kino's desire for a rifle is a desire to possess a weapon that was instrumental in the subordination of the indigenous people of the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years previously. In this way, the desire for a rifle hints at a reversal of history—something that is impossible. Kino longs to possess for himself the object that is the symbolic and literal power source of those that continue to inspire rage and fear in him. He does get the rifle, but only through a fundamental shift in his identity. Before the pearl, Kino was unarmed; he was a father, and he was not a killer. The Kino who obtains the rifle is a man who has taken the lives of other men. In this way, the rifle is a symbol of catastrophic change in the natural order. It upends Kino's private life just as it upended the lives of his ancestors when the Spanish arrived.

Juana's Shawl

Juana wears a blue shawl throughout the novella. More than just clothing, the shawl functions as a symbol of Juana's femininity, which seeks to nurture her family and to provide them with literal and symbolic shelter. The shawl's blue color draws in additional symbolic meanings, as it is closely associated with the Virgin Mary. Blue is a color that rarely appears in nature, and the early processes for producing blue dyes were difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Because of this, blue became associated with divinity. In the tradition of Christian art, the Virgin Mary is usually depicted wearing a blue shawl.

Steinbeck's first image of Juana is of her laying on her sleeping mat with her "blue head shawl over her nose and over her breasts and around ... her back" (Chapter 1). She uses the shawl to tie her baby Coyotito to her body and arranges it over his face to protect him both from evil, as when the doctor enters their home in Chapter 3, and also from too-bright sunlight. The beggars in front of the church read Juana's shawl, with its tears, as evidence of her poverty (Chapter 1). When Kino is injured in his knife fight with the intruder, Juana "dip[s] the end of her head shawl in water and swab[s] the blood from Kino's bruised forehead." Juana is never depicted without her shawl, and she uses it like a tool, adapting it to fulfill whatever functions are needed in the moment. Juana is a wife and a mother, and she is also poor. Yet the shawl allows her to fulfill her functions as wife and mother with dignity and an elegance borne of its very simplicity.

Juana remains strong in her identity and purpose even as her husband becomes a man who kills and who strikes her in his rage. She remains strong even through her arduous exile from her community and her flight toward safety. The shawl remains on her body throughout these ordeals. However, when Coyotito dies, Juana's world is changed forever. She has lost her only child. Her shawl could not, after all, protect Coyotito from the weapons of greed that the pearl called into their lives. In the final paragraphs of the book, Juana is depicted for the first time without her shawl on her body. Instead, the shawl becomes a means for carrying the burden of her tragedy. As she and Kino return to La Paz at the end of Chapter 6, Juana "carr[ies] her shawl like a sack over her shoulder." The shawl is "crusted with dried blood," and the "small limp heavy bundle" it contains is the body of her infant son. The shawl has become a symbol not of protection and nurturing, but of the failure of these qualities. Juana has become exiled not just from her femininity, but from the world itself. With the bloody shawl slung over her shoulder, she is "as remote and as removed as Heaven."

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