The Pearl | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Pearl | Themes


The Individual and the Community

In writing The Pearl, Steinbeck transformed the Mexican folk legend he heard during his travels, changing the specifics of the protagonist and his community in order to address more universal themes. In Steinbeck's reworking of the tale, the protagonist is not a footloose teenage diver but a more mature man with obligations to others. Kino is a married man with a child, but his identity is inextricably linked to the community that surrounds him. This community is centered on Kino's neighbors, fellow fishermen and pearlers who also live in the village of brush houses, but extends to include all of La Paz.

The inextricable link between Kino and his community is conveyed by the presence of the gathered neighbors during many of the most personally important moments in the lives of Kino, Juana, and Coyotito. The assembled neighbors perform the same function as a chorus in classical Greek drama. Having spread the news among themselves, they gather to witness, react to, judge, and discuss the actions and fortunes of Kino and his family. Their opinions and reactions, in turn, influence the thoughts and decisions of Kino. When Coyotito is stung, the neighbors gather and hear Juana demand the doctor. First, "they repeated among themselves, 'Juana wants the doctor.'" Then, they announce their verdict: after both "the people in the yard" and "the people in the door" say that the doctor "would not come," it reaches Kino: "The thought got into Kino. 'The doctor would not come,' Kino said to Juana" (Chapter 1). Later, when the doctor refuses to see Coyotito, the emotional fallout is shared by the entire community. "And now a wave of shame went over the whole procession. They melted away." Steinbeck's chorus of neighbors is not merely a passive group of commentators; they also influence and are influenced by the events in Kino's life.

In Chapter 2, Steinbeck explains this choral function of the community using a metaphor borrowed from natural science. "A town is a thing like a colonial animal," the chapter begins. Like a sea coral or a jellyfish, a town is an organism made up of other, smaller organisms—in this case, individual people. The people of the town are as closely linked as the cells or organs in a body, for "a town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet." Because a town is one creature, it has "a whole emotion."

Like an organ that cannot survive apart from the body it belongs to, the subsequent exile of Kino and Juana from their community amounts to a spiritual death. Their exile begins as soon as Kino finds the pearl, while he is still living as part of the community and before anything tragic has happened. In Chapter 3 Juana asks Kino, "Who do you fear?" With his reply, "Everyone," Kino feels "a shell of hardness drawing over him." Kino's very identity shifts as he falls away from his community. By the time Kino and Juana return to La Paz after Coyotito's death, they themselves have changed so much that the community—and even Kino's own brother—neither recognizes, looks at, nor accepts them. Even in town, they are in exile. They are no longer themselves because they are no longer part of the community and vice-versa. The townspeople see Kino and Juana as "removed from human experience," and therefore "those people who had rushed to see them crowded back and let them pass and did not speak to them." The severance is reciprocal, as Kino and Juana "walked through the city as though it were not there," carrying "pillars of black fear about them" (Chapter 6).

Luck and Chance

While The Pearl is deeply concerned with moral issues, Steinbeck also addresses metaphysical issues in the text. In philosophy, metaphysics examines the nature of reality and includes such topics as causality, free will, and the meaning of existence. In presenting the assumptions, beliefs, and actions of Kino, Juana, and the villagers, Steinbeck explores the roles of humanity, chance, and "God or the gods" in determining what happens in the world (Chapter 2).

The concept of luck frequently appears in the text, usually in conjunction with the concept of divine intelligence. In Chapter 2, in explaining the nature of pearls and pearl diving, the narrator gives a definition for luck: pearls are "accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both." The worldview of Kino, Juana, and all the fishing people is delineated within this single statement. To find a pearl is to experience luck, and luck is a form of divine approval. The creation of the pearls themselves is not caused by the intentionality of any divine force. Rather, it is accidental; these "coated grains of sand" form as a result of chance, not the will of the divine or the actions of men. The first implication of this statement is that events are determined by the interplay of at least three separate forces: the actions of men, the will and/or actions of God or the gods, and random chance.

The second implication of this statement is that, because of the twin forces of colonialism and Christian evangelism, there is some amount of ambivalence in the cosmology (belief about the origin of the universe) held by the fishing people. Before the Spanish arrived, these people were polytheists, believing in multiple gods. In light of the pressure from the Spanish missionaries for this population to convert to Catholicism, the fishing people enlarged their cosmology to accommodate the singular God of Christianity. At the same time, they maintain their precolonial belief in a world controlled by multiple gods.

The relationship between humanity, the gods, and chance is explored further as the narrator introduces the idea of "the Song of the Pearl That Might Be" later in Chapter 2. Kino hears this song as he searches for a pearl to pay the doctor while Juana sits in the canoe above, praying furiously. "Chance was against [the finding of a pearl], but luck and the gods might be for it," the narrator comments. Chance and luck are two separate forces, with chance being the product of random happenstance and luck being the manifestation of divine will. The actions, desires, and even the needs of men have no bearing on chance, but they can influence luck. In fact, Juana makes "the magic of prayer ... to force the luck, to tear the luck out of the gods' hands." The gods can choose to give or withhold luck, but humanity has its own power in the form of prayer and can influence the gods—and therefore its own luck—through prayer. Nonetheless, humanity must use this influence carefully, being "very tactful with God or the gods." For while prayer can bring luck, "to want a thing too much ... sometimes drives the luck away."

The picture grows even more complicated in Chapter 3. When Juan Tomás asks Kino what he will do with the money from the pearl, Kino speaks his intentions aloud before the community. His plans grow ever bolder until finally he announces the pearl will free them all because it will buy Coyotito an education. "A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities," the narrator muses. But Kino is immediately afraid, because he knows "the gods do not love men's plans," nor do they "love success unless it comes by accident." The penalty for a man who is "successful through his own efforts" is the "revenge" of the gods. This revenge, presumably, is that the gods will not only withhold luck, they will reverse a man's fortunes entirely. As the plot advances, Kino asserts his own will more and more, refusing to be cheated or robbed of the pearl even when it brings ever more evil and destruction into his life. This destruction, by which Kino loses everything of value in his life, is the "revenge" of the gods foreshadowed here.

Change and the Social Order

The tragedy at the heart of The Pearl—the exile of Juana and Kino and the subsequent death of their son Coyotito—arises from Kino's determination to challenge the prevailing social order. Of the visions Kino sees gleaming in the pearl's lustrous surface the most compelling is that which transcends his own personal interests. The pearl brings out Kino's greatest desire: that the abuse, cheating, and subjugation his people have endured as a result of colonialism come to an end.

Kino believes his people can overthrow this power structure and empower themselves by learning to read and do mathematics. This will give them access to information and knowledge. They will no longer be trapped by their ignorance, forced to trust whatever lies those in power choose to tell them. The pearl will make this possible because it will allow Kino to pay for Coyotito's education. When the priest tells Kino in Chapter 3 that, according to "the books," he is named after "a great Father of the Church," Kino feels the presence of evil. He cannot be sure whether the priest is being truthful or not. He looks at his infant son, and the dream of empowerment through education is born: "Some day ... that boy would know what things were in the books and what things were not." Moments later, Kino speaks this intention: Coyotito will learn to read, write, and do math, and "these things will make us free because he will know ... and through him we will know."

This is a bold challenge to the way things are and have been "for nearly four hundred years" (Chapter 1). Kino is aware of the danger in such a challenge, for he immediately becomes afraid. He further challenges the order when he refuses to let the pearl dealers in La Paz buy his pearl for a fraction of its value. Violence immediately enters into Kino's life; if he will not consent to being cheated, lied to, and exploited, those in power will attack his property, his home, his family, and his life. Juan Tomás describes these truths when he tells Kino, "We do know that we are cheated from birth ... but we survive." Kino has "defied ... the whole structure, the whole way of life," and Juan Tomás fears for his brother's life.

Sure enough, Kino does not succeed in overthrowing this social order. In fact, what happens is the opposite of progress and empowerment: he loses everything of value to himself, including his home and community. To be condemned to exile is bad enough, but Kino also ends up taking the lives of other men in violence and enduring the grotesque murder of his only son, the innocent Coyotito who was to be the savior of Kino's people. The moral of the story is both depressing and grim. When the oppressed assert their dignity and humanity, when they defy the powers that be, those same powers will only destroy them in a perpetuation of the evil they sought to end. The only path that is viable, let alone safe, is to resign oneself to a circumscribed existence within an oppressive social order.

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