John Steinbeck’s novella “The Pearl” is a kind of parable about how the things we think we want desperately can sometimes destroy our lives. Steinbeck introduces us to a young family of indigenous Mexicans who make a living pearling. Kino, his wife Juana, and their baby son Coyotito live in a poor village on the edge of a prosperous town called La Paz. Their lives are simple, and poor, but in the opening of the pages the family seems extremely content with their lives. However, things change when Coyotito is stung by a scorpion in an accident. Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbours, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay.
In hopes that they might find a pearl worthy of the doctor’s attention, Kino and Juana immediately begin searching for a better pearl. While Juana prays in the canoe, Kino dives for oysters. Eventually, he finds one that is set apart from the rest, it is larger, and cleaner than the other oysters, and for some reason Kino has a good feeling about what might be inside. What he and Juana find are outside of their wildest expectations. It is a pearl bigger than anything ever found in the area.
Word about Kino’s pearl spreads very quickly. Before long the town Priest visits the little village, something he never does, specifically to subtly pressure Kino to donate heavily to the church. Kino has his own plans for the money though, specifically; he hopes to give his son, Coyotito a good education. He would also like to officially marry his wife in a church. He would like to buy a rifle. His desires are quite modest, given his gains.
Others in La Paz have more sinister ideas. The doctor who refused to treat Coyotito only the day before arrives. He does not mention that he has heard anything about the pearl, he says only that he heard that they have a baby who was stung by a scorpion. When Kino tells him that his son is nearly back to normal, the doctor lies to them and says that the baby could still be deathly ill. Not knowing any better, Kino allows the doctor to ‘treat’ his child. The doctor administers a white powder to the baby as a ‘cure’, but Coyotito soon begins to go downhill. The doctor will be able to miraculously ‘cure’ the baby and asks for payment. But Kino tells him that he will pay him once he sells the pearl.
That night an intruder comes to the brush house, Kino attempts to fight him off, and succeeds, but is also left bloodied and injured. His wife, Juana, is terribly distressed by this turn of events, and she suggests that they get rid of the pearl right away. Kino insists that they sell the pearl the next day, reluctantly she agrees. The next day Kino attempts to sell the pearl in La Paz, but he is given low offers because, according to the local buyers the pearl is so large that it holds no appeal for jewellery. Kino is infuriated, and vows to go to the capital the next day and sell the pearl there. Kino returns home and buries the pearl. Again, Juana suggests that they rid themselves of the pearl, and again Kino attempts to reassure her.
Later that night, Juana attempts to take the pearl and throw it into the ocean, but Kino finds her and beats her for doing so. A group of men accost Kino and knock the pearl from his hand. Juana watches from a distance and sees Kino approach her, limping with another man whose throat Kino has slit. Juana finds the pearl, and they decide that they must leave even if the killing was in self-defence. Kino finds that his canoe has been damaged, their house was torn up, and the outside set afire. In the meantime, they stay with Kino’s brother Juan Tomas with his wife Apolonia’s protest. They hide for the next day before setting out for the capital at night.
Kino and Juana travel at the night and rest at the day. Kino spots several bighorn sheep trackers passing by, so Kino and Juana escape into the mountains and find a cave to hide in. Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino goes down to ‘deal’ with the trackers. As Kino approaches, the trackers hear a cry. They assume is merely a coyote pup and shoot in the direction of the cries to silence it. At that moment, Kino attacks, killing all three trackers. However, Kino can hear nothing but the song of death, for he soon realizes that it was Coyotito’s cries that the trackers heard, and the shot hit Coyotito. Juana and Kino returned heartbroken to the city of La Paz, Kino carrying a rifle stolen from one of the trackers he killed, while Juana carries the dead Coyotito like a sack from her back. The two approach the gulf, and Kino sees an image of Coyotito with his head shot away in the pearl. Horrified, Kino hurls the pearl into the ocean.
Here in this novella Kino seeks to gain wealth and status through the pearl, he transforms from a happy, contented father to a savage criminal, demonstrating the way ambition and greed destroy innocence. Kino’s desire to acquire wealth perverts the pearl’s natural beauty and good luck, transforming it from a symbol of hope to a symbol of human destruction. Furthermore, Kino’s greed leads him to behave violently toward his wife; it also leads to his son’s death and ultimately to Kino’s detachment from his cultural tradition and his society. Kino’s people seem poised for a similar destruction, as the materialism inherent in colonial capitalism implants a love of profit into the simple piety of the native people.
One of the major themes in the novel is family. Throughout the novel, the plot discusses how the family lives before and after the pearl. It is constantly the focus of the plot and many of the decisions are based on what would be best for the family. For example, the first thing that Kino desires to do with the money from the pearl is to give his wife and Coyotito a better life.
This money would pay for Coyotito’s education, better clothes, and better protection. Later, Kino also demonstrates devotion to his family by not selling to the pearl dealer. The second buyer was trying to get the pearl for less than it was worth, but Kino, with his family in mind, declined to search for a better deal. He always has his family in mind, whether it leads to warmth and happiness or destruction. It was the reason Kino got the pearl and, eventually, the reason why he threw it back into the ocean.