A Steinbeck Tragedy : The Pearl

This was a contribution by Ed Williamson  to the Steinbeck centenary writeoff on epinions that I hosted.

Pros: Gritty and realistic.

Cons: Some readers may find it too dark and hopeless.

The Bottom Line: The Pearl is Steinbeck’s fine tale about a family who wishes to improve their lot in life, but who find doors blocked.


Most people know that John Steinbeck is one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. My favorites among his short novels include Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Pearl.

All of these not only show the reader a very believable group of characters, but they make the hills and seacoast of California and Mexico come to life. More importantly, they are concerned with the choices real-world people make, and the consequences of those choices. Steinbeck’s characters are not the wealthy people of Mexico’s aristocracy or the newly rich miners and moneyrunners of California’s boom days, but, rather, they are the homeless, the migrant workers, the poor fishermen, and the farmers. Steinbeck’s preference for telling the stories of the simple, the lowly, the working class, and the poor gives a look at a side of society often overlooked by other writers, and he bravely made this his province as a relectionist* of social conscience but also with incredible human insight into what affects persons on all levels of the social strata. The stories of these humble people show a deceptively simple, but important story to tell; a story filled with love and pain. The tales tell us not only of the lives of the poor who seek to live off the land, but, through the lens of their adversity, of the struggles of all people. In that sense, stories like The Pearl could be placed in China, Africa, the Middle East, or a hundred other locales, because the human drama itself would probably be the same. Steinbeck just happened to choose Mexico because that was where many of his memories were, and thus he could give clearer and comprehensive descriptions to the cultural locale that way even if the characterizations were universal.

The Pearl, which is set in La Paz, Mexico, down at the far tip of the Baja Peninsula, begins with a portrayal of the seemingly pleasant family life of Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son, Coyotito. Kino the father watches as Coyotito sleeps, but sees a scorpion crawl down the rope that holds the hanging box where Coyotito lies. Kino attempts to catch the scorpion, but Coyotito bumps the rope and the scorpion falls on him. Even though Kino kills the scorpion, it still stings Coyotito. Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbors, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay for the medical treatment.

pearl 1.jpg

Kino and Juana leave the doctors and take Coyotito down near the sea, where Juana uses a folk remedy on Coyotito’s shoulder, which is now swollen. Kino dives for oysters from his canoe, attempting to find pearls. He finds a very large oyster which, when Kino opens it, yields an immense pearl. Kino puts back his head and yells, causing the other pearl divers to look up and race toward Kino’s canoe.

The news that Kino has found a huge and valuable pearl travels fast through the town of La Paz. The doctor who refused to treat Coyotito decides to visit Kino. Kino’s neighbors begin to feel bitter toward him for his good fortune, but neither Kino nor Juana realize this sentiment is present and is hurting them.

Kino’s brotrher, Juan Tomas, asks him what he will do with his money, and he envisions getting married to Juana in a church and dressing Coyotito in a yachting cap and sailor suit. He claims that he will send Coyotito to school and buy a rifle for himself.

The local priest visits and tells Kino to remember to give thanks and to pray for guidance. The doctor also visits, and although Coyotito seems to be healing, the doctor insists that Coyotito still faces danger and treats him. Kino tells the doctor that he will pay him once he sells his pearl, and the doctor attempts to discover where the pearl is located (Kino has buried it in the corner of his hut). That night, a thief tries to break into Kino’s hut, but Kino drives him away. Juana tells Kino that the pearl will destroy them, but Kino insists that the pearl is their big chance at life and that tomorrow they will sell it.

Kino’s neighbors wonder what they would do if they had found the pearl, and suggest giving it as a present to the Pope, buying Masses for the souls of his family, and distributing it among the poor of La Paz. Kino goes to sell his pearl, accompanied by his neighbors, but the pearl dealer only offers a thousand pesos when Kino believes that he deserves fifty thousand. Although other dealers inspect the pearl and give similar prices, Kino refuses their offer and decides to go to the capital to sell it there. That night, Kino is attacked by more thieves, and Juana once again reminds Kino that the pearl is evil. However, Kino vows that he will not be cheated, for he is a man.

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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. While outside, 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 go away even if the murder was in self-defense. Kino finds that his canoe has been damaged and their house was torn up and the outside set afire. Kino and Juana stay with Juan Tomas and his wife, Apolonia, where they hide for the next day before setting out for the capital that night.

Kino and Juana travel that night, and rest during the day. When Kino believes that he is being followed, the two hide and Kino sees several bighorn sheep trackers who pass by him. Kino and Juana escape into the mountains, where Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino, taking his clothes off so that no one will see his white clothing. The trackers think that they hear something when they hear Coyotito crying, but decide that it is merely a coyote pup. After a tracker shoots in the direction of the cries, Kino attacks the three trackers, killing all three of them. Kino can hear nothing but the cry of death, for he soon realizes that Coyotito is dead from that first shot. Juana and Kino return to La Paz. Kino carries a rifle stolen from the one of the trackers he killed, while Juana carries the dead Coyotito. The two approach the gulf, and Kino, who now sees the image of Coyotito with his head blown off in the pearl, throws it into the ocean.

The story is obviously grim and yet intensely universal in a world where the poor are the victims of the greedy and the wealthy. Juana and Kino are hunted like animals throughout the story from the time they have something of value. But the hunt itself, especially in the final stages, seems to reduce Kino himself from the level of “good human” to an animal fighting for his survival.

Steinbeck shows this through several events, such as when Kino attacks the trackers. In this section, Kino moves from being capable of murder for self-defense to a more calculated and premeditated kind of killing. The three men are thus killed out of fear and instinct and not because of any tangible threat they pose to him.

The writer also shows the loss of humanity within Kino when he crawls naked to find the trackers so that his white clothes will not expose him. He loses the final symbols of his humanity to become even more like an animal. This is particularly ironic when considering the death of Coyotito. Kino behaves as an animal so that he can protect himself and his family, but Coyotito dies when the child is mistaken for (the name he bears) a coyote pup.

Contrasting the savage and brutal Kino, Juana becomes stronger as a human through the suffering she faces. She shows herself to be dedicated to her husband even at the most dire moments, demanding that he not break up their family.

When Kino and Juana return to La Paz the story becomes anticlimactic, yet contains some degree of an ironic but sad lesson . Kino comes back to La Paz with the one tool that he desperately wanted, a rifle, but he has lost his child and rejects the pearl. His rebuff of the pearl fully demonstrates the horror that the pearl has wrought upon him.

The Pearl therefore seems a tale with an ambiguous meaning at best and a morbidly fatalistic one at worst. But there is more to it than that.

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The story seems to warn against attempting to better one’s social situation, recalling Juan Tomas’ story of the pearl agent who stole the townspeople’s pearls. Although it seems to indict Kino for his attempts to gain the fortune that the pearl offers, at the same time it offers equal if not greater censure to the wealthy of La Paz who attempt to exploit Kino and thwart his attempts to sell the pearl. Even if Steinbeck does not intend the story to be critical of Kino for his behavior, the story implies that Kino and Juana are locked in and could do nothing to improve their situation.

Perhaps the most valid polemic that Steinbeck offers in The Pearl concerns the effects that the newfound opportunity for wealth has on Kino, who replaces what seem to be civilized values with an almost neurotic preoccupation with the pearl and paranoia concerning those around him. Yet in the end, when the pearl causes him unbearable pain, Kino chooses to get rid of the pearl for all the calamity it has caused him and Juana.

When Kino finally throws the pearl into the ocean, he gets rid of what has become a meaningless object. The pearl is now valueless in the sense that, without Coyotito, the pearl has no power to provide for a better future for Kino and Juana, who could gain only simple material items from their fortune.

As a lesson, The Pearl is an engaging one. What Steinbeck seems to be saying is that even sudden wealth will not improve the life of the poor simply by its discovery. If the poor in many cultures are to have any hope to better themselves, they will need freedom and protection by the law in order to turn their opportunity into a dream which will come true. True democracies with middle classes have made that possible. But in the end it can only come from the sustained efforts of people who care for others; people of conscience. Some may call that bleeding-heart liberalism. I call it love.


*REFLECTIONIST: ( Re-flec’-tion-ist) ( Origins in “Looking-Glass” literaria, op. cit.) (n.) (1.) One who is prone to reflect on certain subjects which are of interest to him or her. (2.) A passionate, driven person who thinks continuously of his or her obsession.(3.) A person who only gives occasional and fleeting reflection upon a person, place, or thing, at rare times…as a special person I once knew very well might do these days in regard to me. -Williamson’s Vest Pocket Dictionary


©2002, Ed Williamson

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