For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more.
—John Steinbeck, The Pearl
John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, focuses on a single central question: Is there danger in wanting to improve one’s lot in life? In this parable, Kino is an impoverished Indian who lives near the town of La Paz, Mexico, on the Gulf of California; when he discovers “the greatest pearl in the world,” his life is irrevocably changed. Though the plot is simple, the themes in The Pearl touch on many fundamental aspects of human nature and human experience; ambition, obsession, oppression, greed, reason, instinct, trust, and self-preservation are all addressed in the narrative.
As the story opens, Kino’s simple life fulfills him. He loves his wife, Juana, and his baby, Coyotito. He lives in harmony with the natural world around him, satisfied and at peace. When Kino finds a great pearl, he is overjoyed and begins to aspire to a better life. He announces that he will send his son to school, which will liberate Coyotito from the oppressive yoke of colonialism. However, evil begins to assert itself. Kino becomes mistrustful, suspicious, and isolated. Consumed by greed, he strikes his wife and kills a man. Eventually, he and his family must leave town in the dark of night. The family is tracked like animals until they are discovered in the mountains. In the novella’s dramatic climax, one of the hunters kills Coyotito, destroying all of Kino’s hopes and dreams for the future. Carrying the body of their dead child, he and Juana return to town, where Kino throws the pearl back into the sea.
Steinbeck’s parable seems to suggest that ambition is inherently evil. The idea negates the desire to reach for the American Dream, a dream that has traditionally linked happiness to prosperity. Modern readers can relate to questions raised in The Pearl: Is it better to be satisfied or to aspire to more? What if trying to improve our standard of living means that we can no longer appreciate what we already have? How do ambition and greed change our relationships with others and alter our attitudes and actions? Since ambition is generally accepted as being a positive character trait and achieving prosperity is deemed by most to be a worthy pursuit, The Pearl offers interesting insights that many students may not have considered.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the author of classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wrote extensively about the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the destitute. Having already been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, he was a well-established writer by the time he wrote The Pearl, which originally appeared in Woman’s Home Companion in 1945, at the end of World War II. The Pearl reflects the great disillusionment in humanity Steinbeck felt as a result of the war. The Holocaust had revealed unimaginable human evil, and the terrors of the atomic bomb had been imprinted on the human psyche. In its simple story and elemental themes, The Pearl is a powerful cautionary tale about the physical and spiritual destruction that ensues when man’s baser instincts prevail.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the central lesson of the parable.
2. Discuss the role that colonialism plays in the novella.
3. Cite examples that demonstrate Kino’s gradual loss of humanity.
4. Describe Juana’s outlook on life and how she differs from Kino.
5. Explain the changing symbolism of the pearl.
6. Describe the complex relationship between ancient and colonial ways.
7. Discuss the role of knowledge: the quest for it, the manipulation of it, and the power associated with it.