Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This long story (or short novel) follows five momentous days in the life of an Indian pearl diver living in La Paz, a small port on the Gulf of California. Though told by an omniscient author, the work most often limits itself to Kino’s perspective as he suffers the gratuitous trials of an innocent tragic hero.
His sufferings begin when he witnesses a scorpion sting his beloved son, Coyotito, as the child lies happily in his cradle. Beside herself with terror, Kino’s common-law wife, Juana, insists that they take Coyotito to the doctor because that individual has authority even though he “was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race.” The doctor irresponsibly evades seeing the child, and Kino takes his first step in his tragic growth by challenging the unfair order of existence. He strikes the doctor’s gate “a crushing blow with his fist.” His knuckles give instead of the doorway, but Kino’s gesture shows that he is prepared to become “a man.”
That same day, he and Juana go to dive for pearls. Juana tries to bargain with her people’s ancient gods and offers a prayer to the Christian God that they might find a pearl. Though she has made a better poultice of seaweed than the doctor could, she still feels the need for his magic and wants the wherewithal to force him to attend her baby. As if in answer to her supplication, Kino finds “the greatest pearl in...
(The entire section is 842 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Pearl, which its author calls a parable, was first published as “The Pearl of the World” in Woman’s Home Companion in 1945. It was published as a novel and released as a film under the title The Pearl in 1947. In parables, characters exist outside and beyond their individual identities and are shaped to represent universal types.
Steinbeck’s story came from a folk story he had heard and which he related in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). The story, purported to be true, was of a simple Mexican peasant boy who had found a pearl near La Paz at the tip of Baja California. The pearl was so large that the boy was convinced he would never have to work again, that he could stay drunk forever, and that he could have his pick of women and then buy his eternal salvation after all his sinning by purchasing Masses. His dream turned sour when opportunists and thieves beset him, some of whom threatened his life. So frightened and disenchanted was this Indian boy that he eventually threw his great pearl back into the sea whence it came.
Steinbeck creates as his Indian peasant Kino, an unwed father whose chief concerns are to marry Juana, the mother of his child, Coyotito, in a church wedding and to provide for his family and for Coyotito’s education. In short, Kino aspires to middle-class values to which the first readers of the story in Woman’s Home Companion could easily relate.
(The entire section is 517 words.)
Whether by prayer, quest, or contest, humans have long expressed their desire for wealth and dreams of a better life. Many are the tales about this phenomenon and, more often than not, the tales end in tragedy. This longing for something better is the theme of The Pearl.
Steinbeck was disillusioned in the aftermath of World War II. He realized that none of his heroes—the GI, the vagrant, or the scientific visionary—could negotiate survival in a civilization that had created the atomic bomb. Repentance, as attempted by the characters in his novel The Wayward Bus (1947), was not enough. Fittingly, he reflected his disillusionment through a legend about a man who finds the Pearl of the World and is eventually destroyed by greed.
The legend tells of an Indian pearl diver who cannot afford a doctor for his son's scorpion sting. In this anxious state, he finds the Pearl of the World and is able to get medical help for his boy. Calculating the profit from the gem, the diver dreams of a better life—a grand wedding, clothes, guns, and an education for the boy. But his dream of leaving his socio-economic station leads to ruin. As he attempts to escape those who want to take the pearl from him, he is tracked by professional assassins, and tragedy ensues. No pearl is worth the price Kino and his wife pay, so they throw the pearl back. Their story is a warning to restless dreamers yearning for an easy or magical solution to their...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
The Pearl opens in Kino's home in La Paz, Mexico. The sun is beginning to lighten the day, as the "tiny movement" of a scorpion catches Kino's and his wife Juana's eyes. The scorpion is heading towards Kino's and Juana's son, Coyotito.
Kino slowly reaches out to grab the scorpion, while Juana whispers magic to protect Coyotito, but the scorpion strikes anyway. The swelling of Coyotito's flesh marks the beginning of a series of events that will not only destroy the family's home, but will take them away from their family and community.
Kino and Juana take their wounded baby to see a doctor in a "city of stone and plaster." Since Kino and Juana are desperate to find help for their baby, they swallow their pride and appeal to the town doctor, who is a member of a race that has "beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race "
The doctor, a fat man whose eyes rest in "puffy little hammocks of flesh," refuses to help Coyotito, saying that he is a doctor, "not a veterinary." Kino shows the doctor's servant his money, but it is not enough to interest the doctor. In frustration, Kino strikes the doctor's gate with his bare fist and splits open his knuckles.
Although Coyotito is beginning to heal, Juana and Kino are determined to find a way to secure the doctor's help. Juana prays to find a pearl with which to hire the doctor to cure the baby. Kino is singing the "Song of The Pearl that Might Be" as he dives into...
(The entire section is 914 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
The Pearl opens with a short preface—a single paragraph of text stating that the tale of Kino, his wife, and their infant son, Coyotito, has become legendary in their town. Moreover, the narrator says, the story has come to be viewed in extremes: some recall the family’s experience in only the best terms, while others only recall the worst of it.
Chapter 1 begins as Kino awakens before dawn to the sound of animals outside the small dwelling. He takes notice of the sunrise and then looks on his small family—his son who sleeps in a small box hanging in the home and his wife, Juana, who is already awake and looking at him lovingly. In this state of contentment, Kino closes his eyes and reflects on the blessing of his family. For the moment, he is in a state of absolute contentment.
As Juana builds a fire in the little house made of brush, Kino steps outside and observes his surroundings. He appreciatively observes the sunrise and a progression of ants. His wife’s silent yet steady preparation for the day reinforces his sense of security. The love he feels for his small family almost overwhelms him.
When Juana finishes preparing the meal, Kino goes inside to eat his simple breakfast, which he consumes with satisfaction. Once he has finished, Juana approaches to begin her meal. To his horror, Kino notices a scorpion crawling down a rope into the box that holds his son, Coyotito. As Kino delicately approaches the box, Juana whispers superstitious prayers for the safety of their child. Although Kino is extremely cautious in his movements, little Coyotito utters a childish laugh and inadvertently shakes the scorpion into the box. Kino lunges to catch it, but it falls onto the infant’s shoulder and stings him. The baby screams out in pain as his father angrily and viciously kills the scorpion.
The child’s screams alert the neighbors, and they crowd into the little house. Juan Tomas, Kino’s brother, is among them as the news spreads of the scorpion sting. The local residents are all aware of the danger to the young child’s life. Juana decidedly asks for someone to summon the local doctor. This small cluster of residents knows that the doctor will not come. He will not bother to help an impoverished family. Acknowledging the difficulty in convincing the doctor to come to her home, Juana decides that she will take her child to the doctor. Therefore, she and Kino, followed by a horde of...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Chapter 2 opens with a view of the lovely ocean shore that borders the small brush home of Kino and Juana. The shore is teeming with a variety of animal life and vegetation. The couple approaches the beach and Kino studies his canoe, hand-crafted and maintained using a technique that his father taught him years ago. Kino’s ownership of this canoe is of vital importance because it provides him with the means of providing food for his family. As he prepares the canoe for its entrance into the water, Juana gathers seaweed and places it on Coyotito’s shoulder. The seaweed application is intended to ease the pain of the scorpion bite. Since the initial sting, the baby’s neck, ears, and face have become red and swollen, indicating the presence of venom in the baby’s body. Although the doctor has refused to treat the baby’s injury, Juana still has hope. The seaweed is a traditional remedy and she believes that it will have some positive effect. In addition, she prays that Kino will find a pearl that will be valuable enough to pay for the child’s medical treatment.
Kino and Juana place little Coyotito with them in the canoe and begin their day’s work. Kino dives into the water, gathering oysters in his basket. Of course, he hopes to find many valuable pearls, but he realizes that doing so is primarily a matter of chance. As he dives in search of the oysters, he hopefully reminds himself of the “Song of the Pearl That Might Be.” He has focused his hopes on the discovery of a priceless stone. Kino works steadily, concentrating simultaneously on gathering the oysters and reminding himself of the hopefulness of the song.
Kino’s concentration is broken by a large oyster that catches his eye. This oyster is separate from the clumps of smaller oysters and the shell is partially opened. Kino glimpses a radiant glow inside the partially opened shell and quickly grabs it. He returns to the surface, and Juana helps him into the boat. Kino is clearly excited by the possibility of a pearl in the large oyster, but he takes the time to retrieve his basket and his rock from the water before he opens any of the oysters. Once he has pulled his basket and rock into the boat, he decides to open a smaller oyster first, realizing that he may have seen only the gleam of the inner shell on the larger oyster. He wants to maintain his composure. When he discovers nothing inside the small oyster, he tosses it back into the ocean and...
(The entire section is 566 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Even before Kino and Juana reach the shore, the tidings of their discovery have spread throughout the village and surrounding town. The news is broadcast to everyone, including the priest, the beggars, and the doctor who refused to treat Coyotito’s injury. They all imagine the benefits that the pearl will bring to them. The priest imagines that he might be able to make repairs to the church. The beggars speculate that they could receive special contributions from a man who, until very recently, lived in poverty. Even the doctor boasts that the infant is his patient.
Perhaps the most eager sharers in Kino’s news are town’s pearl buyers. They anticipated Kino’s desire to sell the pearl and await the opportunity to defraud him of its value. These buyers have traditionally conspired to cheat poor pearl divers by offering the lowest possible estimates for the pearls they bring in for appraisal. The mere thought of Kino’s pearl was enough to engender serious deliberation among the pearl buyers, who were in fact only agents. Although they professed to be competitors, they were all employees of a single man who was the only actual pearl buyer in the region.
Kino’s great pearl engenders a dream of material prosperity in nearly all of the townspeople. In fact, they begin to imagine that all of their worldly prospects depend entirely on Kino’s generosity. Consequently, they bless or curse him, depending on whether they believe Kino will respond to their requests charitably or negligently.
Unaware of these speculations, Kino and Juana return to their small brush home, surrounded by friends and neighbors. Juana sits patiently as Kino expresses their family’s aspirations, including a church wedding, fine clothes, a rifle, and a formal education for little Coyotito. As the neighbors marvel at Kino’s plans, the priest pays an unexpected visit to the family. After offering flattering remarks to Kino regarding the origin of his name, he encourages them to give generously to the church as a means of showing gratitude for the pearl. Kino does not offer a ready reply to this request, but Juana does. She reassures him that they will be formally married and that they will not forget to give generously to the church.
The priest departs along with the horde of neighbors. Then the doctor arrives. Kino is immediately filled with fear and loathing for the man. However, the doctor suggests that scorpion stings...
(The entire section is 683 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
The village town of La Paz is teeming with quiet excitement and anxious curiosity. The inhabitants are eager to see how Kino and Juana fare after the sale of their pearl. No one leaves for work. The pearl divers do not head to the shore to seek the day’s fortune. Instead, they all stay to be present for this event. They plan to follow the couple so they can witness firsthand the outcome of Kino’s great day.
The pearl buyers greet the day with anticipation. Each hopes to have the opportunity to buy the pearl. Of course, each calculates the best means of swindling Kino. They are all employed by one powerful, unscrupulous, and closefisted buyer. Consequently, these smaller buyers understand that Kino must not be offered a fair price under any circumstances.
Kino and Juana awaken with renewed enthusiasm. The disquieting concerns from the night before have passed and they are both in good humor as they prepare for the day. Juana and Coyotito wear their finest clothes. Even Kino has taken care that his clothes, which are worn from work and wear, are clean and well-arranged. Once they are properly dressed, the family begins the trip into town to sell their pearl.
Kino is accompanied by his brother, Juan Tomas, who warns him to be careful with the pearl buyers. He encourages Kino to ask for a fair price, although neither he nor Kino knows the pearl’s actual value. To emphasize the necessity for extreme caution when dealing with the pearl buyers, he reminds Kino of the villagers' former efforts to sell their pearls for fair prices.
Many years ago, the villagers were so concerned about the prices they were given locally for their pearls that they hired a seller to take all of their pearls to a larger city and sell them collectively. He was to subtract his fees from the profits and return the remainder of the money to the villagers. Sadly, the seller took the pearls and never returned to the village. The villagers, refusing to admit defeat, hired another seller, who also absconded with the pearls. Kino informs Juan Tomas that he recalls the tale. He also recalls the priest’s explanation that the loss should serve as an admonition against attempts to rise above one’s station in life. Armed with these reminders, he enters a pearl shop to make his transaction.
The buyer examines Kino’s pearl and then makes an unusual proclamation. He states that the pearl is too large and is, therefore,...
(The entire section is 807 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Juana and Kino disagree strongly about how to dispose of the pearl, and they begin the day with a horrifying interaction. Kino awakens to see Juana discreetly arise and move toward the fireplace. He silently watches as she removes the pearl from the hiding place and leaves the house. He follows her. At first, she doesn’t know that she is being observed. When she realizes she is being followed, she runs toward the ocean. Kino chases her. Just as she is about to throw the pearl into the ocean, Kino strikes her in the face. He forcibly takes the pearl from her and kicks her. He is furious but Juana is unafraid. Her determined expression calms him and he feels ashamed of himself for having abused her.
In shame, Kino turns and walks back toward his home. As he enters the brush, he is attacked a third time. This time he draws his knife and stabs the assailant immediately. Although the assailant is injured, he grabs Kino and desperately gropes his clothes in search of the pearl. As the two men battle, the pearl is thrown to the ground and lands near a rock.
Meanwhile, Juana gets up and prepares to submit to Kino. Although she still disagrees with him, she loves him. She believes that he, like all men, is stubborn and willful. She also believes that his quest to become rich from the sale of the pearl will ultimately destroy him. However, she feels that it is her responsibility to tolerate his stubborn will and to remain at his side. She knows that she needs him for protection and for their family’s provisions. More than anything else, though, she loves him. As she walks toward her house, she sees the pearl on the ground beside the rock. Then she notices two bodies on the ground and sees that one of them is bleeding from the neck.
Juana is relieved to discover that the bloodied body belongs to the attacker, who is dead. Nevertheless, she is frightened for Kino because she knows that he killed the man. In fact, his knife is still beside the body. She knows that their family will never be the same. She drags the dead body into the brush and uses the cloth on her wet skirt to revive her husband.
When Kino regains consciousness, he explains that the man attacked him as he entered the brush. He explains that he killed the man in self-defense. Juana believes him. However, knowing the degree to which the pearl has engendered greed and envy in the town, she urges him to flee. She tells him that no one will...
(The entire section is 710 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Kino and Juana escape the town in the dark. A swift breeze stirs the sand in such a manner that their footprints are erased as they travel. To avoid being seen, they walk along the outskirts of the town instead of through the center of it. Once they leave town, the wind subsides and they realize that, on the next day, their footprints will be evident in the sand. Still, they walk all night and only turn off of the major roadway at daybreak. Kino finds a suitable place for Juana and Coyotito to rest. Then he returns to the main road and uses a piece of brush to sweep away the footprints that indicate their direction of travel.
Kino and Juana prepare for a short rest. Kino thinks he hears unsettling noises. He tells Juana to keep the baby quiet while he investigates the sounds. He discovers trackers who have been sent to follow them. He sees them as they approach the place where he and Juana turned off of the main road. The trackers pause but continue past the intersection, and Kino returns to Juana and Coyotito.
Kino informs Juana that he has seen the trackers and he knows that they will eventually find them. He wants her to leave him, taking the baby with her. He plans to lead the trackers in another direction. However, Juana persuades him to reconsider. She suggests that the trackers will kill Kino once they find him because their goal is to steal the pearl. She also tells Kino that the trackers will never allow her or the baby to live. She says that they will kill them all and leave, taking the pearl for themselves. Kino tries to convince her to reconsider, but he is unable to change her mind. He takes her and little Coyotito to a cave to hide, then he goes to a place where he hopes to be able to protect them.
As night falls, Kino sees the trackers and he hopes to wrest the gun from them. He believes that he has a better chance of defending his family if he can prevent the tracker who is holding the gun from discovering them. As he approaches the trackers, he prepares to jump onto the one holding the rifle. However, the moonlight shines down and he decides to wait. Although he has taken off the white shirt he was wearing, he knows that he might still be seen in the moonlight, so he hides himself. Just at that moment, one of the trackers thinks that he hears a baby crying. The one holding the rifle suggests that the cry is coming from a coyote, and he fires the rifle to silence the noise.
(The entire section is 563 words.)