John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl explores a central theme surrounding the concept of human happiness and the quest for a better life. The author proposes alternative methods of achieving happiness in sync with the natural order of things. Accordingly, as the protagonist of the tale discovers, material wealth can buy neither contentment nor paradise.
In part, Steinbeck examines the perplexing philosophical question as to whether human beings are actually responsible for their actions. He ponders whether fate might have more to do with attaining happiness in life than free will. In The Pearl, the author uses symbolism as a literary device to help his characters and his readers draw their conclusions.
In chapter 1 of the book, the seed pearls represent the material wealth that the protagonist, Kino, desires in order to care for his family. When his son, Coyotito, is stung by a deadly scorpion, the doctor refuses to treat the boy. Steinbeck notes the doctor’s “longing for France,” where he once lived. The doctor thinks France
was civilized living—by which he meant that on a small income he has been able to keep a mistress and eat in restaurants. He poured his second cup of chocolate and crumbled a sweet biscuit in his fingers.
The doctor’s first question to his gate servant is “Has he any money?” The servant’s reply of “No, they never have any money” sets the scene for the philosophical fate-versus-free-will conflict that drives the story forward. As the gate servant approaches Kino, he asks, “Have you money to pay for the treatment?” Since Kino is poor, he is turned away:
Now Kino reached into a secret place somewhere under his blanket. He brought out a paper folded many times. Crease by crease he unfolded it, until at last there came to view eight small misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers, flattened and almost valueless. The servant took the paper and closed the gate again, but this time he was not gone long. He opened the gate just wide enough to pass the paper back.
The stark contrast between the greedy doctor’s standard of living and Kino’s “almost valueless” seed pearls advances the examination of fate versus free will throughout the novel. When the protagonist finds a giant pearl after being rebuffed by the doctor, his status in the community is elevated. He ironically begins to change his existence. He transforms himself from a hardworking, unselfish man living in harmony with nature to an ambitious killer. His wife begs him to get rid of the pearl, which, to her, symbolizes evil, not wealth. Subconsciously, Kino must decide whether to continue his quest for wealth or rid himself of the wealth he found by fate. He ultimately throws the pearl into the water, where it sinks into a “little cloud of sand.”
Be it by virtue of fate or free will, Kino’s newfound wealth results in pain and tragedy. He loses his son, along with the humble, contented life he once had.