Themes in John Steinbeck's The Pearl. I need to know the most important ones.

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Scott Locklear | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Before the narrative begins, an introductory paragraph identifies the story of Kino and the great pearl as having been told in the town so many times in the past that it has become a part of every man’s heart and mind. In the story are “only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in between anywhere.” Thus the story is a morality tale, a parable perhaps from which readers derive personal meaning. In regard to literary themes, The Pearl offers many themes for readers to consider; each theme develops organically from the setting and raises universal questions about human nature and human experience. That said, however, I think the most important one is this:

Greed and Corruption

As the word spreads that Kino has found a huge pearl, the news of his discovery “stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town”; greed is a “black distillate” comparable to the poison of a scorpion. It infects rich and poor alike. The beggars in the street, the merchants, the pearl buyers, the doctor, and the local priest—all think of the pearl in terms of how they might profit from Kino’s possessing it. Greed drives some people in the town to commit acts of violence against Kino in attempting to steal the pearl. Blood is shed.

Corruption fueled by greed is evident in individual lives and in society at large. The doctor is corrupted by his love of money and fine possessions; in a silk robe, he sits in his beautiful house, sipping chocolate from a china cup, while he refuses to aid Coyotito, who has been stung by a scorpion. The baby is only an Indian, after all, and the doctor, he insists, is not a “veterinary”; moreover, Coyotito’s father, Kino, has nothing of value to give to the doctor in return for his treating the sick child. Later, the doctor uses his knowledge of medicine to make a recovering Coyotito ill in order to “save” him and gain access to Kino’s pearl. In the cold, calculated perversion of his profession, the doctor exhibits his moral corruption as a physician and as a human being.

The doctor’s attitude toward the native Indian population is rooted in centuries of colonial conquest and subjugation. He is “of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race, and frightened it too ….” The consequence of this history is a corrupt society determined to keep Kino’s people imprisoned by poverty and ignorance. From the pearl buyers in La Paz (secret representatives of a single buyer) who conspire to pay the Indians as little as possible for their pearls to the priest whose sermons admonish the Indians to accept their station in life, the institutions in society work in concert to deny freedom and justice to every member of Kino’s race. In doing so, those in power enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the powerless.

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brandih | eNotes Employee

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Pride is also an important theme.

Kino’s subjugation by society has not destroyed his pride or self-respect. Only for fear of Coyotito’s dying does he ask, hat in hand, for the doctor’s assistance. When he is turned away with an obvious lie by the doctor’s servant, Kino feels so deeply humiliated he is overcome by rage. He stands at the gate to the doctor’s house for “a long time,” puts his “suppliant hat on his head,” and then strikes the gate with “a crushing blow.” He will not consent to being marginalized; his pride will not allow him to endure passively the doctor’s insult.

Kino’s pride is manifested again in his confrontation with the pearl buyers in La Paz. Knowing that he is being cheated, Kino refuses to sell his pearl to them; in declaring that he will sell the pearl in the capital, Kino asserts his independence and refuses to be humiliated again. Later, when Kino’s house is burned and his canoe destroyed, the loss is more than material. To Juan Tomás Kino says, “[a]n insult has been put on me that is deeper than my life.” Kino’s pride, as much as his desire to secure money for Coyotito’s future, demands that he challenge the system that holds him down. He has no choice, for as he tells Juana, “I am a man.”

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Jessica Gardner | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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We also have to look at the Nature of Power.

Power vs. powerlessness is a theme that runs throughout The Pearl. Kino’s race has been subjugated for centuries by European colonialism. The oyster bed where Kino finds the great pearl is the same bed “that had raised the King of Spain to be a great power in Europe in past years, had helped to pay for his wars, and had decorated the churches for his soul’s sake.” Kino’s conquered people have remained powerless for four hundred years, “since first the strangers came with arguments and authority and gunpowder to back up both.” Once established, the subjugation of the Indians has been perpetuated by society’s ensuring that they remain poor and ignorant. Any desire they might have for a better life is suppressed by the church; the priest in La Paz teaches that each person must “remain faithful” to his station in life, assigned by God, in order to protect the universe from “the assaults of Hell.”

Kino is well aware of how powerless he is in life. After finding the pearl, his dreams of the future include buying a rifle, a weapon that gives a man power. More significantly, however, he dreams of an education for his son. If Coyotito could read, “the boy would know what things were in the books and what things were not.” Kino understands that real power lies in knowledge: “My son will read and open the books, and my son will write and know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know—he will know and through him we will know.” The pearl means more than wealth to Kino; it offers an end to being trapped by ignorance. “This is our one chance,” he tells Juana. “Our son must go to school. He must break out of the pot that holds us in.” In defying the pearl buyers and challenging the system they represent, Kino initiates a power struggle that ultimately ends in Coyotito’s death. 

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hsato | eNotes Employee

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I think the most important theme in The Pearl is Obsession.

In Chapter II, Kino dives for pearls in a desperate attempt to find one of value with which to pay the doctor to treat Coyotito for the scorpion sting that could kill him. Instead, Coyotito’s condition improves, the result of Juana’s treating his wound with an “old remedy,” and Kino finds not just a valuable pearl but “the Pearl of the World.” With these two events, Kino’s life changes dramatically. In the magnificence of the huge, perfect pearl, Kino envisions a future unlike any he had ever dared to imagine; looking into the glowing surface of the pearl, he sees “dreams form”—new clothes for his family, his and Juana’s wedding in the church, a harpoon and a rifle for himself, and most of all, an education for Coyotito. Kino’s contentment with the “Song of the Family” is now lost in “the music of the pearl” that sings with “triumph” in him.
 
Becoming a rich man changes Kino’s life immediately in ways he does not anticipate as “shadowy figures” attempt to steal the pearl. He is attacked, his home is invaded, and he kills a man in self-defense when he is attacked a second time. When Juana tries to throw the pearl back into the sea, believing that it is evil and will destroy them, Kino beats her with animal savagery and then is sickened by what he has done to her. For Kino, possessing the pearl with all its promises has become an obsession; he pursues it until his and Juana’s old life is destroyed and their baby is dead.
 
Despite the initial death and destruction the pearl brings into his and Juana’s life, Kino will not give it up. Rather than sell it to the corrupt pearl buyers for essentially nothing, he chooses to defy the system and sell it in the capital for a fair price; after his house has been burned and his canoe destroyed, he still refuses to sell the pearl in La Paz. “This pearl has become my soul,” Kino says. “If I give it up I shall lose my soul.” Leaving the old life behind, he takes Juana and Coyotito on a journey to the capital, leaving the trail and fleeing into the mountains when they are tracked by three men who will kill them for the pearl. Kino prevails over the trackers, killing them all, but his obsession with the pearl ends only when he realizes Coyotito has died, the innocent victim of a rifle shot. Returning to the village with Juana by his side, Kino throws the pearl into the sea.

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krounds | Student, College Sophomore | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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All the themes already mentioned will get you on your way to writing a great essay, but also consider the Price of Wisdom.

Juana understands far sooner than Kino the danger in possessing the pearl. “It will destroy us all,” she cries out to him. “Even our son.” After Kino and Juana’s way of life has been obliterated—their house burned and Kino’s canoe smashed—Juan Tomás attempts to save them from further destruction. “There is a devil in this pearl,” he tells Kino. “You should have sold it and passed on the devil. Perhaps you can still sell it and buy peace for yourself.” Kino refuses, clinging to the pearl although he perceives it differently: “I have it … And I will keep it … now it is my misfortune and my life and I will keep it.” When Kino is caught up in dreams of the future, he beats Juana for attempting to throw the pearl into the Gulf; at the conclusion of the story, it is Kino who returns the pearl to the sea. Juana stands beside him, the bloodied body of their dead son wrapped in her shawl—a terrible price to pay for Kino’s acquiring wisdom.

What, however, is the wisdom of The Pearl, if indeed it is a parable? The question remains unanswered in the story, but a passage from the text suggests an interpretation:

For it is said that humans are never satisfied; that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.

The lesson inherent in Kino’s possessing “the Pearl of the World” may be found in this characteristic of human nature: the desire for more. One of man’s “greatest talents,” the story suggests, is also a curse that creates dissatisfaction and destroys contentment.

Before finding the pearl, Kino lives a peaceful and secure existence, in harmony with the natural world; he finds happiness and fulfillment in the simple routines of his life—waking up beside Juana, listening to “the little splash of morning waves on the beach,” watching Coyotito sleep in his cradle, and standing on the beach before dawn to watch the sun rise out of the Gulf. The morning before Kino finds the pearl is “a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.” He lives within “the Song of the Family”; it rises sometimes “to an aching chord that caught the throat, saying this is safety, this is warmth, this is the Whole.”

When the pearl comes into his possession, Kino forfeits his old life for new dreams; he gains nothing and loses almost everything of real value. When he and Juana return to their village with Coyotito’s body, they have been transformed by grief and seem “removed from human experience.” The pearl, once luminous and enchanting, now seems ugly and gray to Kino, “like a malignant growth.” Standing at the water’s edge, he flings it into the sea “with all his might.” Readers find many meanings in The Pearl, as Steinbeck intended, but the primary truth of the story seems to be a warning as much as a lesson—to be aware of the human drive to want more than we have and to appreciate and protect what is truly valuable in our lives before it is lost. 

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amysor | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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The Pearl by John Steinbeck depicts many themes, but the major one is greed. To put it shortly, greed is what drive Kino to set the stage for this novella. Kino finds a pearl, and knows that he will make a lot of money with it. The pearl buyers tried to buy the pearl for little value. Other men tried to steal, and even kill, for the pearl. Juana knew the Pearl was going to bring nothing but harm, but to throw away the pearl. Kino did not listen, because of his greed, he dedicated his families who life to the pearl and its promise. In the end, Kinos greed got the best of him, and resulted in his son, Coyotito's death.

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