Themes and Characters
O'Dell's tale of a young boy's abrupt passage into adulthood follows a familiar and elemental pattern: a youth defies his elders and embarks on a dangerous quest that climaxes in an encounter with a supernatural being. The protagonist eventually gains a material prize as well as a vital understanding of life's hardships, and comes to realize that evil wears many faces.
In drawing upon this timeless theme of passage into adulthood, The Black Pearl stresses ideas that apply to young people of any era or culture: that gaining maturity is necessarily an ordeal; that growing up involves conflict with parents; and, most important, that human beings are part of a vast world of natural forces, few of which they understand.
O'Dell's protagonist, Ramon Salazar, is a boy whose impatience with childhood leads him into trouble and, at the same time, speeds his maturation. Certainly, Ramon is childish in his rash campaign to outdo the boastful Sevillano (Gaspar Ruiz) and in his disregard for the warnings given him by the old man Soto Luzon, yet his brashness eventually contributes to his wisdom about people, God, and nature. He dives into a cave that Luzon warns is guarded by the Manta Diablo ("devil manta"), and there he finds the great black pearl, or the Pearl of Heaven.
The spiritual world of The Black Pearl is as real as the simple fishing village of La Paz. O'Dell focuses on a conflict rarely touched upon in young adult literature: the difficulty in distinguishing religion from superstition. Christianity, as represented by the Madonna to whom the Pearl of Heaven is given, and the dark forces, as represented by the Manta Diablo play a role in the characters' fates. Yet O'Dell suggests that human nature is ultimately responsible for the course of events; emotions such as greed and pride shape people's attitudes about religion and the supernatural, and these attitudes in turn determine the outcome of the novel.
O'Dell implies that a delicate balance must be struck between paying due respect to supernatural forces and religious beliefs, and taking responsibility for one's own fate. Ramon's father. Blas Salazar, places blind trust in the church to the extent that he is more superstitious than he is religious. He presumes that his donation of the great pearl to the church will assure his fleet of the Madonna's protection, and thus abandons his own responsibility to look after the fleet. As a result, he and thirty of his men are killed in a storm they could easily have escaped. On the other hand, the Sevillano regards the world as an arena for the struggle between humanity and nature, and fails to recognize the power of the supernatural. His bragging and false pride reveal an unrealistic view of his own abilities. He...
(The entire section is 692 words.)