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 world.” He begins to dream about the good the pearl will bring his family. He imagines being married now that they can pay for the service. He pictures a new harpoon and then dares imagine possessing a rifle. That last image is so defiant that he goes even further: He dreams of sending his son to school to learn to read, write, and “make numbers.”
The people of La Paz have heard the news, however, and they intrude on Kino’s dream. Even the priest comes to express his hope that Kino will not forget the Church. The doctor rushes over to force a powder down Coyotito’s throat, one that will make him temporarily ill so that the doctor can pretend that the scorpion’s poison is still working and he can “cure” the baby. The doctor also tricks Kino into revealing the place where he has hidden the pearl, and that night either he or his henchman returns to steal it. In defending his home, Kino draws his first blood. Still, the family begins the next day “with hope.”
This optimism is quickly dashed. The pearl brokers, acting together (because they actually are agents for a single dealer), offer him a pittance. Kino refuses to sell and announces that he will take the pearl to Mexico City instead. His family—his brother, his sister-in-law, and his wife—stick by him, but they are worried. Juana urges him to crush the pearl between two stones and forget it, but Kino answers that he is “a man” and will not be cheated. He does not yet recognize the reversal his fortunes have taken.
The third day begins with Juana stealing the pearl and trying to throw it back into the gulf in order to avert the evil she senses is bearing down on her family. Kino stops her, but as he returns from the shore, he is attacked. Dropping the pearl, he slays his assailant. Juana finds the gem and submissively returns it to her man; she also urges him to flee to save himself from certain arrest. They go to get their canoe and find that someone has knocked a hole in its bottom. Then their brush house is burned by other searchers, the “dark ones.” Taking refuge with Kino’s brother, the family hides out all that day while Juan Tomas borrows provisions for their flight.
That night, the three head into the Sierra de la Giganta, planning to go to Lorento, a gulf town to the north, but trackers quickly find their trail. By the evening of the fourth day, Kino and his family are holed up in a cave while the trackers camp in the mountain cleft below them. Kino tries to sneak up on them to steal their rifle, but Coyotito whimpers, and one of the trackers, thinking (ironically, considering the baby’s name) that it is a “coyote pup,” idly shoots in that direction. Kino leaps too late. He kills all three men but finds that the top of Coyotito’s head has been blown off.
Late in the afternoon of the fifth day, the two return to La Paz, carrying their dead child. They walk straight through the town to the gulf shore. There Kino pulls out the great pearl and offers it to Juana, but she declines, and it is he who returns the pearl to the sea. Because of its tragic dimensions, their story becomes forever one of the town’s legends.
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.
Kino and Juana revel in the excitement that surrounds Kino’s finding the pearl, but their elation soon turns into distrust. The brokers, through whom Kino must sell the jewel if he is to profit from it, conspire to cheat him, saying that the pearl is so big that it has no commercial potential. Kino has to hide the jewel, but while he sleeps, thieves try to rob him of it. The doctor who would not treat Kino and his family when they had no money now comes unctuously to them, proffering the best of services, to be paid for when the pearl is sold.
As the drama of Kino’s situation unfolds, Kino, essentially peace-loving, is forced to kill three men and, worst of all, his adored Coyotito is killed by pursuers who shoot recklessly and strike the boy. The pearl comes to represent all that is bad in life, all that is—in the eyes of this superstitious peasant—unlucky. Finally, at Juana’s urging, Kino, like the Indian boy in the original legend, heaves the jewel into the sea. He has made nothing from his find, and he has lost a great deal that is precious to him.
On an allegorical level, Kino’s pearl is much like Santiago’s marlin in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). It is a symbol of all the strivings of humankind. Dreams keep people going, offering them hope for the future even if the present is bleak. Steinbeck, however, like Hemingway after him, implies that human nobility comes from striving rather than from attaining.