The Pearl Summary

The Pearl is a short novel by John Steinbeck in which Kino attempts to pay for his son's medical bills with a valuable pearl. However, the pearl attracts the greed of others, who pursue Kino in hopes of obtaining it.

  • Kino's son, Coyotito, is struck by a scorpion.
  • Kino hunts for a pearl valuable enough to cover Coyotito's medical bills.
  • Kino finds a pearl, but is unable to sell it because of the greed and corruption of his competitors.
  • When Coyotito is killed by someone who wants the pearl, Kino throws the pearl into the sea, realizing that it's more trouble than it's worth.

Summary

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Last Updated October 4, 2023.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck is a novella set in a small Mexican fishing village during the early 20th century. It revolves around the life of Kino, a poor pearl diver, his wife Juana, and their baby son Coyotito. The story takes a dramatic turn when Kino discovers a "great pearl, perfect as the moon… as large as a sea-gulls egg." He believes this treasure will bring prosperity to his family. However, the pearl's allure triggers a series of tragic events as greed and envy consume the villagers, leading to violence and loss.

Steinbeck's narrative is concise, featuring a limited cast of characters and focusing on a handful of highly-charged emotional scenes. Taking place over just five days, Kino sees his fate and fortune fall, rise, and fall again in a parable that Steinbeck intended to be a warning about the trap that is the American Dream. He wanted to show that finding great wealth will not necessarily lead to happiness and safety. Rather, those with power will covet their privilege while preventing others from enjoying it.

The story begins as Kino wakes up one morning in his simple hut. Although he is poor, he is content with his life and family. Tragedy strikes when Coyotito is stung by a scorpion. Desperate, Juana insists they seek the doctor's help. However, the doctor refuses to treat the poor indigenous people of the village.

The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses. Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town. (Chapter 1)

Seeking money to pay the doctor, Kino takes his canoe, his most prized possession, to the bay to dive for pearls with his family on board. Coyotito seems to get worse as the scorpion sting's swelling increases. Kino and Juana's prayers seem answered when Kino discovers a pearl of immense size. Immediately, Kino begins to imagine the new life of comfort and prosperity this jewel should fetch him.

In the surface of the great pearl, he could see dreams form. (Chapter 2)

Once back in the village, news of Kino's treasure spreads quickly. Kino imagines having a proper church wedding with Juana, buying a rifle, and providing his son with an education so that learned people won't be able to take advantage of him.

Everyone is also thinking about how they can benefit from Kino's good luck.

Every man suddenly became related to Kino's pearl, and Kino's pearl went into the dreams, speculations, the schemes, the plans, the futures, wishes, the needs, the lusts, the hungers, of everyone, and only one person stood in the way and that was Kino, so that he became curiously every man's enemy. (Chapter 3)

One of the only exceptions to this is Juan Tomás, Kino's older brother. He wants his brother to succeed and offers him guidance and advice.

The doctor who earlier denied Coyotito treatment thinks about how the pearl might get him out of this remote Mexican town and into the more upscale places like Paris. With feigned concern, he comes to Kino's home to see what can be done for Coyotito.

Kino tells the doctor that Coyotito seems to be improving on his own, but the doctor lies, saying that the venom could still harm the baby. Taking advantage of Kino and Juana's ignorance, the doctor gives Coyotito a pill that will make him appear sicker.

Before long, Coyotito falls ill, prompting the doctor to provide a second treatment. Kino assures the doctor that he will settle the bill once he sells the pearl, but the doctor pretends not to have heard anything about the gem.

Correctly assuming that he and the pearl are unsafe, Kino hides the pearl under his sleeping mat. That night, Kino is injured when a couple of intruders break in but fail to find the pearl. Sensing that the pearl is a curse, not a blessing, Juana fruitlessly begs her husband to get rid of it.

This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us… Throw it away Kino. Let us break it between stones. Let us bury it and forget the place. Let us throw it into the sea. It has brought evil. Kino, my husband, it will destroy us. (Chapter 3)

The next day, Kino, accompanied by Juana, Juan Tomás, and their neighbors, go to the pearl dealers. Unbeknownst to Kino, all the dealers have conspired to devalue the pearl. They tell Kino it is worthless and offer to buy it for a paltry amount. Convinced of the swindle, Kino resolves to journey to the capital in search of a more accurate price.

During the night, Kino fights off yet another assailant. Juana attempts to cast the pearl into the sea, but Kino intercepts her, forcibly takes the pearl, and beats her. Juana regains her composure, only to find that Kino has been attacked once more, and this time, he has fatally wounded his assailant. With Kino now a murderer, he and Juana have to flee.

However, Kino's canoe has been sabotaged. Moments later, they spot their home ablaze, forcing them to seek shelter with Juan Tomás. Under the cover of night, they head into the desert, pursued by relentless trackers.

After a day on the run, the family hides in a mountainside cave while their pursuers settle in for the night below them, unaware of how close they are to their prey. In the pitch-black darkness, Kino prepares to confront them, but a cry from Coyotito startles one tracker, who fires at what he assumes is a coyote. Though Kino manages to kill the men, Coyotito has already been killed by the gunshot.

The story ends as Juana and Kino make their somber return to the village, carrying Coyotito's body in Juana's shawl. With a heavy heart, Kino casts the accursed pearl into the sea.

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