The Literal and Symbolic in The Pearl
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1879
Perhaps the most outspoken cntic of The Pearl has been Warren French, who criticized author John Steinbeck for using a traditional tale (the legend of the Indian boy who accidentally finds a large pearl) to make his "cautionary points" about the dangers of materialism. According to French, Kino's struggles would be more meaningful to readers of the Woman's Home Companion, where the story was first published, than to Mexican listeners of the original folk tale. French's criticisms are only partially valid.
Kino's discovery that the economic value of the pearl is controlled by a few powerful men can be read as a critique of a capitalistic economic system that embraces material values. Naively, Kino believes that he will be a rich man because he has discovered the "Pearl of the World." He plans to finance a church wedding, to purchase clothes, a rifle, and an education for Coyotito. Yet, when he tries to sell his pearl in La Paz, he receives an offer of only 1,500 pesos. So Kino sets out for the capital in order to find traders who will pay him the full value of the Pearl. By challenging the status quo in La Paz, he sets off a chain reaction of events that will force him to reevaluate what he defines to be "valuable."
Juana is less naive about the value of the pearl than Kino is, at least initially. She is quick to grasp that the Pearl, if given more value than, say, human relationships, can bring both greed and misery. "This thing is evil," she cnes. "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.... Throw it away, Kino." Kino refuses to throw away the pearl, because he wants to use the pearl to purchase social status and freedom from oppression for his family and community.
The novel also contrasts the value of the pearl with the value of Kino's family, specifically of Coyotito. The narrator says that for Kino and Juana, the morning that Kino will sell his pearl is "comparable only to the day when the baby had been born." Because the statement follows a paragraph foreshadowing that the pearl will destroy the family, because the reader is likely to believe that there is no greater moment than the birth of a child to a father, the narrator's observation seems ironic. How can one compare the monetary value of the pearl with the value of one's family? It is no coincidence that Coyotito sacrifices his life when Kino insists upon keeping the pearl. Coyotito's sacrifice (death) provides further evidence that French is right. Steinbeck is critiquing materialism and its values.
After Kino has killed a man and the family has been forced to flee, Juana says, "Perhaps the dealers were right and the pearl has no value. Perhaps this has all been an illusion." On a material level, she may be conceding that the pearl really does not have any monetary value. On a spiritual level (if one defines spirit to be a human being's essence), Juana may be suggesting that, even if the pearl's monetary value is 50,000 pesos, it is still of no value to the family, which craves spirit, not matter. Juana's questioning of the value of the pearl mirrors the questioning of the value of the pearl that occurs throughout the novel. Again, this is consistent with a reading of the story as a critique of materialism.
When Juana suggests the pearl may have no value, Kino replies, "They would not have tried to steal it if it had been valueless." In this ironic moment, both the narrator and readers will see that Kino's logic is flawed. He is assuming that thieves steal valuable things, which may or may not be true, and which is only relevant if someone is willing to pay the thieves for their stolen items. Kino must become more sophisticated, more aware of the evil that man is capable of, more aware of the forces that render him and his family helpless.
Again, Kino's naive nature provides support for French's criticism that the novel makes "cautionary" points that are more meaningful to readers in the United States than in Mexico. Contemporary readers in industrial societies are probably more likely to see the irony in Kino's logic than readers from less-industrialized countries. Contemporary readers who have a basic understanding of economic principles are also more likely to see that Kino's major conflict is whether or not he will accept or reject the social, economic, (and by extension, materialistic) values that currently determine his choices in life.
However, at this point, the novel begins to resist French's literal reading. By not recognizing the impact of the forces of capitalism upon their lives, by not recognizing their own powers, Kino and Juana unwittingly bring about their own downfall. They lose their home and their canoe. They are forced to flee La Paz, to leave behind their families and friends.
The lessons that Kino and Juana will learn now take the form of an allegorical journey. (An allegory is a story in which the objects, people, or actions represent a meaning that can be found outside of the story.) Because Kino and Juana have not recognized their own power (they have, for example, relinquished their own very capable authority as healers to the less capable doctor), because they have not shown an awareness of the material values and powers that are dominating their lives, they are thrust into a dark (and very symbolic) night in order to be educated.
The responses of readers to the symbolism of Kino's and Juana's journey and to the symbolism of Kino's and Juana's education will take a variety of forms. The suggestive symbols in the novel, particularly the symbols of the pearl and of the journey, ask readers to move beyond French's tidy interpretation of the novel into a more psychological and fluid realm.
Not surprisingly many critics do view the return of the pearl to the ocean at novel's end to be a rejection of the material world in favor of the spiritual world. However, this interpretation largely ignores the symbolism of the pearl, which is linked in many ways throughout the story to Kino. Most strikingly, the pearl has, as Kino tells his brother, Juan Tomas, become his soul. "If I give it [the pearl] up I shall lose my soul," he says.
To follow the logic of this symbolism, when Kino rids himself of the pearl, he is ridding himself of his soul. How will readers respond to this?
Peter Lisca offers one interpretation. Kino's definition of the soul, says Lisca, is "not the usual religious definition of 'soul,' but human consciousness and potential, those qualities that cause man to separate himself from the rest of nature." When Kino renounces the pearl, he therefore "refuses the option of attaining his soul (a distinct identity) ... preferring to undefine himself ... thus going back to the blameless bosom of Nature in a quasi-animal existence." Other interpretations are possible, even suggested. The novel gives readers room to decide for themselves.
Jungian critics (followers of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung), with their interest m archetypes (images that occur in the unconscious minds of all humans) offer a satisfying complement to French's interpretation of the novel. Because the Jungians believe m the notion of "universal" symbols, and because they find these symbols in The Pearl, they equate Kino's family's journey with the symbolic journey of the soul. More specifically, they suggest that both Juana and Kino undergo initiations into adulthood, and that these initiations would be recognizable, as symbols, to cultures in Mexico in the United States, and in many other countries.
As Deborah Barker points out, Joseph Campbell has documented that the archetypal hero's journey often takes the familiar pattern of departure, initiation, and then return. The initiation may involve a symbolic death, which then requires a symbolic rebirth. In the context of The Pearl, the loss of his son, home, and canoe would symbolize Kino's death, while the return of the pearl to the bottom of the sea would symbolize rebirth. This pattern of departure, initiation (symbolic death, symbolic rebirth), and return recurs throughout stories around the world.
According to Barker, Juana's initiation is a little different from Kino's. Juana undergoes a "rite of disenchantment" through her journey. At the start of the story, says Barker, Juana appears as a "submissive figure trailing after her husband with a devotion nearly dog-like." At the conclusion of the story, Juana has been elevated to a status equal to Kino's as the two return to town "side by side." In other words, Juana, as archetype, leaves La Paz as a young girl, is initiated into the "disenchantments" of womanhood, and then becomes a woman transformed. Barker reads Juana's journey primarily as a soulful one, in keeping with the notion that the meaning of the story is not solely thematic, but can be found in its images and in the patterns of its images. Again, these images recur in other stories throughout the world, thus Barker would probably disagree with French's suggestion that the novel holds localized appeal to readers of the Woman's Home Companion.
Another Jungian approach to The Pearl reads the characters in the story as symbolizing different aspects of the human psyche. Jung was concerned not just with archetypes, but with the ongoing struggle between the conscious and the unconscious. To a Jungian psychologist, harmony is achieved only when one is able to successfully confront the reality of one's unconscious.
Joseph Timmerman provides an example of a Jungian interpretation of the novel that is concerned with the ongoing struggle between the conscious and the unconscious. Timmerman reads Kino's journey as a confrontation with his own shadow (the part of his unconscious that is socially unacceptable, his darker side.) In order for Kino to access his shadow self, he must listen to the female part of his unconscious (known as his anima). Juana, who is portrayed as intuitive and wise, symbolizes Kino's anima. Juana (Kino's anima) helps Kino to express his unconscious desires, as when she forces him to, in Timmerman's words, "brave the civilized world of the doctor." As the novel progresses, she becomes Kino's "guiding power," as his anima would.
Keeping the novel's rich symbolism in mind (from this very brief discussion), one is perhaps better prepared to appreciate the themes in the novel without feeling bound by them. A thematic analysis reveals that the novel does dramatize man's struggle to know what to value, a struggle that is complicated by his trapped position between the material and the spiritual world. While this reading is consistent with the reading that Steinbeck is critiquing materialism, it can not be taken as the "definitive" interpretation of the novel. The novel contains another symbolic level that will resonate within each reader's unconscious.
When Steinbeck wrote in his preface, "If this story is a parable [an allegory that makes a moral point], perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it," he was not making an idle suggestion. Meaning in The Pearl, as some of the psychoanalytical readings have already demonstrated, extends far beyond the realm of a materialist critique.
Source: Elyse Lord, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Thematic Structure in The Pearl
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2060
Before advancing to thematic material, it may be well to establish immediately what we hold as the structure of the novel. Although the structure could be shown schematically, let us use words. Each chapter contains a central incident which has both cause and effect, tying together the action. In Chapter I the central incident is accidental, the scorpion's stinging Coyotito, and results in the need to find a pearl with which to pay for a doctor's treatment. The discovery of the pearl, the fruit of purposeful action for something good and the central incident of Chapter II, has the effect of making Kino everyone's enemy, the townspeople's becoming a threat to Kino and his family. Chapters III and IV have as central incidents the attacks upon Kino for possession of the pearl. These attacks are both physical as well as emotional (the doctor's "treatment" of Coyotito) or intellectual (the pearl buyer's attempt to take advantage of Kino's ignorance), and they arise from a human evil, greed. These incidents result in the growing conflict between Kino and Juana over the pearl. In Chapter V the turning point is reached in the central incident of that chapter, the destruction of what we call existence for Kino, caused by purposeful action for an evil goal. The effect of this incident is Kino's forced emigration from the community. The central incident of the final chapter is the death of Coyotito, again, as in the first chapter, an accidental incident, which results in Kino's return to the community and the destruction of the pearl.
With this structure in mind, let us turn now to the central theme. Just as the pearl is an "accident," so is man's existence, and that existence has meaning within human relationships, basic of which is the family. Just as the pearl is good or becomes invested with evil because of the ways men use it, so man himself appears, becomes, emerges as good or evil because of the ways men use other men, nurturing or destroying the human relationship between them, validating or invalidating the meaning of their existence.
We have attempted to trace two manifestations of this theme through the novel. The first follows Steinbeck's use of music as a symbolic representation of the theme paralleling the basic story. The second manifestation is found in Steinbeck's use of description to suggest the relationships between Kino and his community and between the community and the town as social embodiments of the theme again paralleling the basic story.
Steinbeck has established three main songs that are named: the Songs of the Family, of Evil, and of the Pearl. Schematically, these three melodies can be envisioned as originating on three separate planes, with the Song of the Family in the middle and the Song of Evil on a parallel plane, but imminent. From a plane below both, the Song of the Pearl is created and, as the story itself progesses, moves forward to become one with the Song of the Family, then to transcend it and join with the Song of Evil....
As symbolic representation, the musical parallel must now be related to the central theme. Within the human relationship where Kino's life has meaning, the Song of the Family is warm, clear, soft, and protecting. Herein the Song of the Family represents completeness. It continues to have these qualities as long as the Song of The Pearl does not overwhelm it. As Steinbeck writes, "they beautify one another." When the human relationship is threatened and destroyed (the crisis: Juana attempts to toss away the pearl, Kino strikes her, Kino is attacked and commits murder, Juana realizes the irrevocable change and accepts it to keep the family together, and the change is manifested in the destruction of the old ties of boat and home, and the pearl becomes both life and soul for Kino), the Song of the Family is interrupted and then becomes secondary to the Song of the Pearl. But because life's meaning is now dependent upon the pearl rather than upon human relationships, the Song of the Pearl becomes the Song of Evil opposed to the Song of the Family, which is now harsh, snarling, and defensive—a fierce cry until the Song of the Pearl is stilled and the human relationships are restored within the original community.
Through the suggestive power of Steinbeck's description, the second manifestation of the theme becomes clear: the close harmony in the human relationships within Kino's community and the parasitic relationship between that community and the town....
Even in what might be termed indirect description, Steinbeck has pictures of the parasitic relationship between the community and the town. In the first instance of metaphors from the animal world, Steinbeck reports how an ant, a social animal working for the good of its colony, has been trapped by an ant-lion, living near the ant colony to prey upon it for his individual needs. In the same way the individuals of the town have built "traps" to take advantage of the ignorance of the Indians and to prey upon them for whatever they have of wealth, labor, or services. Next the author cites the example of the hungry dogs and pigs of the town which scavenge the beach searching for dead fish or seabirds, the latter here representing the Indians who live off the sea and who for all general purposes are dead because they have no power to resist, while the former represent the greedy townspeople. In a third metaphor Steinbeck describes the fish that live near the oyster beds to feed off the rejected oysters and to nibble at the inner shells. Perhaps this is the most forceful of the metaphors, for the author seems to be saying that the Indians, the rejects of modern society, thrown back after having been despoiled of their wealth by that society, are the prey of the townspeople who live nearby and who scavenge even upon the hopes, dreams, and souls of these people. Finally in the metaphor of the large fish feeding on the small fish, Steinbeck supplies a simple restatement of this parasitic relationship between the town and the community, and perhaps a picture of the inevitability of such a relationship in nature.
In Kino's community all have a sense of responsibility to one another and a respect for the humanity of each. Coyotito's scream attracts the neighbors' sympathetic attention as well as curiosity, and the neighbors accompany Kino to the doctor's when the community makes one of its few incursions into the town. Upon the doctor's refusal to treat the child, the neighbors will not shame Kino and abandon him so that he will not have to face them. The discovery of the pearl brings them again, this time to share the joy and dreams; yet, they are more concerned for Kino than they are interested in the pearl. The neighbors again come to Kino when the doctor appears to inflict temporary illness upon Coyotito. They also go with Kino when he attempts to sell the pearl as a necessary sign of friendship; and both before and after the visit, Juan Tomas emerges from the group to represent the thinking of the community. During the crisis, Kino could escape; but he will not commit sacrilege against the community by taking another's boat. Although the neighbors demonstrate concern at the fire and grief over the supposed deaths of Kino and his family, Kino's relationship with the community has been destroyed because of the murder; and he must leave to protect the community and his brother ("I am like a leprosy.")
The town, on the other hand, is like a separate organism, walled off from the life of the community, yet living only to drain off that life....
In general, the townspeople as presented in the novel suggest the characteristics of parasitism, especially the retreat from strenuous struggle, the passive mode of life. In addition, the pearl buyers, as agents of a single unnamed, never introduced individual, show another characteristic, that of retreat from independent endeavor. Finally, the doctor symbolizes the unmistakable degeneration that results from parasitism.
Up to this point in the story, we can easily see that Kino's community nurtures human relationships and validates the meaning of existence for its members, whereas the town, as far as the commumty is concerned and Kino in particular, has consistently sought by its manipulation of men to invalidate the meaning of existence, and it succeeds by forcing Kino to leave the community. From this point the images became animalistic, because the human relationships that gave meaning to Kino's existence as a man have been left behind. The pursuers personify the animostity of the town, which in its greed and as an example to others seeks now to destroy utterly the outsider who has defied it. Their destruction and the consequent salvation of the family, although at the sacrifice of one of its members, re-establish the humanity of and the meaning of existence to Kino and Juana only because they return to the community to begin life again by destroying the pearl.
Besides the central theme as noted above and these various expressions of it, Steinbeck has included additional themes. Let us conclude with a discussion of one of these, the treatment of man and woman in their basic roles and essential natures. Immediately we see expressed, in the reactions of Kino and Juana to the scorpion's attack, the author's statement of these roles. Kino, full of rage and hatred, acts as the avenger of the family, since, as protector, he was unable to act before the scorpion struck; Juana, on the other hand, full of caution, fulfills the role of comforter and healer for the family. And we must note that each has acted separately, not simultaneously, on instinct—first Kino, then Juana, while Kino stands by helplessly having already played his part.
Later, after the pearl has been found, it is Kino who envisions the future in the pearl, who sees what it will provide for the family, and who soon becomes tenacious of what he hopes can be his. Juana quietly watches this tenacity increase to the point of obsession and urges the healing of the family by casting away the source of infection—the pearl.
The tension caused by the growing conflict between the two roles, Kino now as provider and Juana as preserver, begins slowly during the first attack upon Kino. It has its first expression in Juana's remarks that the pearl would destroy them all, even Coyotito. But she relaxes, and the tension subsides as she realizes that they are "in some way one thing and one purpose." With the second attack in the night the tension increases. Juana strives to preserve the family, but Kino, resolute in his plan for the future, opposes her with his whole being, indeed with the very essence of manhood, in the words "I am a man." Juana is driven, although instinctively as a woman to heal the family, nevertheless in reality to act for the man to protect the family. This appropriation of the man's role by Juana, her rebellion against Kino's decision not to destroy the pearl and her attempt to do so herself, has its counterpart in the interruption of the Song of the Family....
The unfortunate conflict in roles has made both Kino and Juana aware of each other in a new way, and this awareness is reflected in a change in Juana's role during the flight and the final return to the community. For she becomes a sharer in, rather than a follower of, Kino's planning. When the trackers make their appearance, it is Juana who goads Kino into overcoming his "helplessness and hopelessness." And again a little later when Kino suggests he go on alone while Juana and Coyotito lie hidden in the mountains, Juana says that they will stay together, and Kino submits to her strength and resolve. After the final, terrible moment of the flight, as husband and wife face the tragedy of Coy-otito's death, they find renewed strength in one another. With that strength they share the difficulties of the return to the town, walking side by side, and of the re-establishment of a meaningful existence within the community.
Source: Ernest E. Karsten, Jr., "Thematic Structure in The Pearl," in English Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 1-7.
The Pearl: Realism and Allegory
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874
[Nothing] more clearly indicates the allegorical nature of The Pearl as it developed in Steinbeck's mind from the beginning—as the various titles attached to the work—The Pearl of the World and The Pearl of La Paz. Although the city of La Paz may be named appropriately in the title since the setting for the action is in and around that place, the Spanish word provides a neat additional bit of symbolism, if in some aspects ironic. In its working title, the novel tells the story of The Pearl of Peace. When this title was changed to The Pearl of the World for magazine publication, although the irony was partially lost, the allegorical implications were still present. But Steinbeck had apparently no fears that the nature of the tale would be mistaken when he reduced the title to merely The Pearl....
Steinbeck knew that the modern fabulist could write neither a medieval Pearl nor a classical Aesopian Fox and Grapes story. It was essential to overlay his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems. Realism as a technique requires two basic elements: credible people and situations on the one hand and recognizable evocation of the world of nature and of things on the other. Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly in the second of these tasks but perhaps does not come off quite so well in the first. In supplying realistic detail, he is a master, trained by his long and productive journeyman days at work on the proletarian novels of the thirties and the war pieces of the early forties. His description of the natural world is so handled as to do double and treble duty in enrichment of both symbolism and allegory. Many critics have observed Steinbeck's use of animal imagery that pervades this novel with the realistic detail that is also one of its strengths....
Kino is identified symbolically with low animal orders: he must rise early and he must root in the earth for sustenance; but the simple, pastoral life has the beauty of the stars, the dawn, and the singing, happy birds. Yet provided also is a realistic description of village life on the fringe of La Paz. Finally, we should observe that the allegory too has begun. The first sentence—"Kino awakened in the near dark"—is a statement of multiple allegorical significance. Kino is what modern sociologists are fond of calling a primitive. As such, he comes from a society that is in its infancy; or, to paraphrase Steinbeck, it is in the dark or the near-dark intellectually, politically, theologically, and sociologically. But the third sentence tells us that the roosters have been crowing for some time, and we are to understand that Kino has heard the cock of progress crow. He will begin to question the institutions that have kept him primitive: medicine, the church, the pearl industry, the government. The allegory operates then locally, dealing at first with one person, Kino, and then with his people, the Mexican peasants of Lower California. But the allegory works also universally, and Kino is Everyman. The darkness in which he awakes is one of the spirit. The cock crow is one of warning that the spirit must awake to its own dangers. The allegorical journey has often been called the way into the dark night of the soul, in which the darkness stands for despair or hopelessness. We cannot describe Kino or his people as in despair, for they have never known any life other than the one they lead; neither are they in hopelessness, for they are not aware that there is anything for which to hope. In a social parable, then, the darkness is injustice and helplessness in the face of it; in the allegory of the spirit, darkness concerns the opacity of the moral substance in man.
The social element is developed rapidly through the episode of Coyotito' s scorpion bite and the doctor's refusal to treat a child whose father cannot pay a substantial fee. Kino's helplessness is conveyed by the fist he crushes into a split and bleeding mass against the doctor's gate. This theme of helplessness reaches its peak in the pearl-selling attempt. When Kino says to his incredulous brother, Juan Thomas, that perhaps all three buyers set a price amongst themselves before Kino's arrival, Juan Thomas answers, "If that is so, then all of us have been cheated all of our lives." And of course they have been.
Kino is, then, in the near dark; and, as his misfortunes develop, he descends deeper and deeper into the dark night of the soul. The journey that the soul makes as well as the journey that the living Kmo makes—in terms of the good and evil that invest the one and the oppression and freedom that come to the other—provides the allegorical statement of the novel.
In the attempt to achieve believable situations, create three-dimensional characters, Steinbeck met greater difficulties that he did not entirely overcome. The germ-anecdote out of which he constructed his story gave him little more than the bare elements of myth....
[In] Steinbeck's source [are] all the major elements of his expanded version: the Mexican peasant, the discovered pearl, the belief that the pearl will make the finder free, the corrupt brokers, the attacks, the flight, the return, and the disposal of the pearl. But there are also additions and alterations. The episodes of the doctor and the priest are added; the motives for retaining the pearl are changed. While the additions add perhaps some realism at the same time that they increase the impact of the allegory, the alterations tend to diminish the realistic aspects of the hero.
In these alterations, employed perhaps to add reality to a fable, Steinbeck has diminished realism. Narrative detail alone supplies this element. The opening of chapter three, like the beginning paragraph of the book, is descriptive.... Symbol, allegory, and realistic detail are again woven satisfactorily together. The large fish and the hawks symbolize the doctor, the priest, the brokers, and the man behind the brokers, in fact all enemies of the village people from time prehistoric. Allegorically these predatory animals are all the snares that beset the journeying soul and the hungering body. Realistically these scenes can be observed in any coastal town where water, foul, and animal ecology provide these specific denizens.
Somewhere in every chapter Steinbeck adds a similar touch.... All these passages operate symbolically as well as realistically, and some of them work even allegorically.
Kino's flight may be seen as a double journey, with a third still to be made. The journey is one half spiritual—the route to salvation of the soul— and one half physical—the way to freedom from bodily want.
The Indian boy of the germ-story had quite falsely identified his hold on the pearl with a firm grasp on salvation, a salvation absolutely assured while he still went about enveloped in flesh and mortality: "he could in advance purchase masses sufficient to pop him out of Purgatory like a squeezed watermelon seed." Kino also holds the pearl in his hand and equates it with freedom from want and then, mystically, also with freedom from damnation: "If I give it up I shall lose my soul." But he too has mistaken the pearl. The chances are very much more likely that with freedom from want his soul will be all the more in danger from sin. The Indian boy becomes free only when he throws the pearl away, only when he is "again with his soul in danger and his food and shelter insecure." The full significance of Kino's throwing the pearl back into the sea now becomes clear: the act represents his willingness to accept the third journey, the journey still to be made, the journey that Dante had still to make even after rising out of Hell to Purgatory and Paradise, the journey that any fictional character has still to make after his dream-vision allegory is over. Kino, Dante, Everyman have been given nothing more than instruction. They must apply their new knowledge and win their way to eternal salvation, which can come only with their actual deaths.
Kino is not defeated. He has in a sense triumphed over his enemy, over the chief of the pearl buyers, who neither gets the pearl nor kills Kino to keep him from talking. Kino has rid himself of his pursuers; he has a clear road to the cities of the north, to the capital, where indeed he may be cheated again, but where he has infinitely more opportunity to escape his destiny as a hut-dwelling peasant on the edge of La Paz. He has proved that he cannot be cheated nor destroyed. But his real triumph, his real gain, the heights to which he has risen rather than the depths to which he has slipped back is the immense knowledge that he has gained about good and evil. This knowledge is the tool that he needs to help him on the final journey, the inescapable journey that everyman must take.
A final note should be added concerning some parallels between Steinbeck's novel and the anonymous fourteenth century Pearl.
The importance of the medieval Pearl for a reading of Steinbeck's novel is centered in the role of the children in each. Coyotito can, in several ways, be identified with Kino's "pearl of great value." The pearl from the sea is only a means by which Coyotito will be given an education. For the doctor, who at first refused to treat Coyotito, the child becomes his means to the pearl, i.e. the child is the pearl to him. But more important than these tenuous relationships is the fact that with the death of Coyotito the pearl no longer has any significance. The moment the pursuer with the rifle fires, Kino kills him. Kino then kills the two trackers who led the assassin to him and who were unshakable. This act gives Kino and his family unhindered passage to the cities of the north, where either the pearl might be sold or a new life begun. But the chance shot has killed Coyotito, and though Kino and Juana are now free, they return to the village near La Paz and throw the pearl back into the sea. Thus the sole act that has altered Kino's determination to keep the pearl which has become his soul is the death of his child; and, as I read the allegory, Kino and Juana turn from the waterside with new spiritual strength, regenerated even as the father in the medieval Pearl.
However, I do not think that anything overmuch should be made of [the] similarities. Possibly the mere title of Steinbeck's allegory brought memories to his mind of the fourteenth century poem. He may have gone back to look at it again, but he may have satisfied himself with distant evocations only. For myself, whatever likenesses I find between the two works serve only to emphasize the continuing tradition of true allegory and the modern writer's strong links with the past.
Source: Harry Morris, "The Pearl: Realism and Allegory," in English Journal, Vol. 52, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487-505.