What is the meaning of the songs in The Pearl?

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The songs in this book are important because they add historical and cultural depth to both the setting and the characters. We are told that no new songs are being created, but the old songs remained important.

The songs remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added. That does not mean that there were no personal songs. In Kino's head there was a song now, clear and soft, and if he had been able to speak of it, he would have called it the Song of the Family.

The songs themselves serve as a way to more deeply build Kino as a character and his family, and the Song of the Family remains important through various parts of the story. The song serves as a way to remind readers of the thematic importance of family, as well as being important to the family itself. For example, we are told early in the story that a simple three note song was capable of endless variety and therefore was able to endlessly function as a binding tie to the family.

Kino could see these things without looking at them. Juana sang softly an ancient song that had only three notes and yet endless variety of interval. And this was part of the family song too. It was all part. Sometimes it rose to an aching chord that caught the throat, saying this is safety, this is warmth, this is the Whole.

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There are several songs in The Pearl. Steinbeck envisioned this book becoming a movie, so you can think of these songs as background music creating mood:

The Song of the Family: this accompanies gentle, peaceful domestic scenes, often outside by the waves, as the family goes about its cycle of work. It is a calming song.

The Song of Evil: this song occurs at moments of danger, such as when the family sees the scorpion threatening their baby. It is a "savage" melody.

The Song of the Enemy: this is very similar to the Song of Evil: it comes into Kino's head as he has to fight the scorpion.

The Song of the Undersea: this is the song of all of Kino's people and is about everything that has ever happened. It is sung to the fishes, the sun, the moon, and the sea.

The Song of the Pearl that Might Be: this is the song of hoping to find a pearl. Finding a pearl is a dream, so this a song of the unlikely, but it is still a potent song.

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Throughout the novella, Kino hears certain songs that identify and reflect his surrounding atmosphere. Steinbeck writes that the Mexican people had once been "great makers of songs" and that any activity the native people participated in became a song. The songs that Kino hears on a continual basis represent his Mexican culture and give him insight into the nature of his surroundings. At the beginning of the novella, Kino hears the peaceful Song of the Family as Juana rises and begins to make breakfast while he stares into the beautiful ocean at sunrise. After discovering the Pearl of the World, Kino begins to hear the Song of Evil as his selfish enemies begin to plot against him. In addition to the Song of the Family and the Song of Evil, Kino also hears songs associated with the pearl, the sea, and his enemies. These songs also foreshadow events and create an atmosphere around certain scenes in the novella. Interestingly, Steinbeck initially conceived The Pearl as a film, and the audience would have heard Kino's songs in the background of the scenes.

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The Songs in The Pearl are all part of the Song of Life. They are a reflection of the native beliefs that the people of Mexico once had before the coming of the Europeans. They are for all aspects of life: The Family, Evil, the Enemy, What Might Be, the Undersea. All these are parts of Kino’s life. Thus Kino refers to the song as “the Whole,” meaning all of life. He and Juana sing these songs when an occasion arises that needs an expression of emotion. In the good times and the bad times, either Kino or Juana breaks into song. When Coyotito is stung by the scorpion, Juana sings the song of the family, to protect her child against evil. Kino sings when the priest comes and wants to be part of the pearl and its wealth. After Kino throws the pearl into the sea, it is stated that the music of the pearl softens into a whisper and then disappears.

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What is the function of songs in The Pearl?

When I first read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I was struck by the power putting the songs in there had.  I think this is similar.  The songs simultaneously establish the setting and comment on the themes of the book and, as number 4 points out, the tone.

 

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What is the function of songs in The Pearl?

The songs mimic the tone of the novel, and they also serve as an entry, if you will, into Kino's mind.  He himself does not speak much, but the songs serve as a portal to what he is thinking and feeling at the time.  Much the way a music score accentuates the action in a movie, Kino's song accentuate whatever is happening to him at the moment. I love having my students write their own songs of their lives as an activity to go with this novel. 

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What is the function of songs in The Pearl?

I learnt long time ago, that Negro Spirituals served to comfort  black slaves as they worked and to assure them of a promised freedom that one day would come.

I believe that the Songs in "The Pearl" serve to operate on a similar level. The mexican-indian people used songs to express their emotions. These songs became part of their existence for so long and this seemed to be Steinbeck's way of showing this aspect of mexican indian culture to us. Hence, when Kino dives in search of a pearl, he hears the song of the undersea and this is mirroring the anticipation he feels as he searches with deliberate care. In that song, the music of another song emerges. That is the music of the pearl that might be. After finding the pearl, Kino and Juana sit in their brush house, surrounded by neighbours who they think share their joy. Again we are told that they hear the music of the pearl and that the music of the family merges with it and beautify each other.

The songs /music even alert kino to impending evil. As kino sleeps that night, he is troubled and the music of evil plays in his dream. This is what causes him to wake up and it is then that he discovers that someone is in his hut. This intruder wants to steal the pearl. In a later instance, when Kino looked into the pearl to find the images of the positive dreams he has of his future, he only sees his misfortunes and the music of the pearl is then blended with the music of evil.

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How do music and song add to the storyline of The Pearl?

The way Steinbeck discusses music in The Pearl allows readers to believe that there is almost a "soundtrack" to this story. If you imagine any movie you've watched and pay attention to the background music, or score, you'll realize that when things are going well the music tends to be light and happy. However, when something horrible is about to happen the music turns ominous and suspenseful.

In The Pearl, readers are introduced to the songs in Kino's head at the beginning of the story. These songs are always there, passed down from generation to generation and creating what Kino refers to as the "whole." Every piece of his day is a piece of his song.

The first song that is mentioned by name is the "Song of the Family." This is the tune he hears in his head as his wife is cooking breakfast, as waves lap gently on the shoreline, and as his baby sleeps. It indicates his happy and peaceful life and connects him to his ancestors.

Later he hears "The Song of Evil" which starts when he realizes that there is an immediate threat to his child's life. It indicates danger and anything that might be a threat to his family's welfare. When he identifies this danger as a specific threat (the scorpion), the song turns even more telling, "The Song of the Enemy." When he hears this song, it is about something that must be immediately destroyed.

Kino also hears these songs later in the novella when he is threatened yet again. You can see the summary of the story here. 

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