Introductory Lecture and Objectives

The Pearl eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. 

—John Steinbeck, The Pearl 

John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, focuses on a single central question: Is there danger in wanting to improve one’s lot in life? In this parable, Kino is an impoverished Indian who lives near the town of La Paz, Mexico, on the Gulf of California; when he discovers “the greatest pearl in the world,” his life is irrevocably changed. Though the plot is simple, the themes in The Pearl touch on many fundamental aspects of human nature and human experience; ambition, obsession, oppression, greed, reason, instinct, trust, and self-preservation are all addressed in the narrative. 

As the story opens, Kino’s simple life fulfills him. He loves his wife, Juana, and his baby, Coyotito. He lives in harmony with the natural world around him, satisfied and at peace. When Kino finds a great pearl, he is overjoyed and begins to aspire to a better life. He announces that he will send his son to school, which will liberate Coyotito from the oppressive yoke of colonialism. However, evil begins to assert itself. Kino becomes mistrustful, suspicious, and isolated. Consumed by greed, he strikes his wife and kills a man. Eventually, he and his family must leave town in the dark of night. The family is tracked like animals until they are discovered in the mountains. In the novella’s dramatic climax, one of the hunters kills Coyotito, destroying all of Kino’s hopes and dreams for the future. Carrying the body of their dead child, he and Juana return to town, where Kino throws the pearl back into the sea. 

Steinbeck’s parable seems to suggest that ambition is inherently evil. The idea negates the desire to reach for the American Dream, a dream that has traditionally linked happiness to prosperity. Modern readers can relate to questions raised in The Pearl: Is it better to be satisfied or to aspire to more? What if trying to improve our standard of living means that we can no longer appreciate what we already have? How do ambition and greed change our relationships with others and alter our attitudes and actions? Since ambition is generally accepted as being a positive character trait and achieving prosperity is deemed by most to be a worthy pursuit, The Pearl offers interesting insights that many students may not have considered. 

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the author of classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wrote extensively about the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the destitute. Having already been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, he was a well-established writer by the time he wrote The Pearl, which originally appeared in Woman’s Home Companion in 1945, at the end of World War II. The Pearl reflects the great disillusionment in humanity Steinbeck felt as a result of the war. The Holocaust had revealed unimaginable human evil, and the terrors of the atomic bomb had been imprinted on the human psyche. In its simple story and elemental themes, The Pearl is a powerful cautionary tale about the physical and spiritual destruction that ensues when man’s baser instincts prevail. 

By the end of the unit the student will be able to: 

1. Explain the central lesson of the parable. 

2. Discuss the role that colonialism plays in the novella. 

3. Cite examples that demonstrate Kino’s gradual loss of humanity. 

4. Describe Juana’s outlook on life and how she differs from Kino. 

5. Explain the changing symbolism of the pearl. 

6. Describe the complex relationship between ancient and colonial ways. 

7. Discuss the role of knowledge: the quest for it, the manipulation of it, and the power associated with it. 

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom. 

Student Study Guide 

• The Study Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novella. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace. 

• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content. 

• Before chapter Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension. 

• Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novella that vary in difficulty. 

1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them. 

2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them. 

Discussion Questions 

The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty. 

1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry. 

2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion. 

Multiple-Choice/Essay Test 

Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty. 

1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novella; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences. 

2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novella. 

3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.

Before students read through the book, point out to them the following themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed in the novella: 

  • Colonialism 
  • Loss of innocence 
  • Greed 
  • Ambition 
  • Illusions 
  • Humanity and reason vs. animalism and instinct 
  • Traditional ways vs. modern ways 
  • Community 
  • Knowledge 
  • Power and obsession 

Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs: 

  • Light and dark 
  • Nature 
  • Music (Song of the Family, Song of Evil) 
  • The weather 

A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have your students talk about how the author uses the following symbols and look for other symbols on their own as they read: 

  • The scorpion 
  • The pearl 
  • The town 
  • The canoe 
  • The rifle 
  • Oysters

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. Juana believes that “it is not good to want a thing too much.” Why does she think so? What does she mean? What is the negative side of wanting something? How does this contrast with the concepts of the American Dream? 

2. Kino is compared to an animal several times, especially toward the end of the novella. What is the author suggesting by these comparisons? What qualities are more human? What qualities are more animalistic? 

3. Nature plays an important symbolic role throughout the narrative. Why do you think Steinbeck includes so many references to nature? 

4. Stylistically, what does Steinbeck do to make this a universal story? What makes The Pearl a parable? Consider the language, the lack of distinct setting or time period, and the lack of proper names for white people. 

5. The native community functions throughout the story as a group—they come running when they hear Coyotito crying, and they all accompany the family to the doctor. The white townspeople are quite different. Can you cite a few examples of how the townspeople are more isolated and explain the significance? 

6. How are Juana and Kino different? How do they react differently to the pearl, and what do their feelings about it reveal about their outlook on life? 

7. Do you agree with Juana’s assessment that men are “half insane and half god”? What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her assessment of women, whom she thinks to be driven by reason, caution, and self-preservation? 

8. Do you think it is better to be satisfied with what you have in the present or to try to improve your circumstances? What if trying to improve your circumstances means that you can no longer appreciate what you have? How do ambition and greed change our relationships with those around us? 

9. Examine the power of knowledge in the story. Kino wants his son to have knowledge, a lack of which keeps his people in a state of oppression. How do the townspeople take advantage of their knowledge—and use it to manipulate Kino’s people? 

10. Consider the changing symbolism of the pearl and the many ways the physical creation of the pearl is a metaphor for other elements in the story. 

11. Discuss the examples of ancient vs. colonial traditions in the novella. What does this reveal about the loyalty to their heritage felt by Kino and his people? 

12. Discuss the role of illusions in the story. What is the significance of illusions? Can you name several examples of people and situations that are not as they first appear? 

13. Consider the role of fate vs. agency in the story. What is accidental? What do people control? 

Chapter 1


alms: charity

chittered: twittered, chattered

civilized: socially or culturally advanced

feinted: moved deceptively in an attempt to mislead or distract, often in a fight

fiesta: Spanish a party

flanks: sides or edges

flicked: moved lightly, sharply, and quickly

fragment: a part, a piece

indigent: poor, needy

parable: a simple story that illustrates a moral lesson, an allegory

pulque: a fermented milky drink made from the juice of a desert plant

puncture: a perforation, a hole

rutted: with grooves, often as in a road

sparingly: with a light touch, barely; with restraint

stout: heavily built, sturdy

subsequent: following, next in a sequence

suppliant: pleading, imploring

trifle: a thing of no value

Study Questions

1. What is the reason for the epigraph that appears before Chapter One? How does it frame the story?

The author accomplishes two things with this opening. First, he establishes that this story is a legend and that it will be told in the tone and style of the story-telling tradition. Second, it explicitly describes the story as “a parable” from which readers will take their own meaning. The author wants the reader to understand that the story contains a larger moral lesson that transcends the story’s time and place. The author is effectively handing the reader tools for interpreting the story.

2. What is the Song of the Family? What does it tell us about Kino?

Kino’s people have a long tradition of making songs. Kino thinks of the morning sounds—the waves, Juana’s grinding the corn, and Juana’s own ancient song—as the Song of the Family. The song reflects the importance of family to Kino. The routine sounds of his family’s waking up in the morning are dear to his heart. The music says “this is safety, this is warmth, this is the Whole.”

3. What do we learn about the setting and the characters from the opening pages? What do we not learn? Why do you think that is the case?

Kino and Juana are the two main characters. They live in a brush house and sleep on a mat. Their baby son, Coyotito, sleeps in a hanging box. They live in a rural area, with pigs and goats nearby. From the mention of the sound of the waves, we know that they live by the water. Although they are clearly very poor, their family life seems harmonious. We do not learn the specific town or the precise time period. The author likely has two reasons for this. First, we are seeing the world from Kino’s point of view, and his world view is very small. The name of his town is not important, as it is all he knows, and he lives in the present. The author also wants to establish the universal qualities of the story and convey that the story transcends time and place.

4. “It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.” How do you interpret this passage? What does it tell us about Kino?

Kino clearly appreciates the simple and natural routines in his life: his family, the beauty of the sunrise, the dog resting at his feet. He derives great pleasure from the present moment. Although he is poor, he appreciates the blessings of family, a hot breakfast, and the natural world around him.

5. What is the general mood that the author conveys in the opening pages?

Kino and his family lead a simple but harmonious life. Kino is deeply satisfied with his place in the world and looks at the world around him with appreciation. The simplicity of Kino’s life and the natural beauty in which he lives creates a mood of peace and tranquility.

6. What is...

(The entire section is 1565 words.)

Chapter 2


botete: a poisonous fish

braced: put weight against something to hold it steady or balanced

bulwark: a defensive wall, a stronghold

deftly: skillfully

estuary: the mouth of a river, where the tide meets a river

gloating: self-satisfied, displaying selfish pleasure

hummock: a small hill, a mound

incandescence: the light formed by an object’s heat

lateen: a sail

poultice: a wet, soft mass designed to remedy a wound

speculatively: done with the risk of being wrong

undulating: moving in a wavelike motion

unsubstantial: insignificant, lacking solidity

writhed: squirmed, twisted


(The entire section is 860 words.)

Chapter 3


almsgiver: one who gives to those in need

benediction: a blessing

brooding: moody, unhappy

cozened: deceived

curtly: abruptly, briefly

disparagement: criticism, degradation

dissembling: concealing, hiding

distillate: a condensed form of a liquid

inaudible: unable to be heard

judicious: sensible, wise

lucent: luminous, filled with light

prophecy: a prediction

subjugation: forced submission, control

threshed: jumped about

transfigured: transformed

Study Questions

1. What are the various townspeople’s reactions to the pearl?

Everyone in town begins...

(The entire section is 1402 words.)

Chapter 4


appraiser: one who assigns a price to something of value

coagulating: thickening, solidifying

collusion: a conspiracy, a secret cooperation

countenanced: tolerated, accepted

crafty: tricky, deceitful

defied: rebelled against, stood up to

entranced: mesmerized, captivated

freshet: a flood from heavy rain or fresh water flowing into the sea

graft: to attach to

legerdemain: a coin game of deception

lethargy: a laziness, a lack of energy

receding: pulling back (as in a tide)

spurned: rejected, scorned

stalwart: sturdy

tithe: a portion, an allotment, a payment

wary: cautious, skeptical


(The entire section is 843 words.)

Chapter 5


edifice: a building

forestalled: prevented

interval: a gap or pause (as in time)

lament: a cry of grief, a wailing

leprosy: a contagious disease of the flesh

scuttling: scurrying, hurrying

uneasily: anxiously

Study Questions

1. What does Juana do in the dark of night? How does Kino react? What do his actions reveal about him?

Juana goes down to the water and starts to throw the pearl back into the ocean. Kino chases after her and retrieves the pearl just before she throws it. Then he hits her in the face and kicks her in the side. He has lost all sense of what is important. The pearl has changed him and made...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Chapter 6


apprehensively: nervously, fearfully

cleft: a gap

covert: noun a shelter

distorted: bent out of shape, twisted

erosion: a wearing down, a gradual destruction (as land is eroded by water)

escarpment: a steep slope

germane: relevant

glint: a gleam, a sliver of light

goading: prodding, provoking

immune: resistant, unsusceptible

intercession: an intervention

irresolution: uncertainty

malignant: malicious, dangerous

monolithic: solid and massive

monotonously: repeatedly, tediously

resinous: tar-like

rubble: small stones

rupture: a rip, a tear

sentinel: a...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. What does Juana do as the scorpion approaches Coyotito?

A. She leaps at the scorpion.

B. She chants her ancient magic and says a Hail Mary.

C. She tries to flick it away with a stick.

D. She turns away, unable to watch.

E. She moves toward it very slowly.

2. The beggars in front of the church are

A. very knowledgeable about everyone in the town.

B. despised by all for their lack of willingness to work.

C. pitied by the natives but not by the white people.

D. often approached because they are thought to be fortune-tellers.


(The entire section is 1451 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. How does the pearl change Kino? He is compared several times to an animal, especially toward the end of the book. How does that relate to his transformation?

In the opening of the story, Kino is satisfied with his life. Although this morning is no different from any other, it is nevertheless “perfect among mornings.” Despite his family’s precarious and impoverished life, Kino is grateful for the warmth and love of his small family, and he lives in harmony with his community. He is also at one with nature and basks in the simple pleasure of the rising dawn and the sound of Juana preparing breakfast. The overall impression is one of satisfaction and peace. He feels “whole.”

This all changes...

(The entire section is 2740 words.)