The Pearl Themes
The main themes in The Pearl are good versus evil, knowledge versus ignorance, and individuals versus society.
- Good versus evil: Kino begins the novel blissfully unaware of the evil in the world. However, after discovering the pearl, he is exposed to all manners of greed and corruption.
Knowledge versus ignorance: Kino is rendered vulnerable by his ignorance, enabling others to manipulate him. Conversely, knowledge gives power, as evidenced by the doctor, who uses his medical knowledge to fuel his greed.
Individuals versus society: Kino’s people are socially fragmented; individuals fight for themselves and lack the protection that comes from belonging to a group.
Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731
In a work so rich, there are many themes that John Steinbeck explores: for example, the Creoles’ mistreatment of the Indians, the cupidity of the Church, the survival and power of ancient religious beliefs behind a veneer of Christian rituals, the strength of the family unit in the face of adversity, the traditional view of women and the truth about feminine capabilities and understanding that it often conceals, humankind’s position in the universal scheme, the transcendental quality of tragedy, and the ambiguous nature of good and evil. Steinbeck explicitly wants the reader to view his story as a parable, that is, as a moral or religious lesson. In the foreword, he writes that the story contains “only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.” He continues, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.”
Like his good friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist with whom he first visited the Gulf of California in 1940, Steinbeck saw human beings teleologically as part of the animal order. At one point, he describes La Paz affirmatively as “a colonial animal.” Generally, however, it is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” that Steinbeck portrays: “Out in the estuary a tight-woven school of small fishes glittered and broke water to escape a school of great fishes that drove in to eat them. . . . And the night mice crept about on the ground and the little night hawks hunted them silently.” Just so, Kino is physically attacked by a series of unknown assailants, while the brokers try to prey on his ignorance. In the mountains, he is hunted down by trackers described in canine terms. Kino “became curiously every man’s enemy. The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion.” However, Steinbeck also holds that humans can transcend their animal qualities, for humans alone can reason. Humans alone can understand parables.
What lesson, then, does the pearl teach? The answer is complex. For each positive contribution the pearl makes, there is a negative, and vice versa. The pearl is pure and capable of giving Kino and his family all sorts of economic advantages, especially an education for Coyotito, so that he can become free to rise above his “station.” The pearl permits new and formerly impossible dreams, causing a dissatisfaction with the status quo of which Steinbeck approves; he calls it “one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.” However, the pearl unaccountably brings evil to the family: “The essence of pearl mixed with essence of men and a curious dark residue was precipitated.” Juana says, “The pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us.” However, the pearl, by releasing new possibilities to Kino, has made him “a man,” and when he drops the pearl during the struggle, Juana recognizes that she must restore it to him. At the same time, she urges him to flee La Paz (perhaps an ironic plea because the town’s name means “peace”). The pearl finally seems “ugly; it was gray, like a malignant growth.” However, it has proved the good in Kino’s brother and sister-in-law, who have protected them. The resulting tragedy has also brought new dignity to Kino and Juana: “The people say that the two seemed to be removed from human experience; that they had gone through pain and had come out on the other side; that there was almost a magical protection about them.” Kino and Juana have fallen from innocence; the Pearl of the World is akin to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their final tragic position somehow seems more worthy of respect than their earlier, untried ignorance.
In developing his parable, Steinbeck was possibly influenced by the medieval English allegory Pearl. Curiously, the pearl of great price described in Matthew 13:45-46 seems not to have affected him. The short novel is one with Steinbeck’s other works, but it offers most interesting parallels with “The Great Mountains,” the second part of The Red Pony (1937, 1945), and “Flight.” In its use of quasi-allegory it anticipates East of Eden (1952), a more complex exploration of the Adamic fall from innocence.
Last Updated on September 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142
Good and Evil
Kino's belief that evil is in the night is not unusual. But one of his many foibles is that he sees himself alone in a world of struggle between good and evil. He does his best to keep good coming his way. In his mind he hears the music of his personal struggle. The Song of the Family hums in his mind when things are as they should be. The waves lapping the shore in the morning and the sound of Juana grinding corn or preparing the meal are part of this song. But when the wind shifts or a representative of the oppressing class nears, then he hears the strains of the Song of Evil, "the music of the enemy, of any foe of the family, a savage, secret, dangerous melody." Kino listens and reacts to these songs. When the scorpion begins to come down the rope toward the baby, he hears the Song of Evil first. However, when the priest enters he is confused despite hearing the song he heard for the scorpion. He has been taught that the priest is good and so he looks elsewhere for the source of evil. This melodic tool, whatever its source, is one of many tools that Kino has in his possession but that he fails to fully utilize.
Juana is more sophisticated yet more esoteric in her view of good and evil. She is the one who prays for protection against actions. She prays the ancient magic and the new Catholic prayers to ward off the scorpion. She does the same when she wishes for a way to pay the Doctor. She sees that the pearl is the source of evil and that men are only evil because of the pearl.
Because Kino chose to fight alone and Juana chooses to let him, evil wins. The Song of Evil plays loudly in the silence following the deaths on the mountain—one accidental, three brutal. But instead of succumbing to Evil, Juana and Kino together trudge home, past the burnt spot where their house stood. "[T]hey were not walking in single file, Kino ahead and Juana behind, as usual, but side by side." As they walk together, the Song of the Family revives becoming "as fierce as a cry." Kino even offers to let Juana throw the pearl but she declines. He must silence the cause of his insanity. He throws the pearl and as it settles, the Song of Evil "drifted to a whisper and disappeared." Evil is banished but good has not triumphed as is indicated by the bloody package inside Juana's shawl.
Knowledge and Ignorance
The Doctor, the Priest, and The Pearl Buyer do their part to keep the peasants ignorant and docile. They use whatever methods they can to accomplish this—financial instability, religious ceremonies and threats of eternal damnation, or lack of economic choice. When the pearl is discovered, however, each power controller makes the mistake of thinking he knows how to have his way with the finder. Due to this mistake, they do not allow any knowledge to escape but they alienate Kino from them. In other words, by insisting that he stay ignorant of their ways they harbor resentment and defiance. Kino is ignorant, not mentally deficient. They answer his reticence with force and are met with force.
The doctor uses an overbearing self-confidence to trick Juana and Kino into thinking their child might be still at risk from the sting of the scorpion. Kino suspects the white powder may be fraudulent but he certainly will not risk his son's life and deny the doctor. He believes in the doctor because the doctor treats the Europeans who are stronger than the Indians. They are strong in part, he reasons to himself, because of the doctor. What choice does he have but to give way? The priest is not much different. He views the Indians as children and keeps them that way by educating them only enough to be scared of the evil they will face without his help. Religions, especially Catholicism, used the devil as a tool to bring the conquered into submission. Religious reasoning was also used on slaves to make them submissive. On the one hand, the people learn enough from the priest to blend his prayers with their ancient superstitions. On the other, they are not any better for the interaction.
Lastly, the pearl buyers are the best at the charade; they have the Indians at their mercy economically. The pretense of an open market and the price wars they fake lead the Indians to think they are getting a fair shake. In this way, the Indians also believe that they are active participants in the economic order. The Indians are illiterate and cannot know how the modern world works. They are kept ignorant to be exploited.
Individual vs. Society
Kino and his people have lost their ability to function as an effectual group. The only time they come together is to form an audience to be witness to what will happen to Kino. Before European rule, they were able to act as a functional society, going so far as to create songs—which they no longer do. Their social mechanisms have been worn down by the new religious institution and, more crucially, by the new economic system. These two institutions encourage the Indians to behave as individuals who will compete with each other in making ends meet alone. Social and tribal sharing is discouraged at every turn. The narrative dramatizes this by depicting the absence of cordial social interaction amongst the Indians.
Conversely, the pearl buyers act in concert for the benefit of one man and to exert their control over the gullible Indian populace. By this comparison, Steinbeck is criticizing the market system in a way that is consistent with his other literary works. Steinbeck feels capitalism leads to monopolies. Steinbeck is also criticizing his own theories of the phalanx. In his writing before the war, he believed that only by voluntary cooperation could people live happily and at peace. The war, however, showed him that people are easily tricked, bought, or coerced into working for a group when the alternate choice is to be a part of an oppressed class. The latter group, Kino's, is unable to pull together because they have been divided by their oppression.
They attempted to break the monopoly a few times when they sent single men to the big city but those men never returned. They did not try with a group of men who could have defended themselves. Kino will try this route of solitude and he will be defeated. He should have taken his brother or another man in a canoe to the city. Instead, he went with his wife and child over land and paid an ultimate price.