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THE PEARL

Interpretive-Analytical and Commented Synopsis


The Introduction informs the reader that THE PEARL is an old, often repeated, and traditional tale which changes with each teller. Each listener, therefore, must draw his own conclusions and meanings. As soon as the word meanings is stated, the concept and use of SYMBOLS is apparent. We must thus understand that we are headed for a symbolic sort of presentation of the story we are about to read.

The narrator says that the story is a parable and, as with all often-told tales, there is only good and bad. This statement prepares us for clear-cut judgment of things to come -- for an "either/or" type of view of the events yet to happen. The narrator states there is black and white; with no distinction in between. [Thus Steinbeck prepares us for his packaged presentation of good versus evil, and the fact that evil does exist in life in society.]

In chapter one we meet with Kino and his good wife, Juana, both living in a village just outside La Paz, Baja California in Northwestern Mexico. Their lives follow a pattern which is greatly established since they follow the same pattern of life their ancestors led. Juana always awakens before Kino, fans the fire, and prepares the same breakfast. Always the same simple and humble breakfast of corn cakes, for they have not for more. Kino always knows exactly what Juana is doing, even without watching. Juana faithfully goes about her tasks, always humming the same ancient song of her ancestors. [This shows us how unified they are with their past and with their predecessors -- how traditional they are in their ways.] Kino is content with his routine, unbothered at all by it. This all makes him feel satisfied and secure; alive and safe. However, the routine will soon be shattered by the events that follow.

As Kino, before rising, listens to the sound of the waves, he hears the soft and clear "Song of the Family." When he goes outside, he hears the same song coming from inside the hut. The song of himself, and Juana, and home, and Coyotito, their baby, all living the same tune, in harmony and balance. These small, early-morning events suggest the UNITY of Kino, his past, and his world -- the WHOLE. When he suddenly sees the scorpion, for the first time he hears the Song of Evil. It quickly drowns out the Song of the Family, and after the scorpion bites Coyotito, the Song of Evil becomes intense and roars in his ears, and indeed in his very head.

Kino and Juana both notice the malignant scorpion at the same time, but it is Kino who too carefully and confusedly tries to knock it off from Coyotito's hanging bed-box. Tragically, as we will see later, he misses it completely. The scorpion lands on Coyotito's tender arm and stings him. Then savagely, but too late now, Kino crushes into the ground, grinding it into a pulp.

Contrary to Kino's harsh attitudes, Juana is the "soft" answer to the problem. Still following the traditional ways of her people, Juana mixes ancient magic with her prayers as she springs into action, sucking the poison from the wound. Kino, on the other hand, watches helplessly, admiring Juana's strength with awe.

The fat and wealthy doctor, who surrounds himself with all sorts of luxuries, is interested only in Kino's capacity to pay. The obese doctor is in bed eating sweet biscuits and drinking hot chocolate when Kino arrives at his house. The fat doctor's servant, also one of Kino's people, relays Kino's message to the doctor. But the doctor is insulted and enraged by Kino's request for help. He says that he has better things to do than to treat Indians. The servant himself treats Kino with disdain as he gives Kino the doctor's answer. Only if Kino can pay will he take Coyotito as patient. Of course, unable to pay, Kino takes Coyotito back to the village.

Although it is still early morning, the air is hazy and the sun beats down. Vision is thus blurred, obstructed and impeded. Clarity in perception is lost this way. It is a symbol the author is projecting in the story. A symbol which will keep Kino from seeing things clearly later on. And if it is analyzed more closely, we can assume it is also a form of foreshadowing what is to come -- a bleak and tragic series of events and circumstances.    Top

The haze of the early morning magnifies some things and blots out or eliminates others. It seems to make the land almost dream-like, and the main character's state of mind equally dream-like. Vision, therefore cannot and should not be trusted. The physical perception of things is distorted. The people of the Gulf are used to the haze and are accustomed, rather, to trust the "things of the spirit" and "of the imagination" rather than of the eye. They are used to relying on instinct and intuition. This is the safe way of life for them. But Kino will soon forget about this and fall into the hands of tragedy and fate.

Kino's most valuable possession is his canoe. The same canoe that had belonged to his grandfather -- who had later passed it on to his father and who in turn had passed it on to him. It represented tradition. It represented the pride which each one took in making a life from the sea and from the capture of fish. It was a means of survival and a source of purpose and unity in the men that owned it. A heritage which held the men together in an ability to deal with the sea. It was a union with nature itself. The canoe had forever been lovingly cared for and preserved, and thus meant everything in the small and humble family. As a tradition, it gave Kino something to live for and be proud of.

Then, while searching in the oyster beds, Kino hears the Song of the Undersea, a mixture of all the songs of his people. Diving into the oyster beds for pearls had for ages been his people's tradition. As Kino fills his basket, he faintly hears the "Song of the Pearl That Might Be." [He senses the possibility of something wonderful this time.] There is a chance that one of the oysters might contain a pearl. Today, the Song of the Pearl grows stronger and stronger, with complete phrases entering the Song of the Undersea. The Song of the Pearl That Might Be drives Kino on today. Kino also knows that Juana is above praying hard for the find of a pearl -- any pearl -- so that they might be able to pay the doctor for Coyotito's cure. [Again we see the closeness between them in this. They are so close to each other they know one another well.]

Juana senses Kino's excitement as he surfaces, but condescendingly pretends to look away. Juana knows that it is not good to want something too much. Pretending not to see the large oyster, Kino first opens a small oyster. Both Kino's and Juana's simple form of life and uncomplicated manner is shown here. Their desire to simply have what they need and be satisfied is also depicted even up to this moment. But soon, very soon, things are about to take a turn.

Kino's anxiousness is secretly hidden behind the fact that he first opens the small oyster and pretends to ignore the very large one. Kino is reluctant to open the large one, afraid that what he had earlier seen when down at the bottom of the oyster bed was only an illusion, a figment of his imaginative head. Perhaps he had not really seen that there was a pearl inside it. Still hesitating in the shy and humble way his people did when they approached a new situation, Juana finally told him to open the oyster.

Then, Kino expertly began to pry and cut the oyster open. And when it was finally vanquished, as Kino lifted the tender oyster flesh, Both he and Juana saw the greatest pearl anyone had ever found. It was the size of a sea gull's egg. Juana reacted with awe and amazement at the sight of the great pearl, perfect and round and silver in the rays of the sun. But to Kino, it was the beginning of a dream-like state, where he first experienced the breaking of the song of victory, only to be swallowed afterward by the intrusion of the desire for things. Things now wanted. His mind began a flow of desires, a flow of dreams of things.    Top

It is highly significant at this very point that Juana instinctively should go to Coyotito to examine the wound under the poultice she had made for it, and that she should find that the swelling and harshness of the sting had gone away. She immediately reported it to Kino -- but, Kino did not notice the true meaning of this. He was blinded by the size and worth of the pearl. He was so absorbed by its material worth that he went rigidly into a process of intoxication and possession by the great pearl. He now became possessed by the material significance of the pearl. If Kino had listened to Juana and had truly understood that Coyotito was now safe from the danger of dying, another story entirely different from the tragedy about to happen would have developed. An entirely different route their lives would have taken, and it would have probably preserved their valuable union and happiness. But Kino was now foolishly blinded by the pearl, its size, and its worth among the civilized townsmen in La Paz. He was now in a trance. He was now possessed by the idea that now his family and he could have anything they wanted. Now, he perhaps thought to himself in a millionth of a second, he and his family could be like the rest of the people who had for centuries humiliated him and his people. Now he could be like the white conqueror of his land and no longer need to feel pushed below him. Now he could feel as human as they. But greed is the road to evil, and it only leads to ultimate self-destruction and tragedy. It conduces to evil and the loss of the soul. But... Kino did not know this, for he had never had something like this happen to him before. So, the story continues and we prepare to find out what happens.

The town is described as a colonial animal. The choice of words and analogy here are interesting to examine. "Colonial" alludes the provincial setting of the events; and "animal" implies a living organism. But not just an ordinary organism. It has no heart, and no ethics, no moral discrimination, nor conscience. Simply stated, it is not even human. But it does have a nervous system, and a head and other connecting parts. Such that the town and its people serve as a connected living mass, affecting each other, and yet thriving on each in one way or another. Everything is known in the town and everything is monopolized and controlled by those who cooperate with each other jealously to serve as the head of the whole organism. But the additional meaning in this story is that the town equally serves to exploit others like Kino and his people. Anyone who goes there is an outsider, and the animal will treat him as such. All the parts of the animal will cooperate in one way or another to devour the outsider.

In a town, news spreads very quickly -- faster than anyone can even tell. La Paz was no different. Even before Kino's own fellow fishermen all knew about it, the news of the pearl was already in the animal's mouths. Kino had found the Pearl of the World. But, as a devouring animal who preys on the smaller and weaker, the town feels that it too wants a share of the wealth of the pearl. Everyone there is now eager to get some of it, or all of it if it be possible. The town is like a scorpion now producing venom and getting ready to strike.

Naive and unaware of the potential for evil in great wealth, Kino and Juana have no idea whatsoever what their unusual discovery has unleashed, liberated. Jealousy, covetousness, desire, greed, and envy have all been set loose about the town. Why should an Indian possess such a marvel when it is only they who can have such things, think the townspeople. The animal's appetite is voracious and now wants satisfaction. But Kino and Juana have any idea of what these people can do to get the pearl. They are simple people who have always been condescending and submissive, always giving in to the impositions of the powerful in the town. They do not know any better than to tell all of their discovery. Their simple and uncomplicated minds do not understand the existence of such evil as the one in the ambitious and greedy parts of the voracious animal. They will foolishly exhibit the pearl to all and any who wants to see it. They do not understand the evil that the pearl represents.

Kino sees in the pearl a church wedding for him and Juana, along with fine clothes for the three of them. He sees also a new and fine harpoon made of iron. Then he sees something which at first seems an impossibility but which later lingers in his mind. He sees a rifle, a Winchester carbine. Finally he sees an education for Coyotito. And as Kino told the fellow fishermen in his hut all theses dreams, for the first time in a long time, perhaps, Juana sees Kino with eyes of admiration. She wonders at the great strength which emanates from Kino as he shares his dreams with the villagers.

At first, after having discovered the great pearl, Kino hears the Song of the Pearl, merged, combined with the Song of the Family. When the priest enters into the story, Kino faintly hears the Song of Evil. He suspects of the priest's pretensions and attitude, but finds it hard to believe anything evil could be involved with this man who traditionally holds strong influence over his people. Then this song grows stronger when the doctor arrives and almost drowns out and erases the Song of the Family. The doctor lies to Kino about Coyotito's situation and Kino begins to doubt his instincts and allows the doctor to malignantly cheat and deceive him and Juana by giving Coyotito an emetic, a vomiting agent, telling them that the baby will be attacked by the poison in an hour. Kino is still under the spell of ambition and desire. He does not ratify and accept the evil surrounding him and his family now.

After the fat doctor has gone, the sea is described by the author as the fat man sits at his home eating his supper. This time it is the little fish heard as the bigger fish try to eat them. The splashing of their attempts to escape can be heard by the villagers. In other words, everyone will now watch as the town tries to get at Kino's great pearl.    Top

An hour or so later, Coyotito really becomes ill , and the first thing Kino believes is that the doctor was right about the scorpion's poison. The doctor reenters and pretends to cure Coyotito with ammonia drops in water, but Kino is suspicious of him. When pressed by the fat man for his payment, Kino instinctively looks towards the spot in his hut where the pearl is buried. The doctor now knows where it is, and the scene is set for the oncoming events and tragedies.

When a thief attempts to steal the pearl, Kino is described as he defends his home and the pearl in complete darkness. Never is the thief seen directly by him for there is no light within. Kino is struck on the head by the thief, but he is unconcerned by it. Juana now realizes what has been building inside her is fear. She realizes it is the fear that this great pearl is a source of evil because of the desire it has awakened in the people surrounding them. She tells Kino of the evil that it has brought and describes it as a great sin which should be got rid of immediately. But, Kino is determined now more than ever that the pearl will change their condition and status in the community. He sets himself against the will of the townspeople. It is now also a question of his prideful will against the poisonous will of the town scorpion.

Since the pearl buyers all work for only one man, they will not make any personal profit from the purchase of a great pearl such as Kino's. Yet, they are authentically excited about getting their hands on it. Symbolically here, they are excited about participating in the symbolic "hunt" to see who gets the prize -- indeed, who gets the quarry. They receive a certain kind of thrill or excitement from the negotiating and bargaining, from the arguing over the price. Seeing who gets the best of the other is what motivates their actions. Getting the greatest pearl for the lowest price possible is now beyond a simple thrill. Escaping from one to the other of the buyers, it almost seems like a mouse trying to get away from the hungry felines. Kino feels thus and decides he is being cheated, for they have agreed not to push up their price.

Even though Kino had been careful to tilt his hat forward in sign of confidence and aggressiveness, it did no good against the conspiracy awaiting him in the town. Before this, the villagers had attempted to pool their pearls together to give to agents representing them. The idea had been to have the agents sell them at the capital for much more than in the town, but the agents had never returned. As Kino walks with Juan Tom s (his brother) to the pearl buyers, they both squint their eyes, just as their grandfathers and great grandfathers had done 400 years before. This simple technique was their only defense against higher authority. It was a sign of defiance of that authority and an attempt to reclaim some of their own. With this defensive physical action they felt better provided for the defense of their rights and interests.

Until this day Kino has marveled at the beauty of the pearl, but he is shocked at its grotesqueness when he looks at it under the magnifying glass offered him by one of the buyers. This is the beginning of its detriment in Kino's eyes, for it will become even uglier later on. The pearl buyers attempt to cheat Kino by trying to convince him the great pearl is nothing but a monstrosity or curiosity. But he returns to his hut greatly bothered. He feels that they are attempting to cheat him out of Coyotito's education and prosperity. He is bothered chiefly also because he has lost his world, but he has failed in achieving another. He is also afraid, afraid of the monstrous capital where he must now go if he should sell the pearl for a more reasonable price. As he stands by the entrance to his hut he can sense the evil lurking out there, waiting to steal the pearl and Coyotito's education from him. But he will not let them. And as Juana quietly watches him, she contributes to his cause by remaining silent and close to him. Next to his side, Juana is courageous by encountering the Song of Evil with her own Song of the Family as she holds the tender baby in her arms. Yet, as Kino announces his determination to go to the capital, Juana tells him the pearl may even get a man killed, and she suggests to throw the pearl back into the sea. Kino tells her to hush, and reminds her that he is a man.

The following morning just before dawn Juana rushes out of the hut in an attempt to throw the pearl back into the sea, but Kino stops her just in time and strikes her and kicks her on the side as she lays on the ground by the shore. Juana remembers that he is a man, brave and aggressive, and resigns to what has happened, knowing also that she is just a woman and in need of a man. Yet, the truth is that their relationship is deteriorating, to the point where she has dared to defy Kino's authority and where he has dared to inflict violence and brutality on her.

Juana believes that men are half madmen and half a god. Men are motivated by courage, reckless pride, and honor. Juana is herself quite courageous but more reasonably so. She acts out of concern for Kino and their son, and she makes decisions intuitively and instinctively. Yet, she serves as a source from which Kino draws strength and courage at times.

Returning to the hut herself, Juana finds the pearl behind a stone, glittering in the momentary moonlight, for all was still very dark. Then she finds two figures on the sand. One is a dead man and the other is the unconscious Kino. As he had returned to their hut, Kino had been attacked another time by thieves seeking the pearl. In his defense, Kino had slashed his knife out and killed one of the attackers by cutting his throat open. Juana now realizes that they must leave. It will do no good to try to save themselves by explaining the death was caused in self-defense. But Juana also realizes that their happy, normal way of life has all been lost.

Kino agrees after her persuasion and decides to get the canoe ready, but is enraged when he sees it had been previously damaged by the thieves. It had a great hole at the bottom of it. He is enraged because he feels that the murder of a boat is less than of a man since a boat has no way of protecting itself. But the truth is that Kino realizes they have shattered his heritage, his inheritance from father to son -- they have shattered his past, present, and future. Indeed, they have also shattered part of himself.

So reverent is Kino of something so personal as a canoe, that he does not even think of taking one of his neighbors' canoes. Things again might have turned out differently if they had done so.

As Kino turns from the beach to return to his hut, he suddenly realizes there is a devouring fire burning down their hut. Juana rushes to him with the baby in her arms and says the "dark ones" set fire to the place while she was still in it. [It is interesting to notice in the novel how Steinbeck, along with all the other extremes, manipulates and exploits the light with the dark. In this part of the story, everything is darkness and they can barely make out the things happening in fragments. The figures of the men marauding their place inclusive are only dark figures. There is never any identity involved. It is anyone and at the same time everyone from the town. No one is to be trusted, and all are to be feared as a source of impending destruction.]    Top

As Kino and Juana quickly move away from their flaming brush hut, they seek shelter in Juan Tom s's place, where they find Apolonia, Kino's sister-in-law. There they find refuge until evening time comes around, time for them to flee. Juan Tom s contributes to their safety by diverting the neighbors' attention with stories of Kino's flight to the south, and at the same he asks to borrow things that Kino will need: some beans; rice; and a long eighteen-inch knife. Kino tells his brother that now he must keep the pearl more than ever because it is now his misfortune -- indeed it has even become his soul. Meanwhile, the winds of the day which have made it unsafe for the boats to go out have also foreshadowed the impending danger and tragedy of the story. Additionally, the same winds will favor Kino's flight because they will erase the family's tracks, making it difficult for anyone to pursue them.

When they first set out to escape the evil of the great scorpion, the society of people they now fear, Kino hears a triumphant Song of the Pearl, again mixed with the Song of the Family. But then later when he looks at the pearl, the music suddenly becomes sinister and menacing. In the pearl he looks for his rifle and instead sees the dead body of the man he killed; and instead of a church wedding he sees Juana, beaten and dragging herself home; and instead of an education for Coyotito, he now sees the baby's feverish face. Yes, the song has become threatening now.

Then, as he sleeps in the thin shade of the brush, for the weather here is hot and dry, Kino suddenly awakens as if fighting with someone. Juana says it was only a dream. But Kino's awakened primitive instincts, like those of a hunted animal, lead him to see in the distance the figures of the three men following him. One of them, the rich controller of pearls, is on horseback, while the other two are bent to the ground searching for traces of Kino and his family. It is interesting to note how Kino's wilder instincts have resurged and now come into play -- thus also making him more equal with his pursuers. In the town he was totally underneath, so to speak; but here, in the wild of the desert and in flight from his pursuers, Kino has been raised to a certain equality by the awakening of his instincts and more savage heritage. The trackers are expert in finding their prey, he realizes. These are the trackers from inland where there is little to eat, unless they learn to track down their prey. But now, he and his family are the prey. The music of evil grows stronger still as the trackers approach. It becomes secretive and poisonous as his pounding heart gives it rhythm.

The trackers come up to the very bush where Kino is hiding, but then they continue moving ahead on the road Kino has been using to move north. Now Kino is in a panic and decides to move away from the road and into the mountains. But his fear makes him consider giving up, to which Juana reacts with objective reality, telling him the men would kill him in any event. Sure that the trackers will eventually find their tracks, Kino does not even bother now to try to erase them. They must get to safety first, and head for the mountains. The music of evil sang loud in Kino's head now.

On their way, Kino proposes he go on by himself and Juana and the baby hide, but Juana refuses to leave him since they must stay together. Juana's courage motivates Kino again and gives him new strength. He intelligently zigzags and leads an irregular path, so as to confuse the trackers and make them lose time.

By the time the sun is going down, they come to a pool where water falls from the mountain top. They stop to cool down and quench their thirst. Then Kino spots the two experts far into the distance and realizes they will be there by nightfall. After examining the terrain, Kino finds a series of small erosion caves only thirty feet above. They were very shallow, but he found one they could use. The trick now was to remain ever so quiet when the trackers got there. The baby had to remain silent, too.

By sundown the three men were there by the place where Kino and his family had been. They noticed the tracks leading up to the next bank on the mountainside that Kino had purposely left, and decided to camp here below. At night Kino decided that the best thing to do was to get the man with the rifle first, and then he could deal with the other two. The night was dark and the moon had not come out yet. As Kino crawls slowly downward, and as he prepares to attack, the music of the enemy almost disappears, and in its place, the Song of the Family becomes fierce and sharp "driving him down on the dark enemy" courageously.

The hand of fate comes into plain view now. As Kino is close to the watcher and ready to spring into feline action, there is suddenly a cry from above, exactly from where Coyotito and Juana are hiding. The man with the rifle turns and one of the others says it could be a mother coyote with her pup. An amazing symbol used by the author here. The man aims to shoot towards the cave as Kino jumps into action. Kino kills the man with the long blade in his feline hands, but not before the man is able to fire the rifle. Then he deliberately strikes the head of the second man with the rifle itself and then deliberately aims at and deliberately shoots the third man. He finishes him off by deliberately shooting him between the eyes. [It is interesting how Steinbeck here contrasts the first killing with these. The first was unintentional and in self-defense, but now it is entirely deliberate and purposeful.]     Top

The conclusion to the story is interesting in many regards. The novel had opened up with the beginning of a new day. Now, Juana and Kino come back to the town when the sun is about to set. Juana no longer follows Kino as was their usual habit and custom. Now, Juana and Kino walk side by side. There is change in both of them -- this can clearly be seen. They are now partners in life -- partners in death. Coyotito is dead, as his little body is limp in Juana's shawl and on her back. They are now united in death by the very death of Coyotito, who had been killed by the bullet that was aimed at an unseen coyote in the darkness of the night. Kino and Juana both walk into the town withdrawn from reality and from living experience, for they have suffered the greatest loss any man or woman could possibly experience. The fatigue and the emptiness on their faces seems almost magical to the townspeople. In Kino's ears the Song of the Family was as fierce as a cry. It had now become his battle cry. His and Juana's world had been totally destroyed now. The union that once was, with Coyotito, is no longer. The world had become totally blurred to them. They saw nothing. No town, no people, not a single thing. There was only one mission left in their wearied minds. They were headed for the place where it all began. They were headed for the beach of that great ocean.

Once they had reached the water's edge, Kino took out the pearl and looked on its surface once again. But this time it was no longer beautiful. It was "gray and ulcerous ... like a malignant growth." And in it he saw the light of burning fire; the terrified eyes of the man at the pool; Coyotito lying in the cave with the top of his head shot away. The music and the song which it emitted was now "distorted and insane." Kino took it and flung it with all his might into the distance of the ocean under the setting sun.

[Note: It is interesting to notice that in the end Kino finally has a rifle, which he lays on the sand of the beach. But he has it in cruel exchange of what is most loved.]



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January 23, 2000.

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