by John Steinbeck
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The World Is Its Oyster
Remember how The Pearl is a parable? Well, think of the novel as a giant Parable Oyster holding within it a beautiful Symbolic Pearl. What's the Symbolic Pearl, you ask? Guys. The Symbolic Pearl is the symbolic pearl.
Oh yeah. Is this pearl ever symbolic. It sings. It houses dreams and demons alike. It's the apex of Kino’s dreams and desires... and the next minute it’s a harbinger of bad, wicked things. Juana calls it "evil," "a sin" that "will destroy" them:
Now the tension which had been growing in Juana boiled up to the surface and her lips were thin. "This thing is evil," she cried harshly. "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us," and her voice rose shrilly. "Throw it away, Kino. Let us break it between stones. Let us bury it and forget the place. Let us throw it back into the sea. It has brought evil. Kino, my husband, it will destroy us." And in the firelight her lips and her eyes were alive with her fear. (3.75)
But to reduce this crazy, beautiful symbol down to the statement pearl = evil would be to miss the bigger picture. If the pearl itself is the problem, we can’t really critique the motives and behavior of the characters in the novella. We walk away from the parable with the lesson that… um… really big pearls are evil?
Not so much.
Mirror, Mirror, On The Ocean Floor...
Did you notice how the pearl has a strangely reflective quality? Regardless of whether or not this is realistic, it certainly has something to do with the pearl as a symbol. And it helps us see that the pearl itself isn’t the source of evil.
Men look at the pearl and see what they want to see: Kino sees a wedding, education for his son, a rifle. The doctor sees himself moving back to Paris and eating in fancy restaurants. The priest sees additions for his church. The point is that people make the pearl into what they want it to be:
It follows then that if the pearl is evil, it is because people have made it evil. They have corrupted with greed what should have been a beautiful, elegant means for a better future:
He looked into his pearl to find his vision. "When we sell it at last, I will have a rifle," he said, and he looked into the shining surface for his rifle, but he saw only a huddled dark body on the ground with shining blood dripping from its throat. And he said quickly, "We will be married in a great church." And in the pearl he saw Juana with her beaten face crawling home through the night. "Our son must learn to read," he said frantically. And there in the pearl Coyotito's face, thick and feverish from the medicine.
And Kino thrust the pearl back into his clothing, and the music of the pearl had become sinister in his ears, and it was interwoven with the music of evil. (6.16 – 6.17)
In other words: pearls don’t kill people, people kill people.
Of course, the tragedy of The Pearl is that no one realizes this. Even the wisest, most pensive characters—Juan Tomás and Juana, the two "guides" for Kino—mistake the evils of people as the flaws of the pearl. If you look at it this way, the novel’s ending is doubly dismal: Kino has lost everything and yet learned nothing from it. He somehow thinks that by chucking the pearl to the bottom of the ocean, the problems of man will disappear. As readers of the parable, we must not make the same mistake as Kino.