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The story is a cautionary tale about a fisherman, Kino, who lives a peaceful, rustic life with his wife, Juana, and baby son, Coyotito, on the outskirts of a Mexican town called La Paz—until one dark day, a stray scorpion stings little Coyotito and the family discover the flaws in the healthcare system (that's right, back in 1927). To try to scrounge up the dollars for the doctor, Kino takes to the sea to find a pearl, and—lucky day!—find one he does. But it is really so lucky? While Kino is dazzled by the pearl and its promise, it ends up bringing nothing but pain, misery, and, above all, greed.
The Pearl focuses on some key cultural studies topics: Kino's people are culturally coded as "other" and inferior within the novel's colonial setting, which Steinbeck critiques by depicting the exploitation of Kino and his family by the Scrooges who will stop at nothing to grab Kino's shiny pearl. Clearly, capitalism comes in for some major flak, with Steinbeck showing La Paz to operate through materialism, avarice, and class-based division (yup, the Frankfurters would be pissed). Like the pearl, then, La Paz is symbolic of a much wider system, the injustices of which Kino learns the hard way as his life starts to spiral out of control. Becoming a victim of not only the envy and brutality of others but his own aggressive impulses, Kino realizes that the pearl is more trouble than it's worth. All that for the soft tissue of a mollusk? By the end of the novel (duh—spoiler alert!) it's clear what he must do: