Study Guide

The Pearl Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By John Steinbeck

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Pearl

The pearl is a BIG deal. At first 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. Kino’s brother Juan thinks "the devil" is in it.

But to agree with the assessment that the pearl is 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. 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. 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.

The Scorpion

The Pearl begins with a defenseless baby getting stung irrationally by a poisonous scorpion. Symbolic? Let’s start with "defenseless baby." This arbitrary act of destruction ends up mirroring Kino’s tragic tale, which means Kino is on par with the innocent babe. The colonizing Europeans have intentionally kept Kino and the other natives in ignorance. Chapter Three even tells us that the doctor considers them children and treats them that way. If Kino is helpless to struggle against the injustice done to him, it is in part because of this ignorance: he doesn’t know how much the pearl should be worth, he doesn’t know that the doctor scammed him, that the priest is just as self-serving. He may have inclinations, but he’s still taking shots in the dark. In the same way, Coyotito is at the mercy of the scorpion.

Moving on from "defenseless baby." Next up, "stung irrationally." That Coyotito is poisoned is arbitrary. It is senseless, and it reflects a complete lack of divine justice in the universe. The gods are clearly not looking out anyone (just as Kino notes "the detachment of God" while watching an ant get buried alive in the sand). In this way, the finding of the pearl is equally arbitrary, as is Coyotito’s eventual death.

Next in our symbolic trio is "a poisonous scorpion." The whole scorpion bit comes not-so-subtly back up in the following passage from Chapter Three: "The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld. The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it."

Well, take a look at that. Steinbeck doesn’t leave much to the imagination – the townspeople threaten Kino the same way the scorpion threatened his baby. Additionally, it seems like all the men –including Kino – quickly degenerate into animals, reduced by their greed and jealousy to their most base, primitive forms.