“In the town they tell the story of the great pearl—how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind. And, as with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.
“If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it. In any case, they say in the town that. . . .”
This quotation is Steinbeck’s epigraph to The Pearl. In introducing his novella as a legend (he first heard the legend of the Pearl of the World in a Mexican village), Steinbeck sets the tone for the story. He also establishes the parable’s moral universe, in which there “are only good and bad things . . . and no in-between.” Most important, the measured formal language of the epigraph evokes biblical verse and therefore suggests that The Pearl is a parable before Steinbeck himself even alludes to this possibility. Because the epigraph leads directly into Chapter 1 (the first sentence in Chapter 1 effectively concludes the unfinished final sentence of the epigraph), it also creates the sense that we have been taken directly to the source of the legend. The quotes that surround the epigraph give us the sense that someone is telling us a story and that the novella that follows is the storyteller’s tale.
The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies and the little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him.
He watched the ants moving, a little column of them near to his foot, and he put his foot in their path. Then the column climbed over his instep and continued on its way, and Kino left his foot there and watched them move over it.
These two quotations are from Chapter 1 and Chapter 6, respectively. Kino’s two encounters with ants are not important to the novel’s plot, but they reveal a great deal about Kino’s position and attitude at two key moments in the novel and thus form an important contrast with one another. The quotation from Chapter 1 occurs during the idyllic opening description of Kino and Juana’s life. Kino’s detached attitude toward nature suggests that he is a part of nature but also above it, like God. The description of the ant caught in the sand trap is a subtle instance of foreshadowing, as it mirrors Kino’s eventual experience as a helpless prisoner of his own ambition.
The quotation from Chapter 6 describes Kino after the pearl has corrupted him. He is no longer detached from nature, and therefore he is no longer like God. Yet, as he becomes more animal-like, he aspires to be more like God by trying to affect the ants’ behavior when he places his foot in their path. He does not succeed in changing nature, however; rather, nature simply renders him insignificant, as the ants methodically ignore him and climb over his shoe. As Kino’s greed brings him from his initial human dignity to a plane closer to that of animals, he loses something essential to his humanity, as well as the easy, simple relationship with nature he enjoys early in the novella.
But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both.
This short quotation is from Chapter 2, when Kino prepares to make the dive on which he finds the Pearl of the World. The narrator contends that certain occurrences that shape human life are accidents willed by a divine power, events over which human beings have no control. It becomes clear that the discovery of pearls is a function of such seemingly arbitrary divine fate. Kino’s eventual downfall can thus be seen as not entirely his own fault. The quotation also subtly alludes to the mixed cultural background of the natives in The Pearl: they come from a culture in which people believe in more than one god but have been governed for centuries by Catholic Spaniards who have built churches in which only a single God is worshipped. As a result, the natives are spiritually somewhat ambivalent, unsure as to whether the higher power in which they believe consists of “God” or “the gods.”
In the pearl he saw Coyotito sitting at a little desk in a school, just as Kino had once seen it through an open door. And Coyotito was dressed in a jacket, and he had on a white collar and a broad silken tie. Moreover, Coyotito was writing on a big piece of paper. Kino looked at his neighbors fiercely. “My son will go to school,” he said, and the neighbors were hushed. . . .
Kino’s face shone with prophecy. “My son will read and open the books, and my son will write and will know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know—he will know and through him we will know. . . . This is what the pearl will do.”
This passage from Chapter 3 describes the moment of Kino’s pivotal decision to direct all his energies toward using the pearl to obtain an education for Coyotito. Kino’s ambition constitutes an attempt to shake the foundations of his society by placing his son on a level with the natives’ European oppressors. The vehemence with which Kino reacts to his vision, as well as the hushed silence with which the neighbors hear it, is a testament to the improbable nature of Kino’s plan not only to improve his son’s lot but to break “free” of a centuries-long cycle of oppression. From this moment forward, Kino remains obsessed with his goal, which he can achieve only by making a great deal of money from his pearl. The image of Coyotito as an equal to the colonists transfixes Kino throughout the novella.
And the evils of the night were about them. The coyotes cried and laughed in the brush, and the owls screeched and hissed over their heads. And once some large animal lumbered away, crackling the undergrowth as it went. And Kino gripped the handle of the big working knife and took a sense of protection from it.
This quotation from Chapter 6 demonstrates how Kino’s relationship with nature has changed, symbolizing his personal and moral downfall. In general, Steinbeck portrays the natural world positively in The Pearl, using beautiful language and images of sun-drenched scenery. This scene reverses that trend, as Steinbeck illustrates the dark and frightening aspect of nature. We sense that the universe itself opposes Kino’s course of action. Kino himself reveals an adversarial relationship with nature by his defensive gripping of his knife handle to reassure himself. Where Kino earlier lived in harmony with nature, his ambition has made him nature’s enemy.