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.
On the shores of the estuary, a set of blue and white canoes sits in the sand. Crabs and lobsters poke out from their holes, and algae and sea horses drift aimlessly in the nearby currents. Dogs and pigs scavenge the shoreline for sea drift in the hazy morning. Amid this scene, Kino and Juana walk down the beach to Kino’s canoe. They are going to search for pearls, desperately hoping to find a pearl of sufficient value to persuade the doctor to treat the poisoned Coyotito.
The canoe, an heirloom passed down to Kino from his paternal grandfather, is Kino’s sole asset in the world. Kino lays his blanket in its bow. Juana rests Coyotito upon the blanket and places her shawl over him to protect him from the sun. She then wades into the water and collects some seaweed, which she applies gently to Coyotito’s wound.
Kino and Juana slide the canoe into the water, Juana climbs in, and Kino pushes the boat away from shore. Once Kino boards, the two begin paddling out to sea in search of pearls. In a short time, they come upon other canoes, which have clustered around the nearest oyster bed. Kino makes a dive to collect oysters, while Juana stays in the canoe, praying for luck. He stays under water for over two minutes, gathering the largest shells, including one especially enormous oyster that has a “ghostly gleam.”
Climbing back into the canoe, Kino is reluctant to examine the largest oyster first. After halfheartedly pawing at a smaller one, eagerness overcomes him, and Juana softly urges him to open the prize catch. Kino cuts the shell open to reveal the biggest pearl that either of them has ever seen. Nearly breathless, Juana shrieks in astonishment to find that Coyotito’s wound has improved in the presence of the great pearl. Kino, overcome with emotion, tenses his entire body and lets out a resounding yell. Startled by this unexpected display, the other canoes quickly race toward Kino and Juana to uncover the source of the commotion.
Steinbeck writes that for those natives who live by the estuary, at the edge of earth, sea, and sky, “there was . . . no proof that what you saw was there or was not there.” He emphasizes the vast, hazy nature of the surrounding landscape to depict the natives as a caste of natural visionaries. Despite their lack of scientific knowledge gained through observation, the natives of the brush houses understand the world because they trust what Steinbeck calls “things of the spirit.”
Such an unscientific approach to life contrasts starkly with the pragmatic, rationalist approach that colonial society imposes upon the gulf—the approach to life that the doctor exemplifies. It also contrasts with the materialistic approach of the American audience to whom Steinbeck addresses his work. Steinbeck renders this contrast in a subtle manner, by placing more value on Juana’s care and intuition in her treatment of Coyotito’s wound than on the training and apparent wealth of the callous doctor. Though Juana’s improvised seaweed poultice works as well or better for her stricken son than a doctor’s treatment, it lacks authority because of its unscientific simplicity. This respect for tradition and simple piety above the material and technological trappings of industrial society persists throughout the novella.
The narrator reveals the natives’ willingness to accept both old and new belief systems when he asserts that “the finding of [a pearl] was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods, or both.” Juana’s willingness to appeal to anything that works—monotheism, polytheism, superstition—exemplifies this religious ambivalence. When Juana prays as Kino dives into the sea to search for pearls, her faith in “things of the spirit” is further revealed to be incomplete. Instead of praying for Coyotito to heal magically, which seems an impossible occurrence, Juana prays for Kino to find a pearl large enough to pay for the doctor’s services, an occurrence that is only improbable. Juana’s prayer suggests a belief not in divine miracles but in luck. It also shows her acceptance of, or defeat by, the capitalist system—she wishes for a pearl that will provide the means to purchase the healing powers of a doctor. By intimating that one should ask directly for what one wants, Steinbeck portrays Juana’s indirect appeal as foolish. His intention is not to patronize the natives but rather to suggest the shortsightedness of all people.
The “ghostly gleam” of the oyster that bears the unusually large pearl suggests the pearl’s extraordinary significance and supernatural quality. Clearly, this pearl is unlike any other; it seems as though fate (and, of course, Steinbeck himself) has placed it in Kino’s hands in his most desperate hour. Steinbeck thus positions the pearl to be the focal point for the development of Kino’s character over the course of the novella.