Word spreads throughout the town of La Paz that Kino will be selling his great pearl. The pearl buyers are especially excited, and the pearl fishers abandon their work for the day to witness the transaction. Over breakfast that morning, the brush-house neighborhood teems with speculation and opinion. Kino, Juana, and Coyotito wear their best clothes for the occasion, and Kino dons his hat with care, anxious to appear a serious, vigorous man of the world.
As Kino and Juana set out from their brush house, the neighbors fall in line behind them. Juan Tomás walks at the front with Kino and expresses his concern that Kino may be cheated, as Kino has no standard of true comparison to know what his pearl is worth. Kino acknowledges this problem but adds that they have no way of solving it. Juan Tomás tells Kino that another system of pearl-selling used to exist before Kino was born. Pearlers would give their pearls to agents for sale in the capital, but as a result of the rampant corruption of pearl agents who stole the pearls meant for sale, the old system is no longer in place. Kino points out that according to the church, such a system must fail, as it represents a vain effort on the part of the pearlers to exceed their station in life.
Kino and Juan Tomás walk on in silence into the city, drawing stares from assembled onlookers. As Kino, Juan Tomás, and the attending crowd approach, the pearl dealers scramble to put their offices in order, hiding their little pearls and preparing to make offers. The first dealer is a short, slick man who nervously rolls a coin back and forth in his hand. He explains after a careful examination that the pearl is worthless because of its abnormally large size. Declaring it more of a museum curiosity than a market commodity, the dealer makes an offhand bid of one thousand pesos.
Kino reacts angrily to this lowball offer and insists that the pearl is worth fifty times that much. The dealer firmly asserts that his is an accurate appraisal and invites Kino to seek out a second opinion. Kino’s neighbors stir uneasily, wondering how Kino can reject such a large sum of money and wondering whether he is being foolish and headstrong by demanding more. Presently, three new dealers arrive to examine the pearl, and the initial dealer invites them to make independent appraisals.
The first two dealers reject the pearl as a mere oddity, and the third dealer makes a feeble offer of five hundred pesos. Upon hearing this news, Kino quickly removes the pearl from consideration. As he does so, the initial dealer, unfazed by the lower bid, insists that his offer of one thousand pesos still stands. Protesting that he has been cheated, Kino announces a plan to sell his pearl in the capital city. His outburst raises the bid to fifteen hundred pesos, but Kino will have none of it. He fiercely pushes his way out of the crowd and starts the long walk home as Juana trails after him.
At supper, Kino’s neighbors debate the day’s events. Some suggest that the dealers’ appraisals were fair, while others think that Kino is the victim of a scam. Some think he should have settled for the final offer of fifteen hundred pesos; others praise Kino’s bravery for insisting on his own terms.
Meanwhile, in his brush house, Kino has buried the pearl under his sleeping mat. He sits brooding, nervous about his upcoming journey to the faraway capital. Juana watches him while she nurses Coyotito and prepares supper. Juan Tomás then enters to try to warn Kino of the dangers involved in going to the capital, but Kino is adamant about selling his pearl to secure a better future for his son. Unable to convince Kino to heed his warning, Juan Tomás returns home.
That night Kino goes without supper. He sits awake to protect the pearl and continues to pore over the details of his problem. Juana keeps her own silent vigil, intending to support Kino with her company. Suddenly, Kino senses an evil presence. He rises, feeling for the knife under his shirt, and moves toward the doorway as Juana stifles a desire to restrain him. From the darkness, a man assaults Kino, and a struggle ensues. By the time Juana reaches the fray, the attacker has fled. Bloodied and cut and with his clothes torn, Kino lies sprawled on the ground, only half conscious.
Without delay, Juana helps Kino inside to care for his wounds. Kino admits that in the dark he was unable to tell who attacked him. After Juana washes out his last cut, she begs him in desperation to discard the evil pearl. But, more fiercely than ever, Kino insists that they must capitalize on their good fortune. He explains that in the morning they will set out in the canoe for the capital. Juana dutifully submits to her husband’s plan, and they both go to sleep.
Like Chapter 3, Chapter 4 opens with a comment by the narrator about the town—“It is wonderful the way a little town keeps track of itself and of all its units.” Steinbeck goes on to portray the town as an all-powerful unit, full of men who work together to suppress the deviant elements in their midst. Steinbeck emphasizes that society shapes an individual’s fate as much as divinity or any other force. In the universe of The Pearl, the gods assert their influence on humans through chance and accident, but society asserts an equal influence through forces—such as greed and violence—that emanate from human drives. Both human will and the gods shape Kino’s fate in Steinbeck’s parable: an accident enables Kino to find the pearl, and greed and ambition lead to his downfall.
The narrator says that peace can be achieved in the town only if no one deviates from normal, expected behavior, implying that towns are almost like miniature authoritarian states. It is ironic that Steinbeck names the town in The Pearl La Paz, which means “peace” in Spanish. The town’s capitalist cartel wages constant war with all challengers, and by possessing a great pearl, Kino makes himself a target for the racket of pearl buyers that has evolved over time. Behind the scenes, one man determines how much the buyers should offer for each pearl, thereby profiting shamelessly while remaining out of the reach of accusation. An individual selling a pearl therefore has no alternative but to comply with this system or, despite the difficulty of doing so, try to circumvent it.
Kino’s comment to Juan Tomás that the old system of pearl selling was “against religion” highlights the way the Catholic church preserved existing social hierarchies and gross disparities in wealth by cautioning its followers about the relative unimportance and even danger of the material world. The narrator adds that the natives of Mexico have endured this position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, including its absolute and total exploitation of both financial and moral terms, for the four hundred years since the first Europeans arrived.
The thieflike pearl dealers Kino encounters lack names, character complexity, and emotion—they seem to lack humanity. A profit margin dictates their entire existence, and their livelihoods depend upon underhanded deals, as symbolized by the fact that the first dealer spends all his time secretly practicing a coin trick beneath his desk. When one neighbor asks if the dealers conspired in advance regarding the price of the pearl, another neighbor responds, “If that is so, then all of us have been cheated all of our lives.” It is almost as though such a possibility is too horrible to for the natives to face. Instead, everyone chooses to ignore the legitimacy of the suggestion, and most of the villagers ridicule Kino’s defiance of the dealers.
While we sympathize with Kino’s desire to break free from oppression (as Juan Tomás realizes, Kino’s ambition pits him against an entire established structure of business, church, and empire), Kino’s treatment of Juana lessens our sympathy for him somewhat. Juana finds herself subjected to Kino’s whims just as he is subjected to the colonists’ whims. She has no role in the business process, and Kino never consults her about the proper course of action with regard to the pearl. When Juana finally volunteers her intuition that the pearl is evil and will ruin them, Kino refuses to listen, assuring her with the simple declaration “I am a man.” Juana has no recourse. Kino’s refusal to acknowledge his wife’s better judgment parallels the colonial suppression of the native’s intuitive knowledge of “things of the spirit.”