“If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.”
A parable is a simple story that relays a moral lesson. Frequently, parables are also allegories, stories in which characters, objects, and events hold fixed symbolic meaning. Steinbeck’s focus on the symbolic role the pearl plays in Kino’s life is constant, as is his focus on the symbolic importance of Kino himself. In general, Steinbeck’s overly simplistic portrayal of events is not realistic, or even believable, and it indicates The Pearl’s place as a parable or fable.
Kino is an impoverished native fisherman, but more important is his allegorical role as a man faced with the temptation of wealth beyond his wildest dreams. Because the novella is concerned with Kino’s moral obligation and not his civic obligation, it concludes with Kino’s casting the pearl back into the sea, a renunciation of material wealth that indicates he has learned a moral lesson. It is important that the novella does not conclude with Kino’s arrest or continuing flight from justice, as a realistic novel concerned with civic punishment for ethical transgression might.
Despite the apparent gulf between realism and parable, The Pearl attempts to show how the two are linked through the process of storytelling. Steinbeck suggests that a culture’s collective memory eventually fictionalizes all realistic experience into parable form. “As with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts,” he writes in the novella’s epigraph, “there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.” Storytelling gradually transforms real occurrences into simplified parables designed to teach a specific lesson. While everyday life may lack a clear lesson or meaning, the human mind is always in the process of ordering and classifying events in order to make sense of experience. It is a human tendency, and therefore a literary tendency, to classify and simplify experience, to turn reality into parable.
As codified systems of morals that attempt to distinguish good from evil, religions depend heavily on parables. According to the New Testament, Jesus himself insisted on teaching to his disciples in parable form—in fact, the Christian parable of the pearl of great price, which tells the story of a man who gives up everything he has to win a great pearl, likely helped to inspire The Pearl. Steinbeck realizes that the parable form is a central element in world religion and in the cultural history of humankind. As The Pearl illustrates, the imagined is just as vital to humankind’s understanding of life as the real, and, in the form of the parable, the two are inextricably linked.
Although readers may draw a number of messages from The Pearl, a few primary moral lessons do emerge. Some ways of interpreting the allegory of the story include:
If the pearl symbolizes goodness, Kino’s struggle to protect the cherished pearl might represent the human struggle to preserve cherished qualities or attributes—moral virtue, innocence, integrity, the soul—from the destructive forces of the outside world. Just as these destructive forces corrupt and conspire to seize Kino’s pearl, they can work against the virtuous inner qualities that the pearl might represent. According to this reading, Coyotito’s death and Kino’s voluntary relinquishment of the pearl at the end of the novel suggest that the destructive forces of the world are too powerful to be overcome.
In a way, Kino’s desire to use the pearl to improve his life echoes the traditional narrative of the American dream. He attempts to transform hard work into material wealth, and material wealth into education, comfort, and familial advancement. According to this reading, Kino’s gradual corruption and the story’s tragic conclusion hint at a fundamental flaw in the American dream: it condones sacrifice of virtue for material gain. Additionally, Kino’s gradual disillusionment with the pearl (as he realizes that it won’t make his life better) underscores the fallacy of the American dream itself. Rather than widespread opportunity, Kino finds a world of powerful, greedy men conniving to take his wealth away from him dishonestly.
Because Kino belongs to a native tribe that, centuries after the original Spanish colonization of Mexico, is still under the thumb of the Spanish colonial authorities, the story can be read as a parable about the forces of colonization and the destructive effect those forces have on native cultures and peoples. Kino is originally driven to search for the pearl because of the unhelpfulness of the condescending Spanish doctor; after he finds the pearl, he is cheated and hunted by cynical descendants of colonials who hope to exploit and control him.
This moral, preached by St. Augustine and many others after him, is found in the New Testament in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:10). Kino’s investment of spiritual value in a pearl, an object of material wealth, may be misguided from the start. Juana and Juan Tomás both suspect that Kino is wrong to try to get more for the pearl than the dealers offer, and Juana tries several times to discard the pearl, believing it to be the source of her family’s troubles. This reading interprets the pearl as a symbol of destruction and corruption rather than purity.