Full title   The Pearl

Author  John Steinbeck

Type of work  Novella

Genre  Parable, allegory

Language  English

Time and place written   1944–1945, California

Date of first publication   1945 (in serial form, where it was entitled “The Pearl of the World”), 1947 (in book form)

Publisher  The Viking Press

Narrator  The anonymous narrator writes as if telling an old story he or she knows very well. The narrator frequently alludes to the story’s ending and freely describes the inner thoughts and feelings of various characters. Rather than tell the story in his own voice, Steinbeck chooses to narrate in a stylized voice recalling that of a storyteller from a society like Kino’s, in which stories are handed down from generation to generation, eventually losing their specificities and becoming moral parables, as Steinbeck insinuates in the opening epigraph, by virtue of sheer repetition.

Point of view  The narrator uses third-person, omniscient narration, meaning he or she not only tells us what various characters think and feel but also provides analysis and commentary on the story. The narrator shifts perspective frequently, focusing most often on Kino but occasionally focusing on other characters such as Juana and the doctor.

Tone  The narrator tells Kino’s story to teach a moral lesson, and so treats Kino above all as a cautionary figure. At the same time, however, the narrator seems to see Kino as a sort of tragic hero, and is moved by the human weakness Kino’s actions reveal. The narrator often shows a certain respect for Kino’s striving to realize his ambitions—even while recognizing the mistakes Kino makes and mourning his ultimate moral downfall.

Tense  Past

Setting (time)  Unclear, possibly late nineteenth or early twentieth century

Setting (place)  A Mexican coastal village called La Paz, probably on the Baja Peninsula

Protagonist  Kino

Major conflict  After finding a magnificent pearl, Kino seeks to sell it to acquire wealth. He wishes for his son’s wound to heal, and for his son to obtain an education and become an equal to the European colonists who keep his people in a state of ignorance and poverty. When he tries to sell the pearl, however, Kino quickly meets resistance in the form of other people’s greed. Ultimately, his struggle to acquire wealth places him at odds with his family, his culture, and nature, as Kino himself succumbs to greed and violence.

Rising action  A scorpion stings Coyotito; Kino discovers a great pearl; Kino’s attempts to sell the pearl are unsuccessful, and he is mysteriously attacked; Kino beats Juana for attempting to discard the pearl.

Climax  Kino kills a man who attacks him for his pearl, an event that exposes the tension surrounding this object as a bringer of great evil as well as a chance for salvation.

Falling action  Kino and Juana flee the village and find themselves chased by trackers; Kino fights with the trackers, not knowing that they have taken Coyotito’s cry to be that of a coyote and shot him; Kino and Juana return to the village and throw the pearl back into the sea.

Themes  Greed as a destructive force; the roles of fate and agency in shaping human life; colonial society’s oppression of native cultures

Motifs  Nature imagery, Kino’s songs

Symbols  The pearl, the scorpion, Kino’s canoe

Foreshadowing  Coyotito’s name; the discussion of “The Pearl That Might Be”; Juana’s prayer for Kino to find a great pearl; Juana and Juan Tomás’s warnings to Kino that the pearl is dangerous