The Pearl

by: John Steinbeck

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Nature Imagery

Kino’s physical and spiritual existence is intimately connected with the natural world. He lives in a brush house, and he makes his living as a pearl diver. Not surprisingly, nature imagery is an important element of the novella. Kino observes the world of his garden in the opening scene of Chapter 1 and the world of the ocean in Chapter 2. Kino and Juana’s final journey up the mountain takes place on a dark night full of animal noises and cries.

Steinbeck depicts the natural world as a realm that mirrors or parallels the human world. Overall, the work’s nature imagery reflects both the natural world’s idyllic innocence—the innocence Kino possesses at the beginning of the novella—and the natural world’s darker qualities of struggle and flight—the struggle and flight Kino experiences at the novella’s end. The Pearl’s descriptions of the sea, for instance, subtly emphasize the fact that life in the sea is a struggle for survival from which only the strongest emerge alive—a struggle that mirrors the conflict between Kino and the native people against their colonial rulers. Kino’s two interactions with ants—the first in Chapter 1, the second in Chapter 6—create a parallel between Kino’s relationship to nature and the gods’ relationship to Kino (he towers over the ants in the same way that the gods tower over him).

Kino’s Songs

Throughout the novel, whenever Kino has a particularly powerful feeling or instinct, he hears a song in his head that corresponds to that feeling. When he is happy with his family in Chapter 1, for instance, he hears the Song of the Family. When he senses malice or dishonesty, he hears the Song of Evil. These songs point to the oral nature of Kino’s cultural tradition. The ancient, familiar songs, presumably handed down from generation to generation, occupy such a central place in how Kino’s people perceive themselves that the songs actually give form to their inner feelings. Kino is much less likely to become aware of the sensation of wariness than he is to hear the Song of Danger in his head. Similarly, he is much less likely to take action because of his own conscious judgment than because he associates the song with a certain kind of urgent behavior in relation to the outside world. The songs also point to Steinbeck’s original conception of The Pearl as a film project; in a motion picture, the songs could be played out loud for the audience to hear and thus function as recurring motifs and melodies that would underscore the story’s themes.