The Pearl

by: John Steinbeck

Chapter 3

Summary Chapter 3

The neighbors learn quickly of the doctor’s visit and Coyotito’s subsequent decline, and they reconvene at Kino’s house to provide support. The doctor reappears, and a swiftly administered potion sets Coyotito to rest. The doctor innocuously asks when Kino might be able to pay him. Kino explains that once he has sold his most valuable pearl he will be able to pay.

Feigning ignorance about the pearl, the doctor offers to keep it in his safe, but Kino declines the offer, explaining that he intends to sell the pearl in the morning. The doctor expresses concern that the pearl might be stolen, and Kino inadvertently glances with fear at the corner where the pearl is buried. Later, when the doctor and neighbors depart and it is time to sleep, Kino paces about the house anxiously, listening vigilantly for threatening noises. In a fit of precaution, he digs up the pearl and reburies it beneath his sleeping mat. Finally, Kino, Juana, and Coyotito curl up together on the mat and attempt to sleep peacefully.

At first, Kino dreams of Coyotito’s future success, but the evil feeling returns and quickly overtakes him. He stirs restlessly, waking Juana. He wakes and hears an intruder in the house, cowering and scratching in the corner, clearly in search of the pearl. Grabbing his knife, Kino leaps into the corner and struggles with the intruder, stabbing at him wildly. After a violent scuffle, the intruder flees, leaving Kino bloodied as Juana calls out to him in terror. Regaining her senses, she swiftly prepares a salve for Kino’s bruised forehead.

As she tends Kino’s wounds, Juana rails against the pearl, calling it an evil plague upon them. Kino remains adamant about the pearl’s virtue, insisting that it will be their road to salvation. Juana disagrees, declaring that it will destroy their entire family. As Kino hushes her, he notices a spot of blood on his knife, which he removes. With dawn approaching, he settles down to look at his pearl. In its luminescence, Kino sees his family’s chance for the future, and smiles. Juana smiles with him, and they meet the day with hope.

Analysis

Though The Pearl’s narrative seems to suggest that greed is the first step to destruction, in this chapter Steinbeck focuses not on greed but on ambition—Kino’s desire to use the wealth offered by the pearl to better his life and the life of his family. Steinbeck portrays this kind of benevolent desire for advancement as a trait unique to humanity, one that has made humankind superior to all animals. Kino’s neighbors have trouble figuring whether Kino’s ambition will bring him success or suffering. They too are intoxicated by the awe-inspiring prospect of Kino owning a rifle or Coyotito receiving an education, but these propositions are so far removed from their sense of what is possible that they react to them with a natural suspicion. The neighbors are only able to think about the pearl in terms of their preexisting narratives. Because they have an ancient legend about a great “Pearl That Might Be,” they believe that that legend has come to fruition in Kino’s pearl, which they dub the “Pearl of the World.” They do not conceive of the pearl as simply a valuable lucky break for Kino; for them, the pearl has deep moral and spiritual significance. By relating the stories the neighbors trade, Steinbeck shows how the human mind turns real experience into parable through the act of storytelling.

For us, the neighbors’ suspicion of Kino’s good fortune seems justified, based on Steinbeck’s tentative tone and on his remarks that the gods disregard men’s plans and only allow men success if it comes by accident. Steinbeck asserts that when human agency actually does bring about success (through the exercise of a benevolent ambition like Kino’s, for example), “the gods take their revenge on a man.” In this way, Steinbeck completely negates the value system of the American dream. Hard work and openness to opportunity, the main components of the traditional American dream, are meaningless in a malevolent universe in which “the gods” conspire against every individual’s desire to improve his or her lot in life.