The Pearl

by: John Steinbeck

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Pearl

Because The Pearl is a parable, the meaning of the pearl itself—the novella’s central symbol—is never explicitly defined. Nevertheless, though the nature of the pearl’s symbolism is left to each reader’s interpretation, this symbolism seems to shift over the course of the work. At first, the pearl represents a stroke of divine providence. Kino’s people have a prophecy about a great “Pearl That Might Be,” a perfect pearl that exists as a perfect possibility. Kino and Juana’s discovery of the pearl seems to fulfill this prophecy, and it fills them with hope for Coyotito’s future and for the possibility of a life free from the shackles of colonial oppression. The discovery of the pearl seems a happy accident, one that counterbalances the tragic accident of Coyotito’s scorpion sting.

Once the town finds out about the pearl, however, the object begins to make everyone who beholds it, including Kino, greedy. The neighbors call it “the Pearl of the World,” and while that title originally seems to refer to the pearl’s great size and beauty, it also underscores the fact that having the pearl brings the outside world’s destructive influence into Kino’s simple life. As the dealers begin lowballing him, Kino ceases to view the pearl with optimistic delight and instead focuses on its sale with determined ambition. The pearl’s association with good fortune and hope weakens, and the pearl becomes associated more strongly with human plans and desires. Juana and Juan Tomás begin to view the pearl as a threat rather than a blessing.

The pearl elicits more and more greed on Kino’s part, as he begins to devote all his energies and possessions to protecting it (recalling the biblical parable of the pearl of great price). It thus comes to symbolize the destructive nature of materialism. The implication is that Kino’s acquisition of material wealth isn’t enough to save him from the colonists’ oppression, even though such wealth is the foundation of the colonists’ capitalist system. In fact, Kino’s shift in focus from his spiritual well-being to his material status seems to represent the colonists’ ultimate triumph.

The way the pearl is depicted through the course of the novella mirrors the changes that Kino himself undergoes. At first, the pearl is a simple and beautiful object of nature. Once it becomes entangled with notions of material value, however, it becomes destructive and dangerous. The pearl is an object of natural beauty and goodness that draws out the evil inherent in mankind.

The Scorpion

The scorpion that stings Coyotito in Chapter 1 symbolizes a seemingly arbitrary evil that, because it has nothing to do with human agency, must come from the gods. Biblically, the scorpion generally represents the destruction of innocence, and the fact that Coyotito is a baby compounds the Christian symbolism of the event. Coyotito is touched by evil, and this natural destruction of innocence repeats itself in the novella in the destruction of Kino’s innocence by his ambition and greed and in the destruction of the natives’ traditional, natural way of life by the colonists.

Kino’s Canoe

A means of making a living—both pearls and food—that has been passed down for generations, the canoe that Kino uses represents his link to cultural tradition. This culture is deeply spiritual, so it is significant that Kino uses the canoe to find the pearl, which is provided by a divine power that has nothing to do with human agency. It is also significant that Kino’s possession of the pearl leads directly to the canoe’s destruction, in Chapter 5, an event that symbolizes Kino’s devastating decision to break with his cultural heritage because he wishes to pursue material gain.