Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
As Kino seeks to gain wealth and status through the pearl, he transforms from a happy, contented father to a savage criminal, demonstrating the way ambition and greed destroy innocence. Kino’s desire to acquire wealth perverts the pearl’s natural beauty and good luck, transforming it from a symbol of hope to a symbol of human destruction. Furthermore, Kino’s greed leads him to behave violently toward his wife; it also leads to his son’s death and ultimately to Kino’s detachment from his cultural tradition and his society. Kino’s people seem poised for a similar destruction, as the materialism inherent in colonial capitalism implants a love of profit into the simple piety of the native people.
The Pearl portrays two contrasting forces that shape human life and determine individual destiny. The novella depicts a world in which, for the most part, humans shape their own destinies. They provide for themselves, follow their own desires, and make their own plans. At the same time, forces beyond human control, such as chance, accident, and the gods, can sweep in at any moment and, for good or ill, completely change the course of an individual’s life. If fate is best represented in the novella by the open sea where pearl divers plunge beneath the waves hoping for divine blessings, human agency is best represented by the village of La Paz, where myriad human desires, plans, and motives come together to form civilization.
Kino and Juana’s lives change irreparably the moment the scorpion, a symbol of malignant fate, bites their child. Their lives then change irreparably again the moment Kino finds the pearl, a symbol of beneficent fate. Nevertheless, it is not fate but human agency, in the form of greed, ambition, and violence, that facilitates the novella’s disastrous final outcome, as Kino’s greed and the greed of others lead to a series of conflicts over the pearl. Kino finds himself caught between the forces of fate and the forces of human society, between the destiny handed him by fate and the destiny he seeks to create himself.
The doctor who refuses to save Coyotito’s life at the beginning of the novel because Kino lacks the money to pay him represents colonial arrogance and oppression. Snide and condescending, the doctor displays an appallingly limited and self-centered mind-set that is made frightening by his unshakable belief in his own cultural superiority over Kino, and by the power that he holds to save or destroy lives. Steinbeck implicitly accuses the doctor’s entire colonial society of such destructive arrogance, greed, and ambition. The European colonizers that govern Kino and the native people are shown to bring about the destruction of the native society’s innocence, piety, and purity.