Whether by prayer, quest, or contest, humans have long expressed their desire for wealth and dreams of a better life. Many are the tales about this phenomenon and, more often than not, the tales end in tragedy. This longing for something better is the theme of The Pearl.
Steinbeck was disillusioned in the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945). He realized that none of his heroes-the GI, the vagrant, or the scientific visionary-could negotiate survival in a civilization that had created the atomic bomb. Repentance, as attempted by the characters in his novel The Wayward Bus (1947), was not enough. Fittingly, he reflected his disillusionment through a legend about a man who finds the Pearl of the World and is eventually destroyed by greed.
The legend tells of an Indian pearl diver who cannot afford a doctor for his son’s scorpion sting. In this anxious state, he finds the Pearl of the World and is able to get medical help for his boy. Calculating the profit from the gem, the diver dreams of a better life-a grand wedding, clothes, guns, and an education for the boy. But his dream of leaving his socio-economic station leads to ruin. As he attempts to escape those who want to take the pearl from him, he is tracked by professional assassins, and tragedy ensues. No pearl is worth the price Kino and his wife pay, so they throw the pearl back. Their story is a warning to restless dreamers yearning for an easy or magical solution to their problems.
The Pearl opens in Kino’s home in La Paz, Mexico. The sun is beginning to lighten the day, as the “tiny movement” of a scorpion catches Kino’s and his wife Juana’s eyes. The scorpion is heading towards their son, Coyotito.
Kino slowly reaches out to grab the scorpion, while Juana whispers magic to protect Coyotito, but the scorpion strikes anyway. The swelling of Coyotito’s flesh marks the beginning of a series of events that will not only destroy the family’s home, but will take them away from their family and community.
Kino and Juana take their wounded baby to see a doctor in a “city of stone and plaster.” Since Kino and Juana are desperate to find help for their baby, they swallow their pride and appeal to the town doctor, who is a member of a race that has “beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race.”
The doctor, a fat man whose eyes rest in “puffy little hammocks of flesh,” refuses to help Coyotito, saying that he is a doctor, “not a veterinary.” Kino shows the doctor’s servant his money, but it is not enough to interest the doctor. In frustration, Kino strikes the doctor’s gate with his bare fist and splits open his knuckles.
Although Coyotito is beginning to heal, Juana and Kino are determined to find a way to secure the doctor’s help. Juana prays to find a pearl with which to hire the doctor to cure the baby. Kino is singing the “Song of the Pearl that Might Be” as he dives into the ocean in search of oysters and pearls. He finds an isolated oyster, cracks it open, and discovers what soon becomes known as the “Pearl of the World.” The family’s bad luck seems to be changing, for the swelling is also going out of Coyotito’s shoulder.
News that Kino had found the Pearl of the World travels so quickly through the city that many people are becoming jealous of Kino before he and his family have even had time to celebrate. Kino tells his brother, Juan Tomas, that now he and Juana will be married in a church, the family will have new clothes and a rifle, and that Coyotito will learn to read.
The local priest pays Kino a visit and reminds him to give thanks to Him who “has given thee this treasure.” Kino feels alone and unprotected in the world. Then the doctor arrives to “help” cure Coyotito. Both Kino and Juana are reluctant to let the doctor near their child, but the doctor claims that the poison of the scorpion goes inward and can wither a leg or blind an eye. Kino does not want to risk harm to Coyotito, so he allows the doctor to give Coyotito a white powder in a capsule of gelatin. The baby grows sicker; in a few hours the doctor returns to give Coyotito ammonia, which helps the baby’s stomach.
Kino tells the doctor he will pay him after he sells his pearl. The doctor sees Kino’s eyes look toward the pearl’s hiding place in the floor. After the doctor leaves, Kino finds a new hiding place for the pearl. He tells Juana he is afraid of “everyone” now.
After Kino stabs a night prowler, Juana begs him to return the pearl to the ocean, calling the pearl evil. Kino replies that Coyotito “must go to school. He must break out of the pot that holds us in.”
It is not easy to sell the pearl, however, as the pearl buyers all work for the same employer and have conspired to offer Kino 1,000 to 1,500 pesos for the pearl that is probably worth at least 50,000 pesos. Kino, angered, says he will go to the capital to sell the pearl.
Kino is attacked again that night, and Juana tries again to persuade Kino to get rid of the pearl. Kino tells her that he is a man and that no one will take their good fortune from them.
Early on the morning they are to leave for the capital, Juana tries to throw the pearl back into the ocean. Kino strikes her face, kicks her, and rescues the pearl. Then Kino is attacked again, and ends up killing his attacker. Kino and his family flee for their lives.
Their canoe has been splintered and their home set on fire, so the family seeks temporary refuge in Juan Tomas’s home. Juan tells Kino he should sell the pearl and “buy peace for yourself.” Kino refuses. “The pearl has become my soul,” he says. “If I give it up I shall lose my soul.”
Kino’s family leaves during the night, carefully covering their tracks behind them. Despite their care, they know that inland trackers are pursuing them. They travel as rapidly and stealthily as they can until nightfall, when Kino tells Juana and Coyotito to hide in a cave. Kino hopes to steal a rifle from one of the trackers before the moon rises.
Coyotito cries out, waking two of the trackers and causing the watchman with the rifle to shoot. Kino leaps on the man and kills him, but something is wrong. Coyotito is dead.
Kino and Juana return to La Paz, Kino with a rifle, and Juana with their dead baby wrapped in a blood-crusted shawl. They pass Juan Tomas. They pass their ruined canoe and make their way to the water. Then Kino returns the pearl, which is now “gray and ulcerous,” to the ocean.