The Pearl


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Book Review

The Pearl by John Steinbeck has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Kino lives in a village by the sea with his wife, Juana, and baby son, Coyotito. As the story opens, Kino is feeling joy and satisfaction with his life. Though he is poor, he lives near family and is respected by the other villagers. He often hears what he calls the Song of Family in his head and recalls the songs of his people from generations past, experiencing a profound sense of peace.

One evening, he and Juana watch helplessly as Coyotito gets stung by a scorpion in his bed. The town doctor won’t call on people in their poor area, so the couple takes the baby to the doctor’s home. He refuses to see them unless they can pay for his help. In desperation, the couple gets in the canoe Kino’s father passed down. They sail out to an area known for pearls, and Kino dives deep to bring up a bucket full of oysters. To their astonishment, Kino discovers a large, opulent pearl, the likes of nothing his village has ever seen. At the same moment, they look at the baby and realize his health seems to be improving.

Word spreads immediately about Kino’s great luck in finding the Pearl of the World. The doctor pays an unsolicited visit to help Kino’s son, although the couple wonders whether his medicines are a trick. Kino tells friends and family what he plans to do once he sells the pearl. He and Juana will have a wedding ceremony in a church, get better clothes and send their son to school. But as night falls on the village, Kino begins to hear a new song drowning out those he’s heard before. It is a song of darkness and evil. Nervously, he buries the pearl in his house. That night, he thwarts an intruder coming to steal the pearl. Meanwhile, the villagers speculate about Kino and how fortune may change him. Many are jealous.

The next day, with many of the townspeople following, Kino and Juana go to sell the pearl in town. The pearl buyers in town all work for one man, unbeknownst to the villagers. They know Kino is coming, and as instructed, each tells him the pearl is worth almost nothing. Kino calls their bluff and tells them he will take it to a larger city to sell it. This will mean he must journey 1,000 miles into unknown territory. He’s afraid, but he is driven by the prospect of fortune.

Juana sees how the pearl is changing Kino. She tells him it is evil. She even digs it up in the night and heads for the sea with the intent of throwing it back. Kino wakes up and follows her, hitting and kicking her to reclaim the pearl before she can return it to the water. He leaves her on the beach in the night and is attacked while heading home. He inadvertently kills the man who has tried to steal his pearl.

Returning from the beach, Juana finds the pearl and decides to abide by Kino’s wishes to keep it. They realize now that Kino has committed murder, and they will have to flee. They return to the village to find their hut is on fire, and they hide out with relatives until they can leave on foot early the next morning.

Kino continues to hear the songs of evil and grows increasingly afraid, mean and suspicious. Trackers follow the couple as they flee. Kino knows the trackers are about to find them, so he makes a plan to attack them and steal their gun. Just as he prepares to strike, he hears them say they’ve heard a cry. One man suggests it’s a coyote pup. Kino attacks them just as one tracker shoots at the coyote, and mayhem ensues. Kino kills the men, then hears another wail. It is the cry of death.

The story ends by noting the townspeople all remember Kino and Juana’s return to the village. They both look broken, failing to acknowledge familiar people or places. Dazed, they walk to the water’s edge. Juana carries what readers learn is their dead child, presumably shot by the tracker who thought he was silencing a coyote pup. Kino pulls out the pearl and throws it back in the water.

Christian Beliefs

The narrator once describes Kino watching something with the detachment of God. Another time, the narrator refers to something being as remote and removed as heaven. Kino, Juana and their people are Catholic. Several townspeople speculate that if they had found the pearl, they would have given it to the Pope as a gift or used it to buy Masses for the souls of family members for 1,000 years. The doctor believes, if Masses can pay a person’s way into Heaven, his wife is there. Juana tells Kino the pearl is evil, like a sin. The village priest gives an annual sermon about how God gives people a certain place in the universe and may punish them for leaving their station. The priest makes an example of men who left town to sell their pearls in the big city and never returned. People often tell each other to go with God before a journey.

Other Belief Systems

Although Juana says “Hail Mary” prayers and prays to God during their trials, she whispers ancient magic phrases in the same breath. Several times, the narrator suggests that something was from God, or the gods, or both. The townspeople believe Kino had great luck in finding the pearl, and luck is often mentioned in conjunction with God or the gods. The narrator suggests that if Kino’s plans to sell the pearl in the big city fail, the townspeople will say God punished Kino for rebelling against the status quo. Kino notes that the gods aren’t happy with men who succeed through their own efforts. He fears the gods will take revenge on him because of the plans he has made. Juana decides to follow Kino as an obedient wife when he reminds her several times that he is a man. This statement from him means, to her, that he is half insane and half god. She doesn’t understand the differences between men and women, but realizes she must be there to pick up the pieces after he acts. Kino confesses to his brother that the pearl has become his soul and that he will lose his soul if he gives it up.

Authority Roles

The villagers recognize the wealthy, corrupt doctor for what he is, knowing of his clumsy abortions, meager giving to the poor, ignorance, cruelty and greed. He refuses to help Kino’s ailing son until he learns about Kino’s pearl. Kino’s older brother tries to warn Kino about the potential dangers of forsaking his community to sell the pearl elsewhere.

Profanity & Violence

The word b–ch is used once in reference to a female coyote.

Several people attack Kino in an effort to steal the pearl, leaving him gashed and bloody. Kino strikes Juana in the face and kicks her when she tries to throw the pearl back in the water. He leaves her wounded on the beach in the dark. Kino kills one of his attackers, who bleeds from the throat. Kino sees the destruction of his boat as evil and violent, since a boat is a man’s way of feeding his family. Unknown people ransack and burn Kino’s house. Kino fiercely attacks and kills three trackers using a knife and a gun. Coyotito dies when a hunter kills, what he thinks is, a coyote pup.

Sexual Content


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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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