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Literature / The Pearl

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A 1947 novella by John Steinbeck.

The Pearl is the story of Kino, a happy but poor pearl diver who lives with his wife Juana and infant son Coyotito in an indigent Mexican-Indian community on the Gulf. One day, Coyotito is stung by a scorpion. With no other way to pay the doctor to cure him, Kino goes diving for pearls. He finds an enormous, perfect pearl—possibly the largest ever found. He attempts to sell "the Pearl of the World," in hopes of buying a better life for his family, but it brings him nothing but trouble.

The story has been filmed twice, in 1947 and 2001.


Provides examples of:

  • Ambition Is Evil: This is the story's moral, but it's not as anvilicious as it might seem if you just read the Cliff's notes. Kino's desires are extravagant by the standards of the Mexican-Indian community he's a part of, but awfully humble compared to the lifestyle of the wealthy white folk who live in town. The narration makes it clear that it's not just the money that makes the pearl buyers balk; it's the idea that a brown man can catapult himself out of poverty through hard work and a bit of luck. They know they must stop Kino before he empowers the indigents and upsets the whole balance of society in the town.
  • Artifact of Attraction: Kino is quite public about his find. Unfortunately, this quickly brings murderous treasure-seekers down upon him.
  • Artifact of Doom: The eponymous pearl reveals that Humans Are Bastards in myriad ways. It incites Domestic Abuse from gentle Kino, and in less good-hearted folk it drives greed, jealousy, and even murder.
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  • Barefoot Poverty: Kino hopes to be able to buy some shoes for Juana with the pearl.
  • Closer to Earth: Quiet, obedient Juana is a pillar of strength for her husband, and is the power and center of their domestic lives. She wants to throw the pearl away at the first sign of trouble, but Kino has already become infatuated with the pearl and the riches it represents.
  • Coin Walk Flexing: The first pearl trader is described as fiddling with a coin between his fingers and knuckles with just one hand, while waiting for Kino to enter. The moment Kino comes in, the trader then puts his hand behind his back and continues fiddling the coin, and when Kino takes out the giant Pearl of the World, the aghast trader immediately drops his coin and rolls his (out of sight) hand into a clenched fist.
  • Downer Ending: Coyotito is killed. Kino and Juana throw away the pearl.
  • Dr. Jerk: The resident doctor of La Paz, a Fat Bastard of a man, is interested in wealthy clients only, straight-up refusing to heal Coyotito early on by declaring, "Have I nothing better to do than cure insect bites for 'little Indians'?" The moment Kino got the valuable pearl for himself, the doctor then personally visits Kino's household, insists on treating Coyotito by giving him some unknown medicine, and presses Kino for payment.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The doctor has one that establishes the entire wealthy class: cruelly refusing to care for a baby stung by a scorpion ("I am a doctor, not a veterinary.") so he can get back to his wine. The racism and classism of Kino's more dangerous enemies becomes apparent almost instantly in the first chapter.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • The whole plot is kicked off when Coyotito is stung in his box-bed by a scorpion. The scorpion is creeping down the rope from which Coyotito's box is hanging from the ceiling; Kino is creeping forward to grab it when suddenly Coyotito playfully shakes the rope; Kino then lunges forward to catch the falling scorpion, but he just misses it, resulting in Coyotito getting stung. If (a) the scorpion hadn't been there in the first place, (b) Coyotito hadn't shaken the rope, or (c) Kino had successfully caught the scorpion, the rest of the plot wouldn't have happened.
    • Another example of a nail that happens midway through the book, the nail in this case being Kino's growing obsession with the pearl and the riches it could bring his family, even after two attempts by would-be thieves to steal the pearl from him at that point, resulting in attacks on himself and his family. Had Kino just been humble enough to sell the pearl at the first opportunity, despite the admittedly low price he was being offered for it, the last half of the book wouldn't have taken place. Lampshaded by Kino's brother Juan Tomas after the second robbery attempt:
      Juan Tomas: It is the pearl. There is a devil in this pearl. You should have sold it and passed on the devil.
    • The pearl itself is another nail. If Kino hadn't found it, the next two-thirds of the plot wouldn't have happened.
  • Gold Fever: The pearl incites a desperate greed in people.
  • Greed: A major theme in the book. Leading to...
  • Invisible Streaker: In a sense; late in the book Kino strips naked so that he'll be better camouflaged in the dark.
  • Irony: Kino goes pearl-hunting for the money to save Coyotito's life. The ensuing events culminate in Coyotito's death.
  • It's All Junk: After losing something irreplaceable, the pearl holds no mystique for Kino and Juana.
  • Jerkass: The doctor who treats Coyotito comes to mind...
  • Kill the Cutie: Coyotito.
  • Leitmotif: A literary example in Kino and Juana's Song of Family and The Pearl's Song of Evil.
  • MacGuffin: If it was not a real life example, it would probably be mocked as the worst example of this trope. It's a shiny iridescent bauble with absolutely no intrinsic value. In fact, the pearl buyers try to use the arbitrary value of such one-of-a-kind gem against Kino, saying it is only valuable as a novelty, and making insultingly low offers for the pearl.
  • Meaningful Name: Coyotito is, if it wasn't clear enough, named after a coyote. Which leads to him being shot in the head when his cries are mistaken for that of a coyote's.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Kino and Juana's baby, Coyotito is shot in the head and killed.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Kino defeats the men who would have killed him and his family for the pearl, but his domestic bliss is gone forever. As is the pearl.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Kino goes on one in the penultimate chapter.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: After all that struggle and suffering, Kino and Juana throw the pearl back into the sea.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The pearl itself was found from Kino's efforts to raise money for treatment for his son Coyotito. When Kino and his family have to go on the run to escape those who want to take the pearl from them, one of the hunters shoots what he believes to be a coyote. He actually shot Coyotito in the head, making everything Kino did in the story to help him pointless.
  • The Unreveal: Though we never see the doctor again after he comes to see the baby, it's highly likely (though never officially established) that he's behind at least one of the efforts to steal the pearl—the thief searches at the precise spot that Kino glanced at during the doctor's visit.