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It is difficult to get to know the characters in The Pearl in the same way you might get to know the characters in other novels. They say very little, and you see them in relatively few situations. Their motivations seem to be based more on ancient habits or traditional social roles than on free choice. The characters are more like symbols for ideas than real people.
Steinbeck has often been criticized for failing to create more complex, realistic characters. On the other hand, some readers feel that Steinbeck's purpose-social criticism-is best served by characterizations that clearly represent a social group or an idea.
Kino is an honest, dignified pearl diver who works hard to support his family. He is a simple and natural being who functions well in the traditional ways of the village. Kino is conscious of his poverty and knows that money could buy things he lacks. He hopes to find a pearl that will guarantee him future peace. Like most human beings, he wants to get ahead.
Kino depends on nature for his income. When the waters are rough, he cannot go diving. When the sun sets, his workday ends. The discovery of a great pearl changes Kino's life. The man who usually hears the Song of the Family-the harmonious, soothing message that all is well in life-begins to hear the voice of suspicion, the sounds of danger-the Song of Evil. This song is really a powerful internal voice that he hears when danger arises, which links him to his ancestors as a sort of builtin protection against death. It is Steinbeck's poetic way of referring to Kino's survival instinct.
On the other hand, Kino's intelligence and growth in social awareness help him realize that he and other Indians have been exploited by the rich and powerful. At first, instinctively, he senses the danger with the doctor and pearl buyers, but it is only after his brutal encounter with the trackers that he becomes aware of the extent of this exploitation. He comes to realize that human beings will kill in order to gain money and power.
As Kino moves away from his natural habitat, he becomes isolated. With the pearl in hand, he marches toward the city-a symbolic move toward a more complex civilization-in his belief that he can deal with "civilized" people. He lays claim to the benefits of civilization-power, money, an education for Coyotito-but soon realizes, when pursued by the trackers, that he is a victim of the very society in which he hopes to earn a profit. Some readers believe that Kino brings about his own downfall by going against the forces of nature. What do you think Kino should (or could) have done with the pearl? What do you think the end results would have been?
Kino loses more than his social innocence in the novel. He learns that he, too, can kill to protect his chance for wealth and power.
If the characters in The Pearl are symbols, what does Kino symbolize? Some readers say that Kino is the exploited but innocent man who loses his innocence when he tries to venture beyond his social boundaries. Others see Kino as the symbol of an honest, hard-working man destroyed by greed. Still others see him as a man unable to escape his fate.
Juana's relationship to Kino, her husband, is made clear in the first chapter of The Pearl. She is a loving and devoted wife, the stabilizing force in Kino's life. At first you may see her simply as subservient. But Juana has great inner strength and determination. For example, when Coyotito is bitten by the scorpion, Juana acts immediately and sucks out the poison. She also insists that they see the doctor-an unheard of event in the village.
Juana has a strong survival instinct where her family is concerned. When the doctor refuses to treat the baby, Kino responds by ineffectually punching the gate; Juana puts a seaweed poultice on the baby's shoulder. She responds with the same kind of direct action when she decides that the pearl is a threat to her family. She tries to throw it back in the sea.
If you are trying to decide what each character represents, you could say that Juana represents the integrity of a simple way of life. Throughout The Pearl, Juana appears to be in tune with nature and aware of what will save her family. Unlike Kino, who dreams of a new life, Juana does not believe in pursuing the unattainable.