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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Pearl by John Steinbeck-Free Online Plot Summary
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THEMES

The following are themes of The Pearl.

1. THE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE

One of the most important themes in The Pearl is that of Kino and Juana's struggle for survival. Even though their way of life may differ from yours, it contains the same kinds of struggles that everyone faces at some time-the struggle for food and shelter, and the struggle to fight off attacks from nature (the scorpion) and from other human beings, who burn their hut, destroy their canoe, hunt them down, and kill their child.

2. FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM

Some people believe that human beings are never really free, because the course of their lives is determined by outside forces. Others insist that each person's life is formed by a series of choices.

Some aspects of Kino's life are, of course, determined for him. His race and social status are two examples. But other elements are the direct result of his actions-his determination to keep the pearl, his decision to go to the capital, and so on. Are Kino's decisions made freely, of his own accord, or are they based on factors beyond his control?

What does the end of Kino's story say about his ability to control his destiny? Is the finding of the pearl a quirk of fate? Without it, would Kino have any choices to make? All these questions may help you think about the role of choice in your own life, as well as Kino's.

3. SOCIAL CLASS

The Pearl raises the question of whether people should try to move or can move successfully from one social class to another. Specifically, should a poor Mexican Indian like Kino try to improve his status and live like the more prosperous city dwellers? Is this a likely accomplishment? What does Kino's fate suggest about Steinbeck's attitude toward this question?

4. OPPRESSION OF THE INDIANS

Mexico was conquered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and for generations, Mexican Indians were oppressed by people of Spanish descent. Steinbeck shows this oppression in his portrayal of the priest, the doctor, the pearl buyers, and the trackers. Steinbeck also comments on the relative worth of Indian and European-influenced civilization, suggesting in several places that the Indian culture in some respects may offer a happier environment for living than the "advanced" European culture.


5. MONEY AND POSSESSIONS

More than anything, Kino wants money so that he can pay for his son's education, purchase a rifle, and provide economic security for his family. But Kino never has the chance to find out if money buys happiness. Instead, he learns that the pearl is more of a curse than he can handle. The pearl, like an evil magnet, attracts a host of greedy people, and the only way for Kino to escape these people is to get rid of the object they seek. Kino discovers that wealth and good fortune are beyond his reach.

6. MAN AS PART OF NATURE

Steinbeck was fascinated by natural science. He had taken science courses at Stanford University, had worked in a fish hatchery, and was a good friend of Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. While studying the shallow waters off the coast of Baja California, Steinbeck witnessed the war for survival among the various ocean species, as well as their many forms of interdependence. He saw striking similarities between human beings and other species.

When you read Chapters III and IV you'll notice Steinbeck's comparison of a town to a "colonial animal." Very primitive single-celled organisms (paramecia, for example) often group together into colonies-sometimes called aggregations-for the purpose of feeding or mating. Steinbeck used this biological aggregation as a model for the social groupings of higher level animals, including human beings. Human society is composed of individuals (like the single-celled animals), whose survival depends on interrelationships. Kino is alone when he finds the pearl, but the discovery of the pearl quickly travels throughout the village-the social, or colonial, animal-which reacts as an entirety with greed, envy, and dreams.

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