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The Pearl begins with a short preface in which Steinbeck introduces the story of the great pearl, along with his three main characters-Kino the fisherman, his wife Juana, and their infant son Coyotito. Their story has been told so often, the Preface asserts, that it lives in people's minds and hearts. The story can be considered a parable.
NOTE: THE INTRODUCTION
Steinbeck inserted the Preface to make sure readers understood that the story had universal importance. Through stylized language and the suggestion of a parable, he indicates that you should look beyond the simple plot in order to find a deeper meaning. Perhaps because he had been criticized for creating shallow or flat characters, this short introduction is his way of announcing that the characters are to be regarded mainly as symbols.
As a new day begins, Kino awakens peacefully next to his sleeping wife. He is content with his world and hears the Song of the Family playing happily in his mind. It is an indication that all is well.
NOTE: THE SONGS AND WHOLENESS
Throughout The Pearl you will read about various "songs" that play in the minds of Steinbeck's characters. Such songs include the Song of the Family and the Song of Evil. These are ancient songs that have been passed down by generations of Indians. Steinbeck uses them to show the traditional, almost instinctual responses of his characters to their environment. When things are happy, they hear the Song of the Family. When evil threatens, they are alerted by the Song of Evil. Kino's songs often mark occasions of celebration: he celebrates the morning and the existence of his family; he celebrates life and its events. The songs were individual parts of the Whole. This theme of wholeness is central to Steinbeck's thinking: everything has its place in the universe, and when something happens to one of the parts, the whole system is affected.
Kino wraps himself in the one blanket that he owns, and watches the dawn break over the Gulf of California. The little Indian village is located somewhere on the peninsula of Baja California, Mexico, on the shore of the Gulf of California. While Juana prepares breakfast of corncake and pulque, Kino watches "with the detachment of God" as some ants try to outsmart each other in the dirt. His song blends with Juana's ancient song, and together they form a unity (the "Whole").
NOTE: THE ANTS
From the very start, Steinbeck tries to show similarities between the human and animal worlds. The ants, sabotaging and outwitting each other with sand traps, are little different from human beings on the battlefield, in the marketplace, or in other human competitions. Notice that Kino does nothing to alter the outcome of the struggle. A major theme of The Pearl is man's struggle with nature and with the historical, racial, and class differences that prevent him from fulfilling his goals. By identifying Kino with God, is Steinbeck saying that man's life and struggles are not subject to divine interference? Try to keep some of these larger issues in mind as you read the novel.
Kino returns to his brush hut, a primitive abode with a crude doorway and mats on a dirt floor. A streak of sun falls on the rope that holds Coyotito's box. Suddenly, the peace of the morning is shattered when a scorpion crawls down the rope and stings the infant. Kino grabs the insect and grinds it into the dust while Juana takes her child and sucks out the poison. She whispers some ancient magic and mutters a "Hail Mary," which shows the Roman Catholic influence in her religious beliefs. Coyotito's screaming summons the neighbors, including Kino's older brother, Juan Tomas, and his fat wife, Apolonia. Kino watches Juana in action and wonders at her strength, endurance, and patience.
NOTE: THE SCORPION EPISODE
The scorpion attack is part of the human struggle for existence and parallels the attacks by men later on. Steinbeck uses this attack to point out the difficulty of life in general-that no matter how hard people struggle in life, there always seems to be another problem or obstacle in their path.
Juana tells Kino to get the doctor. While this may seem like a reasonable request, it is actually an unusual one for an Indian. The class distinctions between the poor Indians and people of Spanish descent like the doctor were enormous. Kino realizes that since he is an Indian and has no money, the doctor will not come to treat Coyotito. Hearing that, Juana decides they will go to him. The theme of wholeness arises again when the villagers swarm around Juana and Kino: "The thing had become a neighborhood affair." As mentioned earlier, the Whole is affected when something happens to one of the parts.
NOTE: CLASS DISTINCTION
Hundreds of years ago, Spanish conquerors took over Mexico and established their social, political, and economic dominance over the Indian population. The Spaniards and their descendants, because of their money and military power, became the ruling class. The Indians became the exploited, lower class.