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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Pearl by John Steinbeck-Free Online Plot Summary
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In the opening description of the beach, the narrator leads your eyes inland from the sea. The beach and the water nearby are full of life, each creature living and growing in its own way and in its own place. Despite the vision of the sea teeming with life, the narrator cautions that in the Gulf, vision cannot be trusted. The hazy mirages that occur there have taught Kino's people for centuries not to trust their vision, for the Gulf has "the vagueness of a dream."

Kino's village is located on a broad estuary lined with canoes. He and Juana are proud of his canoe-a gift from his father, who had received it from Kino's grandfather. It is their only possession of value and symbolizes the ancient Indian civilization that continues to guide Kino. As his source of income, the canoe is a necessity.

That morning, when Kino and Juana come down to the beach, she makes a poultice (medicinal compress) of seaweed for Coyotito's shoulder. This is probably a better remedy than what the doctor would have offered, yet it lacks the doctor's authority. Worrying about her son, Juana prays that they will find a pearl in order to pay the doctor to heal Coyotito.


Juana's natural instincts are strong. She reacts to the situations in her life with compassion and intelligence, as her administering of her poultice demonstrates. But she is aware of her simplicity and doubts the effectiveness of her methods, when compared with those of the doctor. Keep this in mind when you read of the doctor's actions in the next chapter.

After pushing the canoe into the water, Kino and Juana work together to paddle toward the oyster bed where Kino fishes and searches for pearls. The oyster bed has historical significance. Steinbeck notes that the Spanish conquerors had worked this bed and that the pearls taken from it had greatly aided the king of Spain, financing both his wars and the decoration of his churches.


Pearls are formed through an accident of nature. A grain of sand becomes caught inside the fleshy folds of an oyster and, to protect itself from irritation, the oyster coats the grain with layer after layer of a milky cement. This process forms a pearl. This contrast between the natural definition of a pearl and its value to humans in terms of wealth is one of the many contrasts Steinbeck uses to tell you something significant about reality and appearances. It is also one of the many levels of symbolic meaning that the pearl conveys.

Kino knows that a great pearl will bring him much money, but he does not dare hope for such a pearl because it is not good to want too much. As he descends into the water, he hears the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, and in the canoe above, Juana makes the "magic of prayer."

Moments after Kino goes underwater, he finds a large oyster in which there is a "ghostly gleam." It is the Pearl of the World-great and perfect and stunning. Kino's troubles seem to be over. The money he will receive from the sale of the pearl will eliminate the humiliations of poverty. Yet Kino does not hope for too much since that might drive good luck away. Kino's people have always felt a need to be tactful with both the Christian God and the old Indian gods so as not to appear greedy. Why do you think they feel this way?


Juana and Kino do not want to offend the gods by hoping for too much. On one level this is a superstition inherited from their ancestors (Juana's "magic of prayer"). But on another level, it is consistent with the idea of wholeness, whereby each person plays his part in life and removes from life what is his due. Though illiterate, Juana and Kino understand the principle of balance. If you ask for more than your fair share, you may end up with even less. Notice that the pearl gives off a "ghostly gleam." Already there is a hint of death.

Kino looks at the pearl and sees that it captures the light as perfectly as the moon. He can see dreams of a better future for his family in the pearl. This passage marks the beginning of Kino's dreams, or "visions," where reality becomes confused with the illusion of a better world. His dreams go deep-right through to his soul-and Kino will soon begin to identify his soul with the pearl. Don't forget the warning about mirages, however, at the beginning of the chapter. Will the pearl prove a lucky find or something quite different?

While Kino holds the pearl in the hand he had smashed against the doctor's gate, Juana notices that Coyotito's swelling has gone down. The poison is leaving the infant's body. Kino screams with delight as he looks at the pearl, and this causes the other divers to race toward his canoe.

By screaming so loudly, Kino attracts attention to his discovery. This sets in motion the reactions of the community, each person adding to the total reaction of the whole. Before he knows it, Kino will become alienated from the people of his own village. He will be the outsider who deviates from the natural system. And in biological systems, the deviant is usually punished, sometimes by death. If you were in Kino's shoes, would you react as he did?

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

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