As Steinbeck mentioned in his introduction to this novel, "If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it." Likewise, as was noted in the introduction to these Notes, there are many different critical approaches. The following interpretation is only one of many which the novel can support, and it need not be seen as the only definitive approach.
Basically, there are two forces working through the novel — primitive man alone with his labors, toiling close to nature and possessing an innate dignity; and opposing him, man as a predator, as a parasite or a vampire, sucking at the vein of life and bringing about death and destruction to the more primitive unit.
The first group is, of course, represented by Kino, his family and his friends who make up the primitive community of fishermen and divers. When we are first introduced to Kino's world, it is warm and content, bathed with the beautiful Song of the Family, which gently soothes his heart and makes his life seem fulfilled. Kino and Juana speak very little to each other — it is as though there is no need for words — their communication is innocent and innately understood. In contrast, there is the world of the pearl buyers and the world of the doctor and the priest, representatives of the world with whom Kino and Juana cannot communicate. This is a world which feeds parasitically on these simple people of Kino's village; the doctor's avarice, for example, sends numerous corpses to the church, and the priest is only a puppet of the pearl buyers who are, in turn, only fingers on the arms of some unknown force which has no concern for Kino's class of people.
These two groups are brought together by the use of animal imagery, which Steinbeck uses constantly throughout the novel to comment upon the predatory nature of so-called civilized society. As an illustration, when Coyotito is bitten by the scorpion, the baby's life is in danger, and this horrible, deadly insect makes Kino and Juana realize their ignorance; thus, because of their love for their son, and because of their not knowing about the doctor's fraud, they turn to him for assistance. They believe that because of the doctor, there appears to be a world of possibilities, but in trying to move from one world to another (represented by the long processional, in which the entire village follows Kino and Juana), Kino encounters obstacles which he cannot overcome. For example, Kino suffers mental torture, which is expressed physically when he splits his knuckles battering against the doctor's door in futile rage.
Kino's rage is further expressed when he rows out into the Gulf, and on his first dive, he goes deeper than usual — so deep as to possibly endanger his life; he stays down much longer than usual, but he returns with the Pearl of the World. The animal imagery (or the prey imagery) is now highly functional in relationship to Kino's attitudes. Steinbeck has clearly shown us prior to the discovery of the pearl how the dogs of La Paz feed upon the fish, the larger fish feed upon smaller fish, and every organism depends upon preying upon some other animal. Similarly, as Kino's mind becomes tainted because of his attempted association with the foreign doctor, the pearl also becomes symbolically tainted. When Kino acquires the pearl, it is indeed the most beautiful pearl in the world. But Steinbeck is careful to let us know that this pearl was created through the irritation and the suffering of another organism — the oyster. The beauty of the pearl is not necessarily either evil or good. It only becomes either good or evil when Kino and the pearl buyers begin to project their individual desires on it.
When Kino dives for the pearl, his heart is filled with anger and frustration; he is fierce and animal-like in this predatory mood. When he returns to the world above the floor of the Gulf, he is in possession of the Pearl of the World, but the beauty of the pearl slowly begins to dim; it turns ulcerous because Kino's heart changes. Here, Steinbeck's irony is extremely subtle. On a surface level, it seems that the things which Kino wants are good things: he wants to be married in the church, and he wants Coyotito christened. Juana has been saving the baby's christening clothes until they could find a pearl worthy enough to pay for the occasion. The ultimate achievement to be wrought by the pearl is an education for Coyotito and a rifle for Kino. On a surface level, it appears that Kino wants the right things. But the irony is that Kino and Juana are a truly married couple — they are one as man and wife — they are body and soul. Yet, Kino wants the social recognition of a "foreign marriage" performed by a circumspect priest in a "foreign" religion, and he wants the elegant religious sanction of this foreign religion. (We should remember that earlier, when the scorpion bit Coyotito, Juana first uttered charms in her native religion, and it was only as an afterthought that she added a couple of Hail Marys. Furthermore, Kino's new desires are apparently to please members of this new world and its priest rather than his native gods and people. And while it is noble that he wants Coyotito to have an education, the advantages that Kino wants for him lie in the new, foreign world. Kino, still suffering from his recent encounter with the foreign doctor, still wants his son to become a part of the world which has just rejected him.
The ugliness of the new world which Kino so desperately desires to become a part of begins to express itself immediately, but in the same way that Steinbeck shows that the real community is hidden behind paved streets and in gardens that are protected by stone walls, so also the people who attack him are never seen; they remain simply evil forces in the dark. Openly, the doctor comes first with the poisonous white powder which has the power to kill Coyotito; then the priest comes, blessing a marriage that he never performed. But Kino's simple ignorance cannot understand whether or not the doctor has some miraculous knowledge, and thus he yields to the doctor's horrid practice; likewise, the priest represents a similar mysterious religious force. Even though Kino instinctly knows that he is being cheated by the pearl buyers, he clings to the pearl because his very manhood has been challenged by the "dark ones," the unknown ones who attacked him during the night. Kino's predicament is that of any primitive man — his manhood will not allow him to surrender; to complicate matters, Kino has lost one world and has not gained another. In short, Kino is without a society.
As Kino becomes aware of the evil forces trying to rob him of his treasure, he realizes that the pearl has now taken on a different meaning. Earlier, it meant an education for Coyotito and a marriage in the church: now, as Kino and Juana plan their escape, Juana recognizes and Kino acknowledges: "This pearl has become [Kino's] soul." Now Kino is fighting only to prove that he is a man who can protect that which is his. As he becomes like a hunted animal, it is ironic that the reader's sympathy is even more with him now than it was earlier. Earlier, Steinbeck used Juana's fears to express the readers' fears. We heard of the attacks from her point of view, and we followed her as she joined Kino in his fight with the "dark ones." But after Steinbeck shows us how Kino's brush house was burned, his canoe destroyed, and how he is being tracked by experts, we sympathize entirely with Kino. For him to relinquish the pearl at this point would not be brave, and at this point, bravery is foremost in Kino's mind.
However, after Coyotito has been killed and after Kino has killed the three trackers, there is nothing left for Kino and Juana to do but to return to town. Yet they do not return in defeat. Counting the three trackers and the man who attacked Kino and was knifed by him, Kino has now killed four men; he has lost his only child, has had his brush house burned and has his canoe destroyed, and yet through it all he has retained his primitive sense of his own manhood and his own worth. The return to the town was Kino's voluntary choice; thus, it is also a moral choice. Kino does not return to accept whatever price that the pearl buyers will offer him, he does not return seeking forgiveness, and he does not return out of fear; Kino's return to town indicates that even though everything that a man possesses, including his beloved son, may be lost, yet man need not be defeated. The throwing of the pearl back into the Gulf, along with his return to the village, comprise Kino's ultimate defiance of a world that refuses to grant him the dignity to which he thought he was entitled. We feel that Kino must know that returning to town could mean his death, but in returning to town, Kino attains a dignity which cannot be stripped from him. Kino's return is not only his defiance of a corrupt world, it is also a simple victory of all that is good in man. As Steinbeck let us know through the animal imagery, in the mountains Kino became an animal; he was tracked and hunted without mercy. In contrast, by returning to his known world, Kino becomes larger than life because no force can now defeat him.
As the people watch Kino and Juana pass through the town to the shore of the Gulf, they all recognize this change that has taken place in him; they all recognize Kino's towering strength and his absolute majesty. Juana also recognizes this as she stands proudly beside him and refuses to throw the pearl herself; it is for the newborn man who is still master of his soul to dispose of the pearl as he sees fit.
Therefore, we realize more fully the meaning of Steinbeck's statement "If his story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it." In these lines, Steinbeck sets up no antitheses such as good versus evil, or black versus white. Steinbeck even inverts the major symbol of the pearl. A pearl usually signifies purity and innocence, qualities which a man loses and tries to find. In this novel, Kino possesses innocence and purity at the beginning of the novel, and these simple, beautiful qualities are destroyed after his discovery of the pearl. By inverting the symbolism, Steinbeck emphasizes the parable aspect of his story — that is, we examine what happens to a man when he acquires something so valuable as the Pearl of the World but, after doing so, loses his human dignity and worth in the process. The pearl, then, is a complex symbol — it makes man vulnerable to attacks on his life, but it also makes him stubborn and determined to protect that which is his. Kino and his people have been exploited for four hundred years, and while they fear the foreigners and the unknown, there is also rage and hatred against these intruders. Yet like Kino, they believe that one day they will find the Pearl of the World which will set them free. Thus, if Kino's life is a parable, then it is a parable for many people's own lives: nothing in life is black or white, innocent or evil; everything is a shade somewhere in between. Kino is tricked into seeing and wanting things that are not, in themselves, innately good. He feels that education brings a knowledge that sets a man free. He feels that the church blesses and makes proper husbands and wives. But these things are good only if man is not forced to crawl like an animal to achieve them — that is, a church wedding is not good if one has to lose his manhood to achieve it.