The Pearl By John Steinbeck Summary and Analysis Chapter 3

Steinbeck begins this chapter by describing the town in terms of an animal or as some type of biological organism. In the "Introduction" section, it was noted that one interpretation for this novel is an ecological interpretation, one in which we observe that every part of a complex pattern is related to every other part. As noted elsewhere, Steinbeck had previously made a study of the ecological relations of the living organisms in the Gulf of lower California. In his work The Sea Of Cortez, Steinbeck writes about the activities of schools of fish as an organized group:

The schools swam, marshalled and patrolled. They turned and dived as a unit. In their millions they followed a pattern minute as to direction and depth and speed. There must be some fallacy in our thinking of these fish as individuals. Their functions in the school are in some as yet unknown way as controlled as though the school were one unit.

At the beginning of Chapter 3, Steinbeck also writes that the "town is a thing like a colonial animal." Before Kino reaches home, the news of the discovery of the pearl has spread like the "nerves of the town were pulsing and vibrating with the news." Steinbeck is showing the effect of the discovery of the great pearl upon the life of the entire organism — the town. He then offers the response of the various members of the town: the priest remembers certain repairs on the church that are needed; the doctor announces that Coyotito is a patient of his; the beggars remember that a poor man suddenly invested with a fortune is a generous man; the pearl buyers long to get their hands on this great pearl so they can escape from their positions and make a new start.

Steinbeck's sociological views are offered when he writes that the individual pearl buyers are all subservient to one buyer, and that each buyer is another "arm" representing the key pearl buyer. As the news of the great pearl spreads, one man suddenly becomes every man's enemy, and that man is Kino, who owns the pearl. The pearl stirs up "something infinitely black and evil in the town."

Kino is ignorant of the jealousy and hatred that is caused by his discovery of the pearl. His first thoughts are to be married in the church, to buy a new harpoon and a rifle, and then, the greatest of all visions — Kino's son, Coyotito, will be able to go to school and learn how to read and write; thus, Coyotito will be able to help free his people from the walls of ignorance and illiteracy which have kept them imprisoned for so long.

The priest pays Kino and Juana a visit, and he reminds Kino to give thanks for the pearl. But the music of the Song of Evil and the music of the Song of the Enemy almost drown out the priest's words because he quotes things from the books that Kino cannot know until Coyotito learns to read.

Next, the doctor and his servant arrive. Even though Kino knows that Coyotito is now completely well, the doctor is able to use superstition to frighten Kino into letting him attend the child by suggesting many different evil ways that the poison of the scorpion can work against Coyotito. Kino cannot take a chance. He cannot pit his "certain ignorance against this man's possible knowledge." The doctor obviously tricks Kino by showing him false evidence of the poisoning and he "skillfully" administers some type of drug in the form of a white powder, predicting that within an hour Coyotito will be feeling the results of the scorpion's poison. It is obvious even to Kino that the doctor has given the baby something to make him sick, but again his ignorance is too great to combat the doctor's tricks.

Soon Coyotito becomes flushed, spasms begin, and he becomes very sick. For his wife's sake, Kino says that the doctor was right, but in his heart, Kino is suspicious of the doctor, for he keeps remembering the white powder which the doctor gave his son. After an hour, the doctor returns, gives the baby another kind of medicine, and the spasms subside. The doctor wonders when he will be paid, and it is then that Kino tells him that tomorrow he will sell a beautiful pearl. The doctor is surprised and offers to keep the pearl in a safe place for Kino. When Kino refuses, the doctor taunts him, knowing that Kino will reveal the hiding place of the pearl by a quick secret glance toward the pearl, which is exactly what happens. The doctor leaves, knowing where the pearl is buried.

At bedtime, Kino hides the pearl under his mat on the earthen floor. His dreams of Coyotito's reading great books, however, are suddenly interrupted by the presence of someone else in the hut. Pulling his knife, Kino strikes out at the figure, and in one blow he feels his knife draw blood, but at the same time he himself is struck a powerful blow on the head. Juana lights their only candle and swabs the blood from Kino's head. Juana then senses the evil of the pearl, and she pleads, "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us. . . . Let us throw it back into the sea . . . " Kino, however, is determined that their son will become educated, and he refuses to listen to Juana's pleas that the pearl will destroy them all — "even our son."

At dawn, Kino digs up the pearl and gazes at its beauty, and he dreams of the promise of the relief that it will bring them. For that reason, after a horrible night, the new day promises only hope.

As noted elsewhere, the symbolic value of the pearl is beginning to take on various meanings, as a symbolic pearl has throughout all of Western literature. In biblical literature, a pearl of great price is something that is bought at great sacrifice, and it brings the kingdom of heaven. Kino also thinks of the pearl as bringing all types of rewards to him, but instead, it will function only to destroy everything that he previously held valuable. The concept of the pearl as something of great value is often found in medieval literature, and in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the name Pearl to suggest that Hester Prynne bought her daughter at the great price of her own reputation.

Throughout this chapter, we are made aware of the chorus of villagers who function to express the various reactions to the great pearl. We see first Kino's reactions to the pearl, and then we see how the villagers react to it. The difference between the two reactions is that there exists a vast gulf between Kino's simple optimistic expectations and the prophecies of doom as expressed by the villagers.

In addition to the general reactions evoked by the discovery of the pearl, Steinbeck gives the various individual reactions. First, the priest wonders if Kino will contribute to the church. The doctor thinks of his past life in Paris and what he could do now with the money. The beggars remember that a man made newly rich is often generous and that they may receive alms from Kino. Each of the pearl buyers thinks of the pearl and wishes that he could get it in order to make a new start in life. In general, the pearl affects the entire town and becomes everyone's pearl or everyone's dream of greatness.

As the pearl thus becomes the "property" of everyone, everyone begins to turn against Kino. He becomes "every man's enemy," and the evil caused by the reports of the pearl is like the scorpion which bit little Coyotito.

After giving the town's reaction, Steinbeck then turns his attention to Kino and his plans for the pearl. Kino constantly thinks of the good that the pearl will bring him. Note that he thinks first of a church ceremony, then of an education for his son. He sees that an education will set them free. This idea reappears later in the chapter when the doctor arrives and tells Kino that the baby is sick. Kino realizes the importance of knowing what is "in the books," but he doesn't know whether or not to trust the doctor; he is finally forced to do so, however, so that his son can get an education and can determine whether the books are true.

Notice that throughout the chapter, there are many references to Kino's wounded hand. This was the hand that was injured, in anger, when the doctor refused to see Kino; now he holds the pearl in this hand. The pearl in the wounded hand suggests the contrasting effects brought about by Kino's discovery.

The musical motifs also play an important part in this chapter. Often a musical motif is used to give Kino's true feelings. For example, when the priest arrives, "the melody of the morning, the music of evil, of the enemy sounded." This motif suggests that Kino is aware of the hypocrisy of the priest and knows that the priest is also an enemy. The same musical motif sounds when the doctor arrives later in the chapter.

As the news of the pearl spreads, Kino feels more and more isolated from the community. He takes refuge in the family, and the Song of the Family becomes a strong motif. This motif is interrupted by the arrival of the doctor, and then Kino is filled with hatred and fear. The doctor talks about poison, and Steinbeck indicates that the only poison now is that which is brought by the doctor. It is intimated that Coyotito is well until the doctor gives him medication that actually makes him sick again. Thus, the evil is brought by the vile white powder given to Coyotito.

Steinbeck uses some basic analogies to suggest the destructive force of the doctor. He offers a digression about how schools of small fish try to escape from larger fish, but are nevertheless slaughtered by the larger fish.

At the end of the chapter, the first statement appears that the pearl is evil rather than good. Until now, Kino was thinking only of the good that it could bring, but more evil is happening to him than good. Juana then declares, "This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us." But in contrast to Juana's thought, the chapter ends by emphasizing the beauty of the pearl and the possible good which it can do. At this fulcrum point, the novella could go toward good effects or toward evil effects.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Before they open the large oyster that will yield the great pearl, Kino and Juana




Quiz