57 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Pearl

Fiction | Novella | YA | Published in 1947

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Summary and Study Guide


The Pearl is a 1947 historical fiction novella by John Steinbeck. It is an expansion of his earlier short story, “The Pearl of the World,” published in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1945. Steinbeck also co-wrote the screenplay for a 1947 film adaption of the novella titled La perla, directed by Emilio Fernández. Citations in this guide correspond to the 1994 Penguin Books edition. The story, which is presented as a parable, follows a poor Mexican pearl diver who discovers a magnificent pearl only to find that it causes many more problems than it solves. Through the pearl diver’s experience, Steinbeck explores such topics as colonialism, greed, and family.

Content Warning: Please note that this guide references domestic violence, murder, and gun violence against a child.

Plot Summary

Kino, a young Native Mexican man, wakes up one morning in the brush house where he lives with his wife, Juana, and their infant child, Coyotito. Suddenly, a scorpion stings Coyotito. Kino and Juana ask the doctor in the nearby city of La Paz to treat Coyotito, but he refuses since they don’t have enough money.

A pearl diver by trade, Kino goes to work in the hopes of finding a pearl to pay the doctor. He soon finds an enormous, perfect pearl. With the wealth he hopes to gain from the pearl, Kino plans to buy clothes, tools, and weapons as well as to send Coyotito to school. As news of the pearl spreads, the town’s priest and the doctor visit Kino and his family, hoping to profit. The doctor poisons and then cures Coyotito to make it look like he saved him. Kino promises to pay the doctor once he sells the pearl. During the night, someone tries to steal the pearl, but Kino drives the intruder away.

The next day, Kino goes to the pearl dealers to sell the exceptional pearl. The dealers, who pretend to compete with each other but actually work for a single company, claim that the pearl has little value and offer a low price. Offended, Kino plans to take the pearl to the capital and sell it himself.

That night, after another attack on Kino, Juana begs him to get rid of the pearl; he refuses. When Kino falls asleep, Juana takes the pearl, intending to throw it back into the ocean, but Kino catches up to her at the beach and violently seizes the pearl, injuring Juana. As Kino returns home, unknown assailants again attack him; he kills one of them and the pearl rolls away. Juana recovers the pearl, which she now decides to keep, realizing that their old life is gone forever. She also manages to save Coyotito when other attackers burn their house down. Kino, Juana, and Coyotito take cover in the house belonging to Kino’s older brother, Juan Tomás, and his wife, Apolonia. Juan Tomás encourages Kino to get rid of the pearl, but Kino again refuses.

The next night, Kino, Juana, and Coyotito set out on the road northward, trying not to leave any tracks. However, the next day, they see three men tracking them in the distance. Kino and his family leave the road and head for the mountains. Kino hides Juana and Coyotito in a cave and plans to attack the men at night. When Coyotito cries, the trackers think the sound is coming from a coyote, and they shoot towards the cave, killing Coyotito. At that moment, Kino attacks and kills the trackers. The next day, he and Juana return home and throw the pearl into the sea.