The Pearl John Steinbeck
And once some large animal lumbered away, crackling the undergrowth as it went. And Kino gripped the handle of the big working knife and took a sense of protection from it.
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On a clear, windy night, Kino, Juana, and Coyotito begin their long march north, avoiding the sleeping town. Outside of town, they follow a road, carefully walking in a wheel rut to conceal their tracks. They walk all night and make camp in a roadside shelter at sunrise. After eating a small breakfast, Juana rests until midday. Kino spots a cluster of ants and lays down his foot as an obstacle. The ants climb over it, and he keeps his foot in place and watches them scale it.
When Juana rises, she asks Kino if he thinks they will be pursued. Juana then begins to doubt Kino's conviction that the pearl is worth far more than the dealers offered, but Kino points out that his attackers would not have tried to steal the pearl were it worth nothing. Kino stares at the pearl to read his future. He lies to Juana, telling her that he sees a rifle, a marriage in a church, and an education for Coyotito. In truth Kino sees a body bleeding on the ground, Juana making her way home through the night after being beaten, and Coyotito's face swollen as though he were sick.
The family retreats further into the shade for another rest. While Kino sleeps soundly, Juana is restless. As she plays with Coyotito, Kino wakes from a dream and demands that they keep quiet. Creeping forward, he spots a trio of trackers pursuing their trail. Kino stiffens and attempts to be still and silent until the trackers have passed. He watches them grow nearer and prepares to spring on them with his knife if necessary. Juana also hears the approaching trackers and does her best to quiet Coyotito.
The trackers' horse grows excited as the trackers approach the shelter. For a moment, it appears that they are poised to apprehend Coyotito and Juana, but eventually they lose their lead on the trail and move on. Kino realizes that it is only a matter of time before they return, and he runs quickly to Juana, telling her to gather up her things so that they can leave at once. Suddenly, Kino feels their cause to be hopeless and loses his will to flee, but Juana castigates him for giving up on his family. Finally, Kino suggests that they might be able to lose the trackers up in the mountains.
Kino and Juana collect their belongings and flee with Coyotito through the undergrowth, making no effort to conceal their tracks. As they climb the first rises, Kino realizes that the distance he is putting between his family and the trackers offers only a temporary fix to their problem. When Juana takes a rest with Coyotito, Kino proposes that she hide while he moves on ahead. Until the trackers have been diverted, she can take refuge in a nearby town. But, despite Kino's insistence, Juana refuses to split up, so the family moves on together.
As their ascent grows steeper, Kino attempts to vary and double back on their route to mislead the trackers. As the sun begins to set, Kino and Juana reach a nearby cleft and replenish their water supply at a pool and stream, where they drink to contentment, and Juana rinses Coyotito. From the lookout, Kino spies the trackers at a distance below, hurrying up the slope. Juana also realizes that they are still being pursued.
Kino deceives the trackers by creating a false trail up the cliff and descending again to take refuge with Juana and Coyotito in a nearby cave. Kino hopes that the trackers will climb past them, providing a chance for them to climb down the hill and out of range. Kino instructs Juana to keep Coyotito quiet, and they lie silently in the cave as twilight settles over the land.
By evening, the trackers arrive at the pool, where they make camp and eat. In the cave, Coyotito grows restless, and Juana quiets him. Kino notices that two of the men have settled in to sleep, while the third keeps watch. Kino realizes that if he can manage to stifle the lookout, he, Juana, and Coyotito will have a chance to escape. Juana fears for Kino's life, but Kino explains that they have no other choice. He instructs her to run to the nearest town should he be killed, and they part reluctantly.
Kino strips naked to avoid being seen by the watchman, and, after crouching at the cave entrance for a moment to survey his route, he springs forward. As Juana prays for him, Kino slowly moves down the slope toward the pool. Twenty feet from the trackers, he crouches behind a palm tree to ponder his next move. His muscles cramp and tremble, but he knows he must act quickly before the moon rises. He unsheathes his knife and prepares to attack. Just as he is poised to spring, the moon appears, and he realizes that his opportunity has been lost. Waiting for a moment when the watchman's head is turned, Kino gets ready to take a much riskier approach.
Suddenly, Coyotito lets out a cry that wakes one of the sleeping trackers. At first, they wonder if it could possibly be the cry of a human, or whether it is simply the cry of a coyote. The watchman decides to silence the wailer by shooting in the direction of the cry. Unbeknownst to Kino, the bullet hits and kills Coyotito. As the watchman shoots, Kino springs upon the trackers, stabbing the watchman and seizing the rifle. Knocking one of the other men out with a fierce blow, he watches as the last man attempts to flee up the cliff. The man makes little progress before Kino stops him with a first shot, and then murders him execution-style with another shot between the eyes. In the terrible moment that ensues, Kino notices the silence of the surrounding animals, and finally hears the blood-curdling cry issuing from his wife, mourning the death of Coyotito.
Later the next day, toward sunset, Kino and Juana walk side by side into La Paz, with Juana carrying Coyotito's corpse in a sack slung over her shoulder. They walk dazedly through the city, with unmoving eyes, speaking to no one. Onlookers stare wordlessly, and even Juan Tomás can only raise a hand in greeting.
Kino and Juana march through the town, past the brush houses, all the way to the sea. At the edge of the water, Kino stops and pulls the pearl from his pocket. Holding it up to the light, he stares into it carefully, and a flood of evil memories washes over him. Kino holds the pearl out in front of him, and then flings it out into the ocean. Kino and Juana watch the pearl as it splashes the surface, and stare at the spot quietly as the sun sets.
Then the column [of ants] climbed over his instep and continued on its way, and Kino left his foot there and watched them move over it.
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After their brush house is burned down and they are forced to flee their neighborhood, Kino and Juana find themselves in a struggle for survival in nature. Their state of nature ironically mimics that of the animals Kino observes contemplatively in Chapters 1 and 2. Exposed to the elements and the cries of coyotes, owls, and other animals, Kino thinks of himself as someone who has been taken over by some animal force. His peaceful, domestic life is a thing of the past.
As he does in Chapter 1, Kino here observes a cluster of ants. However, instead of watching “with the detachment of God” as he does before, Kino lays down his foot as an obstacle in the ants' path. The difference between these two acts symbolizes the way Kino's understanding of his relationship with nature has changed. Whereas earlier he is a detached observer, he now attempts to carve his own fate and rule in the natural world. But, as the ants reveal by easily finding their way around the obstacle Kino creates, Kino's attempts to rule over nature or twist it to his own devices have little effect, and nature has its way with him anyway.
While Kino does attempt to control the natural world, he also looks to it to guide his behavior when he gazes into the pearl “to find his vision” of the future. In the pearl, Kino sees his family's true fate, yet he mistakenly believes that denying what he sees and announcing an alternative vision will allow him to overcome his fate. Ultimately, Kino's base actions nullify the noble intentions he expresses in his speech. Kino announces to Juana that he envisions a grand wedding, but what the pearl reflects to him is the reality that he beats his wife. Kino also announces to Juana that he envisions an education for Coyotito, but in the pearl he sees the reality of “Coyotito's face, thick and feverish from the [doctor's] medicine.”
Though she does not look into the pearl with Kino, Juana recognizes that Kino's visions are illusions grounded on ambition and hope. Her suggestion that the pearl has no real worth implicitly criticizes Kino's foolishness. Yet, when Kino considers giving up, Juana chastises him for his weakness. Her desire to continue suggests that her ambition is in fact just as fierce as Kino's. Like him, she allows her dreams for her family to lead her to ignore the reality of her situation and to attempt to overcome her fate. Her initial wish to secure a great pearl brings only grief to her family.
Steinbeck explicitly compares Kino and Juana to animals being chased by hunters. Like animals, the pair attempts to escape their pursuers by seeking out a higher elevation. What puts Kino and Juana in close proximity to the trackers is the need to be near water, a need common to all mammals. Furthermore, Kino finds himself forced to strip off his clothes, distinctive symbols of his humanity, in order to surprise his pursuers. In reverting to this -animalistic strategy, Kino inadvertently transforms his own son into an animal, leading to Coyotito's death by an indiscriminate gunshot on the part of the trackers, who mistake the baby's cry for that of a coyote. Coyotito's name, which literally means “little coyote” in Spanish, foreshadows this transformation throughout the novella.
The narrator points out that in the animal world, water sources are both “places of life” and “places of death,” because they offer a resource but also create competition between animals for the resource. This paradoxical status of the water pool parallels that of the pearl, which exerts both a positive and a destructive influence on Kino and Juana. Extrapolating further, the narrator's comment about the water source seems to apply to the entire material world—everyone both depends upon and competes for the material resources needed for survival.
Once the trackers are dead, Kino is free to continue to the city to sell his pearl, but Coyotito's death has stripped Kino of the motive for his struggle. Kino and Juana intended the pearl to facilitate the future they have dreamed of for their son, but the pearl's value is lost once Coyotito dies. The parable subtly evokes the story of Jesus, in that Kino, in attempting to play God by determining his own fate, sacrifices his son. Though an infant, Coyotito could be viewed as a martyr, since he dies for the sins of others. In this sense, Coyotito himself is the biblical “pearl of great price,” the title Steinbeck originally planned to give his novella.
Critics are divided on the question of whether Kino's ultimate decision to rid himself of the pearl by throwing it back into the ocean represents a victory or a defeat. Some suggest that Kino's final act of material renunciation empowers him. The fact that the renunciation means that he will continue to live a life of poverty leads others to argue that Kino only adds to his tragedy in discarding the pearl. The narrator notes that as Kino and Juana reenter the town to dispose of the pearl, “the sun was behind them and their long shadows stalked ahead, and they seemed to carry two towers of darkness with them.” This image symbolizes Kino and Juana's situation: their brightest days are behind them, and a dark patch of their own making lies ahead.