The Pearl

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Race, Tradition, and Oppression Theme Analysis

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Kino and Juana’s racial heritage both provides them with the grounding force of ritual and tradition and deprives them of power under the reign of European colonizers. They continue to sing the songs they have inherited from their ancestors, but they also continue to be oppressed as their ancestors were, by white people like the doctor and by people with economic influence like the pearl-dealers. Their oppression is brought increasingly to light throughout The Pearl, as Kino attempts to cooperate with the people who have the power (the money, the expertise) to help his son recover, but are the very same people that traditionally oppress people of Kino’s race.

In the end, dealing in the world of White wealth and medicine leaves Kino and Juana in a worse condition than they set out in: they end up without a son, home, or canoe. By throwing the pearl back into the ocean, it seems, Kino is attempting to free himself of the colonizers’ influence and escape their system of evaluation, to return to his own set of traditions and values. As readers, we might also take a step back and wonder whether Steinbeck might himself be guilty of the kind of racial discrimination that Kino attributes to the colonizers, in consistently describing him with animalistic characteristics and by making generalizations about “his people.”

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Race, Tradition, and Oppression ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race, Tradition, and Oppression appears in each chapter of The Pearl. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race, Tradition, and Oppression Quotes in The Pearl

Below you will find the important quotes in The Pearl related to the theme of Race, Tradition, and Oppression.
Prologue Quotes

“In the town they tell the story of the great pearl—how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind…If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it. In any case, they say in the town that…”

Related Characters: Kino, Juana, Coyotito
Related Symbols: The Pearl
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote appears as a prologue to the story. The quotation marks that bookend the quote suggest that it is one that is often spoken aloud in the telling of the proceeding story. Thus, the story of the "great pearl" has essentially become a parable, such as The Boy who Cried Wolf or The Tortoise and the Hare. Its perpetual telling is meant to teach the listener a lesson, based on the morals gleaned from the misfortunes of Kino, Juana, and Coyotito that befell them once the Great Pearl came into their lives. The lack of geographic specificity in regards to the "town" in which this story is told suggests that, in addition to becoming a vague kind of legend, the tale is passed along in various towns as a warning of the dangers of sudden fortune.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

Juana sang softly an ancient song that had only three notes and yet endless variety of interval. And this was part of the family song too. It was all part. Sometimes it rose to an aching chord that caught the throat, saying this is safety, this is warmth, this is the Whole.

Related Characters: Juana
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Kino awakens early one morning, and he and his wife Juana begin their typical routine. As their schedule never falters, they are able to go about their business and communicate without a word. Kino finds great beauty in this morning, due to the fact that it epitomizes the harmony of his home and his family. In this quote, Juana sings a song, "The Song of Family," that simultaneously represents the present peace of their family and their role as members of an ancient group of people. Juana's song brings the family together as a unit and as a part of their larger culture (a culture that, it should be noted, is portrayed in a vague and simplified way by Steinbeck). This song deeply comforts Kino, as it reminds him of his love and protective instincts towards Juana and Coyotito, and his responsibility as a member of the larger town and its people.

This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race, and frightened it too, so that the indigene came humbly to the door.

Related Characters: Kino, The doctor
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The perfect morning is irreparably broken when Coyotito is stung on the shoulder by a scorpion. Though Juana quickly sucks out the poison, Kino and Juana fear for their baby's life. Determined to have him healed, Juana declares that they will bring Coyotito to the doctor. In this quote, the narrator notes that the doctor is of a different race than Kino, Juana, and Coyotito. He is a white descendant of Europeans who brutally colonized the lands on which Kino's ancestors have lived for thousands of years. As a result, the doctor has money and influence whereas Kino's people have been subjected to poverty. Collective memory therefore leaves Kino and the townspeople afraid of white people like the doctor, who have historically been cruel and violent to the indigenous people in the area. Juana and Kino's determination to have Coyotito treated by the white doctor is therefore viewed by the town as an act of bravery.

Chapter 2 Quotes

Every year Kino refinished his canoe with the hard shell-like plaster by the secret method that had also come to him from his father. Now he came to the canoe and touched the bow tenderly as he always did.

Related Characters: Kino
Related Symbols: Kino’s Canoe
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As Kino has no money for which to pay for the doctor's treatments, he is turned away from the doctor's house. In desperation, he decides to try his hand at finding a valuable pearl to sell to raise money for Coyotito's medical treatment. In this quote, the narrator shows how much pride and care Kino takes in his canoe. It is a priceless heirloom passed down from his father, and it is the sole source of his livelihood. In coating it with a "hard-shell like plaster," Kino takes care of his canoe in the same matter that a pearl is made (a pearl is created when a grain of sand enters an oyster, and it coats it in a smooth covering to avoid irritation). Kino's canoe represents his indelible connection to his ancestry, to the pearls in the ocean, and his pride in how he provides and cares for Juana and Coyotito. In touching the bow "tenderly," Kino greets his canoe, personifying it to the point that he provides the object with the same respect that he would a person that he cares for. Without the canoe--a representation of his genealogy, and how he feeds himself and his family--Kino would not be alive.

She gathered some brown seaweed and made a flat damp poultice of it, and this she applied to the baby’s swollen shoulder, which was as good a remedy as any and probably better than the doctor could have done. But the remedy lacked his authority because it was simple and didn’t cost anything.

Related Characters: Juana, Coyotito, The doctor
Related Symbols: The Scorpion
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Having been turned away from the doctor's home, Juana creates a poultice from seaweed to soothe the baby's sting. In this quote, the narrator notes that while this remedy is likely just as effective as the doctor's treatment would have been, Juana views it as unsatisfactory because it was hastily created by her and not by an expensive white doctor with a degree. This point of view represents the influence that colonization has had on the indigenous people in La Paz. Though Juana and Kino's people have been living in the region for thousands of years, the sudden influx and brutality of Europeans with rifles forced them to become second-class citizens. European dominance has meant that luxuries such as schools and advanced medical care are too expensive for the subjugated natives to afford. Since Kino and Juana want absolutely the best for their son, they are determined to have him treated by a rich white doctor, whose people have thrived, albeit through cruel practices, in the region. By contrast, Juana's people have been murdered and subjugated, and thus internalized a sense of weakness that she associates with her poultice, regardless of how effective it is. She wants Coyotito to be healed by a doctor whose wealth and skin color are a kind of proof of strength and dominance.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“I hope thou wilt remember to give thanks, my son, to Him who has given thee this treasure, and to pray for guidance in the future.”

Related Characters: The priest (speaker), Kino
Related Symbols: The Pearl
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Having heard about the Pearl, the priest visits Kino under the guise of wishing him well, but with the actual intention of influencing him to donate money to the Church. Rather than praising Kino for his good luck, the priest attributes Kino's good fortune to the generosity and guidance of the Christian God.The priest, a white missionary, calls each of the townspeople his "son" or "daughter" in a manner that is traditional, but in this power dynamic may be seen as patronizing. In the colonization of the Americas, conversion was frequently used as a method of control. Instead of treating the natives as his equal, the priest infantilizes them, and believes he can manipulate them under the guise of tenants of the Church. This is similar, though not as extreme, to the way that the doctor nastily notes that he does not like to treat the natives because he is not a "veterinarian," thus implying that he believes the indigenous people as so inferior to him that they are on par with animals.

And he could not take the chance of pitting his certain ignorance against this man’s possible knowledge. He was trapped as his people were always trapped, and would be until, as he had said, they could be sure that the things in the books were really in the books.

Related Characters: Kino, The doctor
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

The doctor hears about Kino's discovery of the pearl, and suddenly becomes interested in the young family with the injured baby. He goes to Kino's house, and asks to see Coyotito. He tells the worried parents that he has seen the attack of a scorpion sting many times before, and that Coyotito, though seemingly healing, is still in danger. In this quote, Kino is wary of the doctor's claims that Coyotito is still in danger of the scorpion's poison. Yet, he notes that he was "trapped," just as his people had been trapped by colonists for years. When the European colonists came with medicines, religion, and shiny tools--namely guns and rifles that forced the indigenous people into subjugation--the native people were forced to become second-class citizens on lands that their ancestors had occupied for thousands of years. Though Juana is determined to have Coyotito treated by the doctor because he has knowledge and medicines, Kino is skeptical of believing everything the white colonists have to say, just because it comes from books that their people have written. However, he cannot be sure that his skepticism is worth denying his only son treatment, and lets the doctor see Coyotito.

[The doctor] held the eyelid down. “See—it is blue.” And Kino, looking anxiously, saw that indeed it was a little blue. And he didn’t know whether or not it was always a little blue. But the trap was set. He couldn’t take the chance.

Related Characters: The doctor (speaker), Kino, Coyotito, The doctor
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

After examining Coyotito, the doctor points to a blue vein in the baby's eyelid, and claims it to be the poison from the scorpion's sting. Kino, though worried about his son, is still unsure whether the doctor is making things up that he knows Juana and Kino will believe, or if the baby is actually sick.The doctor gives the baby a little bit of powder, claiming that the poison will "attack within the hour." Sure enough, the baby begins to vomit, and the doctor treats him again, saying he has saved Coyotito's life. The reader is left unsure as to whether Coyitoto was actually still ill, or if the first powder the doctor feeds to the baby is poison to make him vomit and thus seem that the doctor saved Coyotito, so that Juana and Kino will feel indebted to him. Given the doctor's unsavory characterization, it is implied that the situation is likely the latter rather than the former. This, too, is Kino's instinct, though he is too nervous for his son's life to deny him treatment from a certified doctor.

Chapter 5 Quotes

The killing of a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat. For a boat does not have sons, and a boat cannot protect itself, and a wounded boat does not heal.

Related Symbols: Kino’s Canoe
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

After Kino kills the man, Juana and Kino know that they must leave town: now that Kino is in possession of the pearl that everyone wants, nobody will accept that the killing was committed in self-defense. Kino runs to his beloved canoe to prepare it for departure, and discovers that someone has broken a hole in it. In this quote, Kino is horrified to find his canoe broken. It is his prized possession, having been passed down to him by his father, and is the sole source of his livelihood. Though Kino has already been enraged by the attacks, this crime sparks an even deeper rage within the man, as evidenced by this passage, in which he declares the "value" of the canoe even greater than that of his own life. He feels that he and his family are at odds with the entire world, and feels as if it would have hurt less had he been murdered himself. Though Kino does not know who specifically broke his boat, it represents Kino's rejection by the entire town, further encouraging him to flee with the pearl, Juana, and the baby for their collective protection.

Chapter 6 Quotes

And Kino ran for the high place, as nearly all animals do when they are pursued.

Related Characters: Kino
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

With his boat broken, Kino and Juana must escape on foot. They soon hear horses, and realize that they are being followed by skilled trackers. Kino instinctively pulls his family towards the mountains for safety, as this quote notes, "as nearly all animals do when they are pursued." This is the second time in the story that Kino has been compared to an animal, the first time being when the doctor cruelly refers to the native people as animals. In this instance, it symbolizes two things: the first being the basic, animalistic instincts that all humans have to protect themselves when in danger. By heading to a high place, Kino knows that it will take the trackers longer to reach him, particularly on horseback. Second, the narrator may be echoing the thoughts that the trackers, likely white settlers, might have while analyzing the trail. Like the doctor, they may have racist, superior views towards indigenous people in which they do not equate their own intelligences with those of the natives. Similarly, this may just be Steinbeck himself writing his native character as an "other," one who is sympathetic but who is also described with animalistic, simplified language.

Everyone in La Paz remembers the return of the family; there may be some old ones who saw it, but those whose fathers and whose grandfathers told it to them remember it nevertheless. It is an event that happened to everyone.

Related Characters: Kino, Juana, Coyotito
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Like the quote at the beginning of the story, this quote notes that the story of Kino, Juana, and the pearl is one that is told for generations. Though the misfortunes specifically befell one family, it is perceived as a tragedy that affected the entire town. Since the town is so small, and everyone knows everything about everybody, no detail of the story remained private to Kino and Juana. Given the brutality that the people endured at the hands of the white settlers, and the subjugation they still face, each fortune is regarded as a collective one--leading to everyone wanting a piece of Kino's pearl--and each tragedy is a burden to every member of the town, not just those people it specifically effects. By retelling the story, generations bear the weight of how the promise of wealth can drive a person mad, and also bear the sadness of Coyotito's senseless death. It is a parable that warns against greed and envy, and places importance in family and safety above riches and wealth. One must always be wary of a sudden stroke of luck--if it seems too good to be true, it just might be.