The Pearl by John Steinbeck is about a pearl diver, Kino, who discovers a valuable pearl. He is first shown as a poor pearl diver who lives a simple life in Mexico with his wife, Juana, and their son, Coyotito. However, his son, Coyotito, is strung by a scorpion and becomes very sick. In his effort to find ways to pay for medical bills, Kino discovers a huge and valuable pearl in the ocean. This discovery makes him develop hopes that it will bring wealth to his family (Morris 490). However, this discovery brings greed, violence, and tragedy into his life, contributing to misfortunes. News about the pearl spreads quickly among the townsfolk of La Paz, and everyone becomes interested in the pearl. For instance, he is immediately confronted by a greedy doctor, a priest, and businessmen who want the pearl for themselves. Additionally, he encounters people who want to steal the pearl leading to murder and forcing the family to flee their home. In the end, Kino realizes that the pearl has only brought misery and trouble in his life, and thus he throws it back into the ocean.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck portrays Kino as a tragic hero in various ways. Literature refers to a tragic hero as a person born with heroic qualities. This character finally faces greater destruction, suffering, and doom that ruins his life (Bates 41). Kino is shown as a tragic hero in the novel as he suffers the tragic flaw of greed after discovering a valuable pearl. Initially, Kino is shown as a poor man who lives a simple life with his family. However, his life drastically changes when he discovers a valuable pearl in the ocean. He becomes obsessed with this pearl and does not want to lose it. He states, “This pearl has become my soul … if I give it up, I shall lose myself” (Steinbeck 49). However, Kino’s downfall is traced back to his obsession with the pearl. This obsession makes him turn against his people, isolating himself from friends, neighbors, and family, leading to his ultimate downfall.
In addition, Kino’s tragic hero character is compounded by the corrupt social system within his community. The pearl buyers exploit his ignorance and lack of education to deny him his rightful profit. For instance, the priest takes advantage of him when he seeks spiritual guidance encouraging him to donate part of the pearl to the church (Bates 43). This interaction with the priest shows the injustice and corrupt nature of the colonial system. On the other hand, his encounter with the doctor shows the corrupt nature of the medical establishment and the capitalist system. For instance, when a scorpion strings Kino’s son, the doctor refuses to treat him, claiming the family cannot afford the cost (Bates 43). However, when the doctor learns about Kino’s discovery, he becomes interested in treating his son’s welfare, hoping to get a share of the pearl’s value. He offers compensation that is way below the value of the pearl. These interactions show the forces of injustice and corruption that Kino endured. As his obsession with the pearl intensifies, these actions of injustice and corruption intensify his violent behavior, contributing to the tragic ending.
Moreover, a tragic turn of events is seen when Kino kills a man tempted to steal his pearl, thinking he is protecting his family. When Kino and his wife try to sell the pearl, they are met with violence and greed from those around them. As a result, Kino becomes desperate to protect the pearl making him commit murder (Bates 44). After the killing, Kino and his family are forced to escape from the village, fearing retribution. Kino’s simple life is completely disrupted by his attachment to the pearl and his pursuit of wealth. In addition, Steinbeck shows Kino as a tragic hero in the novel’s final chapter. The tragedy climaxes when a group of men kills his son, mistaking him for a coyote. His dreams are shattered, and he realizes that the pearl has only brought more pain and suffering. Steinbeck states, “For Kino’s world had caught fire, and the flames would destroy the whole of it” (Steinbeck 84). He later casts the pearl back into the ocean, symbolizing his return to a poor pearl diver. After losing everything, Kino and Juana return to the village, where Kino realizes the impact of his obsession with the pearl, which leaves him alone and broken.
Nonetheless, Steinbeck uses various themes to show Kino as the tragic hero. For instance, he uses the theme of wealth and greed to show how they can ruin a person’s life (Karsten 3). When Kino discovers the valuable pearl, he is filled with hope that he will improve his family’s life. However, as the pearl’s value increases, the dangers and corruption surrounding it also increase. Kino’s obsession with it leads him to the path of destruction as he becomes violent in his quest to protect it. The author also uses the theme of racism and systemic injustice to contribute to Kino’s tragic ending (Karsten 6). The wealthy buyers conspire against Kino, exploiting his ignorance and lack of education to deny just compensation. He becomes a victim of racism, where the wealthy treat him as inferior. This oppressive colonial system, the exploitative capitalist system, corruption, and racism contribute to his downfall.
In conclusion, The Pearl by John Steinbeck shows Kino as a tragic hero. Steinbeck uses various literary techniques, such as themes, characters, and symbolism, to develop Kino’s character and downfall. Kino’s tragic flaw of obsession, greed for pearl, and corrupt social system contributed to his downfall. The tragic events that occur include a murder and the loss of his son, making him realize the destructive power of greed and wealth. The author highlights the impact of systemic injustices such as corruption and racism in Kino’s life. Therefore, this novel acts as a reminder of how greed can lead to tragedy and destruction and the importance of remaining grounded in what truly matters in life.
BATES B. “The Pearl As Tragedy.” California Association of Teachers of English, Redlands. 1970: 41–44.
Steinbeck, J. “The Pearl .” New York: Bantam 1983.
Karsten, E. “Thematic Structure in the Pearl” English Journal 1965: 1-7
Morris, H. “The Pearl: Realism and Allegory” The English Journal 1963: 487-505