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FORM AND STRUCTURE
An important novel can usually be interpreted on many levels, and this is certainly the case with The Pearl. The book's structure is as simple as the legend, or folktale, on which it is based: It begins and ends with Kino as an impoverished fisherman who, in the process of pursuing his dream, is nearly destroyed. Readers often speak of The Pearl as an allegory or a parable.
An allegory is a story meant to teach a spiritual or moral lesson, in which the characters and action symbolize abstract concepts. A parable is a short allegory, which has long been associated with the New Testament. Christ used parables to teach moral lessons (for example, the Good Samaritan and the lesson of the Talents).
Some readers see The Pearl as an allegory of social oppression. In this view, Juan Tomas is a symbol of the ancient Indian wisdom, Kino is a symbol of the Indians' desire for freedom, and the doctor, priest, and pearl buyers are symbols of the oppressive Spanish culture. The pearl represents Kino's means of escaping oppression, but the powerful forces of the social system are too strong for even the pearl to overcome. When Kino throws his great treasure back into the sea, the message seems to be that the poor Indian doesn't have a chance.
Other readers see in The Pearl a strong allegorical message about human greed. Kino becomes the symbol of the poor but happy man who is destroyed when he begins to want the things of the material world. The pearl that was supposed to bring happiness and fulfillment brings only destruction. At the end both Kino's dream and his son are dead.
In the original story on which Steinbeck based his own, the fisher sees the pearl as a means of saving his soul through the purchase of Roman Catholic masses "sufficient to pop him out of Purgatory like a squeezed watermelon seed." (Purgatory, in Catholicism, is the temporary place or condition where the repentant sinner is absolved after death, and where mortal sins are punished before the soul can attain salvation.) When the fisher decides to throw the pearl back, he feels like a "free man" despite the insecurity of both his soul and his future.
In the novel, Kino says that the pearl has become his soul. This closely echoes the Gospel According to Matthew in the New Testament, in which the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a "pearl of great price." If the pearl is seen as a symbol of salvation, what is the meaning of its loss at the end? Is Kino, like the fisherman of the original story, lucky to return to a state of simple human happiness and poverty? Or is he denied a soul as punishment for his reliance on material things, or for his daring to overreach his lowly status?
In his preface to The Pearl, Steinbeck says: "If the story is a parable, perhaps
everyone takes his own meaning from it...." It's up to you to decide whether the