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Free Study Guide-The Pearl by John Steinbeck-Free Online BookNotes
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

Chapter 1

Summary

The novel begins at the break of dawn. Kino wakes up and sees his wife Juana already at her chores of watching the baby and making breakfast. Kino takes the time to play with his dog and watch the hut. It is a picture of familial contentment. Suddenly, a tiny movement near the baby's hanging box draws attention. A scorpion, with its tail sticking out, is poised, waiting to strike the infant. Kino waits with baited breath, and Juana prays. Soon Coyotito moves, and the scorpion falls on his shoulder, stinging him. Kino immediately kills the scorpion, but the harm is already done. Juana tells her husband to go and bring the doctor. When the neighbors say he will not come, the couple takes the baby into town to see the doctor. As they travel, neighbors join them, and they all believe the doctor will refuse to treat the baby of such a poor man.

Kino knocks on the doctor's door and the neighbors stand by and watch. A native servant opens the door, and Kino explains what he needs. When the servant explains the situation to his master, the doctor inquires if the Indian man has enough money to pay his fee. Kino can only offer some worthless pearls as payment, so he is turned away with his son Coyotito. The neighbors quietly take their leave, and Kino, in anger and frustration, pounds on the gate.

Notes

The first chapter opens with a wonderful description of Kino's pleasant and simple family life. It is daybreak, and the light is beginning to dispel the darkness. (Ironically, in most of the novel, symbolic darkness (evil) will dispel the light (the happiness of Kino's existence)). On this morning, all is peaceful and calm as Juana cooks breakfast. Unfortunately, calamity soon strikes when the scorpion stings their infant son. The scorpion, which attacks the child and disrupts the family, foreshadows the human evil that the family will later endure. The human "poison," however, will prove much more destructive than the sting of the scorpion, both to the child and his family.

Kino and Juana realize their ineffectuality in dealing with the situation. Juana's incantation of magical words depicts her frustration (as well as her primitive belief in supernatural powers). Ironically, she ends with a "Hail, Mary." Kino's action is futile and overdone, as "he threw it (the scorpion) down and beat it into the earth floor with his fist.... beat and stamped the enemy until it was only a fragment and a moist place in the dirt." Kino is obviously venting his anger.


Fortunately, Juana takes control. She attempts to suck out the poison from the baby's shoulder. She also tells her husband they must see a doctor. On the advice of their neighbors, helpful rural folk, the couple carries the infant into town. The neighbors, who are friends, go along with Kino and his family. This again is a typical rural attitude, where any small incident is considered an event to be shared by the entire village. As the group proceeds towards the doctor, more and more people join in, and each tells the other of the incident that has occurred. When they reach the beggars in front of the church, these tattered men correctly guess that the doctor will not see the child. The beggars, along with other natives, become a "chorus" in the story and comment throughout the book on the action that is taking place.

Everyone in the village knows the doctor and his avaricious ways. They know about "the little brown pennies he gave sparingly for alms." At this point, the reader is made to realize the two classes, which separate the town. Kino and the other natives who belong to the country are the lower class. They hold to their old custom and primitive traditions. The doctor and the other more well to do settlers in the town form the upper class; they are part of the modern world. Kino realizes and resents the vast chasm that separates the two. But for the sake of his son, he pounds on the gate for help from the doctor, the representative of the upper class. As he waits, Kino takes off his hat in a subservient manner.

Although a servant answers the door, the doctor is described. He is attired in a "dressing-gown of red watered silk" that has come from Paris. The fat physician is sitting in bed, sipping hot chocolate from a tiny cup of eggshell china, munching on a sweet biscuit, and dreaming about a return visit to France. Upon hearing from his servant about the needs and the status of the patient, the doctor sends him back to check whether Kino can pay. Kino reveals his entire savings, a few "misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers." Upon seeing the pitiful pearls, the servant, imitating the behavior of the upper class, closes the gate and says, "The doctor has gone out." Both the doctor and the servant, therefore, show an utter lack of sympathy. It is no wonder that Kino pounds upon the gate in frustration. He is striking out at the doctor and all he stands for. His injured hand becomes a reminder to Kino throughout the book that this upper class, false world has not place for him in it.

Juana, on the other hand, for all her timidity and servility, is seen as a strong, stoic woman, capable of immediate action, of indeterminable mental strength and a willingness to cross over to the other world to save her only child. Later on, after the introduction of the Pearl in their lives, it is she who deters her husband from keeping it; it is she who realizes the evil force behind the pearl which is going to negate their whole life and warns her husband against it. However, it is ineffectual warning, since Kino is too entranced by the pearl's value to forsake it.

It is important to notice the musical motif that is developed in this first chapter; it will appear throughout the novel. It is significant, for it always reveals the current mood of the story. When Kino awakes, he mentally sings "The Song of the Family" about love and security, which is exactly what Kino is feeling. His contentment, however, is soon interrupted by the appearance of the scorpion. Immediately, his mental tune becomes "The Song of Evil." Then as Kino approaches the doctor's house, "The Music of the Enemy" pounds in his head.

It is also important to note that Steinbeck's descriptions of the village, both inside and outside the dwellings of the villagers, reinforce the contrast between the natives (old-world, lower class) and the towns folk (modern, upper class). When Kino and his family leave their home to go to the doctor's office, they leave the dirt huts and the gentle brush behind; in town, they see only cold stone and plaster. In town, the houses are surrounded with iron gates, which appear like cages for the upper class, especially when contrasted to the freedom and closeness to nature that the natives' experience. Steinbeck seems to be saying that their worlds are so diverse that it is not possible for them to ever blend into a whole.

Finally, it is important to notice the contrasts between Kino and the doctor, for they are both representatives of their respective classes. As a diver for pearls, Kino has become strong; his body is lean and masculine. In contrast, the doctor sits in bed in a red silk gown, sipping tea and eating a sweet biscuit. Kino lives close to the earth and appreciates nature; when he wakes, he listens to the morning sounds around him and watches the ants as they scurry about. In contrast, the doctor lives in a cold stone house caged behind closed gates and locked doors. Kino has deep emotions; he shows love for his wife and son, is at peace with nature, and sings about his feelings. The doctor, on the other hand, seems to have no emotion. He will not even bother to look at the infant stung by a scorpion because his father cannot pay the fee.

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