A short prologue begins the story. In it the narrator states that the story of the pearl has been worn to its essence by many retellings in the town from which it originated. As such, things in the story will be black and white, more purely evil and good than as in life. The narrator speculates that if the story is a parable then perhaps the reader will find some lesson for his or her own life.
The novel opens just before dawn in the coastal village of La Paz on the Gulf of Mexico. Kino awakens just as the morning light is coming into the sky. The roosters, pigs and wild birds are already awake in the yard outside Kino's thatch hut. The first thing Kino sees upon opening his eyes is the light outlining the door to his hut and then he sees the hanging box where his infant son, Coyotito, sleeps. Next he looks at his wife Juana beside him on the mat. Her eyes, as they always are when Kino awakes, are already open. Most of her head is covered in a blue shawl that she uses to ward off the chill of night. She is looking at him.
Kino hears the music of the waves upon the shore. We learn that in the past everything Kino's people did or saw became a song but that time has long since passed and no new songs have been created. Kino, however, has his personal song that is "clear and soft" that, if he chose to give it a name, would be called "The Song of the Family."
Juana rises and, after checking to see that Coyotito is well, fans an ember from the firepit into the morning cooking fire. Kino, meanwhile, puts on his sandals and steps outside the hut to watch the dawn. A goat approaches him and a moth flies into the light of the fire. Kino now hears the song of the family coming from the stone where Juana is grinding the corn for the morning meal. The dawn comes suddenly while Kino watches "with the detachment of God" a group of ants in the sand. When a thin timid dog approaches Kino offers it a kind word and the dog rests contentedly near him.
The narrator interjects that though this morning is like any other, it is perfect in its way. From the hut Kino can hear the sound of Juana singing an ancient song that forms part of the song of the family. Though the melody consists of only three notes the song is part of Kino's life and for him evokes feelings of safety and warmth. From other brush houses Kino hears other families rising with their own songs.
Kino is young with black hair, brown skin and a thin mustache and warm but fierce eyes. Before he steps inside Kino see two inept roosters preparing for a fight in the yard and a covey of wild doves flying inland to the hills. Inside Juana has finished preparing the corn cakes and is braiding her hair. Kino eats hot corn cakes and drinks some pulque that, except for rare occasions, has always been his morning meal. Kino's sigh of satisfaction after he has eaten is all the conversation necessary for Juana and Kino to begin their day.
The rising sun streams through the crack in the brush house and Kino and Juana's attention is suddenly drawn to a deadly scorpion descending one of the ropes supporting Coyotito's hanging box. The scorpion brings to Kino's mind the song of evil, brought by any enemy of the family, and as the scorpion draws closer to the happily gurgling infant Juana begins to recite both pagan and Christian prayers of protection. Kino slowly approaches the deadly creature but Coyotito's laughter causes the rope to shake and the scorpion falls onto the boys' shoulder. The scorpion stings Coyotito before Kino can pull it away and stamp it to death on the earth floor.
Juana pulls the baby from the crib and immediately begins to suck the poison from the wound. The neighbors, including Kino's older brother Juan Thom�s and his wife Apolonia, come rushing at the sound of the screaming child. Everyone knows that though Juana has done her best to remove the poison there is a good chance the baby will die if enough of the venom remains. After the sickness begins the baby will suffer terribly until he dies. Juana demands that Kino bring the doctor to treat Coyotito.
Everyone gathered at Kino's hut knows that it would be very surprising if the doctor came since he never came to the poor indian's huts. After Kino tells his wife that the doctor will not come, she responds that they must go to him. With his son's life at stake Kino agrees. Everyone follows Kino and Juana to the doctor's house. They take the path to where the stone portion of the city begins, where the walled houses hold cool inner gardens with caged birds and splashing fountains. As they proceed to the doctor's home, new people join the procession including four beggars normally posted outside the church who know everything that happens in the town. The beggars know that the doctor, who thinks of the indians as animals, will not deign to treat Kino's son.
At the gate to the doctor's house Kino hesitates when he considers that the doctor is the descendent a people that for four hundred years had subjugated his own. Kino feels weak, afraid and angry. Kino hears the music of the enemy in his ears. Even though the rage and terror grow within him, Kino thinks to remove his hat before lifting the iron knocker on the gate. The servant who comes to the door is an indian of Kino's own race and Kino says in their common language that his child is sick and needs a healer. The servant, refusing to use the indian language, tells Kino that he will inform the doctor of the reason for their visit and then he shuts the gate.
The doctor is languishing in his sumptuous bedchamber, drinking chocolate and, as he often does, thinking of the time that he spent in Paris as a young man when he could afford a mistress and still have the small luxuries of life. Dressed in a silk robe, the doctor drinks from a cup of china that is so small that he must use only the tip of his thumb and forefinger to lift it. He is fat and his voice has become hoarse. On the walls are various religious pictures including one in the same style depicting his deceased wife. When the servant informs the doctor of Kino's request, the doctor contemptuously asks if the indians have any money to pay for his services. The servant returns to Kino who produces several small, misshapen pearls of little value. After a time the servant returns the pearls to Kino and makes the excuse that the doctor has gone out to treat a serious case.
The group waiting with Kino quickly dissolves because they do not want to witness his shame. Kino stands at the doctor's shut gate in silence for a time and then, after replacing his hat on his head, suddenly strikes the iron gate with his fist which causes his knuckles to begin bleeding.
The novel is set in the town of La Paz, which Steinbeck visited in the course of a biological expedition with his scientist friend Ed Ricketts. The oyster beds of La Paz produced many of the pearls that had fueled the Spanish conquest of the region during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While in La Paz, Steinbeck heard the story of a young indian who found a valuable pearl and hid it under a rock. After he was nearly killed by robbers the young indian threw the pearl back into the sea. Inspired by the tale, Steinbeck wrote his own version of the story which was initially published in Woman's Home Companion (December, 1945) as "The Pearl of The World". The story was first published as a book in 1947 to coincide with the release of the movie version.
The first chapter begins with a series of descriptions -- Kino and Juana awaking, the simple but comforting disposition of their brush house, and the activities of the various animals Kino observes outside his hut. We learn that Kino is sensitive to the small details of his world and that these things all form a part of the security and comfort embodied in Kino's song of the family. When the narrator observes that "it was a morning like other morning and yet perfect among mornings" we can infer that Kino's life is being presented in the manner of a parable in which people and events are portrayed as sharply delineated between good and evil so that the reader can draw the narrator's intended lesson.
The scorpion evokes the song of evil, which Kino hears whenever an enemy of the family threatens. The episode with the scorpion makes that morning different from those that preceded it and precipitates the need for a visit to the doctor's house. This in turn leads to a sharp and painful reminder to Kino that his race has always been kept poor and ignorant and that without money his son will never rise above that condition.
Through the episode with the doctor we learn of the social stratification in the town. The prosperous descendents of the Spanish conquerors, like the doctor, still maintain the master/slave relationship with the natives whom they suppress with ignorance and poverty. Those natives who try to step outside the traditional relations are censured and, in Kino's case, publicly humiliated. Kino's futile striking of the doctor's iron gate with his fist belies his suppressed rage and bitterness.
The Pearl: Novel Summary: Chapter 1