The Pearl: THE SIFT METHOD
When exploring how a writer uses literary elements and stylistic techniques to
convey meaning or theme, it is useful to use the SIFT method. It allows us to
"SIFT' through the parts in order to comprehend the whole.
Symbol: examine the title and text for symbolism
Imagery: identify images and sensory details
Figures of speech: analyze figurative language and other devices
Tone: discuss how all devices reveal tone and theme
A symbol is an object, action, or person used to represent itself as well as something
else. For example, an eagle is a type of bird; however, it symbolizes freedom.
The pearl in literature and mythology is a symbol of perfection and incorruptibility;
it is a symbol of long life and fertility. Buried within the oyster shell, the pearl
represents hidden knowledge, and it is highly feminine. Many eastern
philosophies (Buddhism, Taoism, Hindu) relate the "flaming pearl" to wisdom and
Steinbeck's writing is rich in the use of symbolism. The pearl is the central symbol
of the What is its significance? A pearl has often been used in literature to
represent spiritual purity and innocence. Is it used here in its traditional
symbolic sense? For Kino, the pearl seems to symbolize potential wealth,
education for his son, and betterment for his family.
The meaning of the pearl changes throughout the story, which reveals how
Steinbeck uses symbolism to contribute to the theme.
List three points in the novel where the meaning of the pearl changes.
A list of possible interpretations of other symbolic elements in The Pearl follows:
The scorpion may suggest evil or natural calamity.
The doctor may represent willful evil (inhumanity).
The pearl dealers may exemplify conspiracy and exploitation.
The trackers may symbolize a society bent on destroying an individual.
Kino could represent the common man oppressed by society.
The canoe may represent family tradition, something of value which Kino can pass
on to his son.
Imagery is a form of figurative language that creates mental pictures and appeals to
the senses. John Steinbeck uses imagery in The Pearl to help the reader imagine the
world he has created with words. He "shows" rather than "tells," thus allowing the
reader to participate in the experience more fully. Imagery helps to produce
tone. When reading a piece containing imagery, students might ask themselves
What can I see, hear, taste, smell, or feel?
What effect is the author trying to convey with these images?
The Pearl opens with intense imagery. Annotate the following excerpt for
examples of imagery.
Kino awakened in the near dark. The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a
pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east. The roosters had been crowing for
some time, and the early pigs were already beginning their ceaseless turning of twigs
and bits of wood to see whether anything to eat had been overlooked. Outside the
brush house in the tuna clump, a covey of little birds chartered and flurried with
Kino's eyes opened and he looked first at the lightening square which was the door
and then he looked at the hanging box where Coyotito slept. And last he turned his
head to Juana, his wife, who lay beside him on the mat, her blue shawl over her
nose and over her breasts and around the small of her back. Juana's eyes were open
too. Kino could never remember seeing them closed when he awakened. Her dark
eyes made little reflected stars. She was looking at him as she was always looking at
him when he awakened.
Kino heard the little splash of morning waves on the beach. It was very good - Kino
closed his eyes again to listen to his music. Perhaps he alone did this and perhaps
all of his people did it. His people had once been great makers of songs so that
everything they saw and thought or did or heard became a song. That was very long
ago. The songs remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added. That
does not mean that there were no personal songs. In Kino's head there was a song
now, clear and soft, and if he had been able to speak it, he would have called it the
Song of the Family.
Writers form images by using figures of speech, such as similes, metaphors, and
personification. Students can find examples in the story and discuss how these
figures of speech help to convey effect and meaning. Students might consider the
Below are selections from the novel which contain examples of personification.
Explain what the human qualities in these examples mean.
1. "The wind cried and whisked in the brush, and the family went on
monotonously, hour after hour."
2. "There wasn’t much left of it then anyway, for every time it fell over an
escarpment the thirsty air drank it.
3. "The high sun streamed down on the dry creaking earth so that the vegetation
ticked in protest.
How does the personification of the desert help contribute to our understanding of
what it means to Kino and his family?
For the examples below, identify the type of figurative language and explain its meaning.
"...die great pearl, perfect as the moon..."
type of figurative language:
"The houses belched people."
type of figurative language:
"A town is like a colonial animal."
type of figurative language:
"The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled
and puffed with the pressure of it."
type of figurative language:
A close examination of word choice, imagery, and detail reveals the narrator's attitude
or tone and contributes to the reader's understanding.
With his detail description of Kino's family visit to the doctor, Steinbeck effectively
portrays evil, social injustice, and the inhumanity of people's treatment of one another.
The following passage is another description that reveals the author's contempt for
An excerpt from The Pearl
In his chamber the doctor sat up in his high bed. He had on his dressing gown of
red-watered silk that had come from Paris, a little tight over the chest now if it was
buttoned. On his lap was a silver tray with silver chocolate pot and a tiny cup of
eggshell china, so delicate that it looked silly when he lifted it with his big hand,
lifted it with the tips of thumb and forefinger and spread the other three fingers
wide to get them out of the way. His eyes rested in puffy little hammocks of flesh,
and his mouth drooped with discontent. He was growing very stout, and his voice
was hoarse with the fat that pressed on his throat. Beside him on a table was a
small Oriental gong and a bowl of cigarettes. The furnishings of the room were
heavy and dark and gloomy. The pictures were religious, even the large tinted
photograph of his dead wife, who, if Masses willed and paid out of her own estate
could do it, was in Heaven. The doctor had once for a short time been a part of the
great world and his whole subsequent life was memory and longing for France...
MOTIF AND THEME
Throughout The Pearl, Steinbeck makes subtle use of motifs. Motifs are incidents,
images, or ideas which appear repeatedly throughout a work. Like links in a
chain, they serve to unite a story. They also can be used to give to story a greater
depth of meaning and communicate the author's message (THEME)
Some motifs in The Pearl are listed below. In the space on the right, list three
examples of these motifs from the novel. One has been done for you.
a Kino hears the Song of the Family when Juana arises and
Songs fixes breakfast.
The theme of the story is the author’s message about the subject. What
insights about life are the author is revealing about the subjects? What life-
lesson the main characters have learned or what lessons you have learned as a
result of your reading? Keep in mind the fact that many stories have more than
one theme and there is seldom just one "right" answer. Look for statements in
the story by characters that comment on life, the world, or human nature,
thereby implying theme. To determine theme, you must:
Circle the subject or subjects that emerge from the story:
evil romance injustice friendship corruption war
coming of age poverty tradition invention individuality
survival greed racism individual and society ambition
perseverance the American Dream inhumanity
Write a sentence about the subjects you listed based on insights gained
from analyzing symbolism, imagery, figurative language, and other devices
(the "SIFTing" process). Your sentence should explain what you
understand about the author’s beliefs about those subjects.
Statement of theme
record passages from the book that contain direct statements,
symbols, imagery, figurative language, strong tone, or specific motifs
that support your conclusion about the theme.