Thoughts: Tortilla Flat

02 Jul

Tortilla FlatTortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thy life is not thine own to govern, Danny, for it controls other lives. See how thy friends suffer! Spring to life, Danny, that thy friends may live again!

Steinbeck obviously models his tale of Danny and his comrades in Tortilla Flat after Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. He never hid his infatuation with the stories of King Arthur and his knights. Nor did he hide his partiality toward an idea which describes a community as an organism. With his chapter epigraphs and little mini-stories expounding the adventures of Danny and his knights, he mirrors Malory’s work – but not in title. Where Malory chose to title his work by referencing one person, Steinbeck references an entire community thus entangling his idea of an organic world with the ideas presented by Malory.

He describes adventurous episodes with Danny, Steinbeck’s Arthur, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pirate and Joe Portagee – his knights. Some critics have chastised Steinbeck’s representation of Mexican-Americans in California after the first world war. He renders these men as childish in their behavior and logically inept, animalistic in their drinking habits and perhaps lazy in comparison to the prototypical American ideology. Yet he does not mock them. In fact, it seems that Steinbeck might actually envy them – their simple ways and pure hearts. While we read about their wasted days on the front porch, their liberal sense of theft, their obsessive addiction to wine – gallons of it at a time – and their immature thought processes, we must note their pure spirit, their innocent drive to perform good deeds according to their seemingly backwards logic.

While Steinbeck associates these characters with a particular group of people with whom he felt personally familiar, one may notice their characteristics in all people – rich, poor, black, white, yellow, brown, male, female – it doesn’t matter. A rich man might just as easily employ flawed, self-serving logic while contemplating an ethical conundrum. Women can embark on selfless humanitarian missions as quickly as any of these paisanos. We all share these same tendencies. I think Steinbeck brought his ideas out of the clouds and presented them through the lives of a familiar people who share the same human characteristics as the rest of us.

I particularly enjoyed Steinbeck’s moral crusade against possession. These men, homeless and penniless, enjoy their lives free from the constraints of material responsibility. When Danny inherited his grandfather’s two homes, Pilon noticed:

…that the worry of property was settling on Danny’s face. No more in life would that face be free of care. No more would Danny break windows now that he had windows of his own to break. Pilon had been right – he had been raised among his fellows. His shoulders had straightened to withstand the complexity of life. But one cry of pain escaped him before he left for all time his old and simple life.

Now Danny would have to endure a life secluded from his friends, burdened with enforcing rent, expecting payment for goods, feeling anger because of damaged property, etc. And his friends would have to endure that nagging feeling of debt to one they see as a brother. One might settle for calling this an eventuality of growing up, but, as Pablo notes, these things impair everyone’s happiness. More than ownership, they long to live happily. They experienced happiness sleeping in the woods. They felt free. Now they find themselves chained to obligation.

While living among his free-loading friends, Danny silently contemplates his role and the reader senses a quiet struggle within him. But he does not bring his friends into the fight. In fact, when they burn down his second house, he feels relief because he no longer feels the weight of that house nor the obligation to enforce rent for it. With the house gone, he no longer feels alienated from his friends. Danny, suddenly burdened with these things and separated from those with whom he identified himself, seems to struggle internally about his very identity. But in the meantime, his friends do not indulge a sense of advantage over Danny. We see this through their desire to live as noble men and their continuous search to repay Danny for his grace, even though they fail miserably with every attempt. I think they innately understand that money and materials do not appropriately repay a man for providing them with invaluable happiness and friendship. Besides, possession and money drive Danny to burdensome sadness. Danny’s friends innocently adopt him as their leader, accept his grace and live to make him happy – not from a sense of obligation or gratitude, but from awe. They happily and proudly call him friend which influences their love for one another. In this way, Danny exemplifies Arthurian leadership and fosters the intimate integration of people after their spiritual divorce wrought by possession.

However, though we would like to abandon possession and responsibility, these things develop the bonds between the knights. If we remove the concept of possession from this social construct, gratitude becomes irrelevant along with kindness, generosity and sacrifice. Without possession, we cannot qualify Danny as a genuinely good and caring man. We cannot praise him for his tendency to abandon the complexities of ownership and his ability to unite these paisanos rather than divide them through debt. He redeems a debt of love for his generosity and blindness to advantage, which the paisanos would not feel without possession.

Yet we ought to note how Danny integrates these men unintentionally. His repulsion toward responsibility influences these events, not his conscientious choices of charity. While he struggles within, his friends enjoy a spiritual awakening of brotherhood, not by Danny’s plans, but because he symbolizes an idea of a man whom these paisanos admire and aspire to emulate.

Near the end, Steinbeck culminates his Arthurian episodes at Tortilla Flat with two wild events which unite the town. He uses his idea of a community organism as a ribbon to wrap his gift. Danny falls into a kind of madness, perhaps because he loses even more freedom due to his obligation to his friends who have grown to depend on him – and not just materially. As Danny suffers, so do his friends. They sympathize and stress over how to help him feel better. As he lives, so do his friends. They clamber about laughing, telling stories, and baking their bare feet in the sun. The group has completely fused into one living beast, completely interdependent. I wonder if Danny detested this – the curse of every noble leader. He finally felt the loss of his carefree independence, cursing the responsibility which had robbed him of his freedom and perhaps, also, the love and humanity which had blessed him with influence over the livelihood of his friends and seeded the inspiration which united a microcosmic world. When one invests themselves completely into the happiness of others, whether intentionally or otherwise, what more can they give when they no longer exist as themselves but as the spirit of all?

Afterwards, when they walk away, they know these possessions never mattered. And they would never feel lonely or sad again. Only content with life – sleeping in the woods and scavenging for the next gallon of wine. With Danny always with them.

View all my reviews


Posted by on July 2, 2013 in John Steinbeck


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2 responses to “Thoughts: Tortilla Flat

  1. Heather

    July 2, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    This is one of my favorite Steinbeck shorts. Great review.

  2. ifnotread

    October 8, 2013 at 8:49 am

    What a terrific review. This is one of my favourites but I seem to love lots of Steinbeck’s work.


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