Tortilla Flat - Glossary of Key Terms and Concepts

Setting | Character Summaries | Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts | Major Themes


Betrayal: Betrayal of friendship is the worst possible act any character in the novel can commit.  Though Danny's group may steal food and get into fights, they are honorable in one respect: they hold friendship in extremely high regard.  When Big Joe steals The Pirate's money, and when Danny steals Pilon's shoes, this is more than just petty theft; it is a betrayal of the trust the friends have placed in each other and precipitates a chain of events that lead to the demise of their friendship. 

Foreshadowing: There is much foreshadowing in Tortilla Flat, which alludes to the ultimate event of Danny's death.  Through details such as Danny's growing restlessness and his rampage in town, as well as the black bird that Pablo sees lurking over Danny as he stands on the dock hours before his death, Steinbeck hints at the demise of the group's friendship.  Though the novel's tone is light and funny, there are indications throughout that disaster is on the horizon for the friends.

Anti-materialism: The paisanos reject the value of possessions and see owning property as a burden rather than a privilege.  This rejection of materialism is contrasted with "Sweets" Ramirez's love of her vacuum cleaner and the town's covetousness in Chapter IX.  Ultimately, the paisanos prefer a simple life free from the burden of ownership.  The pressures of ownership caused strife among the group of friends and ultimately result in Danny's death as he is driven to the brink by his desire to escape the sense of responsibility and conventionality that his house represents.  

Paisano: The term is literally translated "countryman" or "compatriot" from Spanish.  Colloquially, paisano can be a derogatory term for Hispanics.  Steinbeck describes the paisanos as people of mixed racial heritage, with a "[ . . . ] a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods" (2).  Danny and his friends are all paisanos.  In Tortilla Flatthey are idealized and portrayed as living simply, without many possessions, and close to the land, thereby rejecting modern American values. 

Round Table: The Round Table symbolizes the legendary fellowship of King Arthur's knights in Camelot.  Danny and his friends are compared to the Knights of the Round Table. The Round Table represents strong bonds of friendship and loyalty to the group no matter what.  Danny and his friends prove their dedication to each other several times throughout the novel.  Along with the fealty represented by the Round Table, Steinbeck also alludes to betrayal and the ultimate failure of the fellowship among King Arthur's Knights, and indicates that this, too, will happen to Danny and his friends. 

Spirituality: A sense of spirituality is surprisingly important to the characters of the novel, considering their dubious activities.  This can be seen through the friends' desire to help The Pirate purchase the gold candlestick for San Francisco, and their belief in the supernatural, such as on St. Andrew's Eve, as well as their repeated prayers when they are in dire situations.  The characters show respect for spiritual matters, as evidenced by their insistence on not entering a church unless they have the proper, respectful clothing.  

Time: The characters in the novel have a different relationship with time than most people.  They do not use watches or clocks, and use the sun as their time-keeping piece.  Overall, there is a sense of timelessness in the novel.  Steinbeck writes, "There is a changeless quality about Monterey," especially in Danny's house where there is little sense of time or change (141).  These characters are removed from the normal movement of time, and especially the growing hustle and bustle of modern life, and live on "Tortilla Flat time," which is slow and follows no rules, except those of nature.  This illustrates the closed off, idyllic world in which Danny and his friends live for most of the novel.


Setting | Character Summaries | Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts | Major Themes