Tortilla Flat - Major Themes

Setting | Character Summaries | Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
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Rejection of Conventional Middle Class Values and Materialism/Idealization of Poverty

Though conventional society views the paisanos as "bums," thepaisanos refuse to hold down steady jobs or pay rent on principle.  They have no qualms about scrounging for food or stealing it from neighbors or restaurants in town.  Danny refuses to pay the three-dollar deposit that is required to turn on the water in his house, even though he would gladly spend three dollars on wine.  The paisanos are sensual beings, most happy when their appetites for food and drink are satiated.  They have no use for the piling up of material possessions or the responsibilities that accompany ownership.  These things only complicate life, as is demonstrated by Danny's ultimate inability to escape the personal burden of owning his own property.

The paisanos' rejection of the desire to acquire material items is contrasted with "Sweets" Ramirez and her fancy vacuum cleaner.  The vacuum cleaner makes Sweets haughty as she becomes the envy of the whole town, even though her lack of electricity makes the vacuum cleaner a frivolous and unnecessary possession.  Steinbeck later reveals that the vacuum does not even have an engine, further demonstrating the shallow nature of materialism. The example of Sweets' vacuum parodies the rampant consumerism, driven by the desire for superfluous goods, which was beginning to define American culture during the time period.

The paisanos, who do not bother with such trifles as electronic gadgets, lead simple lives, free from the burden of pointless possessions, and Steinbeck portrays them as happier because of it: "'Happiness is better than riches', said Pilon.  'If we try to make Danny happy, it will be a better thing than to give him money'" (77).  The characters are able to recognize the more important aspects of life by rejecting materialism, which merely clutters and complicates life.  Danny and his friends have a distinctly different set of values from mainstream America, and though finding it harder to survive in such a consumer driven culture, they continue to get by and find satisfaction while doing so. 

Tortilla Flat, in its lighthearted presentation of Danny and his friends' ability to get by, idealizes the conditions of true poverty in which the men actually live.  The comedy is a thin veneer over the fact that these are war veterans whom the government seems to have abandoned.  While on one hand the men's desires to be free from the responsibility of owning possessions and contributing to society in any meaningful way are presented as virtues, on the other hand, these men are homeless, drunken vagrants who endanger their lives, as is evidenced by Danny's death.  While readers can laugh at their humorous exploits, the humor is tainted by the seriousness of subject matter than lies beneath the surface of the character's antics.  Always homelessness and starvation are on the near horizon of possibility for many of the characters in the novel.

Connectedness with Nature and Spirituality

The paisanos live in harmony with their surroundings and at times nature even comes alive, such as on St. Andrew's Eve, when the ground is lit up with mysterious light from buried treasure.  Steinbeck lovingly describes the landscape of Monterey at several points and idealizes the manner in which the paisanos live harmoniously with nature.  Because they are comfortable and safe in the natural environment, they see no need for conventional material items and comforts.  Steinbeck explains, "Clocks and watches [are] not used by the paisanos of Tortilla Flat. [ . . . ] For practical purposes, there was the great golden watch of the sun.  It was better than a watch, and safer, for there was no way of diverting it to Torrelli" (128).  Instead of relying on mechanical gadgets, the paisanos order their days around the ebb and flow of the natural environment.  Prior to Danny's inheriting his houses, none of the friends were averse to taking shelter in ditches, bushes, and abandoned chicken coups.   

Pilon, though certainly not a paragon of morality, is described in extremely flattering ways in terms of his relationship to nature and is revered for his connection to the world around him:

Pilon was a lover of beauty and a mystic.  He raised his face into the sky and his soul arose out of him into the sun's after-glow.  That not too perfect Pilon, who plotted and fought, who drank and cursed, trudged slowly on; but a wistful and shining Pilon went up to the sea gulls where they bathed on sensitive wings in the evening.  That Pilon was beautiful, and his thoughts were unstained with selfishness and lust.  And his thoughts are good to know. (18)

The paisanos, though certainly sinners in the conventional sense, are deeply spiritual people, and show respect for God.  Pilon expresses his beliefs in the holiness of mass: "And where a mass comes from is of no interest to God.  He just likes them, the same as you like wine.  Father Murphy used to go fishing all the time, and for months the Holy Sacrament tasted like mackerel, but that did not make it less holy" (23).  He has clearly defined views about God and religion.  The friends also show spirituality when they aid The Pirate in his quest to buy a gold candlestick for San Francisco; they feel that this is a worthy mission and find it fully plausible that San Francisco could have saved The Pirate's dog from death.  Additionally, the paisanos refuse to enter church without the proper clothing, showing their reverence for the institution and God.  While it may not seem like these characters, with their excessive wine drinking and occasional petty theft, would be at all respectful of these things, the paisanos' inners substance often conflicts with their drunken and disorderly exteriors.  

Desire for Freedom

The paisanos lives are largely directed by a desire to be free from all conventional responsibility.  Above all else, they desire to be able to come and go as they please and see even the stability that comes with having a home and meals on a regular basis as a burden.  Towards the end of the novel when Danny has become restless and bored of his settled life, he longs for the simpler times when he owned and worried about nothing:

Danny began to dream of his days of freedom.  He had slept in the woods in the summer, and in the warm hay of barns when the winter cold was in.  The weight of property was not upon him. [ . . . ] When Danny thought of the old lost time, he could taste how good the stolen food was, and he longed for that old time again. [ . . . ] Always the weight of the house was upon him; always the responsibility of his friends.  (142)

Though throughout the novel Danny and his friends settle into a domestic routine that seems to be enjoyed by all, eventually, Danny cannot resist the desire to return to his old ways.  He goes on a rampage, and even goes so far as to steal Pilon's shoes, a "crime against friendship" (147).  The friends see this as the culmination of Danny's downfall, as his desire for freedom overrides his loyalty to his friends. 

Integrity of Friendship

Steinbeck creates his modern day Camelot with Danny as King Arthur, the head of the Round Table, and the other friends as his loyal knights. Steinbeck's statement in the preface that Danny's house was "[ . . . ] not unlike the Round Table, and Danny's friends were not unlike the knights of it," sets the novel in a context of deep and abiding loyalty and friendship (1).  The bond of friendship in Tortilla Flat is extremely strong and it is the only thing to which any of the characters willingly commit themselves.

The bond grows stronger as the novel progresses, as is illustrated through the friends' dealings with The Pirate. Though they begin with every intention of robbing The Pirate of his hoard of money, once he appeals to their friendship for protection, the paisanos are obligated, under a sense of filial duty, to undertake what has been asked of them.  Of course, they are angered that their greedy plan has been foiled, but they still perform their duty and go so far as to beat Big Joe for stealing from The Pirate and thus violating the bonds of friendship. 

Pilon's ever present desire to reward Danny for his generosity underscores the importance of friendship.  Though his misguided dealings are usually motivated by his selfish desires for drink, always thoughts of kind acts towards Danny are present as well.  That is made clear in his desire to throw the fateful party for Danny.  Like the Round Table, this fellowship among the men is doomed to fail.  When Danny dies, the deep friendship goes with him.  Without the desire to do good by Danny to hold them together, the group falls apart. 

Tension between Freedom and Integrity of Friendship

The tension between personal freedom and the duty and bonds of friendship is the central problem in Tortilla Flat.   A primary example of this conflict occurs when Danny steals Pilon's shoes, which is the ultimate betrayal of friendship; they have stolen before, but theft against a friend is seen as treason, as is evidenced by what happens when Big Joe attempts to steal The Pirate's gold coins.  Danny breaks the trust that exists between the friends, sacrificing their bond for the ability to do whatever he pleases.  Steinbeck creates two desires in these characters that cannot easily be reconciled. Indeed, it appears that it is impossible for one to be completely without ties and also have meaningful relationships, like the one Danny has with his group of friends.   He sacrifices one for the other, while at the very same time his friends' dedication to him is at its strongest. 

After Danny's death, the fellowship disintegrates, and all its members depart on their own, which seems an interesting event, considering how dedicated to each other they have previously been.  Without Danny, their leader and steadying presence, the group is no longer able to hold together.  This otherwise funny and lighthearted novel ends on a tragic note, as friendship ultimately fails.  Danny, torn between his dedication to the group and his desire for freedom, ultimately fails his friends, and in such a tenuous world, they then fail each other. 

Alcoholism

While readers may freely snicker over the great cunning through which the characters in the novel manage to get their hands on alcohol, there is a disturbing current of alcoholism underneath the hilarious episodes of thievery and chicanery.  It is undeniably amusing that Big Joe has to bury himself in the sand to hide from a group of girl scouts after Pilon steals his pants in order to trade them for wine.  Yet, it is also disconcerting that the primary motivation in life for Danny and his friends is to obtain large quantities of alcohol, which they consume until they are completely out of control and eventually black out.  There is an ironic tension in the novel between the men's noble desire to remain free from the constraints of middle class conventionality and morality and their insatiable desire for alcohol, which leads them down a path of personal destruction, even unto death, as is the case for Danny.  So, while there is much to laugh at in Tortilla Flat, which has often been praised for its comedic value, the novel also portrays shiftless alcoholics whose dysfunctional lives seems unlikely to last.


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