Tortilla Flat - Plot Synopsis
Tortilla Flat begins with the introduction of Danny, his friends, and his house, of which Steinbeck writes, it was "not unlike the Round Table, and Danny and his friends were not unlike the knights of it" (1). The preface likewise introduces the figure of the paisano,whose diverse heritage is "a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods" (2). Readers then meet three of the novel's main characters, Danny, Pilon, and Big Joe. Having "[. . .] had two gallons of wine when they heard about the war," the three friends decide to enlist in the military in a sense of drunken patriotism (2). The men are then dispersed: Danny to Texas, Pilon to Oregon, and Big Joe, "as shall later be made clear," to jail (4).
Danny returns from the war to find that he is "an heir and an owner of property," thanks to his "viejo" who has died and bequeathed him two houses (5). At first Danny, looking forward to a life of ease and irresponsibility, is a bit disconcerted by his new role as property owner. To ease his mind, he gets drunk and starts several fights, resulting in his arrest. After a short stint in jail, as luck would have it, Danny runs into Pilon, and a bottle of brandy, and the two make arrangements for Pilon to "rent" Danny's second house for fifteen dollars a month, though Pilon has admittedly only possessed fifteen dollars once in his entire life. Pilon, through his cunning, defers his responsibility for payment to Pablo by renting part of the second house to him for fifteen dollars a month. Jesus Maria Coracan is also introduced into the circle of friends and becomes responsible for the rent, ensuring Danny will never see a cent.
By this point, the money has started to cause tension between Danny and the rest of his friends. Hounded by their own guilty consciences, the friends lash out at Danny for being greedy: "'Always the rent,' [Pilon] cried. 'You would force us into the streets – into the gutters, while you sleep in your soft bed. Come, Pablo,' Pilon said angrily, 'we will get money for this miser, this Jew'" (26). Money, though unimportant to the friends in the grand scheme of survival, is a point of contention among them, as they would rather spend it on a gallon or two of wine than use it for rent or to buy food. They prefer instead to scrounge or outright steal their evening meals.
Eventually, in their drunkenness, the friends burn Danny's "rental" property to the ground, which proves to be somewhat of a blessing. The responsibility of owning property was burdensome to Danny and had begun to drive a wedge between him and his friends. Though he indulges in "[ . . . ] a little conventional anger against careless friends [and] mourned a moment over the transitory quality of earthly property," Danny ultimately "slipped into his true emotion, one of relief that at least one of his burdens was removed" (42). Pilon expresses similar relief when he rejoices that "no longer [is] he a tenant, but a guest" in Danny's home as the friends all move into Danny's house after the fire (46). The friends, grateful to Danny for his generosity, promise to never sleep in his bed, as he requests, and that he will never go hungry. Their oath of loyalty is the first real example of selfless friendship in the novel. The burning of Danny's second house represents a turning point in the story, as the true covenant of friendship has been made among the men. In his quest to honor their friendship by finding money with which to pamper Danny, Pilon adopts The Pirate into the group, which demonstrates a significant shift in the friends' selfish priorities. Pilon first intends to steal The Pirate's stash of money, and together, the friends go so far as to invite The Pirate and his five dogs to live in the house, so that they will be better able to observe his behavior and see where he is hiding the money. Once The Pirate is tricked into presenting his money to his "friends" for protection, however, the men feel ashamed of their intentions to rob him and are immediately repentant. They guard The Pirate's money and The Pirate becomes a real friend, and an invaluable addition to the group. In this case, the paisanos' moral sense is strong enough to overcome great temptation as they refuse to violate the principles of friendship by stealing from The Pirate.
After the episode with The Pirate, Pilon meets up with Big Joe again, who has recently been released from jail, and the two embark on a treasure hunt in the forest. On St. Andrew's Eve, "the night when all buried treasure sent up a faint phosphorescent glow through the ground," all paisanos go to the woods to try and get rich quick, but Pilon has other motivations; he wants to give anything he may find to Danny as a thank you for everything he has done for the group of friends (66). He whips himself into a near religious frenzy telling Big Joe: "And we do nothing for him…We pay no rent. Sometimes we get drunk and break the furniture. We fight with Danny when we are angry with him and we call him names'" (70). Pilon's seeming selflessness in the treasure hunt is contrasted with Big Joe's behavior. Having been invited to stay with the friends, Big Joe steals one of Danny's blankets to swap for a gallon of wine, thinking he will be able to replace it once he and Pilon dig up their treasure. Pilon later steals the pants right off of Big Joe in retribution, but returns them in remorse once he feels cheated out of the gallon of wine for which he attempted to barter them.
Tortilla Flat (1942) movie still photo, with Pilon (Spencer Tracy) speaking with Dolores “Sweets” Ramirez (Hedy Lamarr). Jose Maria Corcoran (John Qualen) and Pablo (Akim Tamiroff) in background.
In the next episode Danny begins a fling with Dolores "Sweets" Ramirez, and even buys her an electric vacuum cleaner. Though none of the houses in Tortilla Flat even have electricity to power the vacuum, "[t]hrough its possession, Sweets climbed to the peak of the social scale of Tortilla Flat" and she becomes even more besotted with Danny for giving her such a magnificent present (86). The contrast between Sweets and her vacuum cleaner with the simple, possession-less life of the paisanos is evident, as is the resentment that Pilon and the others feel towards Danny's connection to this woman. They think he is becoming too tied down and are "jealous of a situation that was holding his attention so long" (87). The friends see Sweets as a threat to the "round table" and their way of life, and Danny, too, begins to feel tied down by the "duty of attendance" (87). The group hatches a plan to rid Danny of this burden, and in the end, the only attachment Danny is left with is the one to his friends.
After resuming their womanless existence, the friends learn an important lesson from The Caporál, a young soldier from Mexico who, though having had his life destroyed by his superior officer, still manages to care about the well being of his child. The friends see the importance of valuing loyalty and love above all else. The exception is Big Joe Portagee, who reveals himself to be lacking in virtue when he steals The Pirate's money, which the friends had earlier vowed to protect. They physically torture Big Joe until he tells them where the money is, proving their loyalty to The Pirate, and showing how scary they can be when anyone, even a friend, wrongs one among them. When the money is returned, The Pirate discovers he now has enough money to buy the gold candlestick for San Francisco, for which he had been saving, and the friends have successfully helped The Pirate fulfill the goal he has been working towards for years.
The friends are presented with an opportunity to do another good deed when Teresina Cortez, mother of nine, falls into a desperate situation. She feeds her "creepers, crawlers, tumblers, shriekers, cat-killers, fallers-out-of-trees" on a steady diet of nothing but beans and tortillas (119). However, when the rain ruins the bean crop for the year, Teresina is terrified that her children will go hungry. Pilon is indignant when he learns of the situation and he rouses the friends to come to her rescue by going on a food stealing spree around Tortilla Flat. In the end, they supply Teresina with "four one-hundred-pound sacks of pink beans," which she believes to be the only "proper food" for her children (127). Danny and his friends once again show their willingness to help those in need, while leaving an heir in their wake, as Teresina wonders which of the friends is responsible for her tenth child.
For awhile, everything is perfect at Danny's house. The friends enjoy each other's company, and live a lazy, easy life together in a "routine which might have been monotonous for anyone but a paisano" (141). However, Danny begins to get bored with being so settled, and "always the weight of the house [is] upon him; always the responsibility to his friends" (142). Danny, desiring freedom, runs away from his friends and begins to cause havoc in Tortilla Flat. Everywhere the rest of the group goes, they hear details of Danny's misdeeds: "gone were the moralities, lost were the humanities. Truly the good life lay in ruins" (146). Local merchant Torrelli takes advantage of the situation and attempts to take the house from Pilon and the others, saying that Danny sold it to him for twenty-five dollars, but the friends burn the proof of sale paper, avoiding disaster. Danny eventually returns, but nothing is quite the same, and Danny is listless and does not enjoy life anymore. "'He is changed,' Pilon said. 'He is old.'" (155). There is a great sense of unease in the house, and the friends decide that what Danny needs to feel himself again is "lots of wine, and maybe a party" (157).
The friends are so determined to throw this party for Danny that they are even willing to put their values aside and work for a day, cutting squids for Chin Kee. This shows their dedication to Danny and how much they are willing to do for him. In fact, the entire town of Tortilla Flat comes together in preparation for Danny's party. Some people make food, others bring decorations, and it is the biggest event anyone has seen in awhile. The party is a rousing success, and Danny celebrates longer and harder than anyone:
It is passionately averred in Tortilla Flat that Danny alone drank three gallons of wine. It must be remembered however, that Danny is now a god. In a few years it may be thirty gallons. In twenty years it may be plainly remembered that the clouds flamed and spelled DANNY in tremendous letters; that the moon dripped blood; that the wolf or the world bayed prophetically from the mountains of the Milky Way. (163)
The party is legendary in Tortilla Flat, and many details have been greatly exaggerated, but everyone clearly remembers that Danny "held the pine table-leg in his right hand [ . . . ] Danny challenged the world. 'Who will fight?' he cried. 'Is there no one left in the world who is not afraid?'" (164). Unable to find an opponent, Danny runs outside to try and find "[t]he Enemy who is worthy of Danny," and a few minutes later, he is discovered "[ . . . ] at the bottom of the gulch," all "broken and twisted" (165). The doctors are unable to save Danny's life, and the event that has been foreshadowed the entire novel, the loss of King Arthur, finally occurs. Ironically, Danny's friends, almost all discharged from the military, are unable to attend his military funeral due to their lack of appropriate attire, so instead they stand outside the church during the service and then lie in the tall grass surrounding the cemetery to view the burial (167). Afterwards, the friends decide to allow Danny's house to burn instead of being taken over by "some stranger [ . . . ] some joyless relative of Danny's" (173). This symbolic gesture is the last action of the Round Table, and when it is done, and the house is nothing more than burned rubble on the ground, they part "and no two wal[k] together" (174). The breaking of their fellowship is complete, and just like Arthur's Camelot, it cannot survive the loss of Arthur (Danny) himself.