Tortilla Flat - Setting
Pen and ink drawing by Ruth Gannett, from the first edition of Tortilla Flat (1935): "And so for one month Danny sat on his cot in the Monterey city jail. It was purple dusk, that sweet time when the day’s sleeping is over, and the evening of pleasure and conversation has not begun. The pine trees were very black against the sky, and all objects on the ground were obscured with dark; but the sky was as mournfully bright as memory" (38).
The events of Tortilla Flat take place in Monterey, California, the setting for John Steinbeck's other well known work, Cannery Row, and its less popular sequel, Sweet Thursday. Though born and raised in Salinas, California, critic Thomas Fensch reports, Steinbeck's family also "[ . . . ] owned a home in Pacific Grove, in the Monterey area, and Steinbeck was often there, captivated by the mix of humanity in Cannery Row, fascinated by the sea, and captured by marine biology" (vii). Steinbeck has come to be inextricably associated with this area of California as many of his novels take place in Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, and Salinas and its adjacent agricultural valley. Joseph Fontenrose asserts, Steinbeck "[ . . . ] has loved no town so much as Monterey" and that is apparent in his descriptions of its landscape, especially the parts inhabited by the paisanos (19). Steinbeck writes:
Monterey sits on the slope of a hill, with a blue bay below it and with a forest of tall dark pine trees at its back. The lower parts of the town are inhabited by Americans, Italians, catchers and canners of fish. But on the hill where the forest and the town intermingle, where the streets are innocent of asphalt and the corners free of street lights, the old inhabitants of Monterey are embattled as the Ancient Britons are embattled in Wales. These are the paisanos. (2)
The Monterey of the paisanos exists as an idyllic setting where the older, more deliberate-paced life of the nineteenth century juts up against the emerging modern, consumer culture of the twentieth century. According to Fontenrose, Tortilla Flat, home to the paisanos, is engaged in "[ . . . ] a losing battle against twentieth-century civilization, but has not yet gone under" (19). Similarly, he points out, the paisanos, as inhabitants of the area with its "[o]ld World flavor that has lingered from the days when it was the seat of the Spanish and Mexican governments," are participants in this battle (Fontenrose 19). They resist modernization, as is evident in their lack of asphalt, street lights, electricity, jobs, and general purpose in life. Steinbeck describes the paisanos' resistance in tones of admiration and sets their struggle in the time-honored context of King Arthur's struggle for a pure and noble Camelot.
As the characters' resistance to modernity and mainstream American life is a major theme in the novel, the setting of the fictional town of Tortilla Flat in Monterey serves an extremely important role in the story. Steinbeck portrays Monterey, and likewise the paisanos' relationship with the locale, as distinct and special. He relates the seeming permanence of Monterey with both Tortilla Flat and the paisanos to create a mythic quality that sets the story almost out of time and provides thepaisanos an insular world in which they can successfully exist—for a time. He writes:
There is a changeless quality about Monterey. Nearly every day in the morning the sun shines in the windows on the west sides of the streets; and in the afternoons, on the east sides of the streets. Every day the red bus clangs back and forth between Monterey and Pacific Grove. Every day the canneries send a stink of reducing fish into the air. Every afternoon the wind blows in from the bay and sways the pines on the hills. The rock fisherman sit on the rocks holding their poles, and their faces are graven with patience and with cynicism. (141)
Similarly, Steinbeck writes, "[ . . . ] in Danny's house, there was even less change" (141). Critics have observed the symbiotic nature of the paisanos' relationship to Monterey, explaining how the town and the people live in necessary communion with one another. Fontenrose explains, "The paisanos, particularly of Danny's kind, are symbiotics or commensals (some would say parasites) of the Monterey community, depending upon others for food, living on the pickings" (24). Thus they are inextricably dependant upon the surrounding landscape and community for survival.
Monterey, in its static tolerance, is the ideal setting for the paisanos, though, just like the idyllic times at Danny's house, it cannot stand against the great forces of modern change bearing down upon it. Fontenrose explains, "The organismic complex – Danny, Danny's fellowship, Tortilla Flat, Monterey – is doomed to defeat before the forces of twentieth-century civilization. Monterey becomes just another American city, and Tortilla Flat fades away into it" (23). Monterey cannot remain untouched by the outside world and Danny's death shocks Tortilla Flat out of its protective bubble. Not even Steinbeck's beloved Monterey can withstand the pressures of modernization. Eventually, the beleaguered fellowship ofpaisanos falls before those pressures as well.