Tortilla Flat - Essay Questions

Drawing from Tortilla Flat First Edition 1935

A pen and ink drawing by Ruth Gannett, from the first edition of Tortilla Flat. Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, and Danny sitting by the stove. "When the evening came, and it was dark, they went into the house and built a fire of cones in the air-tight stove. Danny, in proof of his forgiveness, brought out a [liter] of grappa and shared its fire with his friend" (88).


  1. Steinbeck was fascinated as a child by Sir Thomas Malory's version of the Arthurian legends. To make these legends more accessible to the modern readers, he spends years in the 1950s recasting Malory's Morte D'Arthur into modern English, the result being The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, left unfinished at Steinbeck's death in 1968 and published posthumously in 1976. The same passion for the knights of the Round Table is reflected in Tortilla Flat. There are no obscure allusions to the legends, Steinbeck making it clear from the Preface that "Danny's house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny's friends were not unlike the knights of it." Why do you think the author chooses a group of marginalized paisanos to reenact the deeds of the famous knights? Pay attention to the language. Do you find the usage of formulaic expressions anachronistic or not?
  2. Analyze the concepts of "heroic" as opposed to "mock-heroic." Why is the story of Danny and his friends "mock-heroic?"
    An important aspect of the novel is the relationship between men and women. How powerful are the women of Tortilla Flat? Are they simply a means for men's sexual gratification? Discuss the significance of gift giving.
  3. Tortilla Flat can be seen as a liminal place, a place halfway between civilization and wilderness. Why would Steinbeck choose such a setting for the story? 
    The novel captures a clash of cultures: the dominant culture of those living in Monterey, of those well integrated in a system which provides them a more modern lifestyle, and the subculture of the Monterey Mexicans living in Tortilla Flat, in quite rudimentary conditions. How does the dominant culture affect the subculture? Does the subculture undergo any changes? Can it maintain its identity?
  4. Money is another important issue in Tortilla Flat. What does money signify for the people living outside the boundaries of Tortilla Flat, and how meaningful is it for the paisanos? Why is bartering preferred over owning?
  5. Steinbeck pays a lot of attention in his novels to food. Entire meals are described at length in The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Discuss the significance of food and wine sharing in Tortilla Flat. Does food have more than a nourishing value?
  6. Throughout the novel, it is clear that the idyllic state in which Danny and his friends are living cannot last.  Ultimately, Danny dies, and the friends go their separate ways.  How does Steinbeck foreshadow this event?  What techniques does he use to show that, like Arthur's Round Table, Danny's fellowship, too, will fail? 
  7. How is the setting of Monterey, California utilized in the novel?  Why is it important that the novel is set in this place, as opposed to in another state, or even in another Californian town?  What aspects of Monterey, and its relation to thepaisanos make it the ideal setting for Tortilla Flat?   How does Steinbeck show the importance of the town throughout the novel? 
  8. When Danny's second house burns down, he feels "relief that at least one of his burdens [is] removed" (43).  Throughout Tortilla Flat there are many similar declarations, which indicate that owning possessions and/or property is nothing more than a hassle.  Why do the paisanos prefer to live a life free of possessions, as well as refuse to hold down steady jobs?  What are the benefits, and how does Steinbeck contrast the paisanos with mainstream, consumer-driven society? 
  9. The paisanos are petty thieves, and certainly would never be accused of being saints.  However, they do occasionally do good deeds.  In your opinion, do their good qualities outweigh their bad ones?  Does Steinbeck make them sympathetic characters despite their flaws?   Explain. 
  10. The conflict between the paisanos' desire for freedom and their dedication to each other is arguably what causes the eventual destruction of the group; Danny violates the trust of the group when he steals Pilon's shoes.  Why did Steinbeck include such opposing themes as so important in the novel?  Is this a conflict that could ever be resolved, or is Steinbeck saying that it is simply typical of the human condition? 
  11. Tortilla Flat is largely a light, humorous novel, until the very end, when it turns dark.  Why does this happen?  Is it simply an inconsistency?  What reason would Steinbeck have for choosing to end the novel as he does?

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