Study Guide

Tortilla Flat

by John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck’s first popular success, is a short novel depicting the clash of paisano (combined Spanish, Indian, and Mexican) cultural identity with traditional European, capitalist culture in twentieth century California. The novel shows the seemingly inevitable obliteration of older, communal paisano values by the American capitalistic system.

Initially, a group of paisano young men, led by Danny, live their carefree, nearly possession-free life of drinking wine, engaging in sexual and other escapades, and sleeping off the effects of both in the Monterey jail. Their human closeness and joy in living are unmistakable, but then Danny inherits property. Ownership is the essence of competitive, community-destroying Western capitalism. Danny’s friend Pillon immediately predicts that Danny, having been “lifted above thy friends. . . . wilt forget thy friends who shared everything with thee, even their brandy.” Danny objects that he will continue to share everything, even his houses, with Pillon’s response that “it would be a world wonder if it were so.”

For a time, the “world wonder” exists. Like King Arthur’s knights, an analogy expressly drawn by Steinbeck, Danny and his friends commit themselves to sharing all and helping others, adhering to traditional paisano values. Thus, when Pillon and Jesus Maria unintentionally burn one of Danny’s houses, Danny is secretly happy because the economic...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Tortilla Flat Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Danny returns home from serving in World War I to find that his grandfather has bequeathed him two houses on Tortilla Flat. The responsibility of ownership depresses Danny, and a drunken spree of window breaking and the jail sentence it earns him do little to relieve his malaise. Then he runs into his friend Pilon, who moves into the larger of the two houses with him, agreeing to pay fifteen dollars a month in rent. After an argument, Pilon moves into Danny’s smaller house. The pair share wine, women, and worry. Ownership plagues Danny.

The rent Pilon that never intended to pay bothers him, but his troubles seem to be over when he strikes a deal with Pablo. Pablo agrees to move in with Pilon for fifteen dollars a month rent—money he never can or will pay.

Danny enjoys a brief affair with his neighbor, Mrs. Morales, who owns her own house and has two hundred dollars in the bank. He wants to give her a present but has no money. The suggestion that he cut squids for a day laborer’s wages incenses him, and he demands rent from Pilon and Pablo, who stalk away in anger. They find Jesus Maria Corcoran lying under a bush with a bottle of wine and learn that he has recently acquired a fortune of seven dollars. Pilon and Pablo agree to rent him space in their house for fifteen dollars a month. Masters at rationalizing self-interest into altruism, they talk Jesus Maria out of his money and buy Mrs. Morales a bottle of wine, which they then drink themselves.

Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria fall into a drunken sleep in Danny’s second house, leaving a candle lit. The candle flame ignites a wall calendar, the fire spreads, and the house burns to the ground. The friends escape, dismayed that they have left a bottle of wine inside. Danny is relieved to be free of the property, and his three friends move into the big house with him.

The Pirate, along with his five dogs, lives in what had been a chicken coop. Each day he collects wood from the forest and sells it. He never spends any money, so everyone wonders where he hides his savings. In one of his finest feats of logic, Pilon convinces his friends that finding and spending the Pirate’s money for him would serve the man’s best interests, but try as they might, they cannot discover his hiding place.

The Pirate moves into Danny’s house and comes to trust his new friends so much that he hands his money over to Danny for safekeeping. He explains that he is saving to buy a gold candlestick for the church in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. He believes a prayer to the saint saved one of his dogs from death. That story ends all the hopes Danny and his friends had for diverting the money to their own uses, but the Pirate and his dogs are good to keep around. They beg food from the restaurants along the waterfront every day and bring it home for all to share.

Big Joe Portagee gets out of jail and, learning that Danny owns a house, sets off to...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)

Tortilla Flat Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Danny, a mixed-race “paisano” from Monterey, California, joins the army with his friends Pilon and Big Joe Portagee. Pilon and Big Joe are placed in the infantry, but Danny is assigned to Texas to break mules for the duration of the war.

When he comes home from the army, Danny learns that his grandfather (the “viejo”) has died and left him two houses. He feels weighted down with the responsibility of ownership, so he buys a gallon of wine and gets drunk.

He becomes violent and abusive to the Italian fishermen on the wharf. They dismiss him good-naturedly, which upsets Danny. He goes down the street and breaks windows. He is arrested, but since he has just been released from the army, he is given only thirty days in jail rather than the usual six months.

Danny spends his time in jail drawing obscene pictures on his cell wall. Mostly he is all alone and lonely, but occasionally a drunk is put in with him to sober up.

Danny catches bedbugs, kills them, and mounts them on the cell wall, labeling them with the names of local government officials. He does not name them after the justice of the peace or the police since he has a great respect for the law.

Tito Ralph comes to visit him, bearing two bottles of wine. An hour later, Tito Ralph goes out for more wine and Danny goes with him. They go to the local bar, Torelli’s, until Torelli throws them out.

Danny goes off to the pine woods and sleeps while Tito Ralph goes back to the jail and reports Danny’s escape. When Danny awakens, he is determined to hide all day to escape rearrest. He goes to a restaurant and asks for scraps for his dog. When the manager goes off to wrap up the scraps, Danny steals two slices of ham, four eggs, a lamb chop, and a fly swatter.

He trades some of the stolen food for a bottle of grappa and heads back to the woods to cook his supper. He spies his friend Pilon, who seems to be hiding something in his coat. Danny approaches him even though Pilon is trying to avoid him. Pilon asks Danny how he knew that he had a bottle of brandy in his coat. Danny acts surprised at this news. Pilon tells him that it is his duty to see that Danny does not drink at all.

They build a fire in the woods and cook the ham and drink the brandy. Soon, Danny and Pilon are overcome with loneliness and talk of their lost friends. Arthur Morales is dead, having been killed in France; Pablo is in jail for theft.

Suddenly, Danny remembers that he has two houses. Pilon declares that Danny will forget him now that he is a man of property, but Danny denies this. He promises that as long as he has a house, Pilon will also have a house.

Chapter 2 Summary

Dropped off by Danny’s grandfather’s lawyer, Danny and Pilon examine one of the houses Danny inherited. It is dilapidated but has some promising features such as flowers growing in the front yard. Pilon declares it to be bigger and better than the other one, so this is where they will live.

As they enter, they see that it remains as the viejo left it. It has three rooms, a bed, and a stove. Pilon believes that they will be happy there, but Danny is now burdened with the ownership of property. Pilon turns on the water faucet, but no water comes out. He says that Danny must have the water turned on. Danny tells him that he wishes Pilon had inherited it so that he could come to live with him instead.

As Danny goes to Monterey to have the water turned on, Pilon investigates the back yard. It is littered with trash and weeds but has some fruit trees and chicken coops that Pilon finds promising. He looks over the fence to Mrs. Morales’ back yard and sees some chickens. He makes some holes in the fence, kindly thinking that the hens would like to make nests in the tall weeds.

When Danny returns, he is irate that the city wants a three dollar deposit for the water. Pilon figures that three dollars is three dollars of wine, but Danny says that they do not have the three dollars to begin with.

As the afternoon passes, Danny tells Pilon to clean up the back yard and cut down the weeds, but Pilon tells him of his plan concerning Mrs. Morales’ chickens. Danny agrees, grateful that he has Pilon there, but Pilon begins to feel that he is getting into Danny’s debt as he goes out to find food. He follows a rooster down the road, managing to catch and kill it in the woods. He dresses it there, believing that no feathers, head, or feet should come into the house as the chicken could be identified by those.

The two friends spend the evening pleasantly. There is a small fire of pine cones, and the rain leaks through the roof only in places where no one wants to sit anyway. Danny ponders his ownership of two houses, stating that he cannot sleep in both. Pilon suggests that he rent one himself for ten dollars a month. Danny says it is a fine house worth fifteen dollars a month. Pilon agrees, even though he has never had fifteen dollars at one time.

Chapter 3 Summary

The next day, Pilon moves into his rented house, which is similar to Danny’s house only smaller. He feels that he is moving up the social scale now that he is renting a house. He never pays the fifteen dollars rent, but neither does Danny ask for it. The two friends are often together, especially when one of them has found food or wine.

One evening, Pilon is given a dollar by a man at the hotel to fetch him four bottles of ginger ale. Pilon takes the dollar and buys a gallon of wine, with which he lures two girls into his rented house. Danny passes by and hears the noise, so he enters and shares the wine and one of the girls.

Afterward, Danny and Pilon fight, with Danny head-butting one of the girls, who...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Pilon and Pablo discuss the news that Cornelia Ruiz cut up a black Mexican who tried to come into her house, not knowing that she had taken up with another man. Pablo says that she is not very steady, still buying masses for her father, whose life was so evil that he needs all the masses he can get.

Pablo tells Pilon that Charlie Meeler told him that Danny is with the Portagee girl, Rosa Martin. This causes Pilon to worry, saying that Portagee girls always want to marry and love money. If Danny marries her, he will want the rent money, which they still have not paid.

Talk of Danny reminds Pilon that Danny’s neighbor Mrs. Morales has chickens, and he would dearly love some eggs. Pilon and Pablo put on their...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Pablo and Pilon buy two gallons of wine but never make it to Danny’s with it. They sit under a bush at Torrelli’s and begin to drink it all. They justify this by telling each other that Danny does not handle wine very well, plus it might damage his health. The city of Monterey settles in for the evening as the sun sinks, with fishermen coming in and going out.

Pablo and Pilon finish the first gallon of wine when they see Torrelli leave his house and walk down the street toward the center of town. When he is out of sight, they go into the house to flirt with Mrs. Torrelli, calling her “Butter Duck” and taking liberties with her. She is flattered but slightly tousled by their attentions.

They go back...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

The next morning, Danny wakes up and thinks about one of his houses burning. He manages to be a little angry at his careless friends as well as his decline in status as a man who has a house to rent.

Soon, however, he feels a sense of relief at having the burden of ownership removed. He thinks that the house burning will revitalize his friendship with the men who had owed him rent. He feels that he must discipline his friends, however, so they won't consider him soft, but he misses the time when he was a man to whom friends could come when they had some food or wine to share.

In the meantime, Pablo, Pilon, and Jesus Maria wake up in the woods to the sound of a picnic going on nearby. They discuss their plans...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

The Pirate is so named because of his bushy black beard. He has the mind of a child and lives in a chicken coop with his five dogs. Every day he chops wood in the pine forest and sells his load for a quarter.

No one ever sees him spend any money on anything. Pilon speculates that there may be as much as a hundred dollars saved up by the Pirate in the chicken shed. He tells himself that the Pirate is hungry and ragged and needs someone to help him do his thinking for him. He convinces himself that, out of pity, he must be the one to help the Pirate find something to do with his money.

Pilon visits the chicken house where the Pirate lives with his dogs. Danny, Pablo, and Jesus Maria see him go but say nothing,...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Big Joe Portagee spent most of his time in the army in jail. He also had spent most of his civilian life in jail, but that was only for drunk and disorderly conduct.

When he is released from the army jail after the war, he returns to Monterey and encounters Pilon, who is headed for the woods. Pilon explains that it is St. Andrew’s night, when buried treasure glows in the dark.

Joe accompanies Pilon to the woods, where they walk along searching for a glowing spot. Other people also wander about, or perhaps they are ghosts. At last Pilon sees a spot above which is a faint blue column of light. He marks the spot with a cross to keep away spirits who might come to protect their treasure and then decides to...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Dolores Engracia Ramirez lives on the upper edge of Tortilla Flat, where she does housework for some of the wealthier ladies. Her attractiveness and passionate nature have earned her the nickname “Sweets.”

Sweets likes to lean across her front gate, enticing men. When she learns that Danny has inherited two houses, she is determined to catch him for herself, envisioning a life as Danny’s lady. 

Unfortunately, Danny seldom goes by her house. However, she patiently waits until one day he walks by. She asks why he never comes to see her, hinting at what he will find if he does. Danny has just come from cashing in some copper nails he found and now has three dollars. He unwisely tells her of his newfound...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Jesus Maria Corcoran is known as a man with a soft heart. Pilon speculates that if Jesus Maria had gone into the church, there would then be a saint of Monterey.

Jesus Maria goes to the post office every day to look at the legs of all the girls who come in. He does not do this out of a sense of vulgarity but as an artist who appreciates beauty.

One day, he meets a sixteen-year-old boy who is carrying a baby. The boy explains that he is a corporal of the Mexican army and that the baby is his. He walked up from Mexico upon hearing that there were jobs in Monterey.

Tired, he sits down on the curb and is arrested by a policeman for vagrancy. He does not speak English, so Jesus Maria explains to the...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

When it rains in Monterey, the paisanos do not come out of their homes, but Big Joe Portagee had spent the day under a boat on the beach. He finally crawls out and heads for Danny’s house when there is a break in the rain.

Before he gets there, however, the heavens open and the rain pours down. He darts into the nearest house, where he finds Tia Ignacia, a forty-five-year-old widow. She is known to have a great deal of Indian blood, more than is considered “decent.”

She had just opened a gallon of wine when Joe entered. She tries to hide it, but Joe immediately sees it. She invites him to sit down and dry himself off, offering him a glass of wine, which of course Joe accepts.

Joe drinks...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Every afternoon, the Pirate returns to Danny’s house after chopping wood. He gives a quarter to Danny, who puts it in a canvas bag under his pillow. The quarters are for the golden candlestick that the Pirate vowed to buy for St. Francis in exchange for the healing of his dog (even though the dog was run over by a truck not long after). The paisanos think of this as holy and do not think of it as currency.

One day the Pirate returns and gives a quarter to Danny, who goes to put it in the bag only to find that the bag has disappeared. The friends are dismayed but soon realize that it must have been Big Joe Portagee who took it.

Joe soon comes back, carrying a jug of wine. Danny grabs a stick and, as the...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Señora Teresina Cortez has eight children by the time she is thirty. She first gave birth at fourteen, surprised by the appearance of a baby at a ball park. She wrapped the baby in newspaper and left it for the night watchman to find.

At sixteen, she married a man by whom she had two more children. After the second one arrived her husband left, seeing that life with Teresina would not be easy. After that, she kept giving birth, never sure who the father was or even if a father was necessary.

Her mother Angelica, who is almost forty, cares for the children. They survive on beans, which they gather in fields after the pickers have been through. They often find several hundred pounds of beans,...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Danny and the paisanos do not have a watch or clock, so they sleep until the sun wakes them. Danny is the only one who has a bed, while the others sleep on the floor, as do the Pirate’s dogs. Joe tries to use one of the dogs to keep his feet warm, but he is bitten for his discovery that the Pirate’s dogs are not available for a loan.

They discuss the wisdom of washing the window to let more light in, but they reason that this will cause them to stay indoors instead of going outside into the fresh air. They watch a man come from Cornelia Ruiz’s house and discuss that the woman knows only two things: love and fighting.

Jesus Maria regrets that she never knows peace. One man gave her a pig, which she...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Danny evaluates his life in Monterey with his friends and decides that nothing ever changes. He grows tired of the relentless sameness of each day following another.

He was right in the beginning, he thinks, that he should be concerned about being a property owner. He thinks back to the time when he was free. He remembers the times when he was in fights or dealt with outraged husbands after flirting (or more) with their wives.

The weight of home ownership has overcome him. He begins to mope on the front porch so that his friends think that he is ill. Pilon fixes him some tea, but this coddling makes Danny even more restless.

One night he gives up, runs away into the pine woods, and disappears....

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Though Danny has returned to the house with his friends, his joy in living has not. He sits on the porch listlessly, not even swatting the flies away. He has no interest in Cornelia Ruiz’s quick succession of husbands. When Big Joe tries to sleep in Danny’s bed, Pilon and Pablo have to beat him.  

Danny will not join in any discussions of the doings of the local community. His friends are worried about how much Danny has changed. It seems that he tried to squeeze the good times of an entire life into three weeks of wildness, and now he is sick of fun. Jesus Maria asks Danny if there is some secret that he is keeping in his heart, but there is not.

Pilon gives him the last of the wine in the house,...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

Danny’s funeral becomes a community event. No matter what people thought about Danny when he lived, all of them plan to celebrate his life. He is no longer Danny the scourge of the neighborhood; he is Danny the hero.

Since he had served in the army, Danny is eligible for a military funeral. The government embalms his body at government expense, and a caisson already has been prepared for the parade to the cemetery. This causes all the women to remember him more fondly than they had in life. People clean their finest clothes for the memorial service.

On the second day after Danny’s death, the friends gradually realize their grief, at least once the wine wears off. They also realize that they who had loved...

(The entire section is 455 words.)