Well received by critics and the reading public when published in The Long Valley in 1938, "Flight'' is considered one of Steinbeck's best stories. It was written at the height of his powers and published a year before The Grapes of Wrath. However, Steinbeck's views have declined in popularity in the decades since he first published these works. His romantic portrayals of dignified and noble common men are now seen by some as simplistic. In spite of this, his forceful and energetic writing style continues to earn him readers.
Critics still debate the meaning of "Flight." Most see it as a parable of what it means to be human, or in terms of the story, a man. Some see the story as showing how Pepe earns the right to call himself a man by suffering on his flight from his crime. Edward J. Piacentino in Studies in Short Fiction, catalogs the many animal references in the story and concludes that "the patterns they form give 'Flight' a richly suggestive texture that is often characteristic of some of the more artistically impressive short stories of twentieth-century literature." He notes that while Pepe is still at home on the farm, his mother refers to him in the imagery of domestic animals. For example, an ancestor of his must have been "a lazy cow," and Pepe is "a big sheep," and a "foolish chicken." Twice she also refers to him or his ancestors as having the traits of a "lazy coyote." This and several references to his skill with the knife as being "snakelike," are indications of his "primitive animalism" underneath his domesticity.
Piacentino finds that this use of domestic animal imagery in the first part of the story is in contrast to the imagery of wild animals used to describe Pepe's predicament and behavior in the mountains. Doves and quail are stalked by a wildcat "creeping toward the spring, belly to the ground." Lizards on the trail slither away from Pepe and his horse. At night owls hunt rabbits. After his horse is shot out from under him, Pepe himself must act like an animal, "worming," "wriggling," "crawling," "slithering," and "hissing." At the end, Pepe climbs to the top of the ridge "with the effort of a hurt beast,'' and though unable to speak, stands like a man. His fall is not just a fall from grace; it is also the fall from youthful innocence in attaining maturity.
John H. Timmerman sees "Flight'' as a story of "an exploration of one individual's flight into unknown regions—a spiritual odyssey into the high, and regions far from the nurturing sea." Timmerman uses letters written by Steinbeck and selections from Steinbeck's notebooks and other published works to supply a background to Steinbeck's philosophy of life. Steinbeck's passionate interest in marine biology and the sea was, in the 1930s, a strong influence on his work. The metaphor of the sea as a nurturing mother is evidenced in "Flight'' as the secluded Torres farm by the sea. Pepe's flight from this protected environment for the dry, unknown mountains is not only, as Timmerman says, a story of "a modern man in search of his manhood and finding the animal within," it is also "a devolution, paced by a divestment of civilized tools and in incrementally intensifying animal imagery." In a notebook entry about the humanity's evolutionary development from lower forms which lived in the sea to an organism able to stand on dry land, Steinbeck had written, "Oh man who in climbing up has become lower. . . . What nobility except from pain, what strength except out of anger, what change except from discomfort." When Pepe loses his...
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