Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 926 words.)