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Overview of 'Flight'

(Short Stories for Students)

Most of the criticism of Steinbeck's "Flight" discusses the story as Pepe Torres's journey from childhood to maturity. Nineteen-year-old Pepe wants very much to be considered a man and not a child. However, when he is given the responsibility of going to Monterey alone, he is unable to complete his errand without getting into trouble. He drinks too much wine, then knifes a drunken man who insults him. His flight into the mountains and the hardships he endures reduce him to the level of an animal. At the very end, Pepe stands up on the ridge to face his pursuers. He is shot and falls. To Edward J. Piacentino, Pepe's fall from the ridge is a fall from childhood into maturity. By standing up to his pursuers, Pepe finally faces responsibility for his actions in Monterey. Dan Vogel, in an essay in College English, sees the story as mythic and tragic. Pepe's flight is an ordeal taking him from innocence to experience, and Pepe's death is the death and burial of childhood. John H. Timmerman suggests that the central theme of "Flight" is that Pepe discovers, tragically, "that indomitable, spiritual consciousness of himself as human that separates him from the animals.''

Other critics also see a spiritual dimension in Pepe's journey. Not only does Pepe move from childhood to maturity, he also grows from reacting like an unthinking animal to acting like a responsible human. John Antico writes of the animal-like, crawling Pepe that "[i]t is only by standing up on two feet and facing death that the sub-human Pepe can give birth to Man." In an article on "Flight'' in the Explicator, William M. Jones sees Pepe's major flaw as being the sin of pride. "The details of Pepe's flight show how Pepe gradually conquered the family pride that caused his original sin and how through suffering he expiated that sin." By undergoing the hardships in the mountains and by being reduced to the level of an animal, Pepe makes amends both for his own impulsive action of stabbing a man who insulted him and for his condition of being born with original sin.

However much the reader wants a satisfying ending to this dramatic story, "Flight" refuses to give one. Walter K. Gordon argues in Studies in Short Fiction that Pepe actually flees from maturity. Pepe is first broken down in the story "from boy to animal, then from animal to an inanimate part of nature'' How can one story generate such different interpretations?

Because the story itself refuses to give Pepe either a clear triumph or a defeat at the end, it remains open to interpretation This lack of closure at the end keeps the reader thinking about what the story means long after it has been read. The critics who interpret Pepe's stand at the end of the story as redemptive overlook the particular features of the story itself. Perhaps this is why their arguments do not explain the story satisfactorily. The story is more ambiguous than these readings suggest.

Another look at the animal imagery in the story opens up further interpretations of "Flight." The narrator describes Pepe as having "sharp Indian cheek bones and an eagle nose." As he throws the switchblade, "Pepe's wrist flicks like the head of a snake." The comparisons of Pepe to wild animals and the reference to his Indian heritage invite the reader to consider the significance of the coyote in Native American folklore. The fact that Mrs. Torres makes two references to the coyote suggests that the coyote has a special meaning in the story. The coyote is not just a wild animal or a sly, lazy animal, but a form of the Trickster in some Native American traditions. A Trickster is a "disruptive character appearing in various forms in the folklore of many cultures," according to Merriam Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary . The Trickster is part divine and part animal. He has a skill or magic power which he uses sometimes to benefit humankind but which sometimes backfires on him. Often he can change his shape. He freely crosses the boundaries both between human and animal and...

(The entire section is 9,452 words.)