What is the importance of setting in John Steinbeck's "Flight"?

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Pepe, the protagonist, in “Flight” by John Steinbeck is a boy in a young man’s body.  Lazy, listless, and unhappy—Pepe waits for the big event that will change his life.  The only valuable possession that Pepe owns comes from his dead father:  a knife.  When he is told to go to town to get medicine, Pepe is throwing the knife. This seemingly innocent event prepares the reader for Pepe’s killing a man just because he calls him names.

There are three setting for the story: the Torres ranch; Monterrey, California; and the mountains. Pepe finds no comfort in any of these places.

  • In Monterrey, he is considered just another Mexican boy who is less than human.  However, to Pepe this errand establishes him as a man.  When he is insulted, Pepe feels it is necessary to retaliate and, unfortunately, kills a man. 
  • The second setting is the home of his family. At the farm,  his mother thinks that he is lazy and shiftless. Pepe wants to be considered the man of the family.  Yet, he does nothing to prove himself worthy of such a distinguished rank.  The farm weathers away; but, Pepe cannot be made to do anything to help the family.
  • The third setting revolves around the title of the story—the flight of Pepe to survive in a .  The preparation for Pepé's journey to safety is quickly accomplished, and he is on his way in minutes.  His mother provides him with the necessities to survive including his father’s hat and rifle.  The young man enters a harsh world that cares nothing about Pepe.  It is an unknown mountainous world that Pepé chooses hoping that he will be able to avoid the white man’s justice that he knows will come looking for him.

The tortuous flight that Pepe endures until his death represents one of the conflicts of the story.  When man dares to go against Mother Nature, there is no reprise.  Pepe must face the heat, the snakes, and the daunting terrain on his flight toward his own death. He learns quickly that there is no controlling nature. 

With no understanding of the terrain, Pepe allows his horse to travel upward.  He is sees a black watcher who eventually shoots Pepe’s horse.  Then, Pepe becomes nothing more than an animal being hunted by the dark watchers.  Everything goes wrong: he misplaces his knife and his wound becomes infected.  As he moves through the uninhabitable mountains, Pepe loses all of his humanity and becomes more like an animal trying to avoid being killed.

In the gray light he struggled up the last slope to the ridge and crawled over and lay down behind a line of rocks. Below him lay a deep canyon exactly like the last, waterless and desolate. There was no flat, no oak trees, not even heavy brush in the bottom of it. And on the other side a sharp ridge stood up, thinly brushed with starving sage, littered with broken granite. Strewn over the hill there were giant outcroppings, and on the top the granite teeth stood out against the sky.

The settings of this story determine the characterization of the protagonist; furthermore, the hostilities that Pepe engages lead the reader to the final outcome of the story---his death. 

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