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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Beneath the surface, realistic detail of this story, John Steinbeck develops the moral allegory of a boy growing into manhood. The opening events resemble the simple plot of a fairy tale: A boy leaves home on a journey of initiation, he undergoes a trial, he returns a man. Steinbeck, however, brings the tale to a new conclusion: In this society, the achievement of manhood can demand the life of the protagonist. Built within the framework of society is a code by which the individual must act—but the individual may well die as a result of this action. Thus, to choose to be a man by society’s definition of manhood can have tragic consequences.

That Steinbeck has chosen a paisano for his hero is significant. Steinbeck defined the paisano as a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted European bloods—someone whose ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or more years. These people are poor by the Anglo’s materialistic standards, for, by and large, they do not subscribe to the Anglo work ethic but live in a different moral structure, one in which a man’s behavior is much more important than his possessions. The focus in this story is on the nature of that behavior: To be a man can require action that society must condemn, and the paradoxical nature of this requirement is what makes for the possibility of the tragic figure. When that figure struggles against society with honor, he achieves an individual dignity that elevates him to a tragic status. Thus, in his final days in the mountains, Pepe becomes the symbolic tragic hero of his society.

The concept of a powerful society overwhelming the individual—the guiding idea of the literary movement known as naturalism—works its way through this story. Steinbeck viewed society as a huge organism that operated by natural laws, unmindful of the individual’s wishes and desires, yet he also viewed the individual as being capable of acts that bring him human dignity. Pepe’s story is the result of Steinbeck’s artistic exploration of these contradictory truths.


(Short Stories for Students)

Growth and Development
At the beginning of "Flight" Pepe Torres is a nineteen-year-old youth living on an isolated farm with his mother and two younger siblings. He keeps insisting to his mother that he is a man, but she dismisses him with belittling names. Pepe does not understand what it means to be a man. When he is given the responsibility of riding to town to buy medicine and salt for the family, like a child he excitedly asks if he can wear his father's hatband and handkerchief. The clothing makes him appear to be an adult, but his idea of maturity is very superficial. In town he gets drunk and argues with a drunken man who insults him. He does not accept responsibility for knifing the man. He tells his mother that 'the man started toward [him] and then the knife—it went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before [he] knew it." He insists that because he is now a man he cannot allow himself to be insulted. While Pepe does appear changed—his eyes are sharp and bright and purposeful, with no laughter or bashfulness in them anymore—he is not mature. When his mother tells his brother and sister he is a man now, Pepe's appearance changes "until he looked very much like Mama.''

The ride into the wilderness is a test of Pepe's maturity. However, he loses his hat, his horse, his father's coat, his father's rifle, and his water supply. These are all necessary to protect him from the heat of the sun and the cold nights as well as the dry desert mountains while he tries to escape punishment for his crime. Injured by a chip of granite which his pursuers' bullet drove into his right hand, Pepe becomes more and more debilitated as the infection spreads. He is described as an animal, he crawls on his stomach, wriggling and worming toward the top of the next ridge. Because he is so...

(The entire section is 1,051 words.)