(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck’s first popular success, is a short novel depicting the clash of paisano (combined Spanish, Indian, and Mexican) cultural identity with traditional European, capitalist culture in twentieth century California. The novel shows the seemingly inevitable obliteration of older, communal paisano values by the American capitalistic system.

Initially, a group of paisano young men, led by Danny, live their carefree, nearly possession-free life of drinking wine, engaging in sexual and other escapades, and sleeping off the effects of both in the Monterey jail. Their human closeness and joy in living are unmistakable, but then Danny inherits property. Ownership is the essence of competitive, community-destroying Western capitalism. Danny’s friend Pillon immediately predicts that Danny, having been “lifted above thy friends. . . . wilt forget thy friends who shared everything with thee, even their brandy.” Danny objects that he will continue to share everything, even his houses, with Pillon’s response that “it would be a world wonder if it were so.”

For a time, the “world wonder” exists. Like King Arthur’s knights, an analogy expressly drawn by Steinbeck, Danny and his friends commit themselves to sharing all and helping others, adhering to traditional paisano values. Thus, when Pillon and Jesus Maria unintentionally burn one of Danny’s houses, Danny is secretly happy because the economic...

(The entire section is 459 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Danny returns home from serving in World War I to find that his grandfather has bequeathed him two houses on Tortilla Flat. The responsibility of ownership depresses Danny, and a drunken spree of window breaking and the jail sentence it earns him do little to relieve his malaise. Then he runs into his friend Pilon, who moves into the larger of the two houses with him, agreeing to pay fifteen dollars a month in rent. After an argument, Pilon moves into Danny’s smaller house. The pair share wine, women, and worry. Ownership plagues Danny.

The rent Pilon that never intended to pay bothers him, but his troubles seem to be over when he strikes a deal with Pablo. Pablo agrees to move in with Pilon for fifteen dollars a month rent—money he never can or will pay.

Danny enjoys a brief affair with his neighbor, Mrs. Morales, who owns her own house and has two hundred dollars in the bank. He wants to give her a present but has no money. The suggestion that he cut squids for a day laborer’s wages incenses him, and he demands rent from Pilon and Pablo, who stalk away in anger. They find Jesus Maria Corcoran lying under a bush with a bottle of wine and learn that he has recently acquired a fortune of seven dollars. Pilon and Pablo agree to rent him space in their house for fifteen dollars a month. Masters at rationalizing self-interest into altruism, they talk Jesus Maria out of his money and buy Mrs. Morales a bottle of wine, which they then drink themselves.

Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria fall into a drunken sleep in Danny’s second house, leaving a candle lit. The candle flame ignites a wall calendar, the fire spreads, and the house burns to the ground. The friends escape, dismayed that they have left a bottle of wine inside. Danny is relieved to be free of the property, and his three friends move into the big house with him.

The Pirate, along with his five dogs, lives in what had been a chicken coop. Each day he collects wood from the forest and sells it. He never spends any money, so everyone wonders where he hides his savings. In one of his finest feats of logic, Pilon convinces his friends that finding and spending the Pirate’s money for him would serve the man’s best interests, but try as they might, they cannot discover his hiding place.

The Pirate moves into Danny’s house and comes to trust his new friends so much that he hands his money over to Danny for safekeeping. He explains that he is saving to buy a gold candlestick for the church in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. He believes a prayer to the saint saved one of his dogs from death. That story ends all the hopes Danny and his friends had for diverting the money to their own uses, but the Pirate and his dogs are good to keep around. They beg food from the restaurants along the waterfront every day and bring it home for all to share.

Big Joe Portagee gets out of jail and, learning that Danny owns a house, sets off to...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)