Tortilla Flat Summary
by John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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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 disparity, embodied in his friends’ unfulfilled duty to pay rent, had created emotional distance. Eventually wealth’s burdens, especially lack of freedom, drive Danny to despair, and in an attempt to regain his paisano essence, he sells his second house to a greedy local capitalist, the Italian-American bootlegger Torrelli. Danny’s friends destroy the bill of sale, however, having fallen victim to the arrogance of ownership and accumulation central to Torrelli’s (and America’s) capitalistic perspective. Unable thus to free himself from the stranglehold of property ownership, Danny becomes even more psychologically disabled. His friends attempt to revive him by having a traditional celebration of paisano life, replete with crepe paper decorations, many gallons of wine, and much food, music, and dancing. Danny does change his state of mind for the celebration. He “defied emulation as a celebrant” and “roared through the party.” It is his last hurrah. Unable to break the death grip of American capitalism upon his paisano way of life, in one last act of heroically tragic defiance Danny commits suicide. His friends, trapped between cultural identities but realizing intuitively the property’s responsibility for Danny’s death, burn the house to the ground. Having lost their paisano cultural community after the death of their leader, Danny’s friends then behave like the capitalists they may become in a California region that is rapidly destroying paisano culture. They “turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together.”


(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...

(The entire section is 1,664 words.)