Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 10 : How the Friends Solaced a Corporal and in Return Received a Lesson in Paternal Ethics. | Summary

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Summary

Jesus Maria is "a pathway for the humanities." He always tries to help people who are sad or suffering. He is never cruel, and "his heart [is] free for the use of any one." He carries injured people to hospitals, prevents Big Joe from killing a goat belonging to a neighbor who relies on it for her food, and even rescues sick drunks from ditches.

One day Jesus Maria sees a police officer attempting to arrest a teenage boy for loitering in a ditch holding a sick baby. The boy does not speak English, and he does not understand why he is being arrested. Jesus Maria steps in and takes the boy back to Danny's house.

At Danny's house, the sick baby is placed in a box to rest, but he is very sick and refuses all food. Danny and his friends ask for the father's story, and the father explains he was a corporal in the army in Mexico. He was married to a sweet lady, but a captain stole her away. Now, every day, the boy tells his baby to become a general when he grows up.

After the boy tells this story, the baby dies. The boy sobs. Danny and his friends say the boy must go back to Mexico and take revenge on the captain. This confuses the boy, who has not thought of revenge. Danny and his friends all assumed revenge was the boy's reason for wanting his son to become a general—so the baby would one day outrank the man who stole his mother away. The boy corrects them: "If that capitán ... could take my wife, imagine what a generál ... could take!"

Danny and his friends are impressed by this line of reasoning and by his plan to return to Mexico and continue his life as a soldier. They declare the boy an excellent father, and they feel proud to have known him.

Analysis

The episode of the corporal from Mexico is one of the more problematic scenes in Tortilla Flat. The death of the baby at the end of this chapter seems like a poor fit to the lighthearted tone of the novel. But on some level, Steinbeck always allows the worst aspects of real life—especially for the poor—to lurk beneath the comedy of this story. Most of the time, a willing reader could choose to ignore the deep pockets of unhappiness in this novel and simply agree with all the narrator's interpretations of the events. This chapter may be meant, in part, as an invitation for readers to take a different—and harder—message out of the story.

In this chapter, the corporal (sometimes referred to in Spanish as a caporál) tells a strange and sad story. After the boy explains how a captain (capitán) stole his wife from him, he repeatedly says he wants his baby to become a general (generál). Danny and his friends assume the corporal means he wants his son to grow up and take revenge on the captain—but the corporal just wants his son to be capable of stealing anything and everything according to his whim. To Danny and his friends, this desire seems highly ethical. Rather than trying to get his wife back for himself, the young father is focused on helping his son grow up to be as happy as possible. His vision of happiness may seem somewhat twisted by the reader's standards, but it is oddly fitting within the mixed-up ethical world of Tortilla Flat.

If Steinbeck indeed intended to push his readers to question his narrator's moral interpretations of his story, it is significant that the corporal understands his own story differently from how his listeners do. The underlying implication here is a strong nudge to readers to go back and rethink all of their interpretations of Tortilla Flat. Does it make sense to agree with the narrator's interpretations of these events? Should readers rely on their own experiences to come to a different conclusion? Or is it best to dispense with all thematic analysis and simply enjoy the story as entertainment? Steinbeck does not provide a clear answer to these questions. He leaves it to readers to make their own judgments.

This episode also provides further characterization of Jesus Maria, who often helps people who cannot help themselves. Although he is not able to help the corporal's baby, many other examples of his kindness—such as carrying a man with a broken leg to a hospital—seem genuinely good.

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