Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 11 : How, Under the Most Adverse Circumstances, Love Came to Big Joe Portagee. | Summary



One day Big Joe gets caught in the rain and takes shelter in the home of a middle-aged woman, Tia Ignacia. Seeing him enter, Tia Ignacia tries to hide her wine—but he spots it, and she is forced to offer him a glass. She joins him in a drink of wine "as the only means to preserve a little of it to her own use."

As the afternoon wears on, Tia Ignacia finds herself admiring his appearance. She tries to get him to take off his coat, but he refuses. He drinks silently, rebuffing all conversation. She makes several hints at her interest in him and even blows out the lamp to change the mood. Big Joe falls "mountainously asleep."

Furious, Tia Ignacia grabs a stick and begins beating Big Joe. He wakes up confused and hurting, and he begs her to stop. When she does not, he runs outside, but she follows, still beating him. To protect himself, Big Joe grabs Tia Ignacia in a hug. At that moment, "love came to Big Joe Portagee."

A few minutes later, a police officer named Jake Lake rides up on his motorcycle and finds Big Joe and Tia Ignacia having sex in the street. Big Joe asks Jake to "wait a minute" before taking them to jail. Instead, Jake orders them out of the street and rides away.


The episode with Big Joe and Tia Ignacia provides further characterization of Big Joe as a huge oaf, driven by his appetites, who never pauses to think beyond the present moment. When Big Joe enters Tia Ignacia's house, he is only taking shelter, and all he wants is warmth and wine. He does not seem to have any interest in her feelings, and he does not take the trouble to wonder why she is fluttering around him and turning off lights. Even at the end of the chapter, when he feels "love" for her, there is no indication this love is anything but carnal desire.

Steinbeck's discussion of sex is often somewhat euphemistic. He constantly implies sexual activity between Tortilla Flat's characters, but he never states outright that two people are engaged in intercourse. The end of this chapter is perhaps his most careful circumlocution of a sexual escapade. He does not say his characters are having sex in the street. He only shows Big Joe's feeling of "love" and then, moments later, his wish for the police officer to "wait a minute" before arresting him and Tia Ignacia. Steinbeck leaves it to the reader to surmise what Big Joe and Tia Ignacia are actually doing.

Unlike some writers of his era who treat sex as something only men care about, Steinbeck assumes women want and enjoy sex. He shows Tia Ignacia persistently and eagerly trying to say something to make Big Joe seduce her. However, his depictions of Tia Ignacia and other sexualized women are problematic because the female characters always make a show of resisting men's sexual advances. In this chapter, for example, Tia Ignacia "braced herself to repel" Big Joe even after implicitly inviting him to seduce her. By depicting foreplay as a game in which the woman's role is to say no but not mean it, Steinbeck describes a world in which men ignore a woman when she says no. In other words, for the men in Tortilla Flat, there is no distinction between sex and rape and no need to trouble themselves about consent.

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