Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 13 : How Danny's Friends Threw Themselves to the Aid of a Distressed Lady. | Summary

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Summary

Teresina Cortez has many children and will probably have many more. Her husband has long since abandoned her, and yet she keeps getting pregnant. Her body is "one of those perfect retorts for the distillation of children," and she is "the despair of Father Ramon" because she acts provocatively even during confession.

Teresina and her mother, Angelica Cortez, raise the children on next to nothing. They glean beans from local farms after the harvest, and this is where they get almost all their food. The local authorities are horrified when they find out Teresina's children eat nothing but beans. A doctor goes to visit them and watches in horrified fascination as Teresina's mother ladles up a scoop of beans, dumps it on the floor, and lets all the little babies and toddlers run around eating them up. Despite this, a doctor proclaims the kids are perfectly healthy. The family relies on beans because they are "a roof over your stomach" and "a warm cloak against the economic cold."

The year Teresina's ninth child is born, the bean harvest fails. Teresina and her children are left near starvation. Jesus Maria hears this and asks his friends to help. They agree with enthusiasm, and in the next few weeks "a minor crime wave" strikes Monterey. Teresina's kitchen is soon overflowing with lettuce, mackerel, pumpkins, and more.

Teresina is "maddened with joy" when she first starts receiving this food, but soon her children are crying and ill. Reluctantly, she invites Danny and his friends to speak with her, and she breaks the news that "green things and fruit are not good for children." She says the "proper food" for kids is beans. Danny and his friends, who are not used to working so hard, are relieved to hear this.

That night, four 100-pound sacks of beans mysteriously appear in Teresina's kitchen, and her family's food problems are solved for the year. She and her mother are overjoyed. Back at Danny's house, the friends all peacefully sleep on the "pillow" of "a good conscience." Meanwhile, Teresina discovers she is pregnant again. She has no idea which of Danny's friends is the father.

Analysis

Danny and his friends have become people who do good deeds. One of their finest is the feeding of the children of Teresina Cortez. Steinbeck describes Teresina's family with his usual lighthearted, admiring tone. To the shock of a doctor who visits the home, the children are perfectly healthy in spite of their meager diet. This episode includes a hilarious description of Teresina's mother scattering beans over the floor to feed the smallest children. This is described positively—but Steinbeck hints that life for Teresina's children may not be all wonderful. For instance, the eldest child is said to be taking the first grade for the third time, and the second eldest is taking the first grade for the second time. This suggests Teresina's children are unlikely to have many opportunities in life.

When Jesus Maria, who rarely takes a leadership role, describes the family's plight to his friends, they immediately resolve to help. Naturally, they do not get jobs to earn money for food, but they do exert far more effort than usual, even if all their effort is dishonest. However, after a few weeks, "the first fire of their enthusiasm" starts to wane.

Steinbeck's characterization of Teresina and her mother provides more insight on Tortilla Flat's culture. Like other Tortilla Flat residents, Teresina's mother regards gods and saints as people with flaws and foibles. She prays to the Virgin Mary for a good bean crop and gets angry and vindictive—even to the point of questioning the Virgin Mary's virginity—when the crop fails. Later, Teresina displays a stalwart trust in her own way of raising and feeding children, even though her methods are not supported by mainstream culture or science.

When Danny and his friends steal enough beans to feed the family for the year, this solves all their problems: they can feed the hungry kids, give Teresina what she wants, and keep their promise to help her without continuing to work so hard. To them, the action is an unmitigated good deed, even though it involves theft.

But at the end of the chapter, Steinbeck throws in a detail that recasts the entire episode in a new light. Teresina finds herself pregnant and wonders which of Danny's friends is the father. If Danny and his friends have been having sex with Teresina, can their efforts to help her really be seen as all good? Is it possible one or more of them have fathered some of the children Teresina already has? Steinbeck offers no answers to these questions, leaving it to his readers to guess.

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