Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 14 : Of the Good Life at Danny's House, of a Gift Pig, of the Pain of Tall Bob, and of the Thwarted Love of the Viejo Ravanno. | Summary

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Summary

Danny and his friends tell time by the sun. They sleep and rise when it suits them. Only Danny is allowed to use the bed, and nobody else tries to borrow it except Big Joe, who is beaten into submission to the rule. The other friends sleep on the bedroom floor, except for the Pirate, who sleeps in the living room with his dogs.

In the mornings, the men slowly awaken and spend some time in silence. Eventually conversation begins, often about the latest gossip, but always with an effort to take a "moral lesson" from the events. They especially talk about Cornelia Ruiz, and Jesus Maria observes her life is not peaceful. Pilon scoffs at this: "Give peace to that Cornelia, and she will die." He approves of her preferences for "love and fighting, and a little wine. Then you are always young, always happy."

Danny tells a story about Emilio Murietta, who gave Cornelia Ruiz a pig and told her to love it until it got big and bit her, and then to kill and eat it. Cornelia was happy with the gift until the pig smashed up her house, and now she wants to beat Emilio.

Pablo says life never "goes ... the way you planned." He tells a story of Tall Bob Smoke, who longed for respect and only got laughed at. He wanted people to regret making fun of him, so he staged a suicide attempt. He wanted to be caught and given respect, but the man who tried to rescue Bob dove at him, and Bob accidentally shot off his own nose. Then people laughed even more, "but it was a hard kind of laughing, and they felt bad to laugh." They tried to treat Bob with more respect, but it did not do him much good anymore.

Jesus Maria tells another story with this same type of humor. He describes the life and death of Mr. Ravanno, who tried to do everything his son Petey did. When Petey chased a teenage girl, Old Man Ravanno chased the girl's younger sister. When Petey tried to kill himself and ended up marrying his sweetheart, Mr. Ravanno staged a suicide attempt, too. But instead of getting the girl, he accidentally succeeded at killing himself.

Pilon does not like this last story. It has "too many meanings and too many lessons," and "some of those lessons are opposite." Pablo, however, applauds the story "because it hasn't any meaning you can see" but nonetheless "does seem to mean something." The friends argue amiably on this subject until they get hungry.

When the conversation turns to food, Pilon says he spent his childhood throwing rocks at a train. The fireman responded by throwing coal, which Pilon and his siblings picked up and took home to burn. He suggests throwing rocks at fishermen in their boats, who will have nothing to pelt them with but fish. Everyone agrees this is an excellent way to get supper, and they set out to try it.

Analysis

The "good life" at Danny's house, as it is called in the chapter title, is a life of sleeping on Danny's floor, occasionally beating Big Joe when he fails to follow the rules, and sitting around idly gossiping and philosophizing. Danny and his friends do not see these conversations as a waste of time. Rather, they see them as an enjoyable way to pass the time and consider a "moral lesson" or two.

The lessons the men discuss are not necessarily moral according to most people's standards. Rather, they reflect the unique set of values common to the people of Tortilla Flat. For instance, Pilon describes the chaotic and violent love life of Cornelia Ruiz as good because it is full of "love and fighting, and a little wine." These are the ingredients of a life that, to Pilon, seems "always young, always happy." His friends do not contradict him because to them it seems he is speaking the truth.

Danny, Pablo, and Jesus Maria all tell stories about plans going wrong. The stories, especially the latter two, are full of black humor. They involve staged or real suicide attempts—and one actual suicide—intended to manipulate people. One of the men who stage a suicide attempt, Tall Bob Smoke, just wants to make people feel bad for laughing at him, but he ends up shooting off his nose and making them laugh more. The story of Petey Ravanno seems to have a happy ending—until Jesus Maria tells the rest of the story, in which his father dies. These stories assume a world in which people will do anything, no matter how morally corrupt, to get what they want. Significantly, Danny's friends tell these stories without passing judgment on the characters for their transgressions.

The sexual content of Jesus Maria's story may be uncomfortable for contemporary readers. Both Petey and Old Man Ravanno are grown men, but they chase teenage girls—and Petey ends up marrying one. Steinbeck's descriptions make the girls seem quite powerful and capable of controlling their relationships with the men. However, throughout the novel, his romanticized descriptions sometimes hide uglier truths.

When Danny's friends argue about the stories they hear, they reveal aspects of their unique personalities and also provide more insight into the novel's storytelling motif. Pilon likes stories with a clear lesson, and Pablo likes stories without, especially if they do "seem to mean something." It is significant that Steinbeck allows Pablo to have the last word on this issue. Given that most vignettes in Tortilla Flat could be interpreted in many contradictory ways, it would be reasonable to suppose Steinbeck agreed with Pablo on this point.

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