Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 16 : Of the Sadness of Danny. How Through Sacrifice Danny's Friends Gave a Party. How Danny Was Translated. | Summary

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Summary

"After his amok," Danny falls into a depression. Nothing the friends do or say can snap him out of it, so they decide to throw him a party. They do not have money, so they all go down to the docks and do a day of work. Such a thing has never happened before, and everyone in Tortilla Flat hears about it. When people learn the friends are working to earn money for a party, everyone pitches in with food and alcohol.

But when the party begins, Danny is not there. He is out wandering, and Pablo and Pilon go out and find him at the docks. When Pablo tells this part of the story afterward, he swears he saw a "black cloud" over Danny's head that turned into "a big black bird." Pablo also claims he crossed himself and said two Hail Marys. Pilon, who was with him, did not see the bird or notice his friend praying, but he never reveals this because it is Pablo's right to tell his own story in his own way.

Danny is thrilled to hear about the party, and he runs straight there. The party that follows is the stuff of legend. The fights are "roaring battles," and the gulch out back is the scene of innumerable sexual escapades. Father Ramon spends the next week "absolutely astounded and incredulous" because so many awful sins are revealed at confession.

At the party, Danny drinks more, has sex with more women, and fights harder than should be possible for a human being. In the stories of this night, he is elevated to the status of a mythical god. At the end, he threatens everyone in the room with a table leg and demands another fight, but he is too fierce, too terrifying. Nobody rises to the bait. He shouts, "Am I alone in the world? Will no one fight with me?" When nobody answers, he runs outside and falls to the bottom of a ravine.

Four doctors and Father Ramon are brought to Danny's house, but they can do nothing to help. Danny dies surrounded by his friends.

Analysis

Danny most likely becomes depressed because he has tried and failed to escape "the weight of property." He cannot get out of his responsibilities to his friends, but they are becoming too much for him. Steinbeck implies he cannot live with them.

When Danny's friends decide to cheer him up by throwing a party, they have their usual problem: a lack of money. Their solution to this problem shows their true feelings for Danny. These are men who adore idleness and enjoyment. They avoid work at all costs and would rather go hungry than take a job to earn money for food. But their esteem for Danny is so high that they do for him what they would not do for themselves: they spend a day working for wages. The theme of goodness and unselfishness is constantly present in this novel, and this is one of the few moments in which the characters' actions seem undeniably unselfish.

The characters in Tortilla Flat regularly interact with the spiritual world. Although the spiritual world seems burdened by human flaws, it is rare for any character to question whether ghosts and spirits and saints are real. The story of the "black cloud" that turns into a "black bird" over Danny's head is unusual in this respect. Rather than narrate it directly, Steinbeck chooses to relate the story as Pablo tells it afterward. The author then pauses for a moment to share Pilon's private doubts about the story. Introducing the uncertainty at a climactic moment is an odd choice, considering how Danny has been portrayed as a figure of mythological proportions like King Arthur. By prompting readers to question his mythological status in this moment, Steinbeck highlights Danny's humanity and makes him seem more real. He also shows how people may change the details of real stories to highlight the emotions in them.

The people who remember Danny at the party make no effort to confer upon him the status of a mere human being. According to the stories told afterward, Danny outperforms human limits with his capacity for drink, his fighting ability, his sexual prowess, and so on. But being elevated above everyone else also leaves him lonely. For Danny, being down in the dirt fighting is a "glorious" activity—but tonight, he is too scary, and nobody is willing to fight him anymore. He wails he is "alone in the world" before he runs outside.

Steinbeck does not say exactly how Danny ends up at the bottom of the gulch. His death may be a drunken accident, and it may be suicide. Either way, Danny is finally freed from the weight he has been carrying.

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