Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 4 : How Jesus Maria Corcoran, a Good Man, Became an Unwilling Vehicle of Evil. | Summary



Pilon and Pablo live together in contentment. Every morning they get up late and sit in the sun, gossiping and philosophizing. One day they discuss Cornelia Ruiz, a local woman who is well known for her violent adventures with men. Cornelia often pays the local Catholic Church to hold masses in honor of her dead father, and Pablo wonders aloud if it bothers God that Cornelia pays for masses with money she steals from her sleeping boyfriends. Pilon compares God to a man who sells wine without caring where the customers get cash: "Where a mass comes from is of no interest to God. He just likes them."

Later, the two friends see Danny, who wants to buy a woman some candy but has no money. When he hints about the rent, Pilon and Pablo are offended. "Always the rent," Pilon shouts—although Danny has never asked for any before. Pablo and Pilon leave to look for money, Pilon muttering that they fed and clothed Danny when Danny was poor. When Pablo asks about this, Pilon says, "Well, we would have, if he needed anything and we had it."

Pilon and Pablo soon meet another friend, Jesus Maria Corcoran, who says he recently found a lost rowboat and sold it. He has been on a bender ever since, and he has three dollars and half a gallon of wine left. Pilon and Pablo invite Jesus Maria to their house, telling him he should not sleep in the cold and risk getting sick. When Jesus Maria says he feels fine, they darkly hint that Rudolfo Keeling and Angelina Vasquez, two locals who recently died, also felt fine almost until the end.

Jesus Maria reluctantly follows Pablo and Pilon home and shares his wine with them. When everyone is drunk, he cheerfully agrees to rent their house for fifteen dollars a month. But when they ask him to hand over actual money, Jesus Maria resists. He wants to buy a bra for a woman named Arabella Gross. Eventually, he gives up two of his three dollars.

Now Pilon and Pablo have some rent money, so they feel better. But they claim to be worried. Danny is going to use the money to buy candy, which "is not good for people" because it causes toothaches. Pablo says it would be "a bad thing" if they did anything to cause their good friend Danny a toothache. Eventually they talk themselves into buying wine to give to Danny. Now they are happy and proud of making the decision to buy wine "so logically, and in such a philanthropic cause."


The conversation at the beginning of Chapter 4 reveals an important component of Pablo and Pilon's worldview. To them, it is always a good thing to seek enjoyment. During a happy moment, there is never any point in worrying about what evil deeds anyone did to make that moment possible. In their minds, God wants his worshippers to hold masses because "he just likes them"—and God does not dwell on any corrupt deeds involved. In the same way, if Pablo and Pilon (and the rest of Danny's friends) are doing what they enjoy—usually drinking wine—they never bother to feel guilty. If their wine is procured in an immoral way, they drink it without guilt.

The characters continue to treat any action as virtuous as long as they can pretend it is committed with good intentions. Pilon berates Danny for asking for rent, claiming that he, Pilon, "would have" helped Danny without asking for anything. Later, Pablo and Pilon pretend to care about Jesus Maria's health when they really just want him to share his wine and money, and all three men work together to talk themselves into spending their rent money on more alcohol.

For these characters, truth is a fuzzy concept. Pablo and Pilon mention the deaths of Rudolfo Keeling and Angelina Vasquez when they warn Jesus Maria against sleeping out in the cold. It is worth remembering this detail, as in the next chapter, the author reveals that both Keeling and Vasquez died for reasons having nothing to do with a chill. Since Jesus Maria does not point this out, Pablo and Pilon can call themselves kind for sparing their friend from an awful fate.

Although Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria share the same ethical system, there are some important differences emerging in their three personalities. Pilon, who is highly logical and a master tactician, almost always manages to win arguments and bend the others to his will. Pablo is mystical and content to wonder about life when the others want answers. Jesus Maria is sweet, kind, and more likely to give up the good things he has to help others.

The title of Chapter 4 notes that Jesus Maria becomes "an unwitting vehicle of evil." As we have seen, Pilon is becoming greedy about keeping possession of Danny's second house without sharing anything with Danny in return, and now Pablo seems to be corrupted, too. Jesus Maria does not yet share their greed. However, he does not resist their plans. This may be because he does not know them well, or it may be because he does not have the ability to best Pilon in an argument.

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