Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 5 : How Saint Francis Turned the Tide and Put a Gentle Punishment on Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria. | Summary



It is a pleasant afternoon, and the people of Monterey are all beginning to prepare for evening. Barkeeps water down their alcohol. The tailor puts a "Back in Five Minutes" sign on his door and quits for the night. Pablo and Pilon sit in front of the home of a wine salesman, Torrelli, sipping wine. They agree it is best not to give all the wine to Danny, and Pablo says he would not want Danny to die like Rudolfo Keeling or Angelina Vasquez. At this, "Pilon's realism" rises. He says Keeling died in a quarry accident and Vasquez "ate a can of bad fish."

Later, when Pablo and Pilon are at home, Jesus Maria enters battered and bleeding. Gradually he reveals a story about stealing some whiskey a group of soldiers had hidden, intending to drink it with Arabella Gross. He does not explain exactly how the soldiers caught them, but Pilon is glad about that. Pilon reflects, "The good story lay in half-told things ... filled in out of the hearer's own experience."

Jesus Maria never had a chance to give Arabella Gross the bra he bought her. Pilon, still conscious of the rent owed to Danny, snatches it up and says Danny can have it for his new girlfriend, Mrs. Morales.

The friends drink happily until they fall asleep. While they are sleeping, a gust of wind knocks over a candle. It is supposed to be a blessed candle. Pablo had lit it earlier in honor of Saint Francis. The candle sets the house on fire. The friends barely escape, rescuing the bra but forgetting their wine jug, which is not empty yet. The three friends sadly look inside. "By this we learn never to leave wine in a house overnight," Pilon says.

The fire department comes, but the house is already lost. Jesus Maria runs to tell Danny the news, but Danny is busy with Mrs. Morales next door. He does not even bother to go see the wreck of the house.


Chapter 5 begins with a sweeping description of Monterey and its people. In these paragraphs, Steinbeck portrays everyone in town as lovable rascals. Almost everyone he mentions is doing something dishonest, such as watering down alcohol or lying about taking a break from work. But the tone remains lighthearted, never bitter or angry. Passages like these are scattered throughout the novel, and they make it clear that Steinbeck is gently poking fun at universal human flaws rather than singling out unemployed alcoholics.

Unsurprisingly, Pilon and Pablo decide to drink the wine they buy with the money Jesus Maria gave them for rent. They acknowledge to each other that the wine was supposed to be a gift for Danny, but they also claim it would not be healthy for Danny to drink so much by himself. Once again, Pablo brings up the topic of Monterey residents who have recently died, but now we learn the deaths happened for reasons having nothing to do with alcohol (or with the chills the characters were warning Jesus Maria about back in Chapter 4). This passage creates the impression that Danny's friends will happily blame any death on any cause if it helps them make an emotional point about the fleeting nature of life—and maybe get someone to share money or alcohol.

One of the themes of Tortilla Flat involves storytelling and the right of listeners (or readers) to interpret every story in their own way. When Jesus Maria relates an adventure he had with Arabella Gross and a group of soldiers, he reveals it slowly, in bits and pieces, leaving a great deal up to the imagination. He probably does this because he is not eager to relive the experience of getting beat up, but to Pilon, his method seems like the proper way of telling any story. Pilon thinks stories should be "half-told" and listeners should use their "own experience" to complete the picture. Readers could reasonably suppose this is how Steinbeck would like them to read his whole novel—not assuming the text holds the whole story, always filtering their opinions through their own knowledge of the world.

According to the chapter title, when Danny's three friends pass out drunk on the floor and accidentally burn down his house, this event is a "gentle punishment on Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria." Presumably, the punishment is for accepting Danny's generosity without sharing anything with him in return. Within the chapter, the burning of the house is not merely described as an act of carelessness. Rather, the fire starts because Pablo lights a candle to St. Francis, and the candle sets the house on fire. This event is portrayed as divine in origin, which underscores the motif of Arthurian mythology. The narrator describes "saints and martyrs" watching the fire from above "with set and unforgiving faces." In other words, Danny's friends are not just a bunch of unremarkable drunks in a backwater neighborhood. They are personages of prominent importance whose actions are closely watched from heaven.

Tortilla Flat is a comedy, and there is a wry humor in Pilon's reaction to the burning of Danny's second house. Of all the things Danny's friends could possibly regret, their attention focuses on the wine they lose in the fire. Pilon, who likes to find lessons in his experiences, says, "By this we learn never to leave wine in a house overnight." Besides producing a laugh, this line may prompt readers to imagine a few other lessons the friends could take from this experience.

At the end of the chapter, when Danny hears the news about his second house burning down, he barely seems to care. Faced with a choice between mourning lost property and enjoying himself with Mrs. Morales, he chooses enjoyment. This reinforces the characterization of Danny as a man who loves to love life and does not want to be bogged down by material possessions. The chapter title, which omits Danny's name from the list of characters being punished, also points to this conclusion.

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