Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 8 : How Danny's Friends Sought Mystic Treasure on Saint Andrew's Eve. How Pilon Found It and Later How a Pair of Serge Pants Changed Ownership Twice. | Summary



Big Joe Portagee returns home from the war later than Danny and his other friends because he has been in military prison. Big Joe has a "conviction that as a man's days are rightly devoted half to sleeping and half to waking, so a man's years are rightly spent half in jail and half out." In the army, however, he has spent far more time in jail than out. He does not like military prison, where he is forced to work, and he never understands the charges brought against him.

Big Joe returns home, trades his overcoat for wine, and looks around for friends but finds none. He does not mind this because he is "not very moral" and enjoys the company of "vile and false harpies and pimps," whom he can find anywhere. He gets drunk and goes on a rampage. When he ends up in the Monterey jail, he is thrilled to be "home again."

The police tell Big Joe his friends have not been in jail for a while. "They must be dead," Big Joe says. But when he gets out, he meets Pilon, who is looking for treasure. It is Saint Andrew's Eve, a night when ghosts walk the woods and show mortals where treasure is hidden. Big Joe helps Pilon, and the two men spend the night guarding a spot they see glowing in the woods.

While they wait, Pilon explains the treasure will be a gift for Danny. This disappoints Big Joe because he wants something for his efforts. Pilon says they must give it to Danny but that Danny might buy wine to share. Big Joe is happy then because "he thought it possible that Danny might buy a great deal of wine."

Pilon and Big Joe make plans to dig up the treasure the next night, but in the meantime Big Joe steals Danny's blanket and trades it for wine. When Pilon finds out, he rages and beats Big Joe and calls him a pig. Pilon drinks a lot of Big Joe's wine and refuses to let Big Joe have any. When it is time to dig up the treasure, Pilon makes Big Joe do all the work.

After a hard night, all Big Joe and Pilon find is a geodetic survey marker, which helps mathematicians determine the size and shape of earth along with the positions of points on the surface. Pilon, who is desperate to repay Danny's generosity, is devastated. He and Big Joe wander to a beach, where they get drunk and pass out. In the morning, Pilon wakes up and steals Big Joe's pants. He goes to Torrelli's, where he trades the pants for wine. Then, when Torrelli is not looking, Pilon steals back both the pants and Danny's blanket. He returns the pants to Big Joe, who is very grateful. Big Joe decides "to do something nice for Pilon sometime."


Like Danny's other friends, Big Joe prefers to spend his days drunk and idle. But he is a rougher character than the others. All the friends drift in and out of jail now and then, but Big Joe considers jail "home" and prefers to spend at least half his time behind bars. Significantly, in contrast to Danny and his other friends, Big Joe is described as "not very moral." In the world of Tortilla Flat, fighting is "glorious" and stealing is usually a minor transgression, easily rationalized away. Nobody is ever described as immoral for little offenses like these. This suggests that Big Joe has some other, more serious immoral quality.

As the chapter progresses, Big Joe's behavior demonstrates that unlike Danny's other friends, he does not implicitly understand the ethical codes everyone in Tortilla Flat is supposed to follow. Danny's friends do not mind stealing if they can pretend not to know who owns the property they take, or if they can perform some mental gymnastics to make it seem like they are doing someone a favor. But none of them would steal from each other—and especially not from Danny. Big Joe simply does not understand this distinction, and immediately after moving in, he steals Danny's blanket.

Pilon's reaction to Big Joe's theft has two sides. Although Pilon berates and punishes Big Joe, he also drinks the wine Big Joe bought with Danny's blanket. This behavior may seem directly contradictory, but it fits his own peculiar ethical system. After all, as we saw in Chapter 4, Pilon assumes that even God enjoys being worshipped without worrying how people got the money to pay for his masses. To Pilon, a bottle of wine exists to be drunk, no matter how awful the methods were of obtaining it.

Unlike Big Joe, Pilon is acutely aware of the ethical systems of his culture. He is receiving something good from Danny, and he wants to bring Danny happiness in return. As always, there is a measure of selfishness mixed into his good intentions, and he tells Big Joe that Danny may buy and share a bottle of wine with the money they find. But at this point in the story, Pilon is changing a bit. His dialogue and thoughts are more focused on concern for Danny than on concern for himself.

When Pilon fails to get treasure, he makes it his business to get back Danny's blanket. To do this, he steals Big Joe's pants, reasoning that Big Joe does not deserve them. He goes to Torrelli's and trades the pants for wine and then steals back both the pants and Danny's blanket on his way out. This does not repay Danny's kindness, but it at least restores his possessions.

Danny and his friends usually work hard to justify their thefts, but they do not bother to rationalize their thefts from Torrelli, whom they see as an enemy. Unlike the residents of Tortilla Flat, Torrelli and his wife love money and have quite a few possessions. Torrelli never gives anything to anyone; he only sells what he has. As such, he is seen as corrupt and commercialized. Theft from him does not need to be defended.

Throughout the story, Danny's house has been described as a magical place where good things happen almost miraculously. The accidental assistance of the Pirate was one such event. Big Joe's feelings at the end of Chapter 8 could be considered another. Big Joe, who is "not very moral," is inspired to do something kind for Pilon. He would not want to be kind if he knew what Pilon really did, but in the world of Tortilla Flat, this makes no difference. For a moment, at least, Big Joe is full of good intentions—and this is a minor miracle. The implication is that Danny's house is turning even him into someone whose good side can shine through.

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