Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Chapter 9 : How Danny Was Ensnared by a Vacuum-Cleaner and How Danny's Friends Rescued Him. | Summary



Sweets Ramirez is not exactly beautiful, but she has a certain quality men find appealing. She stands by her front gate like a spider in the middle of its web, waiting to ensnare men. She wants Danny more than any of the other men in Tortilla Flat, but he rarely walks by. This is frustrating because she is "a lady, and her conduct [is] governed by very strict rules of propriety." She cannot help it if men come to her and one thing leads to another. But going out to find them is "unthinkable."

The day Danny finally walks by is a lucky day because he has three dollars from the sale of some copper nails he found. He and Sweets go inside and have some wine, and she invites him to come back in the evening. Danny happily goes to Torrelli's, where he buys a gallon of wine and drinks half of it with Pablo. Then he goes to buy Sweets a gift with his remaining two dollars. He ends up at a pawnshop, where he purchases a beautiful like-new vacuum cleaner.

Sweets does not have electricity, but she is delighted by the gift. She is the only woman on Tortilla Flat to own a "sweeping-machine," as everyone calls it, and the possession gives her high status. People all around begin calling her "that one with the sweeping-machine," and she and Danny are soon locked fast in a relationship.

At first, Danny's friends do not mind his affair, but eventually "a rather violent domestic life began to make Danny listless and pale." They concoct a plan and tell Danny that Sweets is expecting him to pay to put electrical wires in her house so she can use the "sweeping-machine." At their prompting, Danny agrees to let his friends steal the vacuum cleaner back from Sweets so she will not need electricity anymore.

The friends end up trading the vacuum cleaner to Torrelli's for wine, but Torrelli later discovers the motor is missing, so Torrelli's wife—who does have electricity—cannot use the machine. Danny gives up on Sweets. He spends the evening drinking and feeling "a glow of gratitude."


Tortilla Flat is an episodic novel: each chapter encompasses its own contained story. The episodes at the beginning and end are tightly focused on Danny and his friends, but Chapters 9 through 13 each introduce a new colorful character who lives in or passes through Tortilla Flat. In addition to developing the setting, each of these episodes provides a broader picture of at least one of the central characters in the story.

Danny's episode with Sweets Ramirez provides insight on how the impoverished people of Tortilla Flat interact with commercial culture. Most feel the pull of fancy possessions, no matter how useless they may be. Danny's gift of a vacuum cleaner to Sweets illustrates this desire. This "sweeping-machine" has no practical use for her because she does not have electricity. However, it shines beautifully, and it works wonders as a status symbol. Not only does it connect her to Danny, whom everyone admires, but it also makes her seem superior in a neighborhood where no other woman owns such an expensive gadget.

The attitudes of Tortilla Flat's population toward the vacuum cleaner could be construed as naive, even childish. Sweets knows vacuum cleaners are loud, so she makes whooshing noises with her mouth whenever she runs it over her floors. She pretends her floors are cleaner than everyone else's, and if the other women in the neighborhood refuse to believe it, they are just concealing their jealousy. Undeniably, these people are being silly—but they are not only being silly. It is the first year after World War I, and the world outside Tortilla Flat is changing fast. The people of this novel are too poor and too isolated to have much connection to these changes, but they cannot help being aware of them. It makes a certain kind of sense for them to be excited by the one fancy object that ends up in their neighborhood.

This episode adds to Danny's characterization. He seems to enjoy being the kind of man who gives a woman a fancy present, even if he has no particular interest in owning fancy objects himself. The gift also reinforces the idea of his unselfishness.

At the end of the chapter, when Danny's friends "rescue" him from his relationship with Sweets, they trade the vacuum cleaner to Torrelli for wine. Although they suggest buying this wine for Sweets, they clearly expect to drink most or all of it themselves. It is possible they remove the motor themselves, so Torrelli, their enemy, cannot give his wife the high status of owning a functional "sweeping-machine."

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