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Tortilla Flat | Context


Monterey, California

Tortilla Flat is set in a real place: a highland neighborhood above the fishing village of Monterey on the coast of central California. The name, however, Steinbeck took from another part of the Monterey Peninsula. Steinbeck, who grew up in the nearby farming town of Salinas and who lived most of his life in central California, was intimately familiar with Monterey's culture and environment, both of which figure prominently in Tortilla Flat.

Monterey was home to Steinbeck's good friend Edward Flanders Ricketts, whom he met in 1930. Ricketts, a marine biologist, helped Steinbeck hone his habit of "detached observation" and improve his understanding of nature and of human relationships to nature. Ricketts also "accepted people as they were and he embraced life as he found it"—an attitude echoed by Steinbeck in his uncritical descriptions of Monterey's residents.

Steinbeck, who spent much of his young adulthood working as a manual laborer, had a deep interest in and respect for people who lived in poverty. He was also highly critical of commercialism and the corruption he saw as synonymous with wealth. He was familiar with communities in Monterey that were both impoverished and largely cut off from the increasingly modern and commercialized culture. It was a place of alcoholism, prostitution, and petty crime—but also a place where Steinbeck saw some of humanity's best qualities on display.

Steinbeck's Paisanos

The main characters in Tortilla Flat are paisanosCalifornians of Spanish, Native American, and "assorted Caucasian" descent. They speak both Spanish and English, and their language in the novel is frequently peppered with Spanish phrases. The paisanos of Tortilla Flat have a wide variety of professions and lifestyles, but the main characters are idle alcoholics. They steal and cheat their way through life, avoiding hard work at all costs. However, they also live according to a strong ethical code based on loyalty, sharing, and enjoyment of the present moment. In the context of Steinbeck's sympathetic descriptions, the characters' negative qualities become lovable foibles, and their virtuous behaviors embody the very best traits of humanity.

Steinbeck, a white writer, has been accused of cultural appropriation because of his caricatured depiction of paisano life. Critics disagree on whether his paisanos display "the most negative Mexican stereotypes" or are full of "truth and sympathy." This disconnect probably stems from the fact that Steinbeck's paisanos are idle drunks and at the same time extremely nuanced, human characters. In contrast, Steinbeck's few mentions of dominant white culture are one-sided and venomously critical.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Within the narration of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck elevates his main characters to the status of mythological heroes. The text is full of both explicit and implicit references to ancient French and English legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur and his knights embody a wide variety of positive traits, such as courage, loyalty, dignity, and respect for religion and morality. Although they also struggle with human flaws such as jealousy, suspicion, and temptation, their honorable characteristics take center stage. By comparing Danny and his friends to King Arthur and his knights, Steinbeck places his characters on a par with some of the best-loved heroes in English literature.

The King Arthur story came out of the oral tradition, and there are many written versions of the legends. Steinbeck was most heavily influenced by English writer Sir Thomas Malory's novel Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), the oldest recorded written version of the story, which he loved and read avidly in childhood.

In the preface to Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck explicitly compares his main characters, Danny and his friends, to King Arthur and his knights. At various points in the story, Danny, Pilon, and other characters use flowery, archaic English structures that are at odds with their paisano background. Similarly, Steinbeck's long chapter titles mimic the chapter titles of Le Morte d'Arthur.

The structure of Tortilla Flat also contains several implicit analogues with Malory's text. Le Morte d'Arthur begins when Arthur inherits a kingdom, just as Tortilla Flat begins when Danny inherits houses from his grandfather. Like Malory's text, Steinbeck's story is a series of quests, adventures, and feats of honor. Both stories end with the death of the central hero and the dissolution of his community.

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