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Tortilla Flat | Motifs


King Arthur and His Knights

The connection between Danny's house and the King Arthur myth is explicit. In the preface, the narrator states, "Danny's house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny's friends were not unlike the knights." The story's chapter titles are modeled on the chapter titles in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, a book Steinbeck loved as a child. Throughout the story, when the characters make vows or otherwise behave in impressive ways, they sometimes speak using the archaic forms and flowery language of King Arthur myths. For instance, when Pilon says Danny's property will corrupt him, Danny says, "What I have is thine. While I have a house, thou hast a house." The plot of Tortilla Flat echoes the plot of Le Morte d'Arthur, which begins when Arthur inherits a kingdom and unites a group of noble knights, and which ends with the death of Arthur and the breakdown of loyalty between his knights. All of these details suggest readers are meant to interpret Danny's story as they would a myth.

Myths are full of moral lessons and sweeping symbolic gestures. Most mythical heroes are honorable but also highly flawed. Mythical heroes often take on godlike proportions or have access to the world of the gods. In Tortilla Flat, Danny's friends interact with Saint Francis, earning his punishment and his approval. They also have knowledge of the spirit world, seeing ghostly lights and an ethereal bird. Danny elevates himself to godlike status when he resists the temptation of wealth and freely shares it with his friends. But he remains human, too, and he ultimately cannot withstand the weight of being raised above everyone else in this way.

Wine and Spirits

Danny and his friends spend much of their time procuring and drinking alcohol. To them, alcohol is an essential ingredient of a carefree life. Drinking takes on the attitude of a ritual that affects the actions and conversations of the drinkers as they work their way through their jugs: "Below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches more, sweetly sad memory." This passage is humorous, but it also glorifies drinking. When these characters drain a bottle, they are not just satisfying the cravings of alcoholism; they are engaging in a sacred ceremony.

Glorious Fights

Throughout Tortilla Flat, fighting is portrayed as a good thing. Danny's fights in Chapter 1 are "glorious," and later, nearly every bout of drinking leads to fights described using purely positive adjectives. As Pilon says near the end, the good life is composed of "love and fighting, and a little wine. Then you are always young, always happy." This suggests fighting is indicative of vitality and living life to the fullest.

At the climax of the story, Danny arrives at a crisis moment when he grows too fierce and superhuman and finds nobody will fight him anymore. He has risen above everyone else, and this leaves him lonely, unable to access the fullness of life. He shouts, "Am I alone in the world? Will no one fight with me?" When nobody will do it, Danny flees the house—and ultimately ends his life.

Steinbeck makes a distinction between fighting and other uses of violence. There are a few places in the novel where Danny and his friends violently "discipline" Big Joe. Although these episodes involve hitting, they are not called fights, and they are not described with joy. This implies that of all violent incidents, only drunken brawls are lively adventures.

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