Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Plot Summary

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In the preface to Tortilla Flat, the narrator introduces the small fishing town of Monterey. Above it is a poor neighborhood, Tortilla Flat, "where the streets are innocent of asphalt," and the people—mostly a multiracial group of Spanish-Americans called paisanos—are "clean of commercialism." One of these paisanos is Danny, whose grandfather owns two houses, but who runs wild and sleeps in the forest.

When war is declared, Danny and his friends get drunk and enlist, but none of them see any action in the war.

Danny's Inheritance

Years later, when Danny returns, he learns his grandfather has died and left him his two houses.

It worries Danny to be a property owner, so he gets drunk, breaks some windows, and gets thrown in jail for a month. Danny dutifully submits to this sentence until the jailer, Tito Ralph, gets drunk with him and lets him go.

After spending a day avoiding the authorities, Danny considers "the rules ... satisfied" and goes "about his business" begging for food. He meets up with his friend Pilon, who has a bottle of brandy. As the two eat and drink together by a campfire, Danny suddenly remembers the houses and tells Pilon he is a homeowner.

Pilon says Danny is "lifted above" everyone else he knows and will soon forget his friends. Danny denies it and makes a vow: "What I have is thine. While I have a house, thou hast a house." Pilon does not believe it, but soon Danny proves him wrong. He moves into the big house and agrees to rent the smaller one to Pilon for fifteen dollars a month. But Pilon sees "the worry of property" on Danny's face as the two share dinner (a stolen chicken) and wine (bought by selling some of the objects they find in Danny's house).

Friendship Corrupted by Wealth

The next day, Pilon moves into Danny's second house. Pilon never pays any rent and feels guilty, even though Danny never asks. When Pilon gets money, he tries to take it to Danny, but he buys wine on the way. He means to give the wine to Danny and tells himself "a present" is better than "hard money." But Pilon's pure intentions are interrupted when he meets Pablo, a friend who recently spent time in jail for stealing a goose. Pilon shares the wine with Pablo instead, and when they are drunk, Pablo agrees to rent Danny's smaller house for fifteen dollars a month. Then Pilon feels better because he can always blame the lack of rent money on Pablo.

Pilon and Pablo are happy until they hear Danny is involved with a woman named Rosa Martin, and then they worry he will get married and "bother [them] about the rent." They wander to his house to casually say women are no good. Danny has no interest in Rosa, but he does want to buy candy for the woman who lives next door, and he hints he would like rent money. Pilon and Pablo get angry and say, "Candy is not good for people," but they go out looking for money for Danny.

Pilon and Pablo soon meet another friend, Jesus Maria, who has been on a bender after finding and selling a lost rowboat. He has three dollars left, so Pilon and Pablo convince him to rent Danny's house from them for $15 a month. Jesus Maria resists giving them any actual cash because he wants to buy a present for a lady, but he eventually gives Pilon two dollars. They decide wine would be a better present than candy, and they buy wine for Danny but end up drinking it themselves.

That night, while Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria sleep, a forgotten candle burns down Danny's second house. They wake up and rush outside, forgetting to grab their wine. The fire department comes, but the house is already lost. Jesus Maria takes the news to Danny, who is busy with the woman in the house next door and unwilling to stop to go see the wreck of the house.

The Foundation of True Friendship

Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria flee to the woods to avoid Danny. Danny sits alone at home, pretending to himself he is angry but really feeling pleased "at least one of his burdens" has lifted. Soon his friends arrive with gifts: a stolen picnic lunch and a pink bra. After shouting at them a bit to keep up appearances, Danny feasts with them and shares a pint of grappa. As everyone settles in, Danny says, "I want all of you to keep out of my bed." And with that, it is decided: the four friends are all going to live together.

Everyone is content until Jesus Maria makes a vow "to see that there is always food in the house for Danny." This is a "beautiful" idea, so Pablo and Pilon agree immediately—but neither of them really wants such a huge responsibility.

From Rascals to Heroes

Worried about the food problem, Pilon begins taking an interest in a mentally challenged man called the Pirate. The Pirate lives with his five dogs in an abandoned chicken house and spends every day chopping and selling wood. He earns a quarter every day but never spends it. Instead he begs for food for himself and his dogs. Realizing the Pirate must have a huge stash of money hidden somewhere, Pilon tells himself it would be kind for someone to find the money and use it to buy the Pirate nice things. He shares this thought with his friends, who agree to invite the Pirate to move in.

The Pirate moves in and begins sharing his food with Danny and his friends. He hides his quarters in the woods, however, and none of the friends can figure out where. The Pirate evades them whenever they try to follow him, so they resort to telling stories about people who hide money and end up having it stolen. Terrified, the Pirate brings them all his money and says he has been saving to buy a gold candlestick for the church in thanks to Saint Francis of Assisi. Danny, Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria are all upset because now they have to help the Pirate instead of spending the money. They hide it under Danny's pillow.

The Trouble with Immoral Friends

Another friend of Danny's, Big Joe Portagee, gets home from the war later than the others because he has been in military prison. Big Joe likes prison, and upon coming home, he immediately breaks the law and gets himself locked up. When none of his friends pass through during his stay, he says, "They must be dead." 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.

After marking a spot where he believes there is treasure, Pilon takes Big Joe to Danny's house. That night Pilon discovers that Big Joe, who does not share his friends' strong values, has stolen Danny's blanket and traded it for a bottle of wine. Pilon is furious about this. He makes Big Joe dig for the treasure, but all they find is a geodetic survey marker. Pilon, who wanted money to repay Danny's generosity, is devastated. They wander to the beach, drink, and pass out, and in the morning, Pilon wakes up and steals Big Joe's pants. He goes to Torrelli's, where he and his friends buy most of their alcohol. He trades the pants for wine, and then he steals back both the pants and Danny's blanket. He returns the pants to Big Joe, who does not know how they were lost and is very grateful. Then the two men return Danny's blanket.

Episodes of Convoluted Heroism

Danny begins a relationship with a lady known as Sweets Ramirez. When he gets a little money, he buys Sweets a big, shiny vacuum cleaner. She does not have electricity, but she is delighted anyway because it gives her high status to own such a beautiful object. She and Danny end up in a relationship that saps Danny's energy. Eventually Danny's friends grow concerned and decide to break up the relationship for Danny's benefit. They lie and say Sweets is expecting Danny to hook her house up with electricity, and Danny agrees to let them steal the vacuum cleaner. They trade the cleaner to Torrelli for wine, but it doesn't have a motor, so Torrelli's wife cannot use the machine either.

Jesus Maria, a great humanitarian, meets a teenage boy with a sick baby and brings him home to Danny's house. The boy says he has been a corporal in the army in Mexico, and he wants his baby to become a general. The boy explains he was married to a sweet lady, but a captain stole her away. After the boy tells this story, the baby dies. The boy sobs and says he wanted the best for his son: "If that capitán ... could take my wife, imagine what a generál ... could take!"

One day Big Joe gets caught in the rain and takes shelter in the home of Tia Ignacia, a middle-aged woman who reluctantly shares her wine and assumes he will seduce her. When he falls asleep instead, she grows furious and beats him. He flees, and she follows, still hitting him. In this circumstance, "love came to Big Joe Portagee." The two have sex in the street.

The Pirate still earns a quarter every day, and his stash of coins is now "the symbolic center of the friendship" between Danny and his friends. They do not steal the money because it is meant for Saint Francis of Assisi, and "it is far worse to defraud a saint than it is to take liberties with the law." One day when everyone but Big Joe is away together, the money disappears. The friends lay in wait for Big Joe and mercilessly beat him until he admits he stole it and buried it. When it is recovered and Big Joe is lying unconscious on the floor, the friends count the quarters and discover they have enough to buy the gold candlestick. The Pirate takes the money to the priest, tells his story, and arranges to have a candle purchased.

When this is accomplished, the friends urge the Pirate to go to church and hear Sunday's sermon. They lend him their best clothes so he will look decent, and they tell him he cannot take his dogs to church. The Pirate is sad not to take the dogs, but he is mortified when they come barking into the service on Sunday. The priest tells him not to be embarrassed: "It is no sin to be loved by your dogs, and no sin to love them." The Pirate is thrilled, and afterward he goes to the woods to retell the story of his victory to the dogs. While there, he believes the dogs see a vision of Saint Francis.

A local woman, Señora Teresina Cortez, has eight children and is pregnant with a ninth. Her husband has long since abandoned her, and yet she keeps getting pregnant. She and her mother raise the children on little other than beans they glean from local farms after the harvest. One year the harvest fails, and Teresina's children are left near starvation. Jesus Maria hears this and asks his friends to help. They immediately begin stealing all the food they can find, but Teresina's children get sick. She tells them fruits and vegetables and such are not healthy for children, and she asks for beans. The friends steal 400 pounds of beans for her and consider the problem solved. The ninth child has been born in the interval, and she realizes one of the friends has gotten her pregnant with a tenth.

Miracles and Destruction

The friends stay up late every night and sleep late in the mornings. When day comes, they slowly get up and, after a long time, fall into conversation. They gossip, philosophize, and share stories, relying on Pilon to divine moral lessons from their talk. Pilon does not like it when the stories have "too many meanings and too many lessons," especially if "some of those lessons are opposite." Pablo, however, prefers stories with no "meaning you can see," especially if they "seem to mean something." The friends argue amiably about ideas like this until they get hungry, and then they set out to get food.

By now the friends have settled into "a routine which might have been monotonous for anyone but a paisano." They idly sit around most of the time waiting for the Pirate to bring food, and sometimes they get wine, which leads to "singing and fighting." Only Danny is unhappy, because he has to live with "the weight of property" and "the responsibility to his friends." Eventually it is all too much, and he runs away.

After a week, Danny's friends begin to hear stories about him breaking laws all over town. They are both worried about this "moral decay" and "not a little jealous of the good time Danny was having." Every night while they sleep, Danny sneaks in and steals from them, selling their possessions to buy wine. When he sells his house to Torrelli for 25 dollars, the friends take the notice of sale from Torrelli and burn it. They hear Danny is in jail, but he soon reappears with Tito Ralph and plenty of food and drink. The friends welcome Danny home, and everyone gets drunk.

After his "amok," Danny falls into a depression. Nothing the friends do or say can snap him out of it, so they decide to throw him a party. They do not have money, so they all go down to the docks and do a day's work. Such a thing has never happened before, and everyone in Tortilla Flat hears about it within hours. When they learn the friends are working to earn money for a party, everyone pitches in with food, alcohol, and entertainment.

In the stories of this night, Danny is elevated to the status of a mythical god: he drinks more, has sex with more women, and fights harder than a human possibly can. At the end, he threatens the room with a table leg and demands another fight, but he is too fierce and nobody rises to the challenge. He shouts, "Am I alone in the world? Will no one fight with me?" When nobody answers, he runs outside and ends up at the bottom of a ravine. Four doctors and a priest are called, but they can do nothing. Danny dies.

A Return to the Old Ways

Everyone in Tortilla Flat attends Danny's funeral—except his best friends. They have no good clothes, and they cannot borrow or steal any because everyone else in town is using theirs. A military funeral is called for, with plenty of fanfare, and the friends watch it from a distance. Then they head home, but Danny's house is no longer the place it was. A fire accidentally starts, and they allow the house to burn down. When it is ashes, they all leave, "and no two walked together."

Tortilla Flat Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Danny inherits two houses.

Rising Action

2 With Pilon as witness, Danny vows to share his property.

3 Danny's friends move into his second house and burn it down.

4 Danny lets his friends move in with him.

5 The Pirate moves in and asks for help guarding his money.

6 The friends help the Pirate buy a golden candlestick.

7 Danny goes on a bender and tries to sell his house.

8 Danny gets depressed, so his friends throw him a party.


9 At the greatest party imaginable, Danny behaves like a god.

Falling Action

10 Danny falls into a gulch and dies.

11 Everyone except Danny's best friends attends his funeral.


12 Danny's friends let his house burn down and separate.

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