Tortilla Flat | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Tortilla Flat | Preface | Summary

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Summary

The preface to Tortilla Flat introduces the story "of Danny and of Danny's friends and of Danny's house" and "of how these three became one thing." Danny and his friends are like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and their group is "an organization beautiful and wise."

Speaking in the past tense with the authority of a historian, the narrator says he is recording the history of Danny and his friends to make sure it is remembered properly. He wants to prevent academics of the future from calling the story a myth and its characters metaphors. He claims the story is true, and he hopes his account of it will "keep the sneers from the lips of sour scholars" in the future.

Danny and his friends live outside the fishing town of Monterey. Above the town is a poor neighborhood, Tortilla Flat, "where the streets are innocent of asphalt" and the people are "clean of commercialism." The people are paisanos, Californians of mixed Spanish, Native American, and "assorted Caucasian" ancestry. The paisanos are too poor to be interested in or of interest to the modern American free market system.

One of these paisanos is Danny. Danny's grandfather owns two houses in Tortilla Flat, but Danny runs wild and sleeps in the forest. When war is declared, Danny drinks wine with his friend Pilon, whose name means "something thrown in when a trade is concluded." A third friend, Big Joe Portagee, joins them partway through their little party. When the three men are drunk, they all decide to enlist.

Neither Danny nor his friends see any action in the war. Danny is sent to Texas to break mules, Pilon to the infantry in Oregon. Big Joe, "as shall be later made clear," spends most of the war in jail.

Analysis

The preface to Tortilla Flat is made up mostly of exposition—description of the setting and characters. Steinbeck identifies his main character, provides a few details about the town where he lives, and shares some background information about the culture of the area.

The content of the preface seems quite simple, but the tone is complex. It is humorous and admiring, praising the people of Tortilla Flat for their lack of corruption and commercialism. Even so, the descriptions have a hard or ugly side. In spite of its good qualities, Tortilla Flat is a place of poverty, alcoholism, and struggle for survival. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck keeps his language light, and he often glorifies his characters' behavior. But the harder underside of the content is always present for readers who wish to focus on it.

The preface alludes to the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, a classic myth of English literature. The King Arthur story touches on themes of friendship, loyalty, honor, and moral struggle, all of which also hold thematic importance in Tortilla Flat. Many readers are likely to be familiar with, and even love, King Arthur and his knights. By associating Danny and his friends with some of the oldest and most respectable heroes of English literature, Steinbeck challenges any preconceived notions the reader may have about people who live as recklessly and idly as Danny and his friends do.

Danny's house is introduced as a "talisman," a magical or miraculous object. Steinbeck makes it clear this house is not just a thing, but a grouping of people whose friendship and loyalty are almost supernatural. Throughout the story, the house emerges as a motif of true friendship and all it entails.

Only in the last few paragraphs does the preface switch to action, as Danny and his friends get drunk and enlist to serve in World War I (1914–18). Although the story is set in difficult times, Steinbeck does not actually send any of his characters into battle, which allows him to maintain the novel's lighthearted tone. They march in circles, break mules, or sit in prison instead.

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