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Tortilla Flat | Quotes


Danny's house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny's friends were not unlike the knights.

Narrator, Preface

Tortilla Flat is the story of a group of idle alcoholics, but from the beginning, Steinbeck upends mainstream stereotypes about such people, portraying them in the most positive possible light. He does this partly by comparing them to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, some of the most beloved heroes of English literature.


While I have a house, thou hast a house. Give me a drink.

Danny, Chapter 1

Here, Danny speaks in the flowery, archaic language of King Arthur and his knights—and then reverts to ordinary English to ask for some brandy. The humor in this abrupt shift contributes to the novel's charm. It also shows how Steinbeck can make the same character seem simultaneously exalted and common.


The soul capable of the greatest good is also capable of the greatest evil.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Steinbeck explicitly says the relationship between good and evil is complicated. His whole novel praises the goodness of people who would generally be depicted as bad. Steinbeck also points out the hypocrisy of so-called upstanding citizens who are usually seen as good.


Where a mass comes from is of no interest to God. He just likes them.

Pilon, Chapter 4

To Steinbeck's characters, enjoyment of the present moment is a moral imperative. When they have food and wine, they eat and drink, never worrying about where it came from or how they will get along tomorrow. They assume God and the saints do the same—enjoying the feeling of being worshipped and respected, regardless of how people got the money to pay for these honors.


The good story lay in half-told things which must be filled in out of ... experience.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck suggests that stories are complicated. His narrator and characters assume no story is complete by itself; readers must play an active role in interpreting it.


He had been considered rich, and he had missed a great many tidbits.

Narrator, Chapter 6

When Danny's friends burn down his second house, he is relieved because he does not have to be their landlord anymore. Throughout the novel, he struggles with the responsibility of wealth and craves the carefree, simple life he had when he owned nothing. To him, the "tidbits" he and his friends find—food, wine, adventures—are preferable to the security and prestige of wealth.


The thing was said ... They could only hope that Danny would forget it.

Narrator, Chapter 6

When Jesus Maria Corcoran makes a vow to keep food in Danny's house, all of Danny's friends enthusiastically agree to help—but only outwardly. Privately, they dislike work and responsibility. The disconnect between their selfish desires and their unselfish ethical codes provides much of the conflict of the novel.


The belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow.

Narrator, Chapter 7

When Pilon decides to try to get the Pirate's money, he pretends to himself he is doing the Pirate a favor. The narrator comments on Pilon's goodness and honor—but he also refers to this action as "a black and evil thing" that has just a hint of goodness in it. This passage helps develop Steinbeck's complicated themes about good and evil.


Pilon had neither the stupidity, the self-righteousness, nor the greediness for reward ever to become a saint.

Narrator, Chapter 7

When Pilon decides to try to steal the Pirate's money, he portrays the action to himself as a good thing. Although the narrator hints otherwise, he retains his admiring tone toward Pilon. In contrast, the narrator lambasts saints, calling them "self-righteous" and full of "greediness for reward." In other words, Pilon's plan to liberate the Pirate of his money may seem bad, but it is far less evil than the actions of the upright, respectable people of the world.


If I go after it intending to keep it, then the treasure will dig itself down.

Pilon, Chapter 8

Of all Danny's friends, Pilon is most effective at expressing the intricacies of Tortilla Flat's moral codes. This statement shows how he regards selfish versus selfless actions. If he acts in his own self-interest, he will not get what he wants. But if he tries to do something kind for Danny, Pilon will end up getting rewarded, too.


He could avenge Danny, discipline Big Joe, teach an ethical lesson, and get a little wine.

Narrator, Chapter 8

The characters in Tortilla Flat regularly portray morally questionable actions as virtuous. When Pilon steals Big Joe's pants, trades them for wine, steals the pants again, and finally returns them to Big Joe, he congratulates himself for doing the right thing.


Love and fighting, and a little wine. Then you are always young, always happy.

Pilon, Chapter 14

Here, Steinbeck suggests human beings are unsatisfied with pure goodness. They want some excitement, too. To Pilon, the ingredients for a good life are "love and fighting, and a little wine." These things make him feel "young" and "happy," although a careful reader may note some of the same ingredients also tend to age people and lead to unhappiness.


It hasn't any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something.

Pablo, Chapter 14

At the end of an amiable argument about the meanings of stories, Pablo says he likes a story with no clear meaning, especially if a meaning seems to be there somewhere. Steinbeck gives Pablo the last word, which suggests the author may agree. This passage hints that he may want readers to read a complicated and contradictory set of themes into Tortilla Flat.


Sad as they were at his moral decay, the friends were not a little jealous.

Narrator, Chapter 15

Goodness and honor become increasingly important to Danny's friends as the novel progresses, but they never stop enjoying the life of drunken mischief-makers. This funny little line embodies their contradictory impulses.


Am I alone in the world? Will no one fight with me?

Danny, Chapter 16

In Tortilla Flat, a fight is "glorious"—a result of happy drinking and fun. Fighting is not seen as bad; it is a symbol of vitality and communion with others. So when Danny gets so fierce and so intimidating nobody is willing to fight him anymore, he sees himself as "alone in the world."

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