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Tortilla Flat | Symbols


Danny's Bed

Danny shares his house freely with his friends, but his bed is a symbol of his status as homeowner. After his friends burn down his second house in Chapter 5, Danny makes no effort to collect rent or place other obligations on his friends. He only asks them to respect his sleeping place: "I want all of you to keep out of my bed." His friends show him deference by obeying this request with almost religious fervor. Nobody except Big Joe ever touches Danny's bed, and any time Big Joe violates that space, the others beat him for it.

The Vacuum Cleaner

The vacuum cleaner Danny buys for Sweets Ramirez in Chapter 9 symbolizes materialism, as it shines a light on the widespread poverty among the people of Tortilla Flat. To them, a vacuum cleaner is shiny and fascinating—almost like an object from another world. Neither Sweets Ramirez nor most other residents of Tortilla Flat have electricity, so the "sweeping-machine," as they call it, is useless to them. Still, the people act giddy just to see it and touch it. Sweets even pretends to clean with it like a child at play. This episode makes Tortilla Flat's society seem charming, but it also shows how easily they could fall into the trap of materialism. The "sweeping-machine" immediately becomes a status symbol in Tortilla Flat. Owning it makes Sweets more important, and other women are jealous and want the vacuum cleaner for themselves.

The Black Bird

Although he does not mention it on the night of Danny's death, Pablo later claims he saw a "black cloud" turn into "a big black bird" over Danny's head. He also claims he said two Hail Marys, and the bird disappeared. To Pablo, this bird likely symbolizes Danny's impending death—and indeed, the presence of an apparently magical, disappearing black bird does seem to foreshadow doom. Significantly, after Pablo tells the story of the black bird, Pilon reflects that he never saw any bird or heard Pablo say any Hail Marys. This raises the question of whether Pablo is merely inventing the black bird to impress people.

The black bird seems supernatural, so its presence in the story helps emphasize Danny's status as a mythical character, someone whose life story is greater than the sum of its parts. But the bird's existence is also questionable, making it necessary to wonder whether Danny is as godlike as the story claims.

The Pirate's Stash

The Pirate's stash is a symbol of the good deeds that can arise from evil impulses. The Pirate is a mentally challenged man who earns a quarter every day and never spends any money at all. He first comes to Pilon's attention because he reasons the Pirate must have what to him is a huge stash of money. Although Pilon and Danny's other friends convince themselves they can assist the Pirate by helping him spend this money, it is clear they really want to spend most of it on themselves. But after the Pirate asks for help guarding the money and reveals he is saving up for an offering to Saint Francis, Danny and his friends cannot touch the money. Both their code of friendship and their respect for religion prevent it. Although the friends are initially "bitter" at this "defeat," they protect and defend the money until the Pirate can use it as he intends. Their relationship to this money brings about a subtle change in the character of the group. Most of their prior good deeds are questionable at best, but arguably, this good deed is genuine. It helps the men see themselves and their friendship as more important and more trustworthy—and it inspires them to continue to do good.

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