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Tortilla Flat | Themes

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Ambiguous Morality

Danny and his friends are described in heroic terms, but their thoughts and actions are frequently selfish. For example, in the first chapter, Danny does not want to share his food with Pilon until he realizes Pilon is hiding a bottle of brandy. Then, when Danny offers to share his food, Pilon is bound by convention to share his liquor as well. As a result, both men behave exactly as they would if they were actually unselfish. Throughout the novel, the narrator praises exchanges of this kind as examples of true unselfishness—but little details give away their true feelings. For example, when Danny manipulates Pilon into sharing the brandy, Pilon responds "savagely" and "sadly."

The narrator makes a subtle distinction between intentions and actions. In Chapter 3, for instance, the narrator describes Pilon admiringly when Pilon intends to give Danny rent money. When the money gets spent on wine instead, the narrator makes it sound like this is inevitable—not something Pilon chooses to do. Similarly, throughout the novel, if the characters plan to share anything, they are good and kind. If they use it, drink it, or burn it before they get a chance to share, the tone shifts, and their actions are described dispassionately, like bad weather.

By equating good intentions with goodness, Steinbeck creates a world in which characters can become good merely by convincing themselves they have a good reason for their actions. Pilon, the most intelligent and logical of Danny's friends, is the master at this. In Chapter 7, Pilon takes an interest in a mentally challenged man named the Pirate because the Pirate is hiding a stash of money. Pilon weaves a complex web of logic to tell himself the Pirate needs help spending his money. In this passage, Steinbeck calls Pilon heroic while simultaneously weaving in details that make it clear Pilon has ulterior motives. For instance, Steinbeck compares Pilon to a cat hunting a sparrow—a simile that clearly suggests the Pirate is set up to become Pilon's victim.

But just when it seems clear that Pilon is evil, Steinbeck turns the matter on its head. He says Pilon, an idle drifter and petty thief, is better than people who are most admired by society, with "neither the stupidity, the self-righteousness nor the greediness for reward ever to become a saint." This suggests that respectable people are even worse than Pilon, Danny, and their friends about weaving webs of lies to make themselves seem good. And as the chapter progresses, Danny's friends' attempt to divert the Pirate's money gets thwarted: the Pirate asks them for help stashing it and explains he means to spend it on a gift for Saint Francis. After this point, they cannot steal the money without breaking their codes of friendship, loyalty, and honor. Once again, they act as they would if they were good.

Steinbeck's message is that goodness is always partly evil, and vice versa: "The belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow." In this story, nothing is pure. Everything is ambiguous. People who seem awful may be heroes too, and people who seem like heroes are probably awful.

Loyal Friendship

Danny and his friends value friendship highly. In spite of their willingness to fight, steal, and shirk work, they follow a strict code of ethics in their behavior toward each other. Central to this code is the respect of friends' property and the obligation to share with people who offer what they have. When one character offers to share something, the others always do the same. Danny shares his house, so his friends bring him whatever they have. They even vow to feed him—although they dodge the obligation to work toward this goal.

The only character that struggles to behave according to the code of loyalty is Big Joe. By breaking the code, Big Joe helps clarify its boundaries. When he breaks the code by stealing Danny's blanket, trying to use Danny's bed, or taking money from the Pirate, the other characters feel justified in violently "disciplining" Big Joe.

The code of loyalty would not be so strong without Danny and Danny's house. In the early chapters, before Danny takes possession of his houses and allows the others to live with him as guests, the characters frequently try to keep their food and wine for themselves instead of sharing it. Only after Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria move in with Danny does their little community begin to function effectively. But Danny's centrality to the community is also its weakness. When he breaks the code at the end by running away, keeping his money and wine for himself, and stealing from his friends, nobody has any power to stop him. He is their benefactor, so they cannot "discipline" him as they would Big Joe. This is why, when he stops running amok and returns home, he is accepted back without comment. This episode creates a feeling of uncertainty because it makes clear that Danny's house cannot last forever.

The Value of Carefree Pleasures

Danny and his friends desire almost nothing but food, alcohol, love, and fun. They live entirely according to their desire for pleasure in the present moment, and they never bother to plan or worry about the future. To them, working for a living is a preposterous thing to do, and they sign on for only a day of work in Chin Kee's squid yard if they are desperate for cash. In their worldview, doing what one pleases is the morally correct thing to do, and they pursue simple pleasure without any regard for the past and future. For example, in Chapter 8, Pilon gets angry with Big Joe for stealing Danny's blanket and trading it for wine—but even as Pilon rants about this, he also drinks the wine. Similarly, when any character in the story gets money, he spends it the same day. If Danny and his friends are enjoying themselves, they never worry about any moral qualms from yesterday or plans for tomorrow.

Burdensome Property

Beginning in the preface, Steinbeck assumes that wealth corrupts people. He describes the paisanos of Tortilla Flat as "clean of commercialism"—in other words, too poor to care much for the status symbols of modern society. But even within the poor community of Tortilla Flat and Monterey, people who have more money tend to hoard their possessions and consider themselves superior. This is why Danny and his friends regard Torrelli, the wine salesman, with contempt. When they steal from most people, they rationalize their behavior—but they steal from Torrelli openly and without remorse.

Property itself means responsibility, stability, and elevated social status. But to Danny, who loves a carefree life and has no desire for prestige, owning property is a burden. In Chapter 1, when he first learns he has inherited two houses, he gets so drunk and disorderly he is thrown in prison for a month. He briefly forgets what he owns, and when he remembers again, he vows to share it. In Chapter 2, when he moves into his house, he says to Pilon, "I wish you owned it and I could come to live with you." Throughout the novel, he continues to resist the appeal of ownership.

To the narrator and the other characters, Danny's attitude toward his property seems miraculous. Everyone else is corrupted by wealth, but Danny resists temptation and unselfishly shares what he owns. This unusual characteristic helps elevate Danny to the level of a mythical hero, but it is also unsustainable. Danny's status as a homeowner sets him apart from his friends and makes it difficult for him to live as he pleases. The responsibility contradicts with his desire to live a simple, carefree life. This pressure contributes to his death at the end of the story.

All of the themes in Tortilla Flat are ambiguous in some way, and the message about wealth is no exception. Beneath the story of carefree simplicity lie hints of a society in which poverty also causes suffering. In Chapter 10, Danny and his friends meet a poor corporal from Mexico whose sick baby dies in their house. In Chapter 13, they steal food for a woman too poor to feed her nine children. Details like these complicate Steinbeck's suggestions about wealth, corruption, and the ability to live a simple, carefree life.

Mysterious Meanings of Stories

There are several episodes of characters telling stories within Tortilla Flat, and each of these episodes contributes to an overall message about how stories build themes. Whenever a work of fiction comments on how to read or respond to stories, it is safe to assume the author is providing a hint about how they want their own fiction to be read. In Chapter 5 of Tortilla Flat, Jesus Maria tells a story about fighting some soldiers, revealing the details in bits and pieces. Hearing him, Pilon reflects, "The good story lay in half-told things which must be filled in out of the hearer's own experience." This implies that Steinbeck is holding back some details he wants readers to insert for themselves. Later, when a corporal tells a story about wanting his son to grow up to be a general, the main characters assume he means something totally different than he intends. Steinbeck may be trying to push readers to look past their first interpretation of Tortilla Flat and find a deeper meaning.

Steinbeck devotes Chapter 14 almost entirely to storytelling, and according to his habit throughout the novel, he uses it to weave a message that contradicts itself. In this chapter, Danny's friends tell a series of darkly funny stories about botched attempts to manipulate people by staging suicides. The last of these stories is particularly gruesome, and Pilon says he does not like it: "There are too many meanings and too many lessons in it. Some of those lessons are opposite." But Pablo disagrees, saying, "It hasn't any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something." Both characters' statements could easily apply to an analysis of Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck does not outright state which character's views align more closely with his own, but it is telling that he allows Pablo the last word on the matter.

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