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Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Character Analysis

Character List

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs


As the owner of the house, Danny is the leader of the paisanos of Tortilla Flat. When there is a tough decision to be made or when a chore needs to be assigned to someone in the group, Danny typically makes the decision. He is King Arthur to the Knights of the Round Table that Steinbeck models the paisanos after. This status came to Danny quite randomly. When Danny returned from World War I, he discovered that his grandfather had left him two houses. Though everyone in the group shares everything they have, the fact that Danny shares his houses elevates him to this position.

Unfortunately, property ownership and leadership mean responsibility, and that is the one thing a paisano cannot stomach. The weight of ownership and the tedium of the paisanos' meaningless days wear heavily on Danny. He longs for the days of freedom that he had enjoyed before the war. Even though Danny's father was comparatively rich, Danny always refused the luxuries that were offered to him. He preferred sleeping the forest to his own house and the taste of store bought food never compared to the ecstasy of eating stolen grub. Ownership of the house left Danny without the ability to enjoy these pleasures. It was not reasonable to sleep in the forest when he had a bed and there was no need to steal food when the pirate brought plenty of it every day. But, what is reasonable is not necessarily what makes Danny happy. After brooding for a month, Danny disappears from the house and goes on a crime spree that puts the entire town on the defensive. When he returns, Danny is happy and exhausted, but he has not recaptured his youth. That is gone forever. There is only old age and death to look forward to. Danny sees this and chooses to fight it. At the party, Danny dies in a final burst of brilliance that makes him legendary. His friends honor this intention by burning Danny's house down and not letting it pass on and become forgotten.


It is difficult to imagine a character as deep as Pilon in the setting of Tortilla Flat. Pilon is a truly beautiful soul. He is fiendishly quick witted, a store of knowledge, always ready to share, romantically in awe of nature, and an idealist. Pilon always aims to do what is right and has a very strong conscience. When he is out doing good, he is filled with a sense of divine satisfaction. He ungrudgingly shares his Brandy with Danny in the opening chapter of the book, even though brandy was the most rare of possible commodities in Tortilla Flat. He also tries very hard to obtain the rent for Danny even though it is not implicit that Danny really wanted or needed any. Pilon's only problem is that he can often be convinced (by himself or by others) to stray from the straight path of virtue to a somewhat twisted one, provided that the end result was in some way good. For example, Pilon obtains two dollars of rent to give to Danny, but then decides that he did not want Danny to hurt his teeth on the candy that he would surely buy with it. Instead, he buys two gallons of wine for his friend, but on the way to his house, he runs into an old friend. Pilon realizes that it would be impolite not to offer his friend some wine, and they end up drinking it back at Pilon's house.

At the end of Chapter 14, Pilon expresses an idea that truly epitomizes his character. He explains that when he was younger, he and his brothers had thrown rocks at the trains as they passed. The engineers on the trains had responded by throwing lumps of coal back, which Pilon would take back to his home and use to heat the house. Pilon wanted to try to apply this principle to the fishing boats in Monterey. The friends would go down to the harbor and throw rocks at the boats as they came in from the day's fishing. The fisherman would want to throw something back, and having only fish at hand, they would throw them at the paisanos. In this way, they would have something to eat. It is typical of Pilon's ideas in that it is harmless, aimed at the well being of all, and a victimless crime.

The Pirate

One of the goals of John Steinbeck's literature is to expose the intrinsic beauty of simple things. The touching innocence and sincerity of The Pirate is a perfect example of this. It is thought by some that the Pirate was a prototype for Steinbeck's most famous gentle giant of limited mental capacity, Lenie, one of the main characters in Of Mice and Men. The Pirate is a gigantic man with the mind of a child. Everyone in Monterey saw him everyday, but no one knew him because he was reluctant to speak. When he was forced into confrontation, he took on the expression of an animal that wanted to flee. Whereas people scared him, the Pirate found comfort in the companionship of his five dogs. The dogs were was blanket on cold nights and became his sixth sense, warning him against concealed danger. He loved the dogs so much that when he portioned off the day's food, he would give the best items to the dogs and the most modest morsels to himself.

When Pilon catches on to the fact that the Pirate must have accumulated a large stash of money from his daily woodcutting, the Pirate is no match for the manipulative wits of Danny's friends. The Pirate falls right into their trap, but when he explains the reason for his savings, the friends are so touched by his simplicity and sincerity that they cannot scam him out of the money. Instead, the Pirate becomes one of Danny's closest friends with the money as the physical center point of their bond. Though he rarely contributes to conversations, the Pirate finds comfort at Danny's house for the first time with other adults. He thrives on being part of the group and, in exchange for their kindness, the Pirate brings Danny and the other friends food every day.

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