Skip over navigation

Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 16 & 17

Key Facts

The paisanos are free of commercialism, free of the complicated systems of American business, and, having nothing that can be stolen, exploited or mortgaged, that system has not attacked them very vigorously.

In the Preface, the narrator of Tortilla Flat makes these comments about the paisanos. It explains not what they lack, but what Steinbeck finds beautiful about them. He sees the advances in American business and technology as corrupting influences on freedom loving people. The fact that the paisanos are untouched by this system, that they do not crave convenience and fortune, and that they have nothing to offer the system that would cause it to pursue them, is a beautiful thing to the author. In their simplicity, they are not blinded by the false promises and pursuits of modernity, and are free to examine the very essence of life. Steinbeck finds the things that engage the paisanos: companionship, free living, and humanity, to be much more worthwhile pursuits than those dictated by 1920's American society, which were economics, status, and comfort. Steinbeck would be likely to sum those things up in two words: greed and pride. The closest to a modern person living in Tortilla Flat is Torrelli, and the majority does not like him.

One cry of pain escaped him before he left for all time his old and simply existence. "Pilon," he said sadly, "I wished you owned it and I could come live with you."

This quote is Danny's only spoken utterance of remorse for having the burden of the houses placed on him. It takes place at the beginning of chapter two, when Danny and Pilon take up inhabitance of the inherited houses. It is interesting that, even then, so early in the story, and so unsure of how things would end up, Danny was aware that his life was changing, and probably not for the better. Already he envies Pilon for having the comfort of living in a house without the responsibility of owning it. Though he is distracted for a while by the periodic reemergence of old friends, this sentiment will grow on Danny. Stuck in a lackluster but comfortable existence, he will repeatedly wish for the days of his freedom and youth. Eventually, desire for freedom overwhelms Danny's sense of responsibility and place. He goes on a rampage of crime, squeezing the wild life of a decade into just a month, but even then it is to late. When he took on the houses, Danny gave up his youth, and he could never recover it. Instead of waiting around for death and enduring another thirty years of painful reminiscence, Danny battles his fate, choosing an early and glorious death over an extended painful one.

Our Father is in the evening. These birds are flying across the forehead of the father. Dear birds, dear sea gulls, how I love you all.

Pilon utters these thoughts to no one but himself on the walk to Danny's house in the evening. He had worked the entire day cleaning squids so that he would have some rent to give to Danny. On the way, however, he bought two gallons of wine instead, thinking that Danny would appreciate the gift more than the meaningless paper dollars. Still, at the moment of the quote, his intentions are pure, and in this high frame of mind, Pilon notices the beauty all around him. Just the sight of some seagulls floating in the breeze is enough to stop him in his tracks. For a minute, the bad Pilon ceases to exist and the good Pilon floats around the heavens with the birds. A bulldog with the habit of biting legs walks by Pilon and does not even notice him.

Unfortunately, as Steinbeck tells us, "A soul washed and saved is a soul doubly in danger." When Pilon's existence is so pure, the slightest distraction can send him plummeting into sin. He continues along the path to Danny's house but utterly lacking conviction. When he stumbles upon his old friend Pablo in a ditch, an alternate plan forms in his mind in which he can enjoy a good part of the wine himself.

To think, all those years I lay in that chicken house, and I did not know any pleasure. But now, oh, now I am very happy.

After the Pirate turns his money over to Danny and Pilon in Chapter 7, he expresses the joy that he feels for having friends with this quote. When the Pirate was living along in the chicken house, he had everything he needed. He had plenty of food, a roof over his head, a mission and life, and some degree of companionship in his dogs. With quotes like this, Steinbeck is saying that it is good to have all of these things, but true pleasure in life comes from having stimulating and caring friends. The Pirate had never realized what he was missing until he had it. His inability to recognize that most basic need of human nature was part of how his mind had not grown up with his body. For a boy, dogs are enough, but a man needs friends who challenge him, include him, and help him when he is in need. This can also be seen as a commentary on society in the modern world. The comforts that Steinbeck saw people wasting their lives for in New York are like the comforts that the Pirate had in his chicken coup. Without friendship, life is without meaning.

I will go out to The One who can fight. I will find The Enemy who is worthy of Danny.

These are Danny's last words. He speaks them, table leg brandished overhead, at his party after challenging everyone in the world to fight him, if they dared. No one responds, and with these words, Danny rushes out of the house and into the gulch to his death. No one is sure whether he actually engaged in battle with some supernatural enemy or if he simply fell the forty-feet to the bottom of the gulch. All that anyone heard was a final scream of defiance. Finding his youth gone and nothing left for him to do in the world, Danny decided to cheat death out of the long, slow, painful, and meaningless end that it had prepared for him, and die in a spectacular final burst of defiance.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us