Skip over navigation

Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Chapters 10 & 11

Chapters 8 & 9

Chapters 12 & 13

Summary

Chapter 10

Jesus Maria Corcoran was not only a humanitarian, but also a magnet to which situations in which he could employ his humanity were attracted. One day while sitting at the post office watching the girls, he noticed a young Mexican with a baby being led down the street by a police officer. The Mexican was pleading in Spanish that he had done nothing, but the policeman did not understand. Jesus Maria intervenes and learns that the Mexican had been sitting in the gutter for hours after he had been unable to find the work that he had been promised existed in Monterey. This had annoyed the police officer and he was taking the Mexican in. Jesus Maria explained to the police officer that the Mexican was a friend and that he would keep him out of trouble and the youth is let go.

The Mexican explains that his baby was sick and Jesus Maria offers the comfort of Danny's home. They proceed to Tortilla Flat where the friends are all alarmed by the baby's condition. Pilon takes control of the situation. He asks Jesus Maria to fetch some milk from a neighbor's goat and then has Big Joe and Pablo make a crib for the baby out of an apple box. Finally, the Pirate comes in with the usual leftovers from the restaurants and the friends fix dinner. Despite repeated offerings, the baby is too ill to drink any of the milk or swallow any of the mackerel that is offered. The young Mexican indulges, however, and thanks Danny and his friends for their kindness. Gradually they pry the Mexican's story from him.

The Mexican was a caporal in the Mexican Army. He had earned the position through diligence, and chevrons of that position had earned him a beautiful young wife with whom he had immediately conceived the baby. Shortly after the christening, however, the wife had met a capitan in the army with epaulets, a sash, and a silver sword. Soon the wife had left the caporal. The caporal had confronted the capitan, but the superior officer had replied that the caporal had better be careful about whom he talked to. The very next night, gunshots were fired at the caporal's house, and the next day a cannon had fired so close to him that it had knocked the wind out of him. The caporal had taken his baby and ran to Fresno where a wise man had told him that he could make the baby anything that he wanted. Since that day the caporal has been whispering to the baby twenty times each day that he will grow up to be a general.

Right at that moment, Big Joe gets up and says to the baby, "You going to be a general," but the baby has gone into convulsions. Danny calls for a doctor, but it is too late. The baby is dead. When things calm down, Pilon tells the caporalwhat he must do. "Now you yourself must kill the capitan," he explains. He admires that the caporal has taken such a long-term approach to his revenge, but with the baby gone, a plan must be hatched. To the surprise of the group, the caporal explains that he did not intend for the baby to become a general to kill the capitan, but only so that he could have a better life. The soldier then explains that he has to go back to Mexico to continue being a soldier in the hope that one day he can be an officer. The paisanos admire the soldier and are thankful to have met him.

Chapter 11

Rain is a rare occurrence in Monterey and so when it rains, strange things are bound to happen. Big Joe Portagee has just begun to follow the calling of his stomach back to Danny's house after a long day of lying on the beach under a rowboat when it starts to pour. Big Joe is immediately soaked, and runs for the nearest residence to ask for shelter, which in this case belongs to the widow Tia Ignacia. Tia has just uncorked a new gallon jug of wine and poured herself a glass. She tries to hide the wine under a chair but it is too late. Big Joe's eyes are glued to the bottle. Out of politeness, she offers him a seat out of the rain and a glass of wine. Four or five glasses later, she realizes that the wine is doomed and that she will have to drink at pace with him if she wants to have any for herself. Gradually, a romantic interest begins to peak in the widow Ignacia for the hulking frame of Big Joe. She tries to get him to remove his coat so that she can dry it, but all that Big Joe is interested in is the wine. She tries making indirect invitations, which seem to go completely over Big Joe's head. Finally, she decides to abandon decency and asks him if it is all right to shut off the light to conserve gas. Big Joe does not resist, and after Tia turns off the lights, she settles in to halfheartedly resist Big Joe's intentions. She hears his cup drop and she braces herself, but no motion comes. Big Joe has fallen asleep in the warmth and comfort of her house, and the widow is furious. She picks out a hefty stick from the wood box and proceeds to beat him back to consciousness. She chases him out into the street, and Big Joe is forced to grab hold of her to stop her from hitting him. With Tia Ignacia in a firm bear hug, big Joe's romantic side is finally awakened. He asks the policeman who has driven up to investigate the disturbance to give them a few minutes before arresting them, but the policeman just drives away.

Analysis

The good bond between the friends of Danny's house is abundantly visible in the affair of the caporal from Mexico. The similarity to a story about the Knights of the Rounds Table is also evident. Though everything that happens regarding the caporal reeks of goodness, some of the more subtle points are actually the most telling. For instance, when Jesus Maria Corcoran volunteers Danny's house to help the baby get well, he does so knowing that there was no need to consult Danny beforehand. He knows exactly how the friends will respond to such a sad situation and to such an opportunity to do good. He also offers the milk of Mrs. Palochico's goat, which he refused to ever let any of the friends partake of. It was not worthy to take milk from the goat to satisfy their hunger, but in the chance that it could help the baby, it could be sacrificed.

Like the Knights of the Round Table, who were always symbolically learning something about their faith in their quests, the friends learn a lesson from their experience with the soldier. They learn how easy it is to misdirect good intentions, and how much harder the truly good road for those intentions can be. They are all quick to volunteer themselves for a revenge mission against the capitan, but the good caporal has not even thought of this. If the caporal revenged himself on the capitan, his life and the life of his child would be over. They would immediately know who committed the crime, and it can be assumed that Mexican military discipline at the time was swift and stern. By simply desiring for the child to be a general without further intention for the child's life, he was doing the best he could in a situation where the instinctive emotional response would ruin them all. He also does not try to bend the child's life towards killing the capitan later in life, which shows his good fatherly commitment towards allowing the child's spirit to be free. It is also important to note that he does this with the knowledge that he could have the child grow up to kill the capitan. Following the wise man's guidance, he could have said to the child every day, "You will kill the capitan," but he did not. The friends recognize the superior foresight and goodness of the caporal and are honored to have met him.

Steinbeck makes it seem ridiculous that Big Joe does not make any advances on the widow Tia Ignacia, and indeed, it does seem unusual that an oaf of his stereotypical character would not be caught up in desire. It is a reflection of goodness upon Big Joe, however, that he does not conform to the expectations of the average paisano drunkard. He does not enter the house of the widow with any intentions other than desire for comfort and maybe a little wine. This is what allows him and the rest of Danny's band to receive so much sympathy from readers. They do not commit crimes every time the opportunity presents itself, and they do not do anything that really hurts anyone else. Steinbeck goes to great lengths to ensure that their crimes appear as victimless as possible. If Big Joe had walked into the house and acted on the vulnerability of the widow, that would have been wrong by the moral guidelines of the book. Drinking all of her wine, while not very nice, is forgivable, as it is just wine.

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