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Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Do you think that Steinbeck intends for the paisanos to be viewed as model citizens or heroes? Why or why not?

Although there is no definite answer to this question, it seems like Steinbeck is aware of the faults of the paisano lifestyle. He never tries to hide the fact that they are committing crimes. Rather than portraying the paisanos as model citizens, he seems to be trying to show that they possess certain values that he sees lacking in his contemporary society. The paisanos have a degree of freedom that no one with a job, responsibility, or commitment can experience. They can spend their days any way that they want to. Instead of wasting their days trying to earn money or seduce women, or make names for themselves, they lay around relishing in the joys of companionship and nature. Steinbeck seems to be trying to point out that in the complexity of modern life, simple pleasures like freedom and friendship are often overlooked in favor of luxury and comfort.

Instead of modeling our lives after the paisanos, a good idea would be to apply the things that make their lives so endearing to our own. Like Pilon, we should pause occasionally to appreciate the wonders of nature and spirituality. Like the Pirate, we should occasionally trust our friends instead of always suspecting them of plots. Like Jesus Maria, we should care less about acquiring luxury for ourselves when there are people so much less fortunate than ourselves. Like Big Joe, sometimes we should just sleep. And finally, like Danny, we should do all that we can to enjoy our lives and not dwell on the fact that death is coming for us all, but rage against it instead.

Do you think that Pilon and the rest of the conspirators would really have helped the Pirate, or would they have taken advantage of him and spent his money greedily?

Right up until the moment in which the Pirate hands over the money, the paisanos were willing to at least divert part of it. The narrator comments, "So it was over, all hope of diverting the money…. [T]heir defeat was bitter. There was nothing in the world they could do about it. Their chance had come, and it had gone." When the Pirate gives them the money and then tells them the story about the sick dog, he appeals to their morals with his simplicity, innocence, and sincerity. There is no way that any of the paisanos would have been able to justify the theft to their consciences after they knew the purpose of the money.

If the paisanos had somehow acquired the money before the Pirate could hand it over, however, it is reasonable to assume that they would have scammed him out of some part of it. Pilon thought that the Pirate was only hiding the money because he was not intelligent enough to know what to do with it. He would have made sure that the pirate was taken care of, but then he would have appropriated the rest of the money for his services.

Why do you think Danny is the only one affected by the change in his life?

It is not talked about much in the text, but Danny is a little different from the rest of the paisanos. From when he is very young, Danny shuns the luxury offered to him by his parents. He sleeps in the forest instead of in the house of his father, and greatly prefers the taste of stolen food to the meals that he could get at home. In other words, he has tasted the comfortable life and it has disagreed with him. The other paisanos have never had such a chance, and therefore still believe that comfort is a good thing.

It is also clear that Danny is the most restless of his group of friends. He motivates Pilon and Big Joe to enlist in the Army. He is also always jumping from woman to woman though the rest of the paisanos rarely even give a girl a look unless they can steal something. There is also the obvious fact that as owner of the house, Danny is providing his friends with comfort. He is their leader, and with any leadership position comes responsibility. Whereas if any of the other paisanos were to be caught stealing, there is nothing the police could take from them, but if Danny went too far in his fun, they could take his house away.

Suggested Essay Topics

What role do women play in Tortilla Flat? Is what is acceptable for a man different from what is expected of a woman? Why do you think no women enter Danny's circle of friends?

Explain the role of each of the six friends in Danny's group. They all seem to excel at different things. Are they a synergetic group, or are they better off as individuals, as they end up?

Interestingly, Tortilla takes place during prohibition, but the police never seem to do anything about Torrelli's booming business. Why do you think that is so? Discuss the role of the law in the town in general.

It appears as if work was always available to the paisanos at the squid docks or elsewhere. They could have made some sort of arrangement for one person to work every day so that they could always have wine. Why do you think they don't work more often?

Tito Ralph and Johnny Pom-Pom join Danny's group late in the story. What do you think they add to the group?

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