Skip over navigation

Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Character Analysis

Preface & Chapter 1

Themes

The Beauty of Simple Things

An overarching theme of most of John Steinbeck's literature, not just Tortilla Flat, is the intrinsic yet underestimated beauty and goodness of simple things. This is the reason why Steinbeck chooses the paisano of Monterey as the topic of the book. They are not cultured or worldly people, but in their ignorance of modern technologies and ways of thinking, there is something enigmatic and appealing about them. They are truly free in ways that societal influences prevent other people from being.

The Pirate is another example of how a simple thing, in this case a mind, is shown to be far from worthless. He is a huge man with the mind of a child, and when Danny's friends catch on to the fact that he is hoarding money, he is defenseless against their manipulations. He is saved however by the simple innocence and sincerity of his intentions for the money, and also by the fact that he is ignorant to what the friends, led by Pilon, were doing to him. Instead of leading the friends to the money so that they could eventually take it, he comes out and simply gives the money to them, thinking that it would be safer with them. When they see this and hear the conviction in his story about San Francisco and the sick dog, the friends completely reverse their purposes. They help him to reach his goal of a thousand quarters and the money becomes a physical representation of their friendship.

Steinbeck supports the theme of simplicity by introducing modern conveniences into Tortilla Flat and showing what problems they become. The vacuum cleaner that Danny gives to Sweats Ramirez is a perfect example of this. She likes it because it is sleek and shiny, even though it has no usefulness whatsoever. When the vacuum is later traded to Torrelli, a scandal is created by the fact that it has no motor, symbolizing the emptiness of conveniences like the vacuum. Similarly, the friends come across a machine gun in the flotsam from a downed coastguard ship. Whereas Danny is very business savvy in everything else, he has no idea of the use and value of such an object and so he sells it at a low price with the rest of the junk that they find.

Landscape

Steinbeck spends a lot of time during the adventures of the paisano describing the landscape around them. This is not just a story about a group of friends; it is also about a community. Because Monterey plays such a large part in the characters of Danny and his friends, Steinbeck must give the town life and color so we can understand them better. Though they are not characters in the book, Steinbeck constantly refers to how the fisherman who believe that fish bite more in the morning were replaced by those who think they bite more in the afternoon, and then dusk, and then night. There is the tailor who puts the, "Back in ten minutes," sign in his window no matter how long he was going to be gone for, the drunkards in the ditches, and the houses of ill-repute with their girls hanging out the window. All of these seemingly needless details help us understand the way of life in Monterey, which can then be applied to Danny and his friends.

There is also the fact that Monterey is one of the most ruggedly beautiful pieces of landscape in all of America. It's character, with its lazy hills, warm sun, spectacular shoreline, and colorful plant and animal life closely matches the paisanos themselves. Often Danny and his friends spend entire days just staring at it and enjoying its splendor. Pilon, in particular, is often halted in his tracks by the almost spiritual beauty of the place. It is also worth noting that the weather in Monterey coincidentally aligns itself with the spirits of the characters in many places. When all the bonding and adventuring is going on, it is warm, sunny, and pleasant, but when Danny begins feeling down, it is nothing but gray.

Spirituality

Though one might expect characters like the paisano to be jaded in their spiritual beliefs by the freedoms of their lifestyle, this is not true of the inhabitants of Tortilla Flat. They are an extremely God fearing and reverential people. They are strong believers in miracles and guidance from above. Whenever there is a little extra money (not enough to buy wine or food with) it is spent on candles to be burned for San Francisco or other saints. The myth of St. Andrew's Eve is not something that a few superstitious children believe in; it is a town wide event.

Though the paisanos reverence for very few things, they will not enter the church or go to Danny's funeral in poor clothing. Also, as seen on St. Andrew's Eve, and on the eve of Danny's party, whenever something suspected of being supernatural is encountered, the natural reaction of the paisano is to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. The depth of the spirituality of Steinbeck's paisano characters is another way of showing what redeeming characters they are. They all have strong consciences brought on most likely by their beliefs in God and the afterlife. Danny's death is a very spiritual ordeal, conducted in private with Father Ramon. It can be imagined that inside the door, which Steinbeck leaves closed, Danny confesses his sins, and makes preparations for meeting his God.

Motifs

Justifying Crime

Yes, Danny and his paisano friends are thieves, but they never commit a crime because they find it pleasurable to be doing something wrong or out of spite for someone. They only commit crimes when they can justify them to their admittedly loose moral system. They steal the picnic foods, for example, because it was cruel of the picnickers to show off their luxury in such a way, and because they needed something to smooth the way in talking to Danny about his house that they burned down. Most of their crimes are victimless, and the rest fit into the 'rob the rich to feed the poor' mentality reminiscent of Robin Hood. The pompous restaurant owners who would have thrown food out anyway, the railroad tycoons who could afford to lose a few nails and who were destroying their precious landscape anyway, and the miser Torrelli, who had so much wine and money that whatever they took meant nothing to him anyway, are a few examples. The greatest thrill for the paisanos is when they can steal for a truly good purpose, as is the case when they raid the warehouse in order to save Teresina Cortez's children.

Wine drinking

There is nothing that the paisanos of Monterey like more than a little wine to ease the pain of life. In Tortilla Flat, the practice is more of a science than a recreational activity. Steinbeck describes the spiritual graduation in detail near the end of chapter three, going from serious conversation at the handle of the first gallon to songs of death near the bottom of the second. Drinking was not a time killer to the paisanos, nor a means of escape from reality or anything crude like that. It was a social activity and a show of camaraderie, for every cup was distributed equally among the friends. With the wine they could talk, sing, and fight as equals and through the stories told in the haziness, they would become better friends.

Helping others

Though a good number of their exploits were aimed at supporting and bettering themselves, the paisanos also endeavored to help the less fortunate whenever an opportunity arrived. In this way they were truly like the Knights of the Round Table. Though it is probably true that Pilon wanted some of the Pirate's money for himself, it is also reasonable to think that with his conscience, he would have done all that he could with the money to improve the Pirate's standard of living. In the end, they end up giving the Pirate something even more valuable—human companionship. Later, with the caporal and Teresina Cortez's children, the friends show their true selfless natures.

Symbols

The Pirate's stash

After the Pirate turns over his sack of coins to Danny for safekeeping, it becomes representative of the bond between the friends. It is a lot of money in the sack, but it none of the friends take it because their friendship is worth more. The Danny and his friends, the coins cease to exist as currency that they could exchange for wine or food. It becomes simply a part of their daily ritual. When Big Joe forgets his place and takes coins from the bag, the reaction of the friends is so harsh because it is not merely a theft of money; it is an attack on their friendship.

The Black Bird

Whether or not the story is true or not, the fact that Pablo claims to see a supernatural huge black bird hovering over Danny on the dock is very important. The bird represents death. Even in his wild month of crime and sleeping in the forest, Danny realizes that he cannot get away from it, that there is no way to regain his use. On the night of Danny's party, death is very close to him indeed.

The Machine Gun

It is very easy to miss, but the machine gun that Danny and his friends discover on the beach after the sinking of the coast guard cutter is an important symbol. It is an invasion of the town of Monterey by a modern technology, and no one realizes its use or value. Though the gun alone must be worth well over five dollars, Danny includes it with all the other junk that they find for just that amount. It is part of Steinbeck's commentary on the innocence of the paisano that they have no idea of the value of such an object, and no idea or desire for its destructive powers.

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