This historical novel by John Steinbeck was first published in 1935 by Covici-Friede Publishers. Today it is available primarily in paperback versions published by Penguin Group.
Tortilla Flat is written for adults, but high school students are sometimes assigned this book in the classroom.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
This collection of vignettes focus on Danny, who lives in the hills of Monterey, Calif. This area is also known as Tortilla Flat. Danny is a paisano, a descendant of the original Spaniards who settled in California. A prologue describes how he and his friends Pilon and Big Joe Portagee enlisted in the Army during WWI but never saw any combat. Upon his return home, Danny discovers he has inherited two houses from his grandfather. He agrees to rent one to Pilon and live in the other house.
Pilon, who never pays Danny rent money, asks Pablo Sanchez, another paisano, to live with him. Danny never asks for the $15 monthly rent, but one day he asks for a few dollars so that he might buy a present for a woman he is dating.
Pilon and Pablo feel betrayed by Danny's request, but find an old friend, Jesus Maria, who has come into some money. They convince Jesus Maria to give them a couple of dollars; but instead of giving the cash to Danny, they decide to buy him wine. They think Danny can give that to the woman instead of candy. The men end up drinking the wine themselves, fall asleep and leave a candle burning.
The candle's flame catches a silk calendar on fire and then a loose piece of wallpaper. Soon, flames consume Danny's rental house. The following day, the friends confess to Danny what they did, and he scolds them. When the men provide him with the provisions from a stolen picnic basket, Danny forgives them. He invites them to live with him in his house, under the condition that none of them try to share his bed.
When Big Joe Portagee comes home from the Army, he is invited to live with Danny as well. The men are always on the prowl for a way to obtain money without having to work. Pilon believes he's discovered a treasure after following the routine of another paisano nicknamed Pirate. Pirate is a fixture in town, begging scraps from restaurants to feed himself and his loyal pack of dogs that follow him everywhere. Each day, Pirate chops a wheelbarrow full of kindling wood and sells it on the streets of Monterey until he has a quarter. Each night, Pilon watches him disappear into the woods with it. Pirate and his dogs live under an old chicken coop and never buy food or wine.
Pilon convinces Pirate to move in with the other paisanos so they can trick him into telling them where he is hiding his quarters. At first Pirate denies he has money hidden, but the others finally persuade him it isn't safe to keep it outside as someone might steal it. Terrified, Pirate brings the money to the house. Pilon and the others are defeated in their hopes of sharing the money when they learn that Pirate is saving to buy a gold candlestick to honor St. Francis because of the miracle the saint blessed him with many years ago. The paisanos cannot take money dedicated to a saint. Pirate and his dogs continue to live with them in Danny's house.
One day, while the others search the remains of a shipwreck for scraps to sell, Big Joe Portagee steals Pirate's money. When the others discover the theft, they lie in wait for him and beat him to a pulp. Big Joe admits to burying the money and promises he only took $1 of it to buy wine. The others bring the treasure back to Pirate and find, after counting it, that he has enough to buy the golden candlestick. The local priest agrees to buy the candlestick, and Pirate is honored to hear the story of his miracle told at church. (St. Francis healed one of his dogs.)
Danny wants to be a responsible landowner, but he longs for the days when he was free to sleep in the woods and carouse all night with others in town. He begins to resent his friends' constant presence in and around his house. In a fit of madness, he runs away. For weeks his friends search for him, but to no avail, always arriving after Danny has left a place. Danny steals, drinks and gets into epic fights in and around Monterey. One day, Torrelli, a local merchant and victim of many of the paisanos' thievery, arrives with a paper signed by Danny that gives the merchant possession of the house. Danny has sold it to him for $25.
The others are horrified their friend would do such a thing. After they toss Torrelli's paper into the stove, Torrelli vows to sue them. But without proof of the exchange, he knows he will lose the case. Before the day is out, Danny arrives home with another friend and four jugs of wine.
Although back home, Danny's mood does not improve, and he sinks into depression. His friends decide to work a day cutting squid so they can earn money to throw Danny a big party to help ease his mind. Rumors that the paisanos are actually working fly throughout the streets of Monterey. When they learn it is to throw Danny a party, the whole town makes plans to aid the celebration. While Danny goes out to search for his friends, the townspeople arrive to decorate his house with streamers and prepare the food. Even Torrelli brings more wine after the paisanos buy 14 gallons with their hard earned money.
Dusk falls, but Danny has not returned from town. The friends leave to find him and discover Danny moping by the pier. After a brief exchange, they convince him to come celebrate with the town.
Danny's antics that night become the stuff of legend. As the evening winds down, Danny picks up a table leg and begins to threaten the partygoers. Some say he grew in size and that his eyes burned with fire. When no one battles him, Danny runs into the night, seeking a fight. From the house, the people hear Danny cry out in defiance as if facing a great foe, then a thump and then silence. Pilon and the others rush into the forest and find their friend at the bottom of a steep ravine. There is nothing any doctor can do to save their friend's life.
The entire town attends Danny's funeral, except for his friends. They don't want to disrespect Danny by attending the church service in shabby clothes. They watch from a distance until their grief overwhelms them, and they return home to remember Danny over wine and cigars. When Pilon accidently drops a match, it ignites a newspaper. The friends decide to let the fire consume the house, believing that's what Danny would have wanted.
Danny and his friends have a vague understanding of Christianity, but it is clouded by superstition. When Danny sees that Pilon has brandy, he comments that maybe his friend is saving it until Jesus returns. When Pilon sees a chicken in the road, he says that God is not always good to little beasts. Pilon sings "Ave Maria" and shouts a prayer of gratitude for the beauty of the evening.
The author, as an omniscient narrator, says that no soul was purer than Pilon's at that moment. The author also quotes St. Augustine. Pilon says as a child he knew no sin. The paisanos talk about the holy mass and how when the priest used to go fishing, the bread tasted like mackerel but that taste didn't make it less holy. The men often talk about God moving in their lives, but more as a random puppeteer, creating situations or bestowing blessings and curses on a whim. The author narrates that within every sinful person is a pure soul and how sad it is that even the angels conceal evil inside them. Pirate believes that St. Francis healed one of his dogs and vows to purchase a golden candlestick in its honor.
Pilon whispers a prayer to the Virgin Mary when he is scared. Feeling pity after they beat up Big Joe, Jesus Maria comments that even the Savior's enemies showed Him some mercy. A woman lights a candle to Mary to pray for her blessing on the bean crop. When the bean crop fails, the woman is angry at Mary for ignoring her prayers. Another woman regularly goes to confession for her sexual sins.
Other Belief Systems
In the prologue, Danny is referred to as a god of nature and his friends as symbols of the elements. The paisanos believe that on St. Andrew's eve, ghosts wander the forests and hover over the places where they hid their money when they were alive. If you follow a ghost and perform a certain ritual, you supposedly can take its treasure. Pilon believes that the wind on St. Andrew's eve can tell your fortune and that the whispering breeze is unholy.
God's name is taken in vain and used with d--n. "Jesus," along with "Christ," is used an exclamation and with the phrase for the love of. H--- and b--ch are also used. Other objectionable words include slut and the n-word. Steinbeck uses many derogatory words to describe people including Wop and Jew (to describe a stingy person).
The paisanos are rough men who enjoy fighting. The fights are described as a kind of natural occurrence with punches thrown by all. When Big Joe steals, however, the paisanos take turns beating him with sticks until he is described as one huge bruise. They rub salt into his open wounds as an extra punishment. A story is told in which a man tries to hang himself because of woman. He is saved, but when his father tries the same trick to gain the love of another woman, he is not found before he dies.
Women are primarily treated as sexual objects. Throughout the book the men have affairs, which are not explicitly described. Danny is said to "dispose" of a woman at a brothel. One woman is said to have had so many men that she can't remember who fathered each of her nine children. She sometimes convinces herself that a man isn't even necessary to conceive.
When she confesses this to a priest, he laments that she seems to be flirting with him even while she's asking for forgiveness. Another woman lets Big Joe come into her house to get out of the rain and then gets angry when he is too stupid to pick up on her suggestive advances. It is hinted that the two end up having sex in the street. The paisanos often talk about the love life of one of their neighbors, a woman who has a new lover each week. The story is told of an older man falling in love with a 15-year-old girl. Legend has it that Danny slept with every girl at the party his friends threw for him.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Steinbeck compares the paisanos to King Arthur and his knights.
- Do you think this is a fair comparison?
- How are they alike?
How are they different?
How did the paisanos view women?
What does God want from the relationship between a man and a woman?
The Bible warns us against idleness (see Ecclesiastes 10:17-19 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6).
How did idleness lead to the paisanos' illegal behavior?
Danny was clearly in the depths of depression at the end of the book.
- Have you ever felt this way?
- If so, how do you keep from self-destructing as Danny did?
Alcohol: The paisanos drink wine, often in excess, whenever they can.
Smoking: Danny's friends smoke cigars after his funeral.
Drugs: One man is described as having red, unfocused eyes like those of a person who smokes marijuana.
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Readability Age Range
High school and up
First published in 1935 by Covici-Friede Publishers. Today it is available primarily in paperback versions published by Penguin Group.