Tortilla Flat: Essay Q&A
1. To what extent is Tortilla Flat based on the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table?
Steinbeck stated in a letter to his agents in 1934, before the publication of Tortilla Flat in 1935, that the book had a "definite theme?based on the version of the Arthurian cycle that Steinbeck read as a boy, Thomas Malory's fifteenth century work, Morte d'Arthur. Steinbeck was puzzled as to why publishers?readers appeared not to have recognized this, and his dismay continued when on publication critics and readers missed it, too. He wondered whether he had made the theme sufficiently clear. Certainly, in the preface, Steinbeck does make an unmistakable reference to the legend of King Arthur and his knights: "Danny's house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny's friends were not unlike the knights of it.?He goes on to explain that the story is about the good done by Danny's friends, and how the group is eventually dissolved, both of which are parallels to the Arthurian legend.
There are more links between the two works. Like the places reserved for the knights at the Round Table, Danny's friends all have their allocated sleeping places in the house. No one dares touch Danny's bed, which is like the throne of Arthur, a sign of his leadership. Like the ideal of the knights, Danny's group expresses loyalty to one another, they accept one another and they try to do good whenever they can. Friendship is their highest ideal. And just as King Arthur's knights were known for their chivalry, Danny's friends, too, are always eager to help a damsel in distress. They go to the aid of Teresina Cortez, for example, when starvation threatens her and her family. As in Malory, these "knights?also have amorous adventures with women, although all such episodes are treated with a comic touch.
Danny's friends are also, like the knights of the Round Table, in search of the Holy Grail. This is seen especially clearly in the search of Pilon and Big Joe for the buried treasure in the woods on St. Andrews Eve. The, eerie, mystical light that emanates from what they believe to be buried treasure suggests something supernatural. And just as Malory's Morte d'Arthur ends with the death of King Arthur and the dissolution of the Round Table, so Tortilla Flat ends with the death of Danny and the breaking up of the little band of brothers.
More detailed comparisons between the two works tend to break down, however, and it is not possible to draw parallels between particular episodes. In Malory, for example, it is the knight Lancelot who goes mad, not King Arthur, but in Steinbeck it is Danny, the king-like Arthur figure, who loses his sanity. Some scholars do, however, see a resemblance between the Pirate and Perceval in the Arthurian legend. Perceval is the knight who is given a vision of the Grail. In Tortilla Flat, the Pirate is the visionary one, who claims to have seen a vision of the saint. The Pirate's dogs also see a vision of St. Francis.
2. What role do women play in Tortilla Flat?
Danny's group of friends is a brotherhood that does not include women. Women are presented as desirable because they may be used for sex and occasional companionship, but the fellowship of men is considered more desirable. Women are often seen as treacherous. "Thou knowest not what bitches women are,?says Danny to Pilon after the two women Pilon has lured to Danny's house depart, one of them stealing two cooking pots. Significantly, in this episode in Chapter 3 it is the bond between Pilon and Danny that is emphasized rather than their relationships with the women. When Pilon brings the women in, he places them both at Danny's disposal, and the two men share them.
Women may be a source of pleasure to the men, but they are also to be feared as dangerous and fickle. Danny tells Pilon about an incident involving a quarrelsome woman named Cornelia Ruiz. A man named Emilio gave her a little pig as a gift, and she was nice to him. But when the pig caused havoc in the house, Cornelia turned on Emilio and threatened to beat him.
Women can also be perceived as a threat to Danny's little brotherhood of men. When Pilon and Pablo think that Danny is about to form a close relationship with Rosa Martin, they fear that she will make financial demands on him, wanting new dresses. "All women do,?says Pilon. "I know them.?When they go to Danny to try to talk him out of it, they engage in misogynist talk: There is no virtue in the women of Tortilla Flat; they cannot be trusted. Similarly, when Delores Engracia Ramirez gets fond of Danny, the friends band together to destroy her. They fear the power of women and have no respect for them as individuals. However, their code of friendship also includes a somewhat contradictory notion: the chivalrous idea that women are weak and need to be helped, as in the case of Teresina Cortez.
3. In what sense might Tortilla Flat be called a tragicomedy?
Steinbeck himself referred in an interview to the "tragi-comic theme?of the novel. Part of this, as Steinbeck implied, is the fact that Danny's group goes through a natural cycle during the course of the novel; it is formed, it flowers for a while and then dissolves. The ending, in which Danny dies, the friends are unable to attend the funeral and then poignantly go their separate ways, is indeed the stuff of tragedy. Set against this are the comic elements. These include numerous episodes, such as the occasions when the friends get the better of their enemy Torrelli. Comedy can also be heard in the gently ironic tone of the narrator, in which he points out the discrepancy between what the friends say about the reasons for their actions and what truly motivates them. Sometimes the comic difference between their romanticized view of themselves and the truth comes out in the dialog, as when Pilon, complaining about Danny's wish to charge him rent, says "We have been his friends for years. When he was in need, we fed him. When he was cold, we clothed him.?When Pablo asks him when that happened, Pilon replies, "Well, we would have, if he needed anything and we had it.?But even within this comic vision there is an underlying sadness and melancholy-the tragic element in human life-which the band of brothers tries to offset by coming together in friendship. Pilon and Pablo agree that they were happy in their boyhood, but, Pablo says, "We have never been happy since.?The core problem they seek to overcome may well be loneliness. Before they came together, these men were all loners. Pablo slept alone in the woods; he did not have a home to go to. The Pirate did not have a friend in the world until he met Danny and his friends. And Big Joe Portagee's life after he left the army was a disorderly mess until he went in search of his old friends. Thus the tragic elements in the story, although not fully coming to the surface until the end, are at least potentially present all along, in the essential isolation of people and the attempts they make to overcome it by creating a tight group of friends.
4. What role does the setting play in the novel?
The Tortilla Flat area of Monterey is on a hill above the main part of the city, where the town meets the forest. It is what might be described as a deprived area. The people are poor, the roads are not paved and there are no street lights. But there is great natural beauty there, which means that in spite of its poverty, Tortilla Flat is presented in some ways as idyllic, almost a paradise. This lends support to the presentation of the easy-going, relaxed lifestyles of the paisanos. They are in some way, despite their constant drinking and laziness, in touch with nature in a way that the mainstream culture is not.
In Chapter 3, for example, Steinbeck describes the beauty of a purple dusk in which "the pine trees were very black against the sky?and the gulls were flying "lazily?home to the sea rocks. It is the splendor of the scene that brings out the mystic and lover of nature in Pilon. Inspired by it, "his soul arose out of him into the sun's afterglow.?In Chapter 4, there is a description of the beauty of the morning and how it harmonizes with the way the paisanos live: "It is a time of great joy, the sunny morning. When the glittery dew is on the mallow weeds, each leaf holds a jewel which is beautiful if not valuable. This is no time for hurry or for bustle. Thoughts are slow and deep and golden in the morning.?
Like precursors of the Beat generation of the 1950s and the "hippies?of the 1960s, the paisanos manage to avoid getting caught up in what is described in the preface as "the complicated systems of American business,?so they are able to retain their connection to nature. This sheds light on the several occasions when a process of nature is linked to human life in a positive way. Chapter 5, for example, opens with this sentence: "The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man.?A few paragraphs later, Pablo and Pilon sit drinking wine and "let the afternoon grow on them as gradually as hair grows.?By living close to nature in such an idyllic setting, the darker elements of life can be avoided-at least for a time.
5. Why does Danny go mad?
It has sometimes been argued in the critical literature about Tortilla Flat that Steinbeck introduced the theme of Danny's madness and subsequent death merely because he needed a parallel in his story to the death of King Arthur in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. According to this view, expressed for example by Howard Levant in The Novels of John Steinbeck (1974) the last three chapters, in which the story of Danny's final days takes over, do not grow organically from what precedes them. They are merely an "appendix?that detract somewhat from the overall success of the novel, since, Levant argues, Danny's madness does not develop from previous events. Other scholars have seen it differently, suggesting that after the success of the long effort to save money for the candlestick, which reaches its climax in Chapter 12, the group no longer has a sense of purpose that holds them together. It is then only a matter of time before something happens that splits them up.
It seems that Danny has never ceased to feel the burden of being a property owner. His attempt, in his "mad?phase, to sell his house to Torelli is an expression of this desire to be free of the life he is living. There seems to be something in Danny that is unlike the others. While they can be happy sitting in the house drinking wine and telling stories, Danny is by nature more of an adventurer. He had a more privileged upbringing than the others, since his grandfather was a property owner and his relatives not without influence, but even then he preferred to sleep in the forest, work on ranches, and "wrest his food and wine from an unwilling world?(chapter 1). In other words, he seemed to enjoy pitting himself against the norms of society in a violent kind of way, and his relatively peaceful, passive life with his friends is not going to satisfy him for long. When he leaves the group of friends and starts to behave outrageously (by conventional standards), he is at least being true to his own nature, and that seems to be the point Steinbeck wishes to make. Danny's madness is also a sign that the lifestyle these men live, surviving through petty larceny and small pieces of good fortune, which they call "miracles,?is doomed to failure in the end. Nothing in their lives survives for more than a short while (as Steinbeck pointed out); Danny's madness and death, and the demise of the group, is as inevitable as the daily sunset on Tortilla Flat.