Tortilla Flat: Novel Summary: Chapter VIII-IX
This story returns to the story of Big Joe Portagee, who has not been mentioned since the Preface. Big Joe is a layabout who spent eighteen months of his two years of military service in military jail. After World War I ends, he returns to Monterey and searches for his friends. He trades his overcoat for a gallon of wine and goes to a brothel, where he causes a disturbance and sets fire to the house. He is sentenced to thirty days in jail. After he is released, he finds his way to Torrelli, the wine merchant, and Torrelli tells him where Danny and his friends live.
On his way there he meets Pilon, who reminds him that it is Saint Andrew's Eve. This is the night when all buried treasure in the forest sends up a faint phosphorescent glow through the ground. They go to the forest to search. The atmosphere in the forest is eerie, and there may be ghosts wandering about, as well as other people searching for treasure. After a while Pilon sees a soft pillar of blue light shining out of the ground ten yards ahead of him. Big Joe gets two sticks, and Pilon puts them in the form of a cross and approaches the light. He wants to ward off any evil spirits. The light fades away but he marks the spot, believing he has found the treasure. He tells Big Joe they will wait there until morning and then dig the following night. Then there will be no danger from evil spirits.
Pilon tells Big Joe that he wants the treasure not for himself but for Danny, because he has been so kind to them all. Big Joe is disappointed to hear this, but is comforted when Pilon tells him that Danny will probably buy them all some wine. Pilon gives him a little lecture about how it is good to be kind and generous.
At dawn they return to Danny's house. Pilon denies that they found any treasure. Big Joe makes himself comfortable, and Danny knows he has come to stay permanently.
That night Big Joe and Pilon borrow tools from Mrs. Morales's chicken house and set off for the forest. Pilon is angry with Big Joe when he discovers that Joe went into town that afternoon and sold a blanket of Danny's for a gallon of wine. Pilon kicks him and tells him to get the blanket back. As a punishment, he makes Big Joe do all the digging. By midnight, Joe has dug a trench three feet deep. Just before daylight his shovel strikes something hard. They are excited, but all they have dug up is a metal container that turns out to be a government geodetic survey placed there in 1915. They cannot even sell it because to do so is a crime that can bring a year in jail and a two-thousand-dollar fine. They are disappointed and trudge off to the beach far away from Monterey. They drink wine and fall asleep in the warm sun.
Hours later, Pilon wakes up. He wants some wine, but there is none left. Noticing that Big Joe is wearing good-quality serge trousers, he decides to teach his friend a lesson for his sin in taking Danny's blanket. He manages to get Big Joe's trousers off without awakening him and takes them to Mrs. Tortelli in town. Mrs. Tortelli takes them for her husband in exchange for a quart of wine, even though Pilon thinks half a gallon would have been a better price. He thinks he has been cheated. Mrs. Torrelli hangs the pants in an alcove off the kitchen, and as Pilon leaves, he takes the pants with him, as well as Danny's blanket. When Pilon returns, Big Joe is cold and has half covered himself with sand. He could not move because a party of Girl Scouts was nearby. Pilon leads the bewildered Joe into believing that a woman stole his pants, and that he, Pilon, has retrieved them for him. Big Joe is pleased that he has such a friend, and resolves to do something nice for him.
A woman named Dolores Engracia Ramirez, known as Sweets, took a fancy to Danny when she heard he was a property owner. But although her house was only up the hill from his, he rarely passed by. But one day he does, when he is on the way to Torrelli's tavern with three dollars in his pocket. She waylays him and asks him why he never comes to see her. She invites him in and they drink a glass of wine together. Danny makes a sexual advance on her, which she resists. But she invites him to come and visit her that evening.
Leaving Sweets's house, Danny goes to Torrelli's, meeting Pablo on the way. At Torrelli's they drink a lot of wine together, even though Danny had originally intended to take some of the wine to Dolores as a gift. But he has another idea for a gift. They go to a store where Danny buys a vacuum cleaner for two dollars. He knows that no woman in Tortilla Flat has such a thing, but that is because there is no electricity in Tortilla Flat. However, that does not bother Dolores. She loves the vacuum cleaner and pushes it around, making a humming sound to imitate a motor. All the other women are jealous of her, and she rises in Tortilla Flat's social scale. She mentions her vacuum cleaner as often as she can. She and Danny get close, and he spends every evening at her house. His friends get jealous and try to ingratiate themselves with Dolores, but she remains loyal to Danny.
Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria and Big Joe decide to remedy the situation. All afternoon they and Danny drink wine. Then Pilon tells Danny that some people find his gift of a vacuum cleaner to Dolores funny, since it will not work unless wires are put into the house, and that would be expensive. Some people, they say, are saying that according to Dolores, Danny has promised to do this for her. Danny is alarmed, and Pilon suggests they could solve the problem by removing the "sweeping-machine.? Dolores will not even know where it has gone, and Danny can take her another gift of a gallon of wine. Danny sighs with relief.
Pilon goes to Dolores's house when she is out and puts the vacuum cleaner in a sack. He puts a rose branch in the mouth of the sack. Meeting Dolores as he is leaving, he says he just stopped by to pass the time. Dolores sees the rose bush and suspects nothing.
Pilon goes to Torrelli's, where he exchanges the vacuum cleaner for two gallons of wine. Back at Danny's house, the friends happily drink the wine. Danny admits that he was getting sick of Dolores anyway. Then Johnny Pom-pom comes in and says that Torrelli is mad at Pilon. The vacuum cleaner did not work, and when he opened it up he found that it did not have a motor. But Pilon feels that Torrelli got what he deserved because the vacuum cleaner was worth more wine than Torrelli gave him. And Danny adds that Torrelli's wine is bad. So they all feel a little revenged on Torrelli.
Chapter VIII is a comic parody of the search by the knights of the Round Table for the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail was the cup or vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper, and was said to have miraculous powers. In this instance, the Holy Grail is treasure buried in the forest, and the entire scene in the forest is given a supernatural flavor. The light that emanates from the "treasure?is an unearthly one, and Pilon invokes the name of Jesus to keep evil spirits away. When Pilon says that it is only because his heart is clean of selfishness that he can find the treasure he is echoing one of the conditions for the knights?discovery of the Holy Grail in Arthurian mythology. As is by now to be expected, Pilon once more cloaks himself in altruistic motives; he is not looking for treasure for himself, he claims; he intends to give it to Danny. He thus indulges in his customary chicanery and self-deluding reasoning, but in spite of that his words in praise of Danny's generosity are genuine.
The coming of Big Joe to Danny's house completes the mock Round Table with its six "knights.?
Chapter IX is another satire of the foolishness of being attached to possessions and social status. Dolores cuts a ridiculous figure, pushing her "sweeping machine?across the floor just to impress her friends and neighbors. The pretentious nature of such social one-upmanship is well made when it turns out that there is literally no substance to Dolores's antics (not only is there no electricity in the house, but there is no motor in the vacuum cleaner, either). In other words, the supposed superiority of one person over another due to material possessions and social status is nothing but an illusion.
Through his generosity, Danny almost gets caught in the consumer trap, whereby possession of one thing leads inevitably to the desire for possession of another thing, and thus the freedom he cherishes would be lost. Fortunately, his friends are able to rescue him.