Tortilla Flat: Theme Analysis
Friendship is the Highest Value
Steinbeck commented on the "different philosophical-moral system?of the paisanos. By this he meant that Danny's group of friends place the highest value on friendship, on the maintenance of the simple values that uphold their group. They avoid materialism and social hierarchies, which, in their eyes, undermine the values they live by. They stand for an egalitarian approach to life in which possessions are shared.
These values, of friendship rather than materialism, are apparent in the first chapter, when Danny inherits two houses from his grandfather. While most people might be glad of this, for Danny, the "responsibility of ownership?is something of a burden. In contrast to it, the theme of friendship and sharing is first touched on in the same chapter, when Danny and Pilon share Pilon's bottle of brandy. They know that friends have obligations to one another, and these are more important than any obligation a man might have to his personal property. Nonetheless, Pilon fears that now Danny has property, he will forget his friends, but Danny reassures him that "what I have is thine.?
Thus right at the beginning of the novel, the contrast between the demands of friendship and those of material belongings, as well as social status, is established, and friendship takes the primary position. This is emphasized in many of the episodes that follow. The greatest joy for the small group of brothers is in helping one another, and showing friendship, because this is a bulwark against loneliness and isolation. For example, the Pirate, before Danny's friends extend the hand of friendship, is alone in the world; "no one knew him very well, and no one interfered with him.?The Pirate is astonished and overjoyed when he finds out that he has some friends. The fact that initially the men have an ulterior motive for befriending him-they want his treasure-should not obscure the genuineness of the friendship that emerges. "Poor little lonely man,?says Danny the day the Pirate moves in with them. "If I had known, I would have asked him long ago, even if he had no treasure.?When he says this, "A flame of joy burned in all of them.?This is really what they live for, the feeling that they are fulfilling their own social code by acting in friendship to others whilst remaining free of economic obligations.
The group of friends consistently repudiate the normal ways in which a man makes a living; they do not want to tread on even the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. There seems to be plenty of work available at the squid yard, but they are rarely interested in doing what others would regard as a fair day's work. They also have a fear of getting in material debt to someone, because that will restrict their freedom. This question comes up when Pilon, and then Pablo and Jesus Maria as well, live in Danny's second house. The issue of the payment of rent seems about to create insoluble divisions between the men until the house burns down, which turns out to be the best solution. Despite the material loss, everyone is happy because a source of disharmony has been removed.
The two central episodes of the novel, Dolores and her "sweeping machine?(chapter 9) of the corporal and his son (chapter 10), expose the folly of a society in which the strong lord it over the weak and bestow higher status on those who have prestigious gadgets that cost money to acquire. Because they are so set against any form of what they regard as economic slavery or social snobbery, the friends take a fierce pride in their own, alternative set of values. Their commitment to one other and to their code of ethics is such that it involves severe punishment for anyone in the group who breaks them-as in the punishments meted out to Big Joe Portagee.
Religious Values Are Paramount
The paisano community is a Catholic one, and Danny's group of friends, although they are not regular churchgoers, tend to see life through a religious lens. Their respect for the church seems to be almost infinite, as is shown by the elaborate way they prepare the Pirate so he can look respectable enough to go to church to see the gold candlestick bought with his money and dedicated to St. Francis. The money the Pirate put away in order that he could buy the candlestick is treated as sacrosanct by the men. They consider the money belongs to St. Francis, and would never touch it, for "it is far worse to defraud a saint than it is to take liberties with the law?(Chapter 12). If the Pirate is the most mystical of the men-he claims once to have had a holy vision-Pilon is the theologian. The beauty of nature moves him to a kind of religious ecstasy, and he is always ready with an explanation about religious matters. When Pablo wonders whether the effectiveness of the masses that Cornelia arranges for her dead father is compromised by the fact that they are paid for by money Cornelia steals from her men when they lie in a drunken sleep, Pilon explains that a mass is a mass and it doesn't make any difference where it comes from. And it is Pilon who tells Jesus Maria that when a rowboat washed up on shore, enabling him to sell it for seven dollars, it was God who sent him the boat. But while the men believe in supernatural causes of earthly events, they are not much interested in applying religious ethics to their actions. Their petty larceny does not seem like a sin to them.
Other paisanos outside Danny's group also ascribe mundane events to supernatural causes. Teresina's mother, Angelica, for example, when the supply of food dries up, complains that although she burned four candles to the Virgin, the Virgin took no action on her behalf. But when the food arrives, courtesy of Jesus Maria and the others, Angelica repents and offers thanks to the Virgin. She and her daughter regard the arrival of the food as a miracle. In other words, they attribute good and bad events not to human acts or the cycles of nature but to supernatural intervention or the lack of it.