Places: Tortilla Flat

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1935

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Early 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedTortilla Flat

Tortilla Tortilla FlatFlat. Impoverished neighborhood outside Monterey, California, in which “paisanos” (people of mixed Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and Anglo heritage) live. It is a barrio neighborhood on a hill where the forest and town “intermingle” above the beauty of nearby Monterey. Its streets are unpaved and its corners are free of street lights.

The subculture of Tortilla Flat provides a striking contrast to the natural beauty of the local region, as well as to the wealth of Monterey. Within this lowest existence, humans live and die, enduring misery and enjoying pleasure. The place demonstrates inequities of life in this region and accentuates human suffering. It also reveals humorous but humble attempts to rectify such inequities through rationalization, insubordination, and above all, fraternization. The intensity seen in the inhabitants of this place generates sympathy and ultimately serves to raise questions about the capitalist assumptions of the privileged class.

*Monterey

*Monterey. Beautiful old Northern California city on the Pacific coast that represents the opposite of life in Tortilla Flat. Monterey reflects a social and economic status to which the paisanos never can aspire, but one whose values occasionally infiltrate the residents of Tortilla Flat causing them the anxiety of living with a liminal mentality of wanting what they cannot have and having what they do not want. This place may also be understood ironically, for its history suggests that the ancestors of Tortilla Flat once belonged to Monterey.

Danny’s house

Danny’s house. One of the two houses in Tortilla Flat that Danny inherits after the war. Ownership of two houses transforms Danny from a wandering homeless rogue into a respectable member of his community. With the rise in his social status comes privilege and responsibility. He rents one house to his friends, but they fail to pay rent, and then the house is burned to the ground due to their neglect. Five homeless friends and some dogs eventually move in with Danny in his second house. The locus of the novel, then, focuses on the interior of this place where these friends interact in tender brutality with one another. Their struggles reflect John Steinbeck’s view of human life as a struggle for daily survival, grasping at fleeting pleasure while responding with instinctive insights to the greater bourgeois society beyond the barriers of their paisano barrio.

Danny’s friends live in poverty, finding or stealing food, drinking away their time and what money they come by. Set against this poverty, the gang nonetheless feels security and enjoys brotherhood since they have a roof over their heads. Danny’s house becomes the headquarters from which they launch numerous adventures in the author’s naturalistic parody of errant knights. In his preface to the novel, Steinbeck says that “Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it.”

BibliographyBenson, Jackson J., ed. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. A comprehensive collection of investigations into Steinbeck’s characters, technique, and motivation. Complete bibliography.Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Brief discussions of all Steinbeck’s major works, set in the context of his life.Ferrell, Keith. John Steinbeck: The Voice of the Land. New York: Evans, 1986. An introduction to Steinbeck’s life and work written especially for secondary-school students.Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1974. Introduction to Steinbeck’s works.Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1988. A behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Steinbeck’s short fiction, including summaries of published literary criticism.
Categories: Places