John Steinbecks Tortilla Flat: Uniting Crime and Spirituality
The world is often divided into a black-and-white representation of different virtues. Righteous people visit churches, do good, do not drink much alcohol, and do not commit any crimes. It is considered worthy to hold steady jobs, provide for ones families, own property, pay rent, etc. However, these conventional, middle-class values do not find approval among the poorest stratum of Monterey, California, portrayed in John Steinbecks Tortilla Flat. By showing a group of friends who languish in poverty with aplomb and much pleasure Steinbeck challenges mainstream America. Through irony and humor, Steinbeck achieves a comic effect, and it emphasizes how far from materialism and consumption the paisanos are. Steinbeck depicts his characters as people perceptive of beauty and subtle nuances of human relations. At the same time, their lives, full of actions and events, are not regarded as virtuous and righteous. Although the paisanos commit crimes of various degrees and immoral actions such as stealing, robbing, drinking, philandering, etc., Steinbeck portrays them as ardent believers through the use of irony, setting, and symbolism.
Written in 1935, Tortilla Flat is indirect opposition to the rampant consumerism and materialism described in other famous novels of the Great Depression, such as Fitzgeralds Great Gatsby. The setting of the novel suggests that as the paisanos are separated from the rest of Monterey, they are distinct in their thinking and acting. Tortilla Flat is a forgotten place where crime is inevitable as the environment welcomes disorder. Due to a lack of financing, there are no street lights and roads are no paved. However, the dwellers of this area do not complain. They adapt to the conditions and make the best of it. There are leafy bushes where the paisanos can hide and drink a gallon or two of wine. They sleep in the forest until the sun is high enough to wake them up. They find ways to take away picnic baskets from naive holiday makers and feast on the only meal a day. In the article John Steinbecks Spiritual Streak, Susan Shillinglaw explains, Marginality is their social and physical terrain (84). However, despite their wallowing in gutters and ditches, Steinbeck does not portray the paisanos as lowlifes and malign characters. On the contrary, the author underlines Danny and his friends as special people, and their philosophy is uncommon. To this effect, Dannys house is placed in a liminal space on a hill above Monterey (Shillinglaw 84). With this portrayal, Steinbeck lifts up the paisanos revealing their true and sincere natures.
Through satire and irony, the author shows a lack of commonality between ordinary peoples values and the paisanos ones. They are poor, but they speak a lofty language. Saying thy and thou knowest, Danny and his friends sound more like Kind Arthurs knights rather than the paisanos (Fensch). Steinbeck intensifies the distinction between who they are and how they perceive themselves by pointing out their lofty musings and ideas. In the episode when Pilon was carrying two gallons of wine as a present for Danny, Steinbeck fondly portrays him as a double personality: That not too perfect Pilon, who plotted and fought, who drank and cursed, trudged slowly on; but a wistful and shining Pilon went up to the sea gulls where they bathed on sensitive wings in the evening (Steinbeck). Pilon never took this wine to Danny. Having drunk it together with Pablo, he recruits him to rent a room from him in order to compensate Danny, at least, something. In the Tortilla Flat and the Creation of a Legend, Joseph Fontenrose calls the novel picaresque (112). Indeed, Danny and his friend philander commit petty thefts and drink a lot but, at the same time, they have morality and conscience. The paisanos believe that God exists and miracles can happen. Even if they are not saints, they remember that as religious people they should observe some rituals, for example, burn candles before saints images. When Dannys house burned down because of a candle, they explained it by a divine punishment. The candle was bought for a saint, but Pablo burned it for their own needs: Have you forgotten that this candle was blessed? . . . Here is the principle which takes the waxen rod outside the jurisdiction of physics (Steinbeck). Steinbecks satire is light and loving. The paisanos religiousness is a redeeming quality. It reveals that they know that some things are sacred, and they too have moral values. For example, friendship is sacred for them. Even though they initially intended to rob the Pirate in his stash, they decided against it because he collected coins for Saint Francis (Fontenrose 112).
The division between the paisanos rascal-like way of living and their reverence for religion is also revealed through symbolism used in Tortilla Flat. One of the symbols of their noble disposition is the Pirates stash. The Pirate is a large man who is soft and feeble-minded. He lives outdoors with his pack of mongrels and gathered alms. The friends noticed that he never spends the money and invited him to reside with them with the aim to steal his savings. However, getting to know him better, they saw his simplicity and decided to help him gather the necessary amount. Thus, his stash became a symbol of their friendship. When later Big Joe attempted to steal the money they punished him severely because he encroached the sacred their friendship. However, contrary to what a common person would do never talk to such a wrongdoer again the paisanos welcome Big Joe back after he understands the lesson (Burkhead 41). Another symbol of the paisanos deceptive appearance is the rose of Castille growing next to the porch. Steinbeck writes, Dannys house [is] a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile (Steinbeck). Similar to the house, Danny and his bunch are untrimmed and wild, but they have characteristics that redeem them as the rose of Castile decorates the shabby house. Whereas they live in poverty, their lives are full of joy and merriment. They do small thefts, but their morals and logical groundings reveal their original thinking. The paisanos want to live simple lives not burdened by material possessions, and this elevates them from the America overcome with consumerism and bank loans.
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On the whole, the paisanos are God-fearing people who spend their last money on candles. They see a way to reveal their spirituality in respecting religious institution by wearing nice clothes to the church and saying quick prayers, whereas petty crimes and drinking are used to add pleasure to their life. Depicting his characters in such a way Steinbeck makes a larger statement on the sense of human life. Even though the authors image of poverty is highly idealized, Tortilla Flat suggests an alternative to shallowness and meaninglessness of the modern way of living. During the Great Depression people reconsidered their attitude toward material possessions. Being an extreme example, Danny and his friends prove that the best things in life are cheap and abundant.