John Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat". The main characters and their relation with the American Dream

Term Paper 2008 15 Pages

English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. What is the American Dream?

4. The Western Frontier in Tortilla Flat

5. Characters
5.1 Women
5.2 Torelli
5.3 Danny and his friends

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The American dream is one of the most famous features of the American society. Since the discovery of the American continent America is known as the land of opportunity. A land where you can fulfil your dreams, where you can become rich and famous if you work hard enough for it. This is the myth of the selfmade man, the myth of the American dream. But the American dream does not only have positive aspects. A lot of settlers and immigrants believed in the American dream but they failed to fulfil their dreams and did not have a better life than before.

Many literary works deal with the positive and negative aspects of the American dream. One of these literary works which deals with the negative aspects of the American dream is “ Tortilla Flat” written by John Steinbeck. The book is about a group of societal marginal figures, which do not have any interest in becoming rich and famous and they take their life as it comes. For them friendship and freedom is more important than wealth and therefore they represent the counterpart of the American dream. But there are also characters in the book, which believe in the American dream and who strive for wealth and reputation. That is why “Tortilla Flat” provides a good contrast of the proponents and opponents of the American dream.

In this research paper I will analyse the main characters of “Tortilla Flat” and compare them to the American dream. First of all I will explain what the American dream really is. Afterwards I will give a short summary of the plot of the book and an overview of the historical background. Then I will show the western frontier in the book, which is also part of the American dream. After that I will analyse the main characters of “Tortilla Flat”: Women, Torelli and the paisanos. Finally I will give a short conclusion.

2. What is the American Dream?

If you think of the American dream you always connect it with individualism, materialism, progress, success through hard work and freedom. But in reality the American dream is a lot more than that and its history leads back over 2 centuries.

The phrase “American Dream“ was first mentioned in 1931 by the historian and writer James Truslow Adams. In his book The Epic of America he wrote:

"The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."1

The American dream gives you an image of an ideal world. This image had existed for centuries and when America was discovered this image was projected to America. People from all over Europe came to explore the country and moreover they came because of material gains like gold, silver and precious stones. Some people even tried to find mystic treasures like the “fountain of youth”. So from the beginning the American dream was linked to materialism and wealth.2

Settlers came to America with the hope of starting a new and better life. As Jürg P. Keller points out “the most incisive event in the early history of the New World and the one influencing most persistently the hopes nourished by the American Dream, was the voyage of the “Pilgrims” aboard the “Mayflower”… the puritans suffered much under the discrimination practiced by the King (Charles I) and the Anglican Bishops.” So they sailed to America and “settled the region of today’s Salem, Cambridge and Boston in 1630” (The American Dream gone astray 1995: 52). Colonies were founded and every single colony in itself represented a dream come true.3

The settlers had a strong “wish to obtain religious freedom, to secure better farmland or to fulfil personal ideals”( Keller in “The American Dream Gone Astray 1995: 52). This wish was written down on paper in the “Declaration of Independence” in 1776:

“ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”4

It is not easy to find in what degree early documents like the Declaration of Independence have influenced the image of the American dream, but it is for sure that the “Declaration of Independence” and “the Constitution of the United States” have always been the base of the American belief in Democracy and the hope of obviating the evils of the “ Old World”.5

The westward movement and the western frontier are also part of the American dream. The west stands for freedom and individualism and the western frontier has always been the border between wilderness and civilisation. The pioneers went west until they reached the pacific. Again the reason for that was the hope for a better life and the fulfilment of personal dreams. After they had reached the pacific the geographical frontier changed into a notional frontier in the minds of the Americans.

Today the universe is seen as modern frontier.1

Summarizing you can say that the connected catchwords I mentioned at the beginning are the stereotypes of the American dream. But as the phrase already says the American dream is just a dream and not reality. A dream which helps people to tackle reality. And therefore the American dream can not be exactly defined, because people have different hopes, dreams and idols. As Fossum and Roth point out “ the American Dream has never been exactly defined nor will it ever be”( R.H. Fossum and J.K.Roth The American Dream Vol. VI, 1981).

The only definition which comes closest to what the American Dream really means is the one written on wikipedia:

“The American Dream today often refers to one's material wealth which is dependent upon one's abilities and work ethic, and not on a rigid class structure. Although the phrase's meaning has evolved over the course of American history, for some people, it is the opportunity to achieve greater material prosperity than was possible in their countries of origin. For others it's the opportunity for their children to grow up and receive an education and its consequent career opportunities. It is the opportunity to make individual choices and its consequent career opportunities. It is the opportunity to make individual choices without the restrictions of class, caste, religion, race, or ethnic group. For others it is the dream of choice and flexibility, the ability to wake up in the morning and decide to drive, cycle or take public transportation to work.”2

But because the American dream can not be exactly defined my analyses of “Tortilla Flat” are based on the stereotypes of the American Dream: Success, materialism, individualism and freedom.

3. Plot and Historical Background

John Steinbeck published the novel „Tortilla Flat“ in 1935. So it can be assigned to the critical realism of the thirties. The representatives of the critical realism dealt in their works with the sufferings of the proletariat and the lower class in a materialistically shaped society.3, 4

The story of Tortilla Flat plays in the time after the 1st World War in Tortilla Flat,the uphill district above the town of Monterey, which is an old city on the coast of California. The main characters belong to the paisanos, a very poor ethnic group of Mexican-Americans.

The story starts with the paisano Danny who has just returned from his service in the army during the 1st World War. Danny hears that he is an heir of two houses. He is a little „weight down with the responsibility of ownership“ (Steinbeck 1996: 11). Instead of moving in he buys a bottle of wine, gets drunk and abusive and has to go to jail. But he escapes with the help of Tito Ralph, the jailer, and meets Pilon. Danny tells Pilon about the houses and rents his second house to Pilon. But Pilon never pays the rent, because he always invests his money in alcohol. When Pilon meets Pablo he persuades him to move in with him and to rent his house so that Pilon can pass his debts on to Pablo. In the meantime Danny has an affair with Mrs Morales and demands some rent from his tenants. When Pilon and Pablo meet Jesus Maria they persuade him to join their flat sharing so that they can get the money for Danny. But again they do not manage to pay the rent. For a little while the friends enjoy their flat sharing and their comradeship but then the house burns by accident through a little candle. When Danny hears about that he is more released than upset and he lets his friends live with him.

After this happening the Pirate and his dogs are introduced. Pilon knows that the Pirate must have a lot of money and his hunting instinct is kindled. Pilon and his friends realize very quickly that as long as the Pirate does not live with them he will never reveal the hiding place for his money. So they assimilate him in their comradeship and their flat sharing. The Pirate is very happy and thankful that he now has friends. He brings them food and it does not take long until he takes his money from the hiding place and shows it to Danny and his frineds. But when the Pirate tells his friends that the money is for a candlestick for St. Francis the others feel defeated and disappointed. Afterwards the money becomes the symbolic centre of their friendship.

The next happening is St. Andrews Eve where all the paisanos wander around in the forest and look for valuable things. Pilon meets Big Joe Portagee and together they go looking for a treasure. When they see a soft pillar of blue light they think that they have found a treasure but when they come back to the place to dig the treasure up they only find a cement post.

Joe Portagee is the last paisano who joins the comradeship and moves into Danny's house. From now on the circle of friendship is closed and together they experience different happenings and do some good deeds. Danny starts an affair with a woman called Sweets and presents her a vacuum cleaner although Sweets has no electricity in her house. Later on it turns out that the vacuum cleaner does not even have a motor. Jesus Maria meets a sergeant with his sick baby and brings him to Danny's house. The paisanos try to help the baby but the baby dies. Joe Portagee steals the Pirate's money and his friends punish him very hard by trouncing him. After the theft they count the money and notice that the Pirate has got enough money for the candlestick. So the Pirate lets a priest buy the candlestick and attends church. The last good deed is that Danny and his friends steal food for Teresina Cortez and her children.

After that the friends fall into a routine. Danny is sick of that life and runs away. He is mad and steals, fights and insults people. He even steals from his friends and sells his house to the mean and greedy owner of an illegal wine brewery Torelli. When Torelli visits Danny's friends and tells them about the sale Pilon and the others manage to get the bill of sale back. Afterwards Danny returns to his friends but he is tired and pathetic. Danny remains in this behaviour until his friends organize a big party for him. All the inhabitants of Tortilla Flat celebrate with Danny and his friends. At the party Danny drinks a lot and he wants to fight all of his guests. Totally drunken and in rage he leaves the house, falls off a gulch and dies. The funeral of Danny provides the closure of the story and the comradeship. His friends can not attend the funeral because they do not have adequate clothes. They burn the house and walk away and no two walk together.

The historical background of “Tortilla Flat” helps you to a better understanding in some points. The American society in the 20ies was determinated by political surveillance and prohibition. Everyone who did not agree with the nation's political moves were potential regime opponents or even spies. Alcoholism was a big problem in the society, so producing and dealing with alcoholic beverages was forbidden by the 18th amendment. This exaggerated nationalism and law of prohibition fostered criminality and undermined authority.

The hierarchy of society was ruled by materialism and economic success. The upper class consisted of successful businessmen and the lower class of miners, manual worker and farmers who were shut out from economic growth. The differences between rich and poor were more extreme than today and a social system did not exist. In addition to that the requirement of process, motivation and the powers of self-assertion were ubiquitous. Everyone fought for himself and therefore individualism was an ideal of that time. It was the flowering time of the realization of the modern American dream.1

4. The Western Frontier in Tortilla Flat

If you think of the western frontier as a border between civilization and wilderness you can also find a western frontier in Tortilla Flat. This western frontier is Monterey and its inhabitants. First of all Monterey is located on the coast of California and therefore in the west. The nature around Monterey is described as very idyllic and peaceful. The forest and the town “intermingle”, the streets are “innocent of asphalt” and free of street lights (Steinbeck 1996: 6). The inhabitants of Monterey are, as the narrator expresses it, “embattled” by the nature (Steinbeck 1996: 6). But the paisanos' lifes are also described as somewhere in the middle between nature and modern civilization. They live in old wooden houses, they are “clean of commercialism” and “free of the complicated system of American business”(Steinbeck 1996: 7). But as the story shows at some points the inhabitants of Monterey have also a very materialistic view just like the modern society. Torelli and the feminine characters of the story are very good examples to prove that fact. But more about them later on.

The paisanos are a mixture of Spanish, Indian and Mexican. They are marginal figures of the society who are normally excluded in societal success. This success was reserved to the whites.1

They are part of the society but as the pioneers of the western movement they form the rear light of the society. The people who have to deal with the nature and are not as civilized as the people who live in big cities and crowded places. And as the pioneers the inhabitants live according to the ideals of their modern civilized society. They have the same societal hierarchy as the whole American society. The upper class is embodied by Torelli a typical selfish, mercenary business man. Additionally the women can only raise in the hierarchy by marrying a wealthy man. The rear lights of the Monterey society are Danny's friends because they do not have anything except their friendship.

5. Characters

5.1 Women

The women in Tortilla Flat are representatives of the ideals of the American dream. Their only interest goes to their own advantage and credit. Since wealth goes hand in hand with credit they are very materialistic. There are several passages where this behaviour becomes obvious. First of all the relationships between Danny's friends and women are only sexual.. Moreover there is only one affair of Danny's friends described by the narrator. It is the affair between Big Joe Portagee and Tia Ignacia (Steinbeck 1996: 152/153). As Danny's friends are poor, they do not have anything they could give to women; so they are not interesting to women. Additionally they are not very esteemed in their society. Women are only interested in a firm relationship with Danny because he owns two houses and therefore is a man of property, a rich man: “When Sweets heard that Danny was an heir, she was glad for him. She dreamed of being his lady, as every other female on Tortilla Flat” (Steinbeck 1996: 121).

The relationship between Danny and Sweets Ramirez satirizes the materialistic behaviour of women. Their relationship is only build on a vacuum cleaner that has no motor and can not be used by Sweets because she does not have electricity in her house (Steinbeck 1996: 129). Although the vacuum cleaner is totally useless for Sweets she shows off with it and “climbs to the peak of the social scale” (Steinbeck 1996: 126/127). This is a total derision of materialism. Although the vacuum cleaner is of no use Sweets raises in the societal hierarchy. This tells you that material gains are of no value; it is only in the people's minds that they become valuable.

Sweets is compared to a spider that wants Danny to fall into her trap. She leaves her spider web while she is waiting for Danny. Furthermore her walking by in jeans is described as a gift by the narrator (Steinbeck 1996: 121/122). This can be transformed on materialism especially commercialism and advertisements. Advertisements are present everywhere and entice people to buy a special product. As well as Sweets in Tortilla Flat, advertisements use natural desires to influence people. So the women in Tortilla Flat can be seen as advertisements of materialism. They represent an entry to a life of obligations and the pressure of becoming richer.

5.2 Torelli

Torelli is the counterpart of the paisanos and the most important representative of the ideals of the American dream. He is the typical selfish businessman and stands for the upper class of the civilized society. Torelli is the owner of an illegal wine brewery and can therefore be easily connected to the people who became rich through illegal business, especially through illegal sale of alcohol during the early twenties. He is close fisted and he always tries to exploit his customers (Steinbeck 1996: 208). Torelli has the “exaggerated and wholly quixotic ideal of marital relations” (Steinbeck 1996: 56), which means that societal estimation is his purpose in life and again connected with material wealth. Torelli never visits anyone, he lets people come to him (Steinbeck 1996: 210) and therefore I suggest that he does not have any friends. His face seldom shows other emotions than suspicion and anger. The only thing that makes him happy is wealth. This suggestion can be proven by the fact that Torelli smiles when he is on his way to Danny's house to show Danny's friends the bill of sale (Steinbeck 1996: 211). People on his way step dismissively out of his way and “clench their fists to repel a madman” (Steinbeck 1996: 211), which proves that he is an unpopular, mean person without friends.

Torelli hates and despises Danny and his friends because they steal from him. He calls them “nest of snakes” (Steinbeck 1996: 211/212). For him Danny and his friends are no more than vagabonds and abnegators who steal his goods and therefore he feels triumph when Danny sells his house to him (Steinbeck 1996: 212). When Torelli visits Danny's friends he tells them about the bill of sale. His expression : “Here is the paper Danny signed. It is what we of business call a bill of sale” (Steinbeck 1996: 215) makes clear that Torelli feels superior and important because he is a business man. In addition to that he thinks that the friends are silly.


1 "What is the American Dream?".Accessed August 21, 2008.

2 The American Dream Gone Astray p. 49/50

3 The American Dream Gone Astray p.52

4 Opening lines of the second paragraph of the “Declaration of Independence” as quoted in: Committee for Constitutional Government Inc., The Constitution of the United States: Its Sources and Its Application (New York 1968) p. 265

5 The American Dream Gone Astray p. 52/53

1 Magisterarbeit: Zur Rolle des männlichen Helden in Bezug auf den American Dream p. 20

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dream

3 The American Dream Gone Astray p.46/47

4 Tortilla Flat p.255

1 The American Dream Gone Astray p.30-32

1 Magisterarbeit: Zur Rolle des männlichen Helden in Bezug auf den American Dream p. 30


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John Steinbeck Tortilla Flat American Dream




Title: John Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat". The main characters and their relation with the American Dream