Community above Self





Community above Self

            The simplicity of the people of Tortilla Flat and their sense of community embodied by Danny and his friends endear the reader to the people of Monterey. The paisano have a diverse heritage, their communal way of life solidifies their unity. Danny and their group avoid engaging in the typical economic pursuits as they believe it would constrain their social freedoms and trap them into an eternal rat race that reveres money above all else.  The communal spirit prevalent in Tortilla Flat is forged by a sense of trust and duty to one’s brethren working together with shared experiences of hardship. Danny and his friends exhibit that friendship is the most valuable possession in life, and is incomparable to material things.

             Having a common origin helps to forge the companionship between Dan and Pilon but it is the shared traumatic experiences that cement their friendship. After their serving in the First World War, two veterans Dan and Pilon come home to the tragic news of the death of the former’s father. By finding solace in Pilon, the friendship of the two is strengthened (BardenThomas 43). The two had similarly shared painful experiences of the war. Being a friend in the midst of trials is a greater measure of true friendship than celebrating a person during the good times. Set in the period of the great depression the unity in hardship continues throughout the novel. The Tortilla Flat region is inhabited by the poor people of the larger Monterey region comprised a relatively small knit paisano community, a mixture of Mexican, American, and Aborigine blood, everyone knew each other. The Monterey area is blessed with scenic landscapes, the epitome of America’s aesthetic beauty. Nonetheless, socio-economic classes persisted with Danny and Pilon belonging to the same strata.

            Danny illustrates that true friendship transcends material possessions. The death of Danny’s grandfather was not all gloom as he is left with an inheritance of two houses. The houses signify social mobility as Danny becomes a land owner (Cerce 201). Danny is reluctant in embracing his new role as he perceives that the responsibility is bound to infringe on his social liberties. Pilon’s greatest apprehension is that the houses would become a barrier to their friendship as Danny would forget them. Danny rents one the house to his friends at a subsidized rate and even then is not insistent on the consistency of payment. Danny values the companion of his friends more than money. Furthermore, he forgives their recklessness by sharing his house with the friends after they burn the second house. The sharing is a way of life among the paisano. Though all friends have a culture of sharing, by virtue of being the owner of a substance with the highest economic value in the group, he is exalted to a leadership position. The rich become leaders to the poor by default.

             The gang of friends remains intact owing to their deviant values and their existence in the fringes of society. Their behavior is conferred on them by their social status. Devoid of economic possessions, the people of Tortilla Flat are expected to have no responsibility (Hicks, Kathleen, and Barrett 178). This gang of friends more or less lives up to this stereotype. The group does not pursue the regular way of earning income; they are thieves with the exception of late arrival, Pirate. They steal from the rich and give to their poor. Being able to justify their myriad of indiscretions gives them peace of mind. The majority of their crimes are victimless. For instance, Pilon orchestrates an ingenious method of feeding the gang by throwing stones at fishermen provoking them to throw back the nearest object, fish. The simplicity of the town enables the gang to survive at the fringes of society without the scrutiny from law keepers.  On the contrary, the average a working man would be reluctant to share his hard earned money as they would perceive the others as taking advantage of him. Pirate does not qualify as an average working man despite his work as woodcutter owing to his subdued intelligence. Given their dysfunctional lifestyle, there is no air of judgment when Danny goes on a rampage to relive his youthful days.

              Danny and his friends cultivate their friendship through trust. There is honor among these thieves. After realizing that Pirate has a small fortune, naturally the gang of thieves, led by Pilon, scheme to swindle the seemingly half-witted Pirate (Susanto, Puji, Khoiri, and Si 46). Pirate strolls through the streets of the Monterey with his five dogs oblivious of the need for human companionship. Despite his commanding stature, he fears interactions with locals until becomes aware of the essence of friendship in the company of Danny’s gang. In his innocence, he gives them his stash of coins for safekeeping at the same time telling them of his benign intentions. He desires to save up to purchase a candle for Saint Francis. Akin to the rest the paisano community, the gang is deeply religious though not astute in church attendance. Subsequently, they reform their intentions and become the custodians of his money towards actualizing his dream. The money remains as a symbol of trust with each having an equal responsibility of taking care of it. As such, when Big Joe Portagee breaks this group’s norm by taking some of the coins he is heavily rebuked as he threatens the very fabric that holds the gang together.

             Steinbeck uses Danny and his friends as a sample of the people of Tortilla Flat to illustrate the dynamics of the larger community. Their freedom from commercialism is demonstrated by Danny’s low technological awareness as he gives his roommate a useless vacuum cleaner and sells a machine gun at a throw away price. Pirate’s childish sincerity and the technological ignorance of Danny prevalent among the paisano help alleviate the full the effects of the great depression in the community of Tortilla Flat. The life of these friends signifies the typical household of the tortilla flat household. Though ideally, the community is a singular family living under one roof, the friends exhibit the same communal qualities, from sharing social amenities, enjoying the simple pleasures of life to acknowledging the beauty of their landscape.  (Hicks, Kathleen, and Barrett 182). Unlike the people of the larger Monterey, the friends have the luxury denied to their counterparts in higher social circles.  Maintaining the room as Viejo had left it implies that Danny attempts to preserve memories performed in the past. The tenants strived to keep the house as they had found it. . A typical day in the house was characterized by philosophical arguments about the latest town gossips, dissected into their logical components. The zeal of these discussions was only surpassed by the intensity of their laughter as they communed in food and drink.

             At the heart of the brotherhood of friends was Danny. Therefore, his imminent death does not augur well for the community. Group dynamics demand a leader, official or unorthodox, relatively higher economic status of Danny confers him with this position (Cerce 203).  The group appears overjoyed when Danny overcomes his middle life crisis to the extent of organizing a party for him. The death of Danny and his prior nostalgic escapades imply that the comforts provided by a community are often insufficient if the individual members are not satisfied. Danny appeared to lack purpose thus desired to hasten an inevitable death given there was nothing to accomplish before its eventuality. The friends lacked a fortifying objective beyond their sense of community. Sharing the food, drink, and the accompaniment conversation was facilitated by the house which they burnt in honor of Danny. The friends had nothing in common apart from Danny. As such, the group soon disintegrated in the absence of their uniting factor or enduring values.

             The friendship forged in Danny house comes to a conclusion following their group leader’s death. Nonetheless, its endurance thus far is attributed to the members valuing each other above material possessions. Pilon shares his brandy, a rare commodity in tortilla flat with his friends. Existing in the periphery of the economic system, they are able to continue with their social pursuits unrestricted. Pirate helps the gang’s friendship to graduate onto the next level by admitting trust into the equation. The friends shared every aspect of their lives together from sourcing food to eating it. The longevity of a group depends on the commonality of its individual members.

Works Cited

BardenThomas, E. “He was translated.” steinbeck review 11.1 (2014): 39-45.

Cerce, Danica. “The portrayal of otherness: John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and Frank Hardy’s the great Australian lover and other stories.” The Comparatist 36.1 (2012): 196-206.

Hicks, Kathleen, and Scott Barrett. “Major Steinbeck Publications, 2012–2013.” steinbeck review 10.2 (2013): 175-180.

Susanto, Eko Puji, Much Khoiri, and M. Si. “Spirituality in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.” Jurnal Mahasiswa Teknologi Pendidikan 2.2 (2014).

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