Tortilla Flat

Steinbeck, John

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: Jan-28-2005


Steinbeck begins Tortilla Flat with a tidy summary of what is to follow: "This is the story of Danny and of Danny's friends and of Danny's house." Returning from service in World War I (for which he had drunkenly signed up, subsequently spending the duration of the war driving mules in Texas), Danny discovers that he has inherited two houses from his deceased viejo. He reunites with his friends, who gradually accumulate in his houses, bringing with them parties, disasters, and holy visions.


This is the book that brought fame to Steinbeck, where we first encounter his unique admixture of sentimentality and social criticism. Tortilla Flat is a meandering collection of stories about a group of men who inhabit Danny's houses, search out the next gallon of wine, and occasionally engage in acts of great charity, which often includes stealing or other nuisances: 'Theft robbed of the stigma of theft, crime altruistically committed--what is more gratifying?' (151). Logic has never been used for such self-serving ends as by the men of Tortilla Flat who can justify their least altruistic actions and the relentless pursuit of wine in the most idealist of syllogisms.

It is a remarkably paced novel, often ambling along languidly as if cheerfully inebriated, before exploding into bursts of activity, violence and even spirituality. The climax, however, is startling despite building up from the rhythms of the book itself: diagnosing a character with a specific pathology is not always useful, but Steinbeck's description of Danny's decline is a powerful and stark depiction of depression--an existential, all-consuming bleakness, resulting, quite possibly, in his suicide.


First published: 1935



Place Published

New York



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