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FREE Study Guide-Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck-Book Summary
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This novel is set in the first half of the 20th century. The preface takes place before and during World War I; however, this is a very brief section. The majority of the action occurs when the war has ended.

The place is Monterey, California. Monterey is located on Monterey Bay, and is found 125 miles south of San Francisco. Europeans first encountered the area in 1602 when the Spanish arrived; it was named for the Count of Monte-Rey-the Spanish viceroy of Mexico. The subsequent Mexican rule of California, as well as the proximity of California to Mexico, account for the large Spanish influence felt throughout the novel. Monterey became the signing place of the state constitution of California, as well as the state’s first capital. While the capital was later moved to Sacramento, Monterey remained an important area of trade and eventually home to Cannery Row (the center of the local fishing industry, and the subject of another Steinbeck work of the same title).

At the time of the novel Steinbeck tells the reader, in the Preface, that Monterey “sits on the slope of a hill with a blue bay below it and with a forest of tall dark pine trees at its back” (2).

This city is home to other Steinbeck novels as well. Many scholars consider Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday to be a trilogy because they each deal with the down and out of Monterey. The majority of Steinbeck’s works are set in California, many very close to Monterey. Interestingly, this is the town in which Steinbeck spent his early years, and the place to which he later returned with his second wife.


Major Characters


Danny is the protagonist of the story, the character around whom the action develops. He serves in World War I in Texas breaking mules. He has inherited two houses from his grandfather. It is in one of these two houses that the men come together and create this tale.

Minor Characters

Big Joe Portagee

One of the members of the Round Table. He is first seen in the Preface when he joins the army with Pilon and Danny. Later escapades include selling Danny’s blanket and getting beaten out of Tia Ignacia’s house.

The Caporal

He is a corporal in the Mexican army. Jesus Maria keeps him from being arrested and brings him and his baby to Danny’s house. His wife has left him; the man she left him for has tried to kill him. His baby, who is sick, dies at Danny’s house. He seeks no revenge on the man who has made his life so terrible. The men are uplifted by his righteousness.

Cornelia Ruiz

She is the source of constant gossip in the town and among the men because of her interactions with men. She switches partners frequently.

Dorlores “Sweets” Ramirez

Sweets, like most of the ladies on Tortilla Flat wishes to be Danny’s lady when she learns that he has inheritance. Danny takes up with her for a while and buys her a vacuum cleaner, which elevates her social status. However, the friends become concerned that she will steal him away, and convince Danny that he must take back the vacuum cleaner because she is making a fool of him. Pilon steals it back for him.

Jesus Maria Corcoran

Corcoran is first encountered by Pilon and Pablo while he is drunk and in a ditch. He comes to move in with them, and is there when the fire breaks out. He moves into Danny’s house along with everyone else. He is a humanitarian and helps the corporal when he is almost arrested.

Johnny Pom-Pom

Pom-pom is a resident of Tortilla Flat and an acquaintance of the “knights.” Pilon tells Jesus Maria that he tried to sell the metal from the Government post he dug up (the same kind that they found). He got a year in prison and a two thousand dollar fine.

Mr. Torrelli

He is the proprietor of “Torrelli’s.” The men are constantly tricking him; however, he is not a good man himself. He tries to take Danny’s house, saying Danny drunkenly signed it away. The validity of this statement is never clarified, but they friends destroy the paper, and Torrelli never gets the house.

Mrs. Torrelli

She is Mr. Torrelli’s wife and plays only a minor role in the story.


Pablo is the second person (after Pilon) to move into Danny’s house-the second house before it burns.


The name Pilon means “something thrown in when a trade is conducted-a boot”(3). Heis another one of the men that live in Danny’s house.

The Pirate

He is called as such because of his large, bushy, black beard. He is not grown up in the mind, despite his large size. He sells wood from a wheelbarrow and is constantly accompanied by five dogs: Pajarito, Rudolph, Enrique, Fluff, and Senor Alec Thompson.

Tito Ralph

Danny’s jailer in Chapter 1. He is one of the squashed bed bug characters rendered on Danny’s cell wall. He doesn’t complain because he believes that Danny has “a vast respect for the law,” because the judge and police force are not caricatured.

Teresina Cortez

She lives with her mother and eight children on the Southern end of Tortilla Flat. Her first pregnancy was at age fourteen, and she thought of herself as a “perfect retort for the distillation of children”(145). At sixteen she married Alfred Cortez, gained his name and bore two children. His name was really Guggliemo-both before and after he left Monterey County. When she is in fear of her children starving because of a bad bean crop, the friends come to her rescue by stealing things from all over the town.

Tia Ignacia

Tia becomes involved in a love affair with Big Joe. She is a widow of success and standing. One night when it is raining, she allows Big Joe into her house and shares her wine with him. After drinking a while, she tries to gain his favor, but he falls asleep. She beats him out of the house.

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