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FREE Study Guide-Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck-Book Summary
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How Danny's friends threw themselves to the aid of a distressed lady


This story introduces Teresina Cortez. She lives with her ancient 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. They subsist by collecting four hundred pounds of beans each year. The household had a deep devotion to the Virgin and prayed each year to her that the crops would be safe from mildew.

Sadly, this year, there was too much rain and the beans were lost-the Cortez house feared starvation. Fortunately, Jesus Maria had a special and humanitarian gift for helping those in need-particularly, women in need of comforting; and so it went that he stumbled upon her house the very day she cooked the last of her beans. That evening Jesus Maria relayed the predicament to his friends, who were also touched with sympathy. The very next day they set out to collect food for the Cortez family. Interestingly, a minor crime wave surfaced in the area-goats went missing, vegetables were stolen, and items began to pile up at Teresina’s home.

Initially, Teresina was ecstatic. After a week, however, the children were becoming sick, and neighbors began to wonder where all of her food was coming from. She, treading cautiously so as not to hurt their feelings, told Danny and his friends that the food was not good for the children; they required beans. The friends pretended to be disheartened, but their initial enthusiasm for the game had been waning anyhow. They held a conference-a warehouse was mysteriously broken into-at 3am that morning Teresina found four hundred pounds of beans on her front porch.

Teresina realizes she is going to have another baby, and wonders which one of Danny’s friends is responsible for the generous supply of beans.


If the reader has doubted the humor that underlies this novel, Chapter Thirteen should put his mind at ease-Steinbeck is trying to be comical. This is yet another mini-story within a larger novel. The only real purpose regarding plot and character development is that it offers another scenario that illuminates the nature of the circle of friends: they are mischievous, but equipped with very kind hearts. A good way to approach this novel is to ask of every section-why would Steinbeck add this? Because it is like he is weaving numerous short stories, it can be assumed that he is trying to achieve on overall impression. This mini-story presents a woman in a serious situation: Teresina Cortez is a single mother with many children, who has fallen on hard times and does not know how she will be able to feed them. The kind nature of the friends is revealed in their response to the matter-they collect (to the extreme) various foods for the Cortez family. Steinbeck could have simply written in that the friends collected food and that it was a kind deed, which showed their sympathy for the children. However, the reader must examine the manner of his writing, which is subtly humorous. It may be more difficult for an inexperienced reader (or at least one not familiar with Steinbeck) to see his dry sarcasm; yet he makes sure to comment on the minor crime wave caused in the area, or reference the food collection as a game. These hints support the second major aspect of the nature of these men, which is furthered in this section-their mischievous sides. The purpose of their adventures is to help the Cortez family, however, their work is motivated by the promise of adventure.

For the individual approaching this novel in a serious, scholarly fashion (which is not necessarily the only way to approach it), this chapter poses the premise for a debate: are the friends merely adventure seekers, or are they genuinely humanitarian souls. Possibly taking the easy way out, it could be argued that these are not irreconcilable impetuses. It may be helpful to consider the major analogy drawn in this novel between the Knights of the Round Table and Danny’s friends. The Knights of they were adventure-seeking, rabble-rousers, but they were driven by a greater purpose-the quest for the Holy Grail. In the same manner, Danny’s friends are troublemakers; however, they are driven by a good cause. If the cause did not exist, it is possible (I would argue probable) that they would still seek adventure; the key to this debate is that when confronted with a situation in which someone is in need they always seek to assist. There is not one instance in this book of the friends turning away someone in need.

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FREE Study Guide-Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck-Synopsis/Analysis


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