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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES - Tortilla Flat
Of the good life at Danny's house, of a gift pig, of the pain of Tall Bob, and of the thwarted love of the Viejo Ravanno
The chapter opens with discussion of the disregard of organized time. Watches have no value in Danny’s house except for barter-and the men operate on natural time. One day Danny suggests that the windows should be washed. Pilon thinks that is not a good idea because more light could get in, in which case, they would not have to go outside for light, and the poisonous night air could seep in. The obscurity of light by the dirty window made the house a great place to sleep. Every day, they each awoke peacefully and easily. They drank tea and discussed past adventures and present goings-on-particularly that of Cornelia Ruiz, because it was rare that she did not do something worth discussion. This is how they came one day to converse about how the only two things that ever happen in Cornelia’s life are loving and fighting. Danny told how the day before Emilio Murietta, as many men did, took Cornelia a present-a little pig. Emilio told her that a pig is a great present because it will eat anything and you can love it-then, when it gets older and mean-tempered, you can kill and eat it. When Emilio went away Cornelia made a bed for the little pig. One day a big sow came and the pig and the sow cause a ruckus and Cornelia got mad at Emilio.
This brought up, among the friends, the subject of Tall Bob Smoke. Bob is a person who people laugh at him. Bob decided that if he pretended he was going to kill himself a friend would argue with him and he would know that he was loved. For two days Bob waited in his house with a pistol waiting for someone to come; no one did. Finally, on the third day, Charlie Meeler came. The situation did not unfold as Bob had hoped: Charlie entered the house and, instead of begging Bob not to kill himself, he pulled the gun out of Bob’s had. The gun went off (it was already cocked to make the suicide attempt look more convincing) and shot off the end of Bob’s nose. The whole town laughed at this; but, from then on, they let Bob carry the flag in the town parades, and bought him a net to catch dogs with.
The men conclude that Bob’s story is a hard one to laugh at, and that Bob is a good guy. When Jesus Maria was young, he was a friend of Petey Ravanno, who was always into trouble. As he got older he spent most weekends in jail because he was always drunk. His father, Mr. Ravanno, was usually with him-he enjoyed Petey’s company and was lonely when he was not there. Petey began to chase after Gracie Montez, a girl that had had her first child at age twelve, and after whom many men chased. Petey wanted her so badly that he became thin and ill in pursuit of her. Mr. Ravanno tried to explain to her that Petey would die if she did not give in; she took his warning lightly. Petey worked hard to buy her presents. She merely laughed at him and ran away with the presents. Petey asked her to marry him, because he believed if she married him in a church she would no longer run away. She only laughed at him. Petey attempted suicide by hanging, but his father caught him and cut him down. Mr. Ravanno yelled at Gracie, blaming her for his son’s near death. She went to visit the still recovering Petey; they married shortly after. The friends agree this would be an excellent story to tell if it ended there; unfortunately, it does not.
Mr. Ravanno became sad when Petey left and did not know what to do with himself, until one day he saw Tonia-Gracie’s even prettier younger sister-also after whom many men chased. He became similar to Petey in his lust of Tonia-sickly. He bought her things that she accepted then laughed at him. Petey told him to stop because he had had enough women and that Tonia was too young.
Mr. Ravanno got a job so he could afford to buy Tonia presents. As Petey had done with her older sister, Mr. Ravanno asked Tonia to marry him in a church so she would not run away. She only laughed at him. So he decided he would pretend to attempt suicide, like Petey had, so she would marry him (as Gracie had married Petey). He decided to attempt suicide at work, in a tool shed, where he would be sure to be found before he actually died. Unfortunately, just as he stepped from the box (he was pretending to hang himself) the door to the shed blew shut. No one found him until he died. The friends found this story funny, but in a way that squeezes. Pilon complained that it was a bad story because there are too many lessons-one can learn nothing because it can’t be taken into the head. Pablo liked it because it has meaning that is not immediately evident-he knows it means something, but he is not sure what.
Pilon comes up with a plan to get fish. He thinks if they go to the pier and throw rocks at the fishermen they will have to throw something back. All the fisherman can throw is fish. He derived this plan from when he and his brothers would throw rocks at the train as children. The fireman would get angry and throw coal, which they took to their mother.
This is a very clever chapter. It begins with the discussion of time and nature. The men of Tortilla Flat do not live by clocks, but by the sun. This is a metaphor (although it is also literal) for the philosophy of their existence: they live among nature, not material culture. For example, everyone knows that windows are supposed to be clean. However, these men do not keep their windows clean because it makes more sense to keep them dirty-they can sleep later if the sun does not awaken them. They also wake slowly and naturally. Most people can relate with the experience of wanting to stay in bed; however, the modern world (work, school, etc.) forces us from our sleep early each day to accomplish our goals. Tortilla Flat (the men of Danny’s house) is a rejection of that. At Danny’s house, there is no superfluity-food is gathered daily to meet their needs; the house is free of material things. Waking up when they want, these men have much more control over their lives than the average person.
This chapter is told in a frame story fashion. A frame story is a story, or group of stories within a story. This section is reminiscent (intentionally or not) of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which a group of people, on a pilgrimage, share stories. The stories in this chapter, like those in Canterbury Tales, are supposed to instruct. The irony, in Tortilla Flat, is that the men are guilty of the same things within the stories. For example, in Jesus Maria’s story about Petey and Mr. Ravanno, Mr. Ravanno’s downfall is that he does not pay attention to the context of Petey’s action. When Petey almost died, it was a genuine near death situation. Mr. Ravanno believes that if he almost dies he too will get the girl. Unfortunately, he fails to realize that: 1., every time someone almost dies, they do not get someone to love them; 2., it is absolutely necessary to make sure someone will find you before you die. Interestingly, after they hear this story, Pilon thinks they should go throw rocks at fishermen in order to get food. He believes this will work because when he was young, he threw rocks at trains and got coal. His analogy is not very solid. Coal is not the purpose and livelihood of a train, as fish is to a fisherman. He, like Mr. Ravanno, is trying to apply action out of context.