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FREE Study Guide-Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck-Book Summary
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Danny is the main character of this story. While the story is comprised of many different characters, Danny is the only one who undergoes a major change; he is the most developed; and the action of the plot revolves around him. In the beginning he is a carefree young man. We know that his life is carefree because of his ability to join the army on a whim. When he returns from service, he spends time hanging around and getting into trouble. He remembers he has inherited a house, and so begins his transformation. Danny began as the product of living free and enjoying things as they come. When he inherits property it caused problems for him, such as the sadness he feels when one of the homes burn down.

The story escalates so that all of Danny’s friends come to live with him and share his house. They fall in love, get into trouble, and drink a lot of wine. However, Danny becomes more saddened until he has to leave. Danny leaves home and the friends search him out to no avail.. When Danny returns he is so sad, that they decide to throw him a party. At the party Danny only becomes belligerent and tries to start a fight. He then falls to his death.

The importance of Danny to this novel is as a cohesive center for the group of friends. It is his house in which they all congregate, and that makes all the difference. The house is the only factor that changed from the beginning of the story, when they did not spend all of their time together. From placing them under the same roof, we can see the beauty of true friendship. This friendship is more valuable than any material possession mentioned throughout the novel. From Danny’s demise we learn that men are owned by what they own, and freed in the absence of possession. This is why the men can go their separate ways, as a tribute to their friend.


This plot is slightly difficult to negotiate due to its disjointed nature. However, there are still the traditional plot elements of: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. What makes this novel easy to read is the multiple smaller stories within the context of the larger plot. For this reason the conventional elements are less intense than they might otherwise be. However, one should still be aware of the importance of the smaller stories, as they are key in Steinbeck’s development of the characters. Because the main character of this story is Danny, and the major conflict is his battle with freedom, the following will examine the plot in light of his development.


In the preface to the novel, we meet Danny. He is intoxicated and he joins the army. This background is necessary for the real Exposition, which occurs in chapter one. In chapter one, Danny has returned from war (rather from Texas where he worked with cattle) and is imprisoned. The nature of his crime is not serious, and he manages to get out of the jail. He wanders a bit, and then remembers that he owns two houses, left to him by his deceased grandfather. This is the termination of Danny’s life as purely carefree. From here on out, his downfall will begin. As the weight of ownership sets upon him, he will change.

Rising Action

The smaller stories of which the novel is comprised serve as the meat of the Rising Action. More simply, Danny’s continued discomfort as a homeowner and his eventually disappearance are the Rising Action. In this time we see a side of Danny that was not apparent before. He becomes the most developed of all of the characters because he has a multidimensional character. In this time, he finds romance; he carouses with his friends; he has moments alone (he sleeps alone in his bed); he becomes depressed.


The Climax occurs when Danny becomes drunk and belligerent at the party. At this point his character has completely changed from the exposition. He is sullen, withdrawn, and now, quarrelsome among friends.

Falling Action

The falling action is Danny’s death (resulting from the Climax) and the subsequent funeral preparation. Danny’s death exposes the social constructs by which people are possessed. Steinbeck brilliantly portrays a human ritual, a funeral. In doing so, he can show how differently they friends behave, and how they are genuine. This juxtaposition develops the freedom in what is free theme, because they are able to celebrate Danny as true friends, free from the rules laid out by society.

Resolution (Denouement)

The Resolution of the novel, also called “Denouement,” is the burning of the house. The friends are sitting around and celebrating Danny’s life. They accidentally set newspapers on fire, and then do not put them out-causing the house to burn. It is appropriate that the house be burned because that was the sight of the Knights of the Round Table, who without Danny, are obsolete. This resolves the plot, because the men each return to their former lives, alone and among nature. This is essential for two reasons: 1) it proves that their motive for living together was love, not to have a free place to live; 2) the freedom in what is free overrides material possessions for this group.

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