Jewelers put diamonds and sapphires on velvet in order to display the jewels and make them look more impressive. In Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck is the jeweler and his characters are the diamonds. Steinbeck’s embellished tone toward his characters is a pretense to show off his characters and present them as more admirable and chivalric than their outward actions would honestly allow. His admiring tone towards his characters in Tortilla Flat contributes to the emphasis of “simple things” presented throughout the novel.
Each chapter in Tortilla Flat is a stand-alone narrative, and the title of each one humorously makes the reader assume that the characters are going to accomplish great feats, but really the characters do not do anything spectacular. For example, the chapter entitled “Of the Sadness of Danny. How Through Sacrifice Danny’s Friends Gave a Party. How Danny Was Translated. ” is about the characters throwing Danny a drunken party and how Danny dies by falling off a cliff.
There is nothing unusually spiritual or inspiring about Danny’s “translation”. He just dies. Steinbeck’s ploy lures readers into thinking that the characters are going to achieve great, impressive deeds, but really their actions are insignificant. “Mock-heroic ostensibly treats as if they were heroic individuals who, by virtue of their character and their class, everyone knows cannot be heroic. Now pastoral does virtually the same thing but in sentimental fashion… and for different purposes. (61 Stanley)
Steinbeck even compares his characters to Robin Hood – they steal and give to the needy – and to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Steinbeck presents his characters in this chivalric way in order to convince the reader that they are worthwhile characters who enjoy living the simple life. Primitivism, the valuing of uncivilized and backward cultures, is a prevalent motif throughout his novel; the characters and their actions are undoubtedly simple, but through his tone, they are glorified to give his character’s actions meaning beyond the explicit.
The characters get farther away from the traditional idea of what an honorable character is as they try to justify their immoral acts. They justify all of their crude behavior – their drinking, their lack of responsibility, and their stealing. However, the reader finds it hard to condemn them because of the affectionate and adoring tone that Steinbeck has towards them. His tone has the reader convinced that the characters are more naive than dangerous; more innocent than purposefully destructive.
Steinbeck puts on a pretense to make it seem like what the characters do is not really bad but is acceptable in their environment. Steinbeck “wished to ‘explore the strong but philosophical-moral systems’ of these paisanos. ” (59 Stanley) Steinbeck shows that cultural values are at a dissonance and that if we want to fully understand what motivates people than we need to evaluate their cultural ideals.
In the town of Tortilla Flat, Danny and his friends are not necessarily viewed as contributing members of the society by the other paisanos, but they are an indissoluble part of the community. The characters do what they do because they value the simple things in life. While Steinbeck ‘“does not hold ‘poor diet and filth as being ‘quaint or superior to more civilized forms of living’” (60 Stanley) he shows through his devoted tone that his characters are to be respected because they are content with living the simple life as valued by their culture.
In the end, Steinbeck’s story itself is a simple one, parodically exaggerated in analysis beyond its humorous and sympathetic portrayal of a culture close to the author’s heart. He sees the value of a culture in the armpit of society and does a masterful job of making it beautiful to outsiders. Steinbeck saw his paisanos as diamonds in the rough, and so he gave them a skillful cut and finish, and a setting and background to bring out their luster.
Courtney from Study Moose
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