Alcoholism in Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Alcoholism has been the problem for almost any society due to individuals that consume it in inadequately large amounts. These people’s behavior leads to the development of a grave social problem because alcohol addiction significantly affects their lives. In the modern world, people tend to connect alcohol consumption with health problems, but it also affects other aspects of life of an alcoholic such as intellectual development, socialization, and criminal behavior. As a result, people tend to stigmatize alcoholics and use them as a negative example of morally weak individuals who suffer from addiction and harm the surrounding community. The novel
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck explores these topics presenting a life of a small community of assimilated immigrants, some of which suffer from alcoholism. Depicting the life of a representative of one of the social minorities, the author expresses his visions of a destructive force of alcoholism. The story of Danny, his friends and community could have been drastically different and free of ridiculous and sorrowful episodes if they refused from alcohol consumption.
The most important things are usually told in a ridiculous form. Although Tortilla Flat possesses a serious message, the author speaks of the ludicrous heroism of his characters throughout the literary work. From the first page of the novel, Steinbeck mocks the epic tradition using sentimental dialogs, a lyrical tone, symbolism, and ironic characterization. In this respect, Tortilla Flat can be defined as a thought-provoking and thrilling novel that depicts a story of paisanos who live in the two houses belonging to one of them. Furthermore, the writer portrays his characters as usually drinking and dawdling people, who engage in different affairs and quests. While the story takes place after the end of the Great War, the specific attention is drawn to the drunken patriotism. In the novel, characters enjoy drinking wine, which eventually causes them to be involved in certain problems. Therefore, Steinbeck’s humorous approach to alcoholism conveys the message of the spiritual degradation of his characters, who drink wine to ease the pain of life.
The story of Tortilla Flat is set in Monterey, California where lives a specific community of mixed-race individuals that resemble Mexican immigrants or Latin Americans. They have a mixture of Caucasian, Spanish, Indian, Mexican and other bloods but recognize themselves as being of purely Spanish blood, call themselves “paisanos” and speak a mixture of Spanish and English, the paisano accent (Steinbeck). Their description by the author resembles a mockery due to the ironic portrayal of their language, customs, and behavior. For instance, in the preface, he compares their presence in California with the Ancient Britons embattled in Wales, living in old wooden houses, and surrounded by pine trees, grass and various kinds of bushes (Steinbeck).
The image of paisanos contrasts with the image of the American culture because they represent a social minority of mainly unemployed individuals stuck in the past. Moreover, there is one critical factor, namely wine, that serves as a catalyst in the novel and inevitably leads to its consumption by paisanos, thereby causing alcoholism. The inhabitants of Tortilla Flat seem to consume and produce alcohol of various types in large quantities because its protagonists buy, steal or share with each other different drinks. Sometimes, their behavior is ridiculous, as in the case with one of the men Pablo Sanchez who was going to steal a goose but failed because the goose bit him to scream (Steinbeck). Moreover, he was incarcerated but released on parole because, as he said, “The judge said the sentence did me no good, and the police said I ate more than the allowance for three men” (Steinbeck). The cases similar to this one occur quite often, and the author’s irony makes the protagonists more appealing to the reader than they are. Therefore, Tortilla Flat ironically depicts the destructive power of alcohol, which dooms the life of a small community to endless decay and degradation.
The protagonist of the story is a paisano man aged about thirty named Danny, who used to drink wine and sleep on the streets surrounded by his friends that shared a similar lifestyle. The author compares them to the knights of King Arthur or the brotherhood of Robin Hood mainly focusing on the spirit of joy and union that made them “one thing” (Steinbeck). However, instead of any brotherhood or knight code, their intentions and the way of life were united by wine, making them a union of alcoholics. The life of Danny full of street adventures suddenly met an obstacle, namely the two houses he inherited after his rich and reputable grandfather died. For any adequate person, such property could have been a great luck, but Danny accepted it as a heavy burden as soon as he recollected this fact after a drinking bout. The author highlights this idea, “No more in life would that face be free of care. No more would Danny break windows now that he had windows of his own to break” (Steinbeck).
Throughout the novel, this idea returns to Danny many times, making him missing the old days when he slept anywhere he could and could drink as much as his body allowed. His numerous friends, with the two main ones Pilon and Pablo, respect his memories but do not refuse to rent his house. From time to time, they think about paying rent to Danny, although they had never had the required sum of money except when serving in the army (Steinbeck). Hoping to obtain rent for Danny from his friend Pablo, Pilon decides to rent him the house; however, Pablo is only another local alcoholic without money. Gradually, the tendency of renting the rented house to friends progresses until they all represent a community of marginalized individuals, creating a mess in the neighborhood and being a kind of a local evil. Although Danny’s story is delivered with irony, it has a sad final because he dies during one of numerous drinking bouts, and his friends burn his house to the ground. No one attempts to cease the fire, but everyone is observing as it catches a wooden house with a smile because “this symbol of holy friendship” has to die with Danny (Steinbeck). Therefore, in a joyful manner, John Steinbeck depicts a story of the rise and fall of an alcoholic community, implicating a deep moral context behind jokes and metaphors.
Morale of the Novel
Although the author presents Danny’s life in a joyful manner, he demonstrates the destructive force of alcoholism, which leads an authentic community to dismay. The first issue connected with alcohol in the novel is that the inhabitants of Tortilla Flat cannot control themselves when the possibility of having a drink emerges in their mind. For example, after renting Danny’s house, his friend Pilon manages to find a job, get a payment of two dollars and even thinks about paying a part of the rent. However, on the way to Danny, he buys two gallons of wine willing to demonstrate “how warmly” he feels towards his friend, meets another friend Pablo, and drinks all the wine with him (Steinbeck). Thus, the question of absence of money is present all the time in the novel when talking about any Danny’s friend and Danny himself as well. This absence of finances depresses them, but they quickly find consolation in alcohol, forgetting their problems, duties and the norms of adequate behavior.
One of the outcomes of being poor alcoholics presented in the novel is that they steal food, different products, and domestic animals and consume or trade them for wine. As a result, the book is full of episodes such as with Pablo being imprisoned for the attempt of stealing a goose, Pilon killing someone’s rooster for dinner, and others (Steinbeck). Another aspect of the novel is that it demonstrates that alcohol ruins adequate human relationship and behavior. For instance, it is an ordinary case for paisano alcoholics to sleep on the street or be imprisoned for disrespectful behavior when being drunk or forget the place where they live. Moreover, although all of them are friends, they feel free to cheat each other, argue over money and severely punish each other. In one of such fights with Danny, Pilon, and the two girls, “Danny lost a tooth, and Pilon had his shirt torn off,” and one of the girls was hit in the stomach (Steinbeck). Similarly, the sense of friendship among the three individuals is lost when Danny asks Pilon and Pablo to pay at least some part of the rent. Immediately, Pilon rises with anger and cries about unjust Danny’s decision calling him “miser” and “Jew” (Steinbeck). He uses this trick hoping that Danny would forget about this fact or feel uncomfortable and never ask this question again. Constantly, in the novel, alcohol kills human conscience and leads people to decisions and actions that cause spiritual and physical self-destruction, thereby harming others.
The end of the book is also the end for Danny and the story of his house and numerous alcoholic friends. One night, when the whole house celebrates an opportunity to become a firm and earn money, Danny is deeply depressed by the absence of a sense of his living. Although the friends are talking about money, wine and girls, there is no consolation to him. Danny drinks too much wine, gets enraged, goes to search for an opponent to fight and falls into a gulch getting fatal injuries. If there was no alcohol in his life and the lives of his friends, he would have been a prosperous man that lives in one of the houses and gets rent for the other one. Probably, he would have had a respectable job, a wife, and children, and his death would have been not that miserable. However, it was alcohol that spread its destructive force around Tortilla Flat, demonstrating drastic outcomes of its uncontrolled consumption.
While the plot of the story unfolds during the Great Depression, the time when people’s hopes for bright future have been paltry, each of the paisanos deals with their depression in a similar way. In this respect, Steinbeck’s both romantic and ironic characterization has a specific role in the novel. Throughout the literary work, all the characters are confronted with drinking habits. Enjoying their life to the fullest, Danny, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pirate, and Big Joe Portagee do not notice that they transform into social outsiders. For example, the main character, Danny, who is the owner of the house where all friends live, lacks responsibility and cold sense. He constantly drinks wine, disappears from the home, or goes on a crime, which witnesses the character’s foolish behavior. At the same time, Danny’s friend, Pilon, is an idealist, who attempts to pay the rent for Danny; but he always fails. Even when Pilon has money to give to his friend, he chooses to buy wine; and instead of returning home, he visits an old friend. According to Steinbeck, “It is just as well that we do not take two gallons of wine to Danny,” said Pilon. “He is a man who knows little restraint in drinking” (4). The specific moral message behind Steinbeck’s satire can be observed in this particular quote (Tavernier-Courbin 51). This pseudo awareness of the dangers of alcoholism is quite ironical because none of the friends know anything about restraint in drinking. Hence, Pilon was searching for an excuse for his behavior. Therefore, drinking obscures characters’ minds and forces them to act recklessly.
Furthermore, Steinbeck uses a specific tone to convey the atmosphere of drunkenness. The author’s portrayal of wine jugs can be regarded as an entire science of alcohol consuming. Thus, the writer compares wine bottles to graduated flasks used in chemistry, “Spiritually the jugs may be graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves” (Steinbeck 40). To measure thoughts and feelings of the characters, the author applies the amount of alcohol they drink. Steinbeck argues that every human emotion can be read according to how much wine has been consumed. To convey the specific idea of gradation, the writer applies a lyrical and sentimental tone. While Danny and the company constantly drink alcohol, it is no surprise that they are usually in depression. According to Steinbeck, “Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing” (40). Thus, to portray the dark side of addiction, the writer employs a sentimental tone to depict the vicious state of drunkenness.
At the same time, the author makes an allusion to the times of King Arthur and his knights at the Round Table. To be precise, Steinbeck’s characters themselves symbolize the knights who are bonded together as well as dependent on each other (Gladstein 82). Sharing the same dwelling, Danny and the company share the same habit – consuming wine. Furthermore, while the knights are a personification of courage and bravery, Danny and his friends are also depicted in a humorous way as great patriots. To fight an enemy or sign up for the army, the characters get drunk, “As the wine went down in the bottles, patriotism arose in the three men” (Steinbeck 8). Their courage rises under the influence of alcohol, and eventually, it can be hardly called a courageous decision to join the armed forces. Moreover, alcohol-fueled actions do not lead to any good consequences. On the contrary, constant wine consuming causes men to become engaged in different unpleasant events.
Ultimately, the troubled lifestyle of Steinbeck’s characters leads to the tragic death of the protagonist, Danny, as he leaves his home in search of drunken adventures. One of the friends, Pilon, claims, “I know what you mean. And there are plenty of people who die through abuse of wine” (Steinbeck 87). Although Pilon comically attempts to justify himself for keeping the wine, his words can be regarded as a foreshadowing of tragic consequences. Furthermore, when the friends were partying together, they attempted to cheer Danny and bring him back from depression. In this respect, alcohol is equated with celebration and fun, “I gave Danny the last of the wine, and it did him good. What Danny needs is lots of wine, and maybe a party” (Steinbeck 166). Instead of saving their friend, the men actually push him to the tragic ending. Although they realize that Danny is in depression, the only cure they know is alcohol and a party. Thus, drinking can be regarded as a symbol of escape from social problems and reality.
Moreover, the author uses an ironic tone to describe the sadness of the protagonist’s funeral. Although the paisanos cannot attend, the day of Danny’s funeral is very important to them. The friends do not go to farewell because of poor clothes that would be a dishonor to their friend’s memory. The irony is that they remind homeless social outsiders because of the constant drinking. If the characters had not been addicted to wine, they would have attended the funeral of their close friend. Nevertheless, the company found a specific way to commemorate Danny. Drinking alcohol and singing songs, the friends say goodbye to Daddy in their characteristic tradition. According to Steinbeck, “Danny liked wine,” they said. “Danny was happy when he had a little wine” (186). Thus, even in such a tragic moment, the comrades speak of alcohol. At the same time, the author’s lyrical ‘translation’ from the Spanish adds certain sensuality and poetics to the novel. Steinbeck uses such tone to convey his sympathy for people he depicts and compassion for the drinking choices they make (Gladstein 81). Thereby, the writer concerns for the sufferings and misfortunes of his characters with the help of the tone.
At the same time, when Danny dies, the house where he has lived with his comrades is accidentally burned. In this respect, the burning of the house can be observed as a symbol of purity. While fire has been regarded as an element of clearance, it is not strange that the author has applied this image to portray Danny’s transition to the hereafter. Furthermore, the burning of the house together with the funeral of the main character symbolizes the end of an inseparable bond the friends have had. Thus, the writer presents the destruction of the place where Danny and the company lived to claim that there is a period in people’s life when they need to separate and move on. At the same time, the fire destroys the place where the friends gathered and drank. Hence, the characters do not have an opportunity to consume alcohol, which will force them either to find a new location for their abusive habit or review their life purposes. Additionally, the characters’ bond is also burnt, and they have to depart alone. Thereby, the author allows the readers to ponder on the fate of Danny’s friends after his death.
Tortilla Flat is an ironic but sad novel of the lives of people, who have charisma and life opportunities, but destroy them with their hands by abusing alcohol. Danny and his friends are charismatic and creative individuals, which is evidenced by their solutions to the financial problems. However, their uncontrolled consumption of wine leads to the loss of their human nature and almost transforms them into animals as they have no self-respect, job, or stable positive relationship. Although the book Tortilla Flat is full of jokes and irony, John Steinbeck clearly depicts that alcoholism leads to spiritual and human destruction. Therefore, people should not consume alcohol if they want to have a life full of natural pleasures, opportunities, and positive relationship.
Tortilla Flat is an informative novel that possesses a significant moral message. While Steinbeck’s characters constantly drink wine, they can be regarded as social outcasts who lack responsibility for their lives. Thus, the author uses characterization to depict each of the paisanos as typical drunkards who do not fight against their abusive habit, but they fight against depression and social problems by consuming alcohol. Using both lyrical and ironic tone, the writer conveys the atmosphere of drunkenness that attracts every character. At the same time, Steinbeck applies allusion to the times of King Arthur and his knights and such symbols as fire and the burning house to show the characters’ tight connection and final purification of the dark tradition. In this respect, Steinbeck uses humor, irony, and satire to portray alcoholism as a destroying habit that causes a person’s degradation. In spite of the struggle against social challenges, the characters drink wine to ease life problems. Thereby, Steinbeck’s moral message is a warning about the destructive power of alcohol that eventually leads to poor consequences.