Study Guide

Tortilla Flat Introduction

By John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat Introduction

Nope, it's not Taco Bell's latest attempt to create a diet-friendly dish; Tortilla Flat is the first commercially and critically successful novel that John Steinbeck wrote. (Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize… ever heard of him?) It saw the light of day in 1935, and it's still one of the beloved author's most beloved books.

(Spoiler alert!)

Tortilla Flat follows the adventures of a group of loveable but good-for-nothing friends as they roam around Monterey, California, avoiding work and looking for wine. Danny, their leader, is the guy who forms the center of the group from the time that he comes home from the war to the time of his death. It was made into a film just a few years later, in 1942, with superstars Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr.

The book was popular because of its vivid—but kind of kooky—characters, and because it portrayed the wandering groups of people looking for work that started to form as the United States sank deeper and deeper into the Great Depression. It's also been criticized for its portrayal of a certain race of people called paisanos, who can sometimes come across in the novel as cartoonish and not always true-to-life.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, just a few miles away from Monterey, and this area would be the backdrop for many of his other works, like East of Eden, Cannery Row, The Pastures of Heaven, The Red Pony, and To a God Unknown. Steinbeck did such a bang-up job bringing this area of California to life that people now call it "Steinbeck Country."

You don't have to be from Monterey, though, to get down with Steinbeck; he wrote stories that could appeal to everybody. So sit back, grab some tortilla chips, and read on.

What is Tortilla Flat About and Why Should I Care?

No job, no prospects, no home, no savings… we're talking about Danny's friends in Tortilla Flat, but we could just as well be talking about the Millennials, who are moving back in with their parents, searching for work, and trying to figure out what to do with their lives while everyone else kind of sits back and watches them flounder.

Steinbeck's novel tries not to judge Danny and his pals for their scamming and scheming. It looks on them in a loving, playful way. In real life, however, people who spend their days sitting on the porch like the paisanos are usually not treated so nicely (unless they are retired) .

So what's that got to do with you? Well, for one thing, if you were born between 1982 and 2000, we hate to tell you this, but the chances of your having a few hard knocks when it comes to the job search are kind of high. And it's not your fault: we're living in tough times, just like the folks during the Great Depression were.

Of course, we're not recommending that you spend your time figuring out ways to steal wine and picnic baskets, Yogi Bear-style, instead of looking for a job and a house and a life. We're just saying that Steinbeck's portrait of Danny's friends from way back when might be comforting. You're not alone, Millennials.

Tortilla Flat Resources


Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Steinbeck, but Were Afraid to Ask…
Visit the National Steinbeck Center for info on the author.

Big in Germany
A German band named itself after the novel Tortilla Flat. Wonder how you say that in German…


From the Guy Who Gave You Gone with the Wind
In 1942, just a few years after the novel was published, Tortilla Flat was made into a star-studded Hollywood movie.


DIY Interview
Even though the editors of the Paris Review never did get their hands on Steinbeck for an interview, they compiled his comments in one handy essay here.

Oh, Burn
So, Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature fair and square, but rumor has it the committee that gave the prize that year wasn't too happy with their choices.


Tortilla Flat, the Movie
Watch the trailer for Tortilla Flat, the movie.


Listen Up
Here's an audio version of the chapter where Danny and his pals help out Teresina.

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