In “Flight,” Steinbeck writes about a young boy and his initiation into manhood, but this time Steinbeck does not give us the leisurely developed, many-situation structured narratives that composed the stories inThe Red Pony.
In those stories, young Jody Tiflin learned the values of happiness and despair of adulthood because of his witnessing the deaths of two horses (which he passionately loved) and by his hearing the philosophies and wisdom of two old men (Jody's grandfather and a Mexican peasant). In the story "Flight," young Pepé Torres' manhood also depends on his dealing with death, but in this story, Steinbeck focuses upon the impending death of Pepé himself during a tense and harrowing chase. Briefly, Pepé Torres rides into Monterey, California, to do an errand for his mother. He is insulted and kills a man; as a result, he must flee for his life, and it is this flight that is the substance of the story.
Steinbeck begins his narrative much as he did in The Red Pony — that is, he carefully describes the setting first of all. Steinbeck is concerned that his readers can clearly view and understand the settings of his stories and novels. Thus, his characters become more vividly realistic because they reflect the values of their towns or farms or their regions. This, in turn, helps explain their actions and the motivations for the events that occur in the story.
Here, Steinbeck shows us the Torres' farm. He does not say, in a word, that the family is poor. He parallels their poverty with that of the land. They do not live on level ground, for example; their farm is situated on a few sloping acres above a cliff that drops sharply into the sea. They must eke out a living on a landscape that is threatening and uncivilized. In addition, the land is as dramatic as the story itself will become. Note, particularly, the lean and chiseled sentences into which Steinbeck inserts adjectives that enhance and create suspense within the reader even before the story itself unfolds. The ocean that is below the Torres' farm "hisses," and the farm buildings on the hillside "huddle" like "little clinging aphids." The Torres family, thus, is much like their farm buildings. Yet they are a unit and they "huddle" for protection from the elements and from the large white Anglo settlement that surrounds them in the towns and those who farm the rich fertile fields of the upper lands, far above the Torres. As Mexicans, and in particular as poor Mexicans, the Torres are like aphids to the white community because they are equated with pests, nuisances to the so-called civilized white community.
Furthermore, the Torres' farm buildings are described as being "crouched" low to the ground, and Steinbeck says that it seems as though they might blow into the sea. But they do not, and this fact is important, for although the Torres' house is described as a shack and the barn is "rattling" and "rotten," and although the buildings are "bitten" with sea salt and "beaten" by the winds that lash the stony hills, the Torres family and their farm survive because of their determination and their defiance.
It is partly because of this defiance that Pepé commits murder. He learned many years ago from his family that they must defy the poor soil and the weather and the lack of friends to survive. When Pepé is insulted by a man of the Anglo community, he defies this man who has never known or experienced poverty and the prejudice which has plagued the Torres family.
In Monterey, the Anglo community where Pepé must do an errand for his mother, he is considered merely another Mexican kid, a non-person whose life or death is unimportant. But to Pepé life is extremely important — especially today, for he rides into town alone and, for the first time, he feels like a man. He rides in to buy only medicine and salt, and his mother does not acknowledge that he is a man yet; but, to Pepé this journey is proof that he can be trusted to ride into town alone. This journey, in fact, is one of the few acts that Pepé has done which has been of importance to him.
Heretofore, his mother has taunted him for his laziness, joking that there must have been a lazy cow in his father's heritage or that a lazy coyote must have looked at her while she was carrying Pepé. Ironically, she calls his knife, one of his most prized possessions, a "toy-baby" and chides him for playing games with it. But to Pepé his knife is no toy; it is a part of himself.
In the Spanish culture, a young girl's fifteenth birthday is usually celebrated; her coming of age is given the most expensive celebration that the family can either afford to pay for or to borrow for the event; it is not so with the young men in the community. A young man must do something daring or brave in order to be called a man.
One of the key statements that Mama Torres makes is when she answers young Emilio's questions concerning Pepé. He asks his mother, "Did Pepé come to be a man today?" Her answer is that a boy "gets to be a man when a man is needed."
Pepé in a sense, is aware of this philosophy although we have not heard his mother discuss it with him. Today, though, a man is needed to ride to Monterey because there is no one else to go and because Pepé's father has been dead for ten years, and because he is the oldest boy, he assumes that his mission is of great importance. Later, he does, in fact, become a man because of the code of the Torres family. It was necessary for Pepé to kill a man who insulted him; those words were uttered by a man who called him "names ... I could not allow." We assume that a white man taunted him about his race, and that Pepé impulsively killed the man — partly because of his new-found pride in being needed to ride into town and partly because of his pride in himself, his family, and his heritage.
We are not wholly surprised to learn that Pepé impulsively killed the man; earlier in the story, Steinbeck alerted us to the fact that Pepé was quick with his knife. When he was practicing with it and playing with it to amuse Emilo and Rosy, Steinbeck described the knife as though it were almost alive, as though it were an extension of Pepé's hand. An Anglo might have slugged another Anglo because of an insult — but not Pepé. He used the extension of his arm — in this case, his knife. Earlier, too, Steinbeck described Pepé's knife as being "flicked like the head of a snake." It is a deadly weapon and the only weapon that Pepé can use within the white community to defend himself. From his small farm, he rode away and entered into another world, a world whose values were more complicated than his, and it was a world for which Pepé was unprepared. But because Pepé violated the code of the larger world because of his own code, he had to escape. It will be an escape into a world, however, of no order; from his highly defined code of conduct, and from that of the white man's code of Monterey, Pepé will enter primitive hills, but even these hills he will challenge, proving his manhood as he struggles against forces he cannot control and does not understand.
Steinbeck develops this story with classic simplicity, dividing it into three sections. In the first section, the emphasis is upon the simple, poor, but deeply loving family in which Pepé was reared. The section emphasizes, furthermore, Pepé's immaturity and simplicity. Pepé's days are spent, for the most part, playing with the knife he inherited from his father. As pointed out earlier, the emphasis here is on Pepé's adroit handling of the knife; this foreshadows his using it as a fatal weapon. Also, Pepé's desire to wear his father's hat and green scarf also characterize his simple nature as he "plays" at being a man.
The first section moves quickly from Pepé's innocence into the focus of the second section: Pepé's manhood. When Pepé returns from Monterey, his face has changed. He has lost that "fragile quality ... there was no laughter in his eyes any more." Now Pepé must accept his role in the world, and he must leave his sanctuary of simple values.
The third section presents Pepé's (or man's) struggle with life and death. By introducing this concept into the story, Steinbeck creates a story that is far more than that of a mere "pursuer-and-pursued" story; he uses the story to comprise a concept of man's constant struggle against opposing forces. Pepé enters into his flight prepared for his struggle, but gradually he is divested of all vestments of even his simple world and is rendered, finally, into, seemingly, a mere animal.
Steinbeck's ultimate idea, perhaps, concerns man's constant struggle against the hostile forces which surround him. We live in a hostile world where we are constantly confronted by vicious forces that try to destroy man. Pepé in passing from innocence to manhood, comes into contact with these forces and we, the readers, are keenly made aware that a knowledge of manhood is equivalent to a knowledge of the hostile forces which work toward man's destruction.
As we investigate Steinbeck's story more thoroughly, we realize more fully how Pepé's plight is so often our own and, yet, how Steinbeck's story is not visibly allegorized, but how masterfully he controls his tale within the context of the poor Mexican family and its struggle to survive. As in the stories that encompass The Red Pony, the violence of "Flight" begins, ironically, on a sunny day. The daily life of the Torres family is described after Pepé leaves for Monterey. His mother grinds corn and pats out tortillas for her family, while the young children beat abalones to make them tender. That night, Mama Torres is at peace, thinking that her oldest son is having good food in Monterey. But before the beds for the children are described, the make-shift beds of straw and sheepskins, and before Emilo and Mama discuss Pepé's becoming a man, note that Steinbeck told us that the red sun of the evening "plunged" into the ocean, an image of violence precluding the evening peace of the Torres family.
When Pepé returns home, it is dawn, and it is the dawn of what will be his test of his self-defined manhood. The mountain tops are misty with light; Pepé's hopes for escape are also misty, not clear, and certainly not as sunny as was the morning just one day earlier. Now, Steinbeck emphasizes the code by which Pepé felt compelled to kill by emphasizing Pepé's Spanish heritage. His mother addresses him as "thou," and the appellation is startling, but it is simply a literal rendering of the intimate form of "you." It is a word form that is used, particularly by Pepé's mother, with her children. But Pepé is no longer a child. He has done a deed of a man and he committed this deed because it was part of a code of his people. Yet his mother is slow to realize that the boy whom she sent over the rim of the mountains to Monterey is no longer a child. If he has wine; if that is the reason for his talking so strangely, then he should go to bed. It is only when she lights a candle that she fully realizes how Pepé has changed. No longer does he seem fragile and no longer is there laughter in his eyes. Nor does he seem the lazy "peanut," or the "big sheep," or the "foolish chicken." Now he is sharply purposeful and responsible. His account of the knife fight is brief; his mother hears, understands, and prepares him for his flight. Pepé knows that he is, at last, a man, and his mother and brother and sister know this fact and the seriousness of his commencement into manhood.
The preparation for Pepé's flight is quickly accomplished, as is Steinbeck's prose as he readies us for Pepé's leaving his family. The family, at this time, reacts as a unit; no motion is wasted: water bags, blankets, and beef jerky — all are packed and are ready within minutes. The family understands the importance of Pepé's departure and, finally, and, most important, Pepé takes his father's hat. He is also given his father's rifle. There is no time for ceremony, only the rapid caution and swift preparation for Pepé's journey. Note, here, how Mama Torres teaches the children her code of values. She says that Pepé is a man and that he has a man's thing to do — that is, survive, by his wits and with luck.
Earlier, when Mama Torres was confident that Pepé was safe in Monterey, she was unaware that the sun had "plunged" into the sea; now, as Pepé leaves her, in flight for his life, Steinbeck tells us that the white moon has nearly disappeared into the sea. All this has happened — a death has occurred, a young Mexican's life is in peril, and Steinbeck is showing us that, as the world turns in a single revolution, that we must be conscious of its everlasting revolving as we struggle, individually, or as a family, to survive within our small confines on this vast planet.
As Mama Torres' words to Emilio were significant about the definition of a man, so she gives her last words to Pepé words which are of deep value to Pepé and to the meaning of this story. She tells him not to be "caught like a chicken" — that is, he must die like a man. She, we feel, has little hope for her son, but she is demanding in her own gentle way. Her son's manhood is most important to her, to him, and to his dead father's memory. Soon he will be tested and if he must die, he must die like a man. And Pepé answers, with conviction and compassion: "I am a man."
Pepé leaves his home, as the title of this story suggests, upward. He follows a little trail through the mountains. We are never told where Pepé hopes to find safety. Surely he himself does not know; perhaps that is why Steinbeck entitled his story with a single word, connoting a soaring above whatever is threatening, with no destination ahead. The emphasis is on the flight itself, with no goal other than survival.
Pepé's "flight" began on horseback; he escaped his humdrum life on the ranch, proud of his being entrusted to bring home medicine; instead, he brought home to his mother a man. Now he must prove to himself that he is worthy of his manhood. Yet, as he rides away from his home, his body is struck by two lights — the last rays of the night and the new day's lights, warring rays akin to the divergent codes which were responsible for his murdering the insulting white man. Then, as Pepé leaves his familiar home and the entrenched values within his culture, he loses even the symbolic coloring of Steinbeck's dramatic narrative. He becomes a "grey, indefinite shadow." Pepé is now entering a region unknown to him, a mountainous world that he chooses because of a blind necessity to flee from the white man's justice. And while Pepé begins his deep journey into the mountains, his mother begins her formal wail, then a whine, then a moan. She does not pray. She repeats this ritual three times — death-like in its absoluteness, then goes inside the house and shuts the door. From now on, Steinbeck will focus on Pepé and his torturous flight.
Pepé is scared. Steinbeck does not tell us, but he says, Pepé looked back," noting that Pepé looked suspiciously, and that Pepé's face is now "relentless and manly." And while Pepé allows his horse to guide its way through the mountains, Steinbeck describes the trail as being cleft-like, as eroding, and made of broken granite. Whistling above, soars a red-tailed hawk. The scene is ominous, especially as the sun descends, and Pepé sees a rider, a dark rider who disappears as quickly as he appears.
The story turns dramatically when Pepé stops for the night, ties his horse and reaches for his knife. It is gone. The valley darkens; Pepé is threatened by a bobcat who disappears, but at last the boy sleeps. The night is not easy; it is interrupted by the sounds of the wind sweeping and "rustling" down from the peaks, the coyotes looking for prey, and the owls looking for mice and rabbits.
Like prey himself, Pepé is being hunted and it is only after his horse whinnies and jumps to its feet, that Pepé is again reminded that he is being hunted and it is only after his hand rises up to his horse's head to reassure him, that he realizes that his father's hat is gone. Slowly, as he traverses the steep slopes, we will see him slowly lose more important and symbolic segments of his manhood.
The path which Pepé takes is unknown to him; as far as we know, he is not a curious boy. Despite the fact that these mountains have been a part of his heritage and his home for years, this is the first time that he has ridden a horse among its redwoods and fern covered underbrush. As he travels farther within these mountains, Steinbeck tells us that the "sun was lost," a phrase that suggests that Pepé's path is perilous.
When Pepé eats, he does so sparingly, as his mother has taught him, but his fatigue is evident. Steinbeck says that Pepé sits "half-over" in his saddle, his leg dangling loosely. He rides with his horse guiding the way as he succumbs to the rhythm of the hooves on the trail. Steinbeck then describes more fully the upward trail which Pepé's horse takes-toward no goal; the two are simply in flight.
Steinbeck pauses here, emphasizing the disappearance of the stream, then the trees, and, finally, even the sage is gone. Pepé is going ever higher, until even the earth changes color; now, only lizards and bizarre-edged mountains tops are before him. But he continues, upward.
Steinbeck stresses Pepé's isolation by noting that the small, grey rabbits skitter past him and that the birds make a "monotonous high creaking sound" and that the mountain tops are "pale and powder dry." Pepé is alien to these desert-like elements in the same way that he was alien to the social and legal code of Monterey. Yet he continues upward, in his flight, seeing occasionally what Steinbeck describes as a "black rider." We do not know who these men are, nor will we at the story's end. We know only about Pepé's sighting them, knowing that they exist and that one must never "show interest in them."
At dawn, Pepé's horse "struggles" forward; the ridge above them is "snaggled," and it is also "rotten" and "eaten by the winds of time." Pepé's trousers are ripped, he notices — and then his horse is shot! It thrashes below him, and then another shot-aimed at Pepé-causes him to fling himself behind a bush.
After a few moments, Pepé peers out and, here, note the words which Steinbeck uses to describe Pepé's movements: "he moved with the instinctive care of an animal"; he "wormed his way toward …"; and he "wriggled forward on his stomach …" Slowly, Pepé is becoming a hunted man, but he is cowering and protecting himself not as a man but as an animal.
While buzzards hover above, note how uneasy Pepé becomes; he fires his rifle at a slight movement in the chaparral — an act he should not have done for he is shot at immediately — and, still, he does not know who pursues him. When he is wounded, like an animal, Pepé tends to himself in the way that an animal might — that is, he applies the soft webs of another animal, a spider. And, afterward, he continues on his way — to where, Steinbeck never tells us — and as he moves, he "crawls." Three times, Steinbeck describes his moving forward as "crawling." Slowly, Pepé is losing his sense of his manhood; he is surviving as he has seen animals survive. A man survives by his courage and daring; an animal survives with cunning and craftiness.
When the sun is high, Pepé "crawls" for cover under a mountain peak; yet he is far from his indefinite goal because he fails to perceive what it is that he searches for. Animal-like, his lips and tongue grow thick and heavy. His saliva writhes, and his eyes begin to become uneasy and suspicious. He sleeps, often crawling blindly farther, but always he "wriggles" to the safety of a bit of shade.
At sundown, Pepé's hand is swollen, his tongue is full, yet he must struggle farther, and he must struggle even harder through thick brush — ever upwards — and although he continues to reach ridge after ridge, he sees before him yet another mountain.
At last, he falls and tumbles down a hill. No longer can he act like a man. He scoops a handful of mud into his hands and sucks it for its moisture. His manhood has been tested. He hears human sounds; his arm is swelling, and his armpit throbs. He knows that he is doomed. He tries to relieve the green and black swelling along his arm and whines "like a dog" as he scrapes a stone along the length of his wound.
When Pepé reaches the last slope of the mountains, he looks no longer like a man. His coarse black hair is littered with twigs and bits of spider webs. His eyes have retreated back into his head and his tongue has begun to protrude between his lips.
A bird circles above him, but he does not notice it; there are matters more important. He knows that he is dying, but that he will not die like a hunted animal. After crossing himself, as his mother has taught him to do, he stands forward — and welcomes — the shots that cut through his body. He has challenged and scorned those who would hunt him. He has proven himself a man. He has not been "caught like a chicken." He entered his flight, at first, with a sense of daring, viewing his flight as an adventure. He relished his freedom, the lovely streams and the colorful berries and bushes. All of these seemed to mean that life was good, especially since he had his horse, some food, his rifle, his knife, and some water. Then, suddenly, he encountered "dark riders" and, once again, he was reminded of the dangers of life. With this realization, the trail became harsher, more steep and more difficult, more desolate and isolated. Gradually, he began to lose the raiments of his civilization. He lost his knife, then his horse was killed. On foot, he was forced to crawl like an animal. When he was wounded, he cared for his wound in the primitive manner of a savage or an animal. When he became sick, he dropped his coat, forgot his rifle, and discovered that he was unable to speak. He was then reliant upon instinctive powers, powers that had been weakened during his flight. He was rendered naked against the elements and the relentless pursuit of the posse and the dark riders.
Pepé, however, dies like a man. He refuses to be killed like a cowering animal. He raises his weakened body upward and he makes a man kill another man. As he falls and the earth covers him, as it might an insignificant animal, Pepé, knows that he died well, with all the courage and the convictions of his race and of himself.