The story takes place six or seven months after Jody's horse, Gabilan, has died; it is now midsummer. Unlike "The Gift," in "The Great Mountains," the focus here will be not on a lingering, agonizing death of something which is deeply loved; instead, it will concern the approaching death of a very old man, a stranger, who suddenly appears at the Tiflin ranch. And, when the story is finished, Jody will be profoundly shaken by the old man's presence and his disappearance.
Jody is listless and bored as the story begins. School is out, he has no close friends who live nearby to play with, he has no brothers and sisters, and his parents and Billy Buck are busy. His boredom will, thus, at first, tempt him to be violent and he will try to banish his restlessness with physical activity. Steinbeck starkly describes Jody's careless, yet deliberate, cruelty as the young boy willfully destroys several small swallows' nests, and his deliberately baiting a rat trap with stale cheese, knowing full well that his good-natured dog Doubletree Mutt will sniff out the trap before a rat has a chance to nibble at the cheese. We assume that Jody has a history of tormenting the dog, for Mrs. Tiflin knows immediately when she hears a yelp what her son has done. But Jody feels especially defiant today and tries, although without luck, to hit Mutt with a rock. Thoroughly defeated, he decides to kill a bird with his slingshot and, here, notice that Steinbeck tells us that the boy has never before been successful. This time, however, Jody is determined that he will kill and "for the first time that afternoon, he was intent." And he does kill his first thrush, but he does not feel triumphant afterward. There is only a small pain in his stomach as he, ritual-like, cuts off the bird's head, disembowels it, cuts off its wings, and then throws it into the brush. Steinbeck carefully orchestrates the violence that Jody creates because of his boredom as a vivid contrast to what will be born out of his boredom immediately following the violence. After detailing for us the dirty linings of the ruined swallows' nests, the blood on Mutt's nose, and Jody's cutting the thrush into pieces, Steinbeck shows us a calmer version of Jody, one who goes immediately to the spring-pipe to refresh his thirst, to cleanse his thoughts, and also to cleanse blood from his hands.
Afterwards, lying on the grass and closing one eye, Jody — as Steinbeck puts it — "destroys perspective." He allows himself to absorb the hypnotic, persuasive mystery of the summer afternoon and the clouds overhead, "stroking them," pushing them gently forward, and helping them to clear the mountain rims. He sees the great mountains to the west of the Tiflin ranch piling up, becoming ever darker and more savage within their core and having, at their crest, one jagged ridge. They have always been curious, secret mountains to Jody. He has talked to his father about them but to Carl Tiflin they are just mountains — rocks, cliffs, and greasewood — nothing else. To Jody's mother, they are just there, worthy of no more than a casual joke. When Jody once asked Billy Buck about the great mountains, Billy Buck did not share the young boy's interest in lost, ancient cities still hidden there. The cow-hand doubts Jody's fantasies and, like Jody's mother, dismisses the boy's questions humorously. But the fact that his father and his mother and Billy Buck view the mountains in a dull, prosaic manner creates within Jody a sense of his being like the mountains — as being different. He feels different because he perceives instinctively that there is a secret meaning to be found in these omnipresent, harsh mountains — these mountains which are so vastly different from the gentle, jolly Gabilan mountains to the east of the ranch.
There exists a duality, then, between the great mountains and the Gabilans, just as there exists a duality within the great mountains themselves. In the latter, they are both "dear" to Jody and also "terrible" to him. At dawn, the peaks of the great mountains are pink; in the evenings, they become dark, "purple-like with despair."
Their mystery is antithetical to the Gabilans. Despite "Gabilan" meaning, ironically, "hawk," people live and have lived in the mountains and they have fought battles there. Between these two opposing ranges of mountains, in a foothill cup, lies the Tiflin ranch, "sunny and safe." Particularly today, it seems to Jody that it is pastorally safe as he sees light streaming from the clean white house, the warm brown barn, and as he gazes on the languid, grazing cows. Even the dark cypress tree seems "usual and safe."
This, however, is only Steinbeck's prelude to something unforeseen which breaks the "safe" spell of certainty that pervades the Tiflin clan. There will be no violence as there was in "The Gift"; now only a presence, unexplained, will cause the Tiflins concern and leave Jody a changed boy.
The presence will be that of an old Mexican man, a peasant type who says that he has come home to the mountains to die. The appearance of this stranger affects Jody greatly. The appearance of any stranger is unusual, but there seems to be a special mystery surrounding this old man's sudden appearance and his explanation of why he has come to the Tiflin ranch. In addition, the isolation of the farm, the tedium of life there, and Jody's recent musing about the great mountains make this a momentous event. Literarily, the old man is a universal type of figure who can be found in all of world literature; he is the wandering Jew of legends, the symbol of Old Father Death, and also the eternal wanderer.
Jody's immediate reaction is confusion, embarrassment, excitement, and helplessness in the face of an actual mystery. Before, he had only been toying and dreaming of the mysterious; now the mystery is immediate and present before him. There is a sense of unreality to the old man's chant-like phrases; his words are flat and blunt: "I am Gitano and I have come back." He is returning, ritual-like, to the place of his birth and that of his father. Fittingly, he points toward the west, long a symbol of death's domain.
When Billy Buck and Carl Tiflin arrive to view the old Mexican, the paisano is resting, and you should note Steinbeck's description of the old man: "his whole body had sagged into a timeless repose." The old man's body and soul are readying themselves for a time without time. As readers, we have seldom seen anyone on the Tiflin ranch in "timeless repose." Carl is always at work; time is valuable for him. Billy Buck is always busy; in "The Gift," when he lays down the horse brush and the currycomb before he goes up to breakfast, Steinbeck says that his action was deliberate and "wasteless of time." Mrs. Tiflin is continually described as preparing meals, cleaning food, or washing dishes; even the dogs are described as often lowering their noses to the ground in a "businesslike way." As for Jody, either his body or his mind is always in motion. We have seen that boredom never eases him into "timeless repose." Boredom causes him to kill, and to dream, but even in dreaming, his hands and arms "push" the clouds forward and his imagination enlarges as he tries to comprehend and encompass the mystery of the great mountains. Now, into the midst of this time-oriented cluster of people has come a stranger, someone who no longer measures time. Living, for him, is not nearly as important now as is his preparing for dying.
One often does not know what to do with strangers, especially old strangers — the women collecting at the door for various charities or the pamphlet-carrying evangelists — for we have, besides embarrassment, a guilt if we do not aid them in a small way before sending them away. This awe in the presence of a stranger is archetypal; even the Greeks recognized the perplexity of the emotions when dealing with such a situation. Their solution was simple, however: just in case the stranger might be a god in disguise, be courteous, feed him and bed him, and then send him on his way. Carl Tiflin, however, has no illusions about the old man's being a god. On the contrary, at the Tiflin ranch, Carl is the god, as it were. He makes the rules and wields the rod. Now, in the presence of his wife, son, and cow-hand, he must reveal a weakness that he does not like displayed to his family or to himself. He stated emphatically "we can't have him," but the old Mexican's stoic statements eroded even Carl's demand that "you won't stay." Then Carl's arguments slowly crumbled as he tried to reason with the old man. Steinbeck tells us that Carl didn't like to be cruel, but that he felt he must. He is attempting to preserve the status quo of his day-to-day living. Food is raised and eaten and sold for the sake of the Tiflins — and this includes no strange beggar. But, face-to-face with the pathetic, enigmatic man, Carl retreats from his position of absolute authoritarianism. Food and a bed for the night — then the old man must go.
The basic plot of the story is a universal type of situation. For example, the American poet Robert Frost wrote a very popular poem called "The Death of the Hired Man," centered around a man who has come home to die on a farm very close to where he has blood relations; in Frost's poem, the farmer is harsh about feeding a useless old man, while the wife is much more sympathetic. In Steinbeck's story, old Gitano has also come home to die. Gitano's desire to return to be near the mountains, to become again a part of the land where he was born, to re-emerge with nature at his death, and to find acceptance before his death creates within the reader an instant sympathy for the old paisano. Carl Tiflin's inability to accept the old man, then, becomes the symbolic plight of many old people whom society casts off.
If possible, Carl would perhaps keep the paisano, but he knows that the ranch will not support another person, and his realism cannot justify keeping a person who has relatives in the nearby town. He is particularly incapable of understanding the mystical reasons why a person would return to the place of his birth in order to die there. Thus, to disguise his harshness and confusion, he tries to make jokes about the old man and the old horse, Easter. He eventually does the very thing he feared most: He "was afraid he might relent and let the old man stay." He does and thus the suspense begins.
We are prepared for Jody's passionate eagerness to ask Gitano about the big mountains; only moments before, Jody was enthralled by the deep mystery pervading them and now here is Gitano, almost an emblem of the mountains himself because he is old and full of awesomeness. Gitano's memories of going beyond the foothills of the great mountains are sparse; only once when he was a boy did he go into the mountains; he remembers little — only that it was "quiet" and "nice" there, and his small soft smile indicates to Jody that there is truth in what he says. This is what Jody has wanted to hear.
The old Tiflin horse Easter appears while Gitano and Jody are watching the stock come in from the fields and Steinbeck remarks that Carl Tiflin is again brutal to Gitano. Steinbeck repeats for us Carl's suppressed anger: "He hates his brutality toward old Gitano, and so he became brutal again." Jody's own earlier brutality is somewhat akin to that of his father's. He doesn't like being brutal, but he continues to be brutal. But whereas Jody's brutality was purposeless, his father deliberately tries to hurt Gitano.
Jody is very aware of his father's purpose, as is Billy Buck, who tries, with humor, to soothe the tone of the conversation. Perhaps it is old Easter, however, since he was the first horse that Carl Tiflin ever owned, who reminds Carl of his own mortality, and who is most responsible for Carl's rashness. Certainly it is clear that old Easter reminds Gitano of his mortality, for the old paisano mutters that he does in fact like the horse, "but he's no damn good." The two of them have outlived their usefulness — as will Carl Tiflin, someday.
During the Tiflins' strained suppertime conversation, Steinbeck dwells on Carl's continuing struggle to try and be firm with Gitano. Without Steinbeck's stating why Carl finds it absolutely impossible to dismiss the old man immediately, we sense long ago that Carl erected barriers around his sensitive nature, barriers which have now become deeply rooted in order to cope with the hardships of farming, raising his family, and maintaining the silent mystique of the taciturn stereotype of western manliness.
This symbolic "last supper" between Gitano and Carl Tiflin is our fullest view of Mr. Tiflin's tortured emotions. Even when Gitano is almost forced to eat, "the situation [did] not stop worrying Carl Tiflin." He uses logic with the old man, but Gitano is defiant; he has come here — home — to die. Carl then tries to repeat his joking harassment, reminding his wife about the goad he delivered to Gitano earlier about ham and eggs growing on the side-hills for old Gitano and old Easter. (The old horse's name, it should be noted, suggests the concepts again of birth and death, Easter being the Christian celebration of the death and rebirth of Christ.) And even after Gitano has left and gone to the bunkhouse, Carl is restless and defensive about his treatment of the old man.
After supper, Jody again tries to fathom the kinship between Gitano and the great mountains because of a nagging "something" within each of them that he cannot understand, "some unknown thing." As he earlier felt himself irresistibly drawn to the mountains, he now feels this power drawing him toward the bunkhouse.
When he emerges from the dark, "secret night" and enters the bunkhouse, he surprises Gitano before the old paisano can hide the lean, thin, gold handled rapier lying in his lap. Jody has never seen such an object before and Gitano is resentful and angry that the young boy has interfered with what is sacred to him. In this scene, Gitano is silent and at first reluctant to speak about the rapier, but after assenting to do so, he allows Jody a view of the rapier as a religious elder might allow a neophyte to witness a sacred object. He tells Jody little about the rapier, except that his father gave it to him and he doesn't know why he keeps it, but that he does, then blows out the lamp almost before Jody has closed the bunkhouse door.
This scene is central to Jody's fuller comprehension of the nature of Gitano's actions at the end of the story. Part of the pathos and emotional impact lie in Jody's decision that no one must know about the rapier. He senses that there is a mystery that he may never unravel concerning the old man and the rapier and the great mountains, but he must tell no one; "it would destroy some fragile structure of truth." He has witnessed a different sense of life than that which exists around him; he has sensed the possibilities of different ways of responding, of existing, and of loving.
When Gitano leaves next morning, we sense that we have seen the last of this Don Quixote figure. He has taken an old horse, described as having yellow teeth, flat sharp hoofs and its ribs and hipbones jutting out under its skin. Likewise, Gitano was described as a lean man, his skin so shrunk that it defined bone, not flesh, and his skin as dark as dried beef. But his posture is also often referred to: always straight. Even Jody notices that Gitano's body was "as straight as that of a young man." It is "only in his movements and by the scuffling of his heels could it be seen that he was old."
Although Steinbeck does not state outright that Carl Tiflin feels relief at Gitano's disappearance, it is so. His eagerness to joke with Jess Taylor releases the tension that has confused him for years about the fate of old Easter and, currently, how he would have to deal with old Gitano's demand that he die with the Tiflin family.
As the story ends, only we — and Jody — know something of an answer to Carl Tiflin's last question, directed to Jess, but more to himself, really: "I wonder what he wants back there."
Jody does not know what it is that Gitano searches for within the depths of the great mountains, but he has experienced the feeling of wanting to go there himself and only he — and we — know that Gitano took with him the rapier that was handed down to him by his father, a remnant of the past, a past that will soon claim him and the old horse. The nameless sorrow which he feels is a sorrow we feel too because we have seen an old man whom no one cares about confronting death bravely and courageously without friends or food, with only an old horse whom no one wants. They will enter an unknown land — as unknown as eternity itself, but a land that old Gitano remembers as being quiet and nice. The grief and sorrow that Steinbeck mentions come from Jody's perception and recognition of some mystical conjunction of the death of old Gitano, old Easter, the great mountains, and the rapier. He cannot share his feelings with his prosaic father, nor can he understand their profundity. What he has discovered is the wonder and value in knowing that "something was there, something very wonderful because it wasn't known..."