Flight

by

John Steinbeck

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Flight Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Torres family lives on a farm in California, right next to a cliffside overlooking the sea below. The farm buildings are “huddled” near the mountains, withstanding wind and sea salt to the point where they’re rotting and becoming the color of the surrounding granite. Mama Torres has been in charge of the farm for ten years, ever since her late husband tripped and fell onto a rattlesnake, getting bitten on the chest. Mama Torres has three children that she now raises on her own: Pepé (a nineteen-year-old boy), Emilio (a twelve-year-old boy), and Rosy (a fourteen-year-old girl).
The description of the ramshackle farm buildings gives the impression that the Torres farm stubbornly clings to the rocks and is on the verge of being swept away into the sea below. This sense of precariousness symbolically extends to the Torres family themselves, as they struggle to hold on to their way of life in a hostile environment that claimed their father figure. The mention of Pepé’s father’s death establishes that the area can be dangerous and introduces a connection between manhood and an early demise.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Pepé is a sweet, gentle, and lazy young man with a feminine mouth, a fragile chin, untidy black hair, and gangly arms and legs. He always carries his father’s knife with him, often stabbing the earth with it to keep it sharp and rust-free. Behind the barn, he flicks his wrist and throws the knife through the air, sticking the point of it into a nearby wooden post over and over to entertain his younger siblings. When Mama Torres finds him doing this, she berates him for his idleness and tells him she has an important chore for him to do.
The innocence of Pepé’s youth is reflected in this initial description. Both his personality and his physical characteristics paint him as a vibrant and cheerful young man, providing contrast and context for the loss of innocence he experiences later on. For example, he uses his father’s knife as a plaything in this scene, but the weapon is later used for a much more serious purpose. Pepé always keeping the knife with him indicates that he respects and cherishes his father’s memory, but throwing it to entertain his siblings establishes his initially playful and carefree attitude.
Themes
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Quotes
Mama Torres explains that they’re out of medicine and salt, and that Pepé must travel into the nearby town of Monterey by himself to buy some more. To Mama’s annoyance, Pepé seems excited by the prospect of going into town on his own, as he might get to buy some candy and wear his fancy hat and green handkerchief. As Pepé climbs on a horse and makes preparations, Mama tells him to spend the night at the house of her friend Mrs. Rodriguez, who will give him dinner and a place to sleep. Mama Torres quietly frets over sending Pepé out alone, but Pepé reassures her that he’ll be alright, insisting that he’s a man now. Mama disagrees, affectionately teasing him as usual.
Pepé once again demonstrates his boyish immaturity as he shows his excitement about getting to ride into town on his own, wearing his finest clothes and possibly buying some candy. This is another scene that establishes Pepé’s innocence, but it also introduces his interest in growing up and reaching what he imagines to be manhood. Pepé associates manhood with independence, but mostly on a surface level. He’s riding into Monterey alone, but this isn’t a choice he made himself. What seems to excite him the most about becoming a man is the appearance of manhood: wearing his fancy hat and handkerchief and going into town by himself.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Pepé smiles proudly as he rides away from the farm on horseback, and the rest of his family watches him go. As he passes out of sight, Mama Torres admits to herself that Pepé is almost a man, and she’s pleased at the prospect of finally having a man on the farm again. Mama, Emilio, and Rosy make dinner together and discuss Pepé as they sit on the doorsteps and eat, watching the sunset. Emilio imagines that someday he'll be the one riding into Monterey for the medicine, and he asks if Pepé has become a man today. Mama explains that boys only become men when a man is needed, and so some boys never become men, even as they age to 40 or more.
As Mama Torres and her youngest children discuss the idea of manhood and how it relates to Pepé, they reveal how they think and feel about the subject, developing as characters and making the topic of manhood more complicated. Like his older brother, Emilio shows a keen interest in becoming a man someday, illustrating that he has inherited the dreams and values of his family members and made them his own. Mama Torres, meanwhile, has a more ambivalent view of manhood. While she wants a man around the house again, this is mainly for practical reasons. Her observation about boys only becoming men when men are needed demonstrates her belief that manhood is something random; it either happens to someone or it doesn’t, for good or ill.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Quotes
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A few hours after the three of them go to bed, Pepé arrives back at the farm on horseback, in the dead of night. Mama Torres awakes, startled as Pepé walks into the house. She asks him if he got the medicine, and whether he’s been drinking wine. Pepé answers yes to both these questions, and Mama tells him to go to bed, wondering why he didn’t stay at Mrs. Rodriguez’s house as planned. But Pepé firmly tells his mother to light a candle, saying that he must flee into the mountains immediately. His expression is hard, serious, and full of purpose, a stark change from his previous carefree demeanor.
Pepé returning home at this hour signals that something is wrong, and his new expression confirms that Pepé has lost his innocence more quickly than anyone expected. His more grave and focused behavior in this scene illustrates how much he has changed in the past day alone; he’s no longer the same boy that the Torres family knew at the beginning of the story. This sharp change in personality—coupled with his immediate insistence that he needs to run away into the mountains—quickly builds suspense and hints at Pepé’s sudden fall from innocence.
Themes
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Quotes
In the dim light of the candle, Pepé tiredly explains to Mama Torres what had happened at Mrs. Rodriguez’s house. There were other men in the house, and Pepé had drunk wine. One of the men had insulted Pepé, saying “names” to him that he couldn’t stand for. A fight had broken out between them. Pepé’s knife had “went almost by itself,” and before Pepé knew it, he had thrown the knife, killing the man. Mama’s face grows sterner as she listens to her son recount what happened. Pepé once again says that he’s a man, but now he makes the statement with much more serious conviction than before.
Notably, the reader only hears about the incident at Mrs. Rodriguez’s house from Pepé’s brief and vague explanation of what happened, making the event seem fuzzy and indistinct. This ambiguity complicates the seemingly heroic act that propelled Pepé from childhood to manhood. Was Pepé defending his family’s honor? Or did he react in an extreme way to the man’s insult? The knife flying from his hand “by itself” makes Pepé’s loss of innocence feel somewhat out of his control either way. Echoing what Mama Torres discussed earlier, Pepé has found himself in a situation where “a man was needed.” One way or another, manhood simply happened to him.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Mama Torres’s expression softens for a moment as she admits that Pepé is indeed a man now, and that she had feared this day would come. But she quickly pulls herself together and begins bustling around the house, making hasty preparations for her son to flee from his pursuers into the mountains. Pepé confirms that he didn’t hear anyone following him on his way back home, but there’s no telling how long it will take for the men coming after him to arrive and kill Pepé. He wakes his siblings, and the whole family rushes to prepare him for his journey.
In this scene, Mama Torres is more emotionally open with Pepé than she is anywhere else in the story, even if only for a brief moment. Finally recognizing that Pepé has reached manhood (after she teased him about it for most of the story) indicates that their relationship to each other has fundamentally changed. But just as she begins to open up to Pepé, she’s forced to toughen up again and accept what she had feared all along: that Pepé reaching manhood would ultimately take him away from her.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Along with a rifle, a waterskin, and a sack of dry jerky, Mama Torres gives Pepé the black coat that had belonged to his father. Pepé pulls it on and climbs on a different horse as the final preparations are made; his expression is grave all the while. Rosy asks where Pepé is going, and Mama once again reaffirms that Pepé is a man now, and that he’s going on a journey with “a man’s thing to do.” She orders Pepé to keep riding all through the night, not stopping to rest until after the following day. She gives him advice about how to stay alive and ration his resources in the mountains, and she reminds him to say his prayers. They kiss each other formally on both cheeks.
By suiting up with supplies and wearing his father’s coat, Pepé accepts the grim responsibility that has been placed on him, now that he’s suddenly reached manhood. The coat represents his father’s legacy, but Pepé doesn’t wear it like a badge of honor; he’s too focused on his own survival to take pride in the noble symbols of manhood as he did before. Mama Torres’s advice and supplies emphasize the fact that Pepé is about to enter a dangerous new world, where he’ll become little more than a hunted animal. Pepé gravely carrying the rifle highlights his transformation from an innocent boy into a killer.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
As he begins to ride away, Pepé looks back and tries to find a soft emotion in his mother’s expression, but Mama Torres is stern and fierce as she tells him to hurry up and go before he’s caught. After he rides off into the hazy dawn, Mama stands silently for a few moments before breaking down into tears. She calls Pepé “our protector” as she cries and mourns the fact that he’s most likely gone forever. Her other two children join her in weeping, and eventually Mama goes back inside the house alone.
As Pepé slowly becomes more indistinct before vanishing in the distant haze, he symbolically disappears not only from the farm, but from the entire world he knew before. This imagery makes Mama Torres’s breakdown even more heartbreaking, as she watches yet another man of the family slip away before her eyes. Her brisk and focused attitude while she prepared Pepé for his journey demonstrates her care and concern for him, but her weeping in this scene makes her deep love for her son undeniable. It’s likely that she was hesitant to emotionally connect with Pepé on a deeper level because she knew that when her son became a man, he would no longer be the innocent boy she loved—and that she would lose him as a result.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Quotes
Emilio and Rosy are left to watch the sunrise together. Still wondering about what just happened, Emilio asks when Pepé had become a man. Rosy answers that it was “last night in Monterey.” Emilio asks where Pepé has gone, and Rosy says that he’s gone on a journey that he’ll never come back from. Emilio wonders if Rosy thinks Pepé is dead. Seeming wise beyond her years, Rosy figures that Pepé is essentially gone; he’s just not quite dead yet.
This is the only scene in the story that mainly focuses on the development of Pepé’s younger siblings, especially Rosy, who has barely contributed to the conversations up to this point. While Emilio is still curious about the idea of reaching manhood and is uncertain about Pepé’s fate, Rosy shows surprising maturity as she seems to accept the probable death of her older brother. Rosy begins to lose her own innocence in this moment, but in a different way than Pepé. She displays a sense of resolve not unlike Mama Torres’s attitude during most of the story, implying that she could become like her mother just as easily as Emilio could grow to become another Pepé. The possibility of Rosy and Emilio enduring the same unnecessary hardships as the previous generation gives the story another layer of tragedy.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Quotes
As he rides into the mountains on a well-trodden path, Pepé lets himself relax in the saddle. He travels through a lush and peaceful area full of trees, moss, and ferns, stopping briefly to let his horse drink clear water from the shallow stream. He eats his jerky and drinks from his waterskin sparingly, but he still has a fairly easy time until he hears the sound of approaching hooves. He quickly rides his horse behind a tree and hides, watching a fat man ride down the path. The man’s horse stops and sniffs around briefly, but eventually the man rides off in the direction Pepé had come from.  Pepé becomes more alert after this, loading and readying his rifle as he continues onward.
This early encounter with a stranger reminds Pepé that he shouldn’t let his guard down. Although his surroundings so far have been fairly hospitable, he forces himself to stop relaxing in the saddle after this incident, taking this moment as an early warning. The entire sequence in this lush green area is the calm before the storm. It gives Pepé a chance to ease into the process of traveling through the wilderness, establishing that he’s being hunted down like prey without putting too much pressure on him just yet. This initial trial thus gently prepares Pepé for the higher-stakes dangers to come.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
As the path becomes steeper and bends away from the stream, the landscape around it quickly becomes drier and more desolate. Tired but determined, Pepé soon finds himself surrounded by scorched, cracked earth and dry, scraggly bushes on all sides. He’s also more exposed, now that there’s no longer a cover of redwood trees around him. He plods along on his horse, occasionally spotting mysterious black figures in the distance. These are the “dark watchers” that Mama Torres had warned him about. Pepé quickly looks away after spying the figures, not knowing who they are, but knowing that they typically leave travelers alone if the travelers mind their own business and show no interest in the watchers.
At this point in the journey, Pepé’s relatively safe “trial period” ends. Now he’s entering the true wilderness, where he must use every means at his disposal to survive. As he becomes more exposed in the harsher landscape, Pepé begins to become part of the wilderness himself; he’s a hunted animal now, far from the world of humanity. The “dark watchers” are the only exception to this, but even they show few human traits. The only people in this place are completely indifferent to Pepé unless he bothers them first, making them almost indistinguishable from the trail’s many other dangers.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Quotes
When Pepé reaches the main pass through the mountains, he looks back to make sure that he isn’t being followed. Then he goes through the pass and begins traveling down the long slope on the other side, at the bottom of which he sees a small green flat where a grove of oak trees grows. Upon reaching the grove, he finds a small spring, allowing him to refresh his waterskin and his thirsty horse. He ties up the horse and decides to spend the night in the grove, positioned so that he can still watch the trail. A fierce-looking wildcat appears in the grove during the early evening, but eventually it slinks back into the bushes, seemingly ignoring Pepé but unafraid of him. As night falls, Pepé instantly falls asleep, exhausted.
Pepé’s brief encounter with a wildcat reinforces the fact that he’s in a wild and dangerous place where he could easily be killed at any moment. To the wildcat, Pepé is nothing but a potential food source, and Pepé is lucky to avoid the beast’s attention for the most part. This serves as yet another reminder that Pepé is being hunted down and must stay on his guard, even as he finds fresh water and a relatively comfortable place to rest. Out in the badlands, there’s hardly any time for him to pause and reflect; like a wild animal, he can only eat, drink, travel, keep watch, hide, and survive.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Quotes
Pepé wakes up in the dark, early hours of the morning, hearing his horse whinnying. He hears another whinny and the sound of hooves from the direction of the trail, so he prepares his own horse to start moving again as quickly as possible. In his haste to flee the grove, he leaves his hat behind, next to the oak tree he had slept under. As dawn comes and Pepé is back on the trail, he looks behind him and doesn’t see anyone following. Just as he lets himself start to relax, the sound of a rifle shot from behind rings out, and Pepé’s horse instantly falls over, bleeding on the ground.
In the moment before the assailant fires the shot, Pepé fails a trial for which he has been trying to prepare himself. While he quickly gets his horse moving and flees from his pursuer, he eventually lets his guard down and assumes that he has escaped from the danger for now. But out in the wilderness, Pepé is always potential prey, and he pays dearly for briefly forgetting this. Leaving his hat behind in his rush emphasizes his loss of innocence by reminding the reader of the earlier scene when he was excited about wearing his hat into Monterey. Now that he’s no longer an innocent farm boy, he leaves behind his treasured hat without a second thought, focused entirely on his survival. By forgetting his hat, he leaves behind a piece of his innocent past.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
The assailant shoots at Pepé again, hitting a piece of sage beside his head. Pepé scrambles into the bushes and anxiously crawls his way up a dry slope to hide behind a large granite rock on a hill. He peers through a thin fissure in the rock, but he still can’t see anyone. He puts the end of his rifle through the fissure and fires a shot into an area of brush where he sees a rustle of movement. After a moment of silence, another shot is fired from below and strikes inside the fissure of the rock, burying a jagged piece of granite in Pepé’s right hand.
After losing his horse, Pepé sustains a wound as the second cruel punishment for his brief lapse of judgment. The piece of rock in his hand is a painful reminder that the men chasing him are predators who wish only to hurt and kill him; the danger of the situation is now staring him undeniably in the face. Pepé tries to hold tough and fight off the assailant in this moment, but the harsh reality that his life is in peril begins to overwhelm him.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Using cobwebs from a small cave in the rock, Pepé dresses his wound as best he can, then he drops back down to his stomach and continues crawling up the slope, desperately trying to find cover in the sharp, dry bushes. His progress is agonizingly slow and careful as he crawls from cover to cover. He narrowly avoids running into a hissing rattlesnake, and he crushes a harmless lizard with a rock in his anxious, suspicious fever. Worn down, injured, and dehydrated, Pepé sleeps at noon in a small patch of brush, too tired to continue. He writhes and moves his bleeding hand in his uneasy sleep.
As he flees from the rifle shots, Pepé’s desperate behavior reveals what the lack of dialogue obscures, giving the reader a glimpse into his intense mental state. Like a cornered animal, Pepé is in an adrenaline-fueled survival mode, grasping at whatever makeshift resources he can find. Crushing a harmless lizard with a rock is a prime example of just how far Pepé has fallen from his innocent boyhood at this point. He brutally kills the creature out of crazed paranoia, probably remembering his father’s demise when he almost runs into the rattlesnake. Before, Pepé was described as gentle and affectionate, but in the wilderness, he embraces the idea of “kill or be killed”—whether he means to or not.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Pepé awakens at night, and the following day is even more desperate than the last. He removes and abandons his father’s coat, as it presses on his injured arm, and he continues on his weary trek through the dry wilderness. He crests another ridge and finds it mostly dry at the bottom, but he wets his mouth with the damp earth and digs a basin in the ground to try and collect what little water he can while he sleeps again. He awakens at dawn to the sight of a mountain lion eyeing him curiously, but he focuses on slurping up the tiny amount of water that had gathered in the basin overnight. Eventually, the lion is scared away by the noise of approaching hooves and the yelp of a dog.
The events of this day provide more examples of what Pepé has experienced on his journey so far, with the level of danger gradually escalating all the while. He once again encounters a predator that reminds him of his place on the food chain in the wilderness, and his increasing struggle to find water makes it impossible for him to forget that he’s essentially been reduced to a desperate, foraging animal. Notably, Pepé sheds his father’s coat without hesitation because it isn’t conducive to his own survival. This act is symbolic of Pepé’s romantic notions about manhood falling away in the face of real, tangible danger to life and limb. Pepé’s ideal concept of masculinity might have given him courage and made him feel like a man before, but now, ironically, such ideas only threaten to hold him back. Manhood brought him into this violent place, but it might not bring him out again.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Quotes
All through the next day, Pepé flees towards the next upward slope, crouching and hiding in the brush and only daring to stand up in the darkness of night. He sleeps and awakens again on a broken hillside and continues on, but he turns back upon realizing he had forgotten his rifle somewhere behind. He can’t find the weapon again no matter how hard he looks, and his arm is hurting more and more as he nears the top of the next ridge. He collapses from exhaustion just before cresting the ridge, but he regains his senses and starts moving again as dawn comes. He scrapes at his infected wound with a sharp stone, trying to squeeze out the green pus and clear his foggy mind with the pain.
The rifle is the last symbol of masculinity that Pepé loses, leaving him to continue without a way to defend himself in the uncompromising wilderness. The weapon and the manhood it represents are no longer helpful to Pepé as he endures his miserable trek— neither physically nor emotionally. This leaves him with nothing but his tattered clothing and his exhausted, injured body, completing his transformation into a hunted animal. His attempt to remove the infection from his arm is brave and traditionally manly, but it mostly just increases his anguish and is done out of necessity. Unlike at Mrs. Rodriguez’s house, there’s no room for a man to be noble or heroic here; there is only survival.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
On his last legs, Pepé looks down into the next valley and finds it just as dry and unwelcoming as the last one. With his body racked with exhaustion and his dehydrated tongue swollen and blackened so much that he can only hiss when he tries to speak, he lies down behind a pile of rocks in the heat of the day and watches a large black bird circling above him. He nurses his injured arm and moans wordlessly before lifting his head, hearing the dogs on his trail again.
This is the point at which Pepé begins to surrender any hope of making it out of the wilderness alive. Exhausted and fully dehydrated, he’s no more able to speak than the bird above him, cementing his loss of uniquely human traits. All of the uncaring cruelties of the badlands have worn Pepé down and culminated in this moment of hopeless desperation. He’s as dry as the landscape and as mute as the other animals, wishing for death and hearing an opportunity approaching. By trying to survive, Pepé was fighting the idea of becoming prey, but in this moment, he has no choice but to finally give in.
Themes
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Pepé tries unsuccessfully to speak with his swollen tongue, then he draws a cross on his chest with his shaking left hand. He struggles up to stand on a large rock at the top of the ridge, clearly visible and exposed to his pursuers. It isn’t long before the first bullet chips the stone at his feet. Then the second shot flies up from below and hits Pepé in the chest. With his last breaths, Pepé staggers and tumbles forward off the large stone, creating a small avalanche of rocks and dust as he falls. The rocks fall and cover his head as he lies dying on the dry ground.
Despite gradually losing his humanity and sense of self over the course of his journey, Pepé displays one final act of innocence and personhood before he lets himself die. As he's unable to pray aloud with his swollen tongue, he settles for drawing a cross over his chest, remembering that Mama Torres told him not to forget his prayers. This moment reminds the reader that Pepé, on some level, is still himself. Some part of him is still the innocent boy from the beginning of the story—gentle, sweet, and loved by his family. In light of this, Pepé’s brutal, senseless death in the wilderness becomes all the more tragic. His rush to become a man only caused grief, despite the fact that Mama Torres already considered Pepé to be “fine and brave” at the beginning of the story. Echoing his father’s fate, Pepé’s only reward for achieving manhood is dying a man’s death.
Themes
Manhood Theme Icon
Predators and Prey Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Quotes