As in The Grapes of Wrath, which is quoted as the epigraph of this novel, the natural landscape in The Tortilla Curtain acts as a character in its own right. The four main characters all have their own unique relationships to the natural world. Delaney views nature as a source of inspiration and prides himself on being attuned to his surroundings. Kyra views the landscape from the perspective of a realtor, thinking in terms of how she can capitalize on its beauty. Cándido conceives of the physical attributes of Topanga Canyon as raw materials for building a better life. Finally, América feels both freed and imprisoned by the natural world that surrounds her. By so vividly evoking the setting of the novel and by documenting the vastly different relationships that each character has to this setting, Boyle shows how humans tend to imbue the natural world with their own emotions. However, the devastating natural disasters that occur at the end of the novel expose the fallacy of viewing nature as an emotional entity, either good or bad. Boyle depicts the natural world as ultimately impassive and oblivious to human desire or suffering.
Both Delaney and Kyra view the natural world in terms of their own personal (often economic) success. Delaney tends to sit inside his home while writing his nature column, using preserved flora and fauna, as well as literature, to conduct his research. While he does show evidence of enjoying the natural world when he is actually in it, such as when he admires the night sky, Delaney often uses his career as a nature writer and his relationship to nature merely as a way to make himself feel superior to others. In a similar way, Kyra is unable to enjoy a beautiful drive on her way to pick up her son without imagining her surroundings as “the anchor for a very select private community of high-end houses.” Cándido’s relationship to nature is slightly more sincere, though still ultimately self-centered. He views the natural world according to its ability to meet his needs. This can be seen when Cándido establishes a new campsite after his original one is destroyed by Jack Jr.; Cándido looks out on the “private beach” and imagines it not as “stone and leaf and grain of sand, but a sitting room with a big shaded lamp […], with sofas and chairs and a polished wooden floor that gleamed beneath a burden of wax.” All three of these characters demonstrate the way people perceive nature through the lens of their own personal needs and desires.
However it is América, who lives face to face with the wilderness in Topanga Canyon for much of the novel, who clearly illustrates Boyle’s argument that nature is a force that ultimately exists apart from and beyond human understanding. América’s relationship to nature reveals how people project their own emotions onto the natural world, despite nature being indifferent to human experience. Before José Navidad rapes her, América thinks of her canyon campsite as a place of total safety; she loves “the way the night seemed to settle in by degrees down there, wrapping itself round her till she felt safe, hidden, protected from the prying eyes and sharp edges of the world.” However, when Cándido forces América to stay in the canyon after she is raped, thinking she will be safer there, América “jump[s] at every sound” and imagines her surroundings as “a prison of trees.” Nothing in the physical canyon itself has changed—yet América’s perception of her surroundings has radically shifted due to the trauma she has endured there. One night, when she spots a mother coyote, América looks at the animal so long that she begins to “imagine herself inside those eyes looking out” and thinks that the coyote must “know that men were her enemies—men in uniform, men with their hats reversed, men with fat bloated hands and fat bloated necks, men with traps and guns and poisoned bait.” These moments show how América’s reactions to nature say more about her own inner life than they do about the natural world itself. Later, as she is gradually beginning to recover from her deep depression, América hears a female bird singing in the canyon for her mate and feels the “sun touch her face like the hand of God” and she begins to feel better. Given the fact that América has told no one about being raped, and that she longs increasingly for her mother as her pregnancy advances, it is likely that América feels genuinely connected to nature in these two moments because she is interacting with other female beings, whom she imagines are able to understand her suffering. Boyle thus furthers his argument that people use the natural world as a mirror for their minds and emotions.
Boyle’s argument culminates in the natural disasters that close the novel. These disasters illustrate the fact that, while nature is not impervious to the effects of human activity, it is ultimately heedless of human emotion. Cándido seems finally to recognize this in the moment that his hillside hut is washed away in the flood: “The mountain was going somewhere, and he was going with it.” While the characters of The Tortilla Curtain, like those in The Grapes of Wrath, have deeply emotional relationships with nature, Boyle reminds readers that these relationships are one-sided. Characters may “use” the natural world—to benefit themselves economically or to understand themselves emotionally—but all of these uses are mere projections. The natural world remains impassive in the face of both human joy and suffering.
The Natural World ThemeTracker
The Natural World Quotes in The Tortilla Curtain
He thought of the development he’d grown up in, the fenceless expanse of lawns, the shared space, the deep lush marshy woods where he’d first discovered ferns, frogs, garter snakes, the whole shining envelope of creation. There was nothing like that anymore. Now there were fences. Now there were gates.
The water was black, the trees were black, the walls of the canyon black as some deep place inside a man or woman, beneath the skin and bones and all the rest. He felt strangely excited. The crickets chirred. The trees whispered.
She looked at that coyote so long and so hard that she began to hallucinate, to imagine herself inside those eyes looking out, to know that men were her enemies—men in uniform, men with their hats reversed, men with fat bloated hands and fat bloated necks, men with traps and guns and poisoned bait—and she saw the den full of pups and the hills shrunk to nothing under the hot quick quadrupedal gait. She never moved. Never blinked. But finally, no matter how hard she stared, she realized the animal was no longer there.
But where were these people supposed to go? Back to Mexico? Delaney doubted it, knowing what he did about migratory animal species and how one population responded to being displaced by another. It made for war, for violence and killing, until one group had decimated the other and reestablished its claim to the prime hunting, breeding or grazing grounds. It was a sad fact, but true.
There was a long silence, and she knew they were both thinking about that inadmissible day and what she couldn’t tell him and how he knew it in his heart and how it shamed him. If they lived together a hundred years she could never bring that up to him, never go further than she just had. Still, how could he argue with the fact of that? This was no safe haven, this was the wild woods.
América was screaming and the baby was screaming and he could hear his own voice raised in a thin mournful drone, and that was nothing compared to the shrieks of the uprooted trees and the nightmarish roar of the boulders rolling along beneath them.