By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Flight’ is a 1938 short story by the American writer John Steinbeck, included in his short-story collection The Long Valley, which focuses on the Salinas Valley in California. The story is about a young man from rural California who goes into town and kills a drunken man in a fight; he has to flee to the mountains to avoid being captured and arrested, hence ‘Flight’.
Steinbeck’s story is about coming of age, the journey to manhood, and the harsh landscape of the valleys in California, among other things.
‘Flight’: plot summary
The story focuses on a Mexican-American family living in California. Pepé Torres is a nineteen-year-old man who, when the story opens, is throwing a switchblade – passed down to him by his father, who had died from a snakebite ten years earlier – at a wooden post to amuse his two younger siblings, Emilio and Rosy.
Pepé’s mother tells him to ride into the town of Monterey, some fifteen miles away, to buy salt and medicine, staying overnight at the house of a friend of the family named Mrs Rodriguez. Pepé says he will be fine going alone, as he is a man now.
Early next morning, however, Pepé returns and tells his mother that he needs to go and hide in the mountains. After drinking wine at Mrs Rodriguez’ house, he had got into an argument with a man and he had ended up drawing his knife and stabbing the man, supposedly because the man had thrown insults at Pepé to which he took offence. Pepé reiterates that he is a man now. His mother, worried about him, gives him his father’s rifle and coat, and some food and water, and Pepé bids her farewell.
As he rides into the mountains, the terrain becomes drier and rockier, and Pepé has to avoid men he sees who may be out searching for him. He stops at a stream and a wildcat appears, but he doesn’t shoot the animal for fear of alerting any men to his location. He continues to ride, but his horse is shot as he is riding and he has to crawl through the dust.
He is shot at and returns fire, and a lump of stone lodges in his hand; when he removes it, it bleeds and he struggles to stop the bleeding. He is almost bitten by a rattlesnake (that is what had killed his father). Meanwhile, his injured arm has grown infected from the cut.
Thirst overcomes him and he digs into a stream bed, trying to find water, but he is so exhausted that he falls asleep. When he wakes up, a mountain lion is starting at him, but the animal moves away when horses and a dog approach. Pepé hides behind a rock, then, when night falls, he heads up the slope, forgetting his rifle.
By this point, his wound is gangrenous, and he tries to lance it with a sharp rock to get rid of the pus. When he gets to the top of the next ridge, he finds more of the same: dry, waterless, empty terrain. He falls asleep again and is awoken by the sound of dogs approaching. He is so thirst by this point that he cannot speak. He stands up and lets the men hunting him shoot him; his body falls down the cliff.
‘Flight’ is a story about the passage to manhood taken by a youth who, despite having all of the accoutrements and despite saying ‘I am a man’, fails to survive as a man in the wild and harsh world. With his father dead, and being the eldest child, Pepé is the ‘man’ of the house, but he is clearly ill-prepared for adult life and lacks the self-restraint or pragmatism required of his surroundings.
In this connection, it is significant that all of his possessions which are designed to help him become a man – the switchblade, the hat, the coat, and the rifle – are inherited from his father, who managed to attain manhood but still died in his prime when one of the animals of this dangerous landscape, a rattlesnake, fatally bit him.
But Pepé falls at his first attempt to step up to the plate and become a man. The moments when he loses his father’s possessions – forgetting them, as if he is himself aware that he will fail to pass the test of adulthood – are deeply symbolic, as if bits of his manhood are being shed or chipped away piece by piece.
The problem, of course, is that Pepé’s father used these weapons as tools for hunting and surviving in the hard world of the ‘long valley’. They were, for him, not representations of his manhood but implements which could be used in its application.
Steinbeck appears to be suggesting that Pepé views these playthings as synonymous with being a man, rather than as tools used in the course of doing what men need to do: shooting animals (whether potential predators or for food), carving wood, and so on. Pepé’s mistake, in his naivety, is in thinking these objects bestow the necessary qualities of manhood in and of themselves.
Of course, the father’s switchblade and rifle are a hunter’s weapons, but Pepé is no hunter: instead, in one of the grim ironies of the story, he quickly turns himself into the hunted when he kills another man. (It is worth observing how the actions of his switchblade are described in terms which render Pepé passive; he cannot even take responsibility for his actions that led to the death of another person.)
And another important theme in ‘Flight’ is the relationship between humans and animals. What separates Pepé, a young man on the run like an animal being hunted by predators, from the lizards, wildcats, and mountain lions which share the unforgiving Californian mountain landscape with him?
It is noteworthy that the animals he encounters are all predators which feed on other animals, while Pepé, on the run, is prey rather than predator. He is surrounded by threats, and is ill-equipped to defend himself against them. By the end of the story, he welcomes the bullets from his hunters as a quick release from the anguish of slow starvation and thirst.
The role of Mama Torres provides interesting commentary on Pepé’s character. She knows that her son is more naïve and innocent than he believes himself to be: ironically, this is itself another sign of his naivety because he lacks self-awareness or a knowledge of his own limitations. Her statement to her two younger children that Pepé is ‘nearly a man’ is suitably ambiguous: it can mean that he is on the verge of attaining adulthood or, less optimistically, that he just lacks the qualities required ever to become a true man.
When she sends him out with his provisions, as he embarks on his new life on the run, she knows that he is already lost to her forever and that he will die soon: he has been transformed into a ‘grey, indefinite shadow’ who will now never become the man of the house.
However, in his last stand when he allows the posse of men to shoot him down, Pepé does finally become a man. Ironically, it is only when facing imminent death – or, rather, through accepting death – that he can attain full manhood. He is finally standing up to the consequences of his actions and facing them, accepting the retribution that he knows will come to him one way or another.