26 pages 52 minutes read

John Steinbeck


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1938

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Flight”

“Flight,” a short story published by John Steinbeck in 1938, is a coming-of-age narrative that explores The Difficulty of Growing Up, The Superiority of Nature Over Man, and Masculinity, Violence, and Personhood. The plot charts the journey of 19-year-old Pepé Torres as he goes on the run after killing a man. The text utilizes Steinbeck’s signature direct, unembellished style to form the backdrop for his characterization and symbolism, two of the primary elements he uses to develop his themes.

This study guide refers to the version of the text found in the Penguin Classic version of The Long Valley.

The Torres family lives on a small, worn-down farm on a mountainside south of Monterey. Mama Torres has three children—Emilio and Rosy, who are 12 and 14, and ​​Pepé, who is 19. She has managed the farm alone for 10 years since her husband died after tripping and falling on a rattlesnake. Pepé, the protagonist, is excessively lazy. While his brother and sister provide for the family by fishing, Pepé does nothing to contribute. Despite his age, he is described as having the face and personality of a child.

One day, Mama Torres wants Pepé to go to town and buy some supplies. She finds all three children together behind the barn. Pepé is entertaining his siblings by throwing his knife at a wooden post a few feet away. He is very skilled at this, wielding the heavy knife with both speed and accuracy. Pepé inherited the knife from his father and carries it everywhere. Mama Torres interrupts the game and tells him to saddle the horse so he can go buy medicine and salt. When Pepé realizes that he is to go to town alone, his demeanor changes. He declares himself a man. Mama Torres says he is nothing more than a “peanut” and tells him that a neighbor, Mrs. Rodriguez, will let him stay with her for the night. After he leaves, Mama Torres announces that Pepé is almost a man and sends her other children back to work.

In the middle of the night, Pepé returns unexpectedly. He tells Mama Torres he must go away into the mountains. She lights a lamp and notices that Pepé has changed. He no longer has the face of a boy. Pepé tells Mama Torres how some men came to Mrs. Rodriguez’s house. They all drank wine, and when one of the men insulted him, Pepé killed him with his knife. This time, when Pepé tells his mother that he is a man, she agrees.

Fearing someone will follow her son and take revenge, Mama wakes her other children, and they prepare for his departure. Mama gives her eldest son his father’s coat, hat, and gun and advises him on how to stay safe on his journey. When the preparations are complete, Pepé mounts his horse and departs. Mama Torres mourns her son, and Rosy tells Emilio their brother will never come back.

The beginning of the journey takes Pepé through a beautiful forest. Pepé’s laziness reasserts itself as he travels at a leisurely pace, relaxed in his saddle. He is reminded of the danger he is in when he hears another man on the trail, and he is forced to hide behind a tree to avoid detection. After this incident, Pepé continues on the path which leads him out of the forest. He is out in the open, and this time, he stays alert.

In the evening, Pepé finds a small patch of trees and decides to take shelter there for the night. He finds water and sits down to eat some of the jerky his mother gave him. He reaches for his knife to cut the jerky but finds it is not there. While he eats, a wildcat approaches the pool under the trees. He considers shooting the animal but is afraid the noise will alert his pursuer. The wildcat stares at him unafraid when he throws a stick at it and then saunters away.

Pepé is startled out of his sleep by the sound of a horse approaching. Under the cover of night, he begins his journey, hoping to evade the man following him. However, soon after dawn breaks, Pepé’s horse is shot and killed. The unseen shooter continues to fire at Pepé, and he hides in the brush, wriggling on his belly from one hiding place to another. Pepé returns fire but is injured when a bullet shatters a piece of rock, which lodges in his hand. He attempts to treat his wound by stuffing it with spider webs to stop the bleeding and then crawls away.

Eventually Pepé finds a place where he can hide and falls asleep. After the sun has set, he is woken by the howl of a coyote. He notices his injured hand is swollen and the pain has spread to his armpit. His father’s coat is heavy and presses on his injured arm, so he decides to leave it behind.

Pepé’s progress is sporadic. He can only move a short distance at a time and is suffering from dehydration. He finally tops the ridge and begins descending on the other side. He finds what appears to be a stream, but it has run dry. He tries to dig a hole, hoping to find water but falls asleep.

When he wakes in the afternoon, Pepé is face to face with a mountain lion. The lion shows interest in him but does not attack. Pepé notices that the hole he dug has collected some muddy water, so he tears off part of his sleeve and uses it to drink. As evening approaches, the mountain lion suddenly becomes alert and rushes into the brush. A moment later, Pepé hears a horse coming and a dog barking, and he follows the lion into hiding. He makes his escape up the next ridge before stopping to sleep again.

This time, when he wakes, Pepé continues on, accidentally leaving his rifle behind. He tries to look for it, but the pain in his arm is worse than ever, and he has to stop to rest until dawn. When he wakes again, he tries to drain the infection from his arm using a sharp rock. Then, he gets up and continues his journey. He makes it to the top of the ridge, but when he looks down, he sees the same dry landscape with no sign of water or shade.

Again, Pepé hears the sound of dogs tracking him. He attempts to say a prayer, crosses himself, and stands up on the ridge to make himself visible. His pursuer fires and Pepé falls, his body covered by an avalanche of dirt that follows him down the slope.