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Flight by John Steinbeck

There is a puzzle for those who wish to come up with a definitive interpretation of the central “meaning” of John Steinbeck’s short story Flight. Is this story optimistic, optimistic in the sense that Pepe “comes of age,” becomes a man over the course of the story and, in doing so, renders the story into an affirmation of human courage, an assertion of the meaning and value of endurance and suffering? Or is the story simply one of progressive degradation, the story of a young person who has gotten himself into a horrible fix because of his lack of self-restraint and who, during his flight into the wilderness, is reduced to something that exists, briefly, more on the level of an incompetent type of animals than a man? On the one hand, the mother, who had previously denied Pepe’s status as a man, affirms it repeatedly after the knife fight.

Flight by John Steinbeck

On the other hand, there is ghastly sense of progressive loss involved in Pepe’s flight, a loss of accoutrements, and a loss of physical competence to survive, that smacks not of the autonomy of manhood, but of a helpless “coming to degradation.” This student, however, has formed this thesis. If we place the story in the context of some of the ideas floating around in the American literary world when the story was written, then the following statements best explain the story: 1] that the knife fight is the point at which Pepe enters into manhood, but that to be a man in this world involves loss, loneliness, danger, and ultimately, death; 2] that the point in being a man, as opposed to being a boy--the value of manhood--lies in being the autonomous agent of one’s own survival; 3] that “victory” is to have fought the good fight for survival, not survival itself. If these statements are accepted, then the story is a triumphant one. It is not a coming to manhood story, for the incident which changes Pepe is “off camera” so to speak, the knife fight. It is rather, a story about the burdens of manhood and the way in which these burdens should be born. Manhood in this story is a kind of Cavalry; it is this aspect of it that gives it, and this story about it, tragic stature.

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