John Steinbeck‘s “Flight” first appeared in his collection of short stories The Long Valley in 1938. It is a carefully constructed coming-of-age tale that chronicles a 19-year-old boy’s ascent to manhood, quick regression to hunted animal, and thence to his “manly” and untimely death. The protagonist in the story is Pepe, whom his mother refers to as nothing more than a “lazy peanut.” Apparently Pepe has spent his entire life in indolent ease, basking in the warm sunshine on his mother’s small farm in California. One beautiful day Mama decides to send Pepe to Monterey to fetch medicine for the family. Pepe, excited that his mother is allowing him to make such a journey alone, takes her decision as a sign that he will finally become a man and assume the responsibilities of his deceased father. Mama even lets Pepe wear his father’s hat and green silk scarf tied around his neck. Pepe promises Mama that he will be careful, for he is a man now. Mama merely scoffs and reminds him that he is a young boy. The third-person narrator indicates, however, that Mama realizes and fears that Pepe will become a man too soon, although she does not realize how soon.
When Pepe returns that night, he has killed a man with his father’s beautiful knife. Mama, devastated and fearing for her son’s life, sends him away. As the narrator describes Pepe’s flight into the hills, the depiction becomes increasingly animalistic—a pattern of imagery Steinbeck frequently returns to in many of his works—as the snake and wild cat, he crawls and slithers among the rocks and brush to flee his pursuers. Not until the very end of the story, however, does Pepe enact his one truly manly deed. No longer able to run, he stands high on top of a rock and faces his pursuers’ bullets head on. Thus, according to the precepts of his family and his culture, Pepe dies a “man.”
The artistry of the story undercuts Pepe’s naive view. It invites us to question the meaning of manhood, to regret that Pepe learns nothing of the irony of his view of manhood, to mourn the loss of a youth with such bright potential, and to reevaluate these devastating social codes. “Flight” is not the only story in which Steinbeck ridicules society’s conventions and beliefs about the meaning of manhood. Disgust with society’s absurd rituals and conventions, as well as the callousness of such institutions as banking and business, runs throughout most of his work.
Steinbeck, John. “Flight.” In The Long Valley. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995.
Timmerman, John. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
———. “Introduction.” In The Long Valley. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995.