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John Steinbeck 1938

Author Biography

Plot Summary



Historical Context



Further Reading

John Steinbeck’s short story “Flight” was published in 1938 in The Long Valley, a collection of stories set in the Salinas Valley in California. The book appeared just three years after Steinbeck first received critical acclaim for his novel Tortilla Flat and one year before the publication of what many consider his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath. “Flight” is generally considered one of Steinbeck’s best works of short fiction, written at the height of his career. It is the story of young Pepe Torres, an unsophisticated youth from an isolated farm along the California coast. He wants very much to be considered a man. On his first trip alone to town, he kills a drunken man in an argument and flees to the mountains, only to succumb to thirst, infection, and the bullets of his pursuers. Critics have interpreted the story as a parable of the journey from youth to manhood. In writing the story, Steinbeck drew on his own experiences growing up in the Salinas Valley to give a vivid portrayal of the arid, rocky mountains east of the valley, which are filled with wild animals and danger. His energetic narrative style gives “Flight” its suspense and dramatic power. Steinbeck’s sympathy for the struggles of the peasant against the forces of nature and wealthy landowners, which forms the basis for The Grapes of Wrath and many of his other works, is apparent in this story.

Author Biography

Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in literature for his novel The Grapes of Wrath, the 1937 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his theatrical adaptation of his novella Of Mice and Men, and the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, Steinbeck enjoyed popular as well as critical success during his lifetime and beyond. Although Steinbeck’s romantic portrayals of dignified and noble common folk are now seen by some as simplistic, his works continue to appeal to critics and readers of the present day, supporting Steinbeck’s enduring reputation as one of the most important twentieth-century American writers.

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He grew up in the Salinas Valley and used it as the setting for many of his works, including “Flight.” He used this familiar terrain as a setting in which to test his characters’ relationship to their environment. Peter Shaw comments that “[T]he features of the valley at once determined the physical fate of his characters and made symbolic comment on them.” Steinbeck’s studies at Stanford University in California, where he became interested in biology, led him to take an evolutionary view of human society. He referred to this as his “biological” approach to understanding and writing about human behavior. This placed him in philosophical alignment with other naturalist writers who were influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. In naturalistic works, the characters are products of their heredity as it acts upon their environment. Such stories end usually with the destruction of the main character, who by acting in response to his impulses and instincts, is crushed by the forces of the environment. However, Steinbeck is not strictly naturalistic, as he frequently casts his stories in mythic frameworks, giving them romantic or spiritual dimensions lacking in much naturalistic fiction.

Steinbeck’s greatest achievement was The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. It is the story of the migration of an Oklahoma family during the Great Depression of the 1930s from their drought-destroyed farm to the dream of prosperity in California. When the Joad family reaches California, they find many others like them, all competing for low wages to pick fruit on corporate-owned farms. Steinbeck’s epic and sympathetic presentation of this story led to charges that he was a communist. In the resulting controversy, the book was both banned and praised. Steinbeck continued to write, in 1952 publishing East of Eden, a novel paralleling the biblical story of Cain and Abel. He also served briefly as a war correspondent during the Vietnam conflict. Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968.

Plot Summary

“Flight” opens at an unspecified time, probably in the 1930s, on the Torres farm on the California coast, fifteen miles south of Monterey. Nineteen-year-old Pepe Torres is amusing his younger brother and sister, Emilio and Rosy, by skillfully throwing his switchblade at a post. The knife is his inheritance from his father, who died ten years earlier after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Their mother scolds Pepe for his laziness and tells him he must ride into Monterey to buy salt and medicine. He is to spend the night in Monterey at the home of a family friend, Mrs. Rodriguez. Pepe is surprised that he will be allowed to go alone, and he asks to wear his father’s hat, hatband, and green silk handkerchief. He tells his mother that he will be careful, saying, “I am a man.” His mother responds that he is “a peanut” and “a foolish chicken.”

Before sunrise the next morning, Pepe returns unexpectedly to the farm. He tells his mother he must go away to the mountains. He tells his mother that he had drunk wine at Mrs. Rodriguez’s, and that a few other people had shown up as well. He tells her about a quarrel he had with a man. His knife seemed to fly on its own, and the man was stabbed. Pepe concludes by saying, “I am a man now, Mama. The man said names to me I could not allow.”

Mama Torres agrees that Pepe is now a man, but she also has her doubts. She has worried about Pepe’s knife-play and where it might lead him. She gives him his father’s black coat and rifle, as well as a water bag and some provisions. Dressed in his father’s garments, Pepe hurries off to the mountains. Mama Torres starts the formal wail of mourning for the dead. Emilio asks Rosy if Pepe is dead, and Rosy replies, “He is not dead. . . . Not yet.”

Pepe rides into the mountains, and as he climbs, the trail changes from soft black dirt beside a stream

to redwood forest to rough, dry, rocky open country. He avoids a mounted man on the trail. As he rides higher toward the pass, he glimpses a dark figure on the ridge ahead, then looks quickly away. He stops in the evening by a small stream, tying the horse. A wildcat comes to the stream and stares at Pepe, who does not use the rifle for fear of revealing his location to his pursuers. He sleeps, then wakes suddenly in the night when his horse whinnies to another horse on the trail. After hastily saddling his horse and going up the hill, he realizes that he has left his hat behind.

He continues riding into the dry waste country. Then, without warning, his horse is shot dead from under him. Pepe, under fire, crawls up the hill, moving “with the instinctive care of an animal.” He worms his way up, running only when there is cover, otherwise “wriggling forward on his stomach.” He waits as wild animals go about their business, the buzzards already circling over his dead horse below. When he sees a flash below him, he aims and fires. In the return fire, a chip of granite embeds itself in his right hand. Pepe takes the stone out and the cut bleeds. He stuffs a dusty spider web into the wound to stop the bleeding, then slides and crawls slowly up the hill. He is almost bitten by a rattlesnake, and lizards scatter before him as he crawls upward. He sleeps in the bushes until night. His arm is infected and swollen tight inside the sleeve of his father’s coat. He leaves the coat behind. He is very thirsty and his tongue is swollen.

That night he comes to a damp stream bed and digs frantically for water. Exhausted, he falls asleep until late the next afternoon. He awakens to find a large mountain lion staring at him. The big cat moves away at the sound of horses and a dog. Pepe crouches behind a rock until dark, then moves up the slope before he realizes he has left his rifle behind. He sleeps, then awakens to find his wound swollen and gangrenous. He clumsily lances the wound with a sharp rock and tries to drain the infection from his hand. He climbs near the top of a ridge only to see “a deep canyon exactly like the last, waterless and desolate.”

He sleeps again in the daylight, awakening to the sound of pursuing hounds. He tries to speak, “but only a thick hiss came to his lips.” He makes the sign of the cross with his left hand and struggles to his feet. Standing tall, he allows his pursuers to take aim. Two shots ring out and Pepe falls forward down the rocky cliff, his body causing a “little avalanche.”



See Mrs. Torres


See Mr. Torres

Mrs. Rodriguez

Mrs. Rodriguez lives in Monterey and is a friend of the Torres family. Although she does not appear in the story, it is at her home that Pepe becomes drunk and stabs the drunken stranger. Her home is the only location of social gathering in the story.

Mr. Torres

Mr. Torres is Pepe’s father who, ten years prior to the time of the story, died when he tripped over a stone and fell on a rattlesnake. The switchblade Pepe now owns was inherited from his father. Although the story says nothing about the father other than his manner of death, his presence is constantly felt.

Mrs. Torres

Mrs. Torres is Pepe’s widowed mother. She lives on the family’s seaside farm with her two sons and her daughter and is determined to maintain her home without the help of a man. She keeps the two younger children home from school so they can fish and bring in food for the family. She believes that Pepe is “fine and brave,” though there is little evidence to substantiate her opinion. In fact, she constantly tells Pepe how lazy he is, and says that he is foolish when he asserts that he is a man.

When Pepe returns from an errand in Monterey and tells his mother he must flee, she helps him pack, admitting that she had been worried about his quick reflexes with the knife. Despite the fact that he has failed to stay out of trouble while on his errand, she believes that Pepe’s experience in Monterey has made him “a man now,” for “[h]e has a man’s thing to do.”

Pepe Torres

Nineteen-year-old Pepe Torres is the main character in “Flight.” He is tall, thin, gangly, and lives on the family farm with his widowed mother and a younger brother and sister. While his mother believes that he is “fine and brave,” there is no indication that he is anything but lazy. He is very skilled in throwing his father’s switchblade, however, and wants to prove that he is a man.

In Monterey, Pepe gets drunk and knifes a man who quarrels with him. He tries to explain to his mother how much of a man he is now, but refuses to accept full responsibility for his actions. He even claims that, at one point, “[T]he knife—it went almost by itself.” Pepe then flees to the mountains, taking only his father’s coat, rifle, and a few provisions. In his flight, he loses the hat, the provisions, the rifle, and his horse—everything he needs to survive. Such carelessness shows how much Pepe still has to learn about being a responsible adult.

With no skills to aid him and with an infected hand becoming gangrenous, Pepe becomes exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and is reduced to crawling away from his pursuers like an animal. His parched mouth can no longer form words. In his degradation, he is able to stand up—like a man—to his pursuers, and face his death.

Media Adaptations

  • “Flight” was adapted as a film by Barnaby Conrad, starring Efrain Ramirez and Ester Cor-tez and produced by Columbia Pictures in 1960.

Growth and Development

At the beginning of “Flight” Pepe Torres is a nineteen-year-old youth living on an isolated farm with his mother and two younger siblings. He keeps insisting to his mother that he is a man, but she dismisses him with belittling names. Pepe does not understand what it means to be a man. When he is given the responsibility of riding to town to buy medicine and salt for the family, like a child he excitedly asks if he can wear his father’s hatband and handkerchief. The clothing makes him appear to be an adult, but his idea of maturity is very superficial. In town he gets drunk and argues with a drunken man who insults him. He does not accept responsibility for knifing the man. He tells his mother that “the man started toward [him] and then the knife—it went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before [he] knew it.” He insists that because he is now a man he cannot allow himself to be insulted. While Pepe does appear changed—his eyes are sharp and bright and purposeful, with no laughter or bashfulness in them anymore—he is not mature. When his mother tells his brother and sister he is a man now, Pepe’s appearance changes “until he looked very much like Mama.”

The ride into the wilderness is a test of Pepe’s maturity. However, he loses his hat, his horse, his father’s coat, his father’s rifle, and his water supply. These are all necessary to protect him from the heat of the sun and the cold nights as well as the dry desert mountains while he tries to escape punishment for his crime. Injured by a chip of granite which his pursuers’ bullet drove into his right hand, Pepe becomes more and more debilitated as the infection spreads. He is described as an animal, as

Topics for Further Study

  • Based on what Mama Torres says to Pepe in the story, what do you think she believes about his level of maturity at the beginning of the story? Does her opinion of him change when he returns from Monterey, or just her expectations of him?
  • Before going to Monterey, Pepe is eager to wear the black hat with the leather hatband and the green silk handkerchief. How does he look and feel while wearing these? How does he look when he puts on his father’s black coat before he rides into the mountains? What is the significance of his losing the hat, the coat, and the tools and supplies his mother sends with him?
  • Who or what are the “dark watchers”? What does their presence add to the atmosphere and feeling of the story?
  • Think of some other folk tales you have read or heard. How is this story similar to them? How is it different?
  • Explain how Steinbeck’s biological view of human nature can be applied to the character of Pepe.

he crawls on his stomach, wriggling and worming toward the top of the next ridge. Because he is so thirsty, he loses the ability to talk. At the end of the story, he manages to stand on his two legs again at the top of the ridge and face his pursuers. Most critics see this stand as proof that Pepe has finally matured and now, like a man, is able to accept the consequences of his actions.

Change and Transformation

The central idea of “Flight” is Pepe’s transition from boy to man. In the course of running from his crime, Pepe starts as a youth fleeing responsibility. As he loses the tools that define his humanity, he is reduced to crawling on the ground like an animal, wriggling like a snake and “worming” his way along. This recalls his father’s death ten years earlier from a rattlesnake bite. Pepe first changes not from boy to man but from human to animal. He even loses the most distinctive trait of his humanity—the ability to speak. After suffering with thirst, a wound which becomes gangrenous, and the effects of being without shade in the hot sun, Pepe pulls himself to his feet to face his pursuers. Most critics see this as the point where Pepe becomes a man. Maturity is not a condition which comes at a certain age; it must be learned and earned through suffering. It is this suffering which changes Pepe into a man. Other critics, however, maintain that Pepe fails in his quest for manhood.

Individual versus Nature

When Pepe flees to the wilderness to escape from the consequences of his crime, he also flees from his humanity. The wilderness tests not just his maturity but also his place in the natural world. It is no longer just a question of whether he will become an adult but whether he will become human. He loses the marks of his humanity when he loses his tools and the ability to speak. He is just one animal among others in the natural world. He is reduced to digging for water and struggling to find shelter from the hot sun. But instead of dying like an animal among animals, Pepe stands up like a man in both senses of the word to face his punishment for his crime.


Narrator and Point of View

“Flight” is told from a third-person point of view. The narrator, the person telling the story, is outside the story and relates events as an observer would see them. For most of the story, the narrator is not omniscient, or “all-knowing,” about the characters in the story. When a narrator’s point of view is limited, the reader is not told a character’s thoughts or feelings during the course of the story. Instead, the reader must determine what a character is thinking or feeling from what the character does or says. One exception to this limited point of view appears near the beginning of the story, when the narrator says, “Mama thought [Pepe] fine and brave, but she never told him so.” The narrator is stepping into Mrs. Torres’ mind and telling readers what she thinks. For most of the story, however, the reader can tell what a character is thinking or feeling only from the external clues which the narrator gives provides. For example, when Pepe is dressed up in his father’s hat and green silk handkerchief, readers know he is feeling proud and happy because the narrator says that “Pepe grinned with pride and gladness” as he rode off to Monterey. As Pepe crawls up the mountain, thirsty and without his hat or horse, the narrator does not say that Pepe is feeling uneasy. Instead, the narrator says, “[h]is eyes were uneasy and suspicious,” and this description of Pepe provides a clue to readers about how he is feeling.

The use of the limited third-person point of view in this story puts the reader in the same position as an observer. This makes the reader infer Pepe’s motives from what he says and does. If the narrator were all-knowing, the reader would be told the reason why Pepe stands up on the ridge at the end of the story. Because the narrator does not know what Pepe is thinking, readers do not have access to Pepe’s thoughts. Consequently, the reader can never be sure why Pepe stands up to certain death. The limited point of view contributes to the story’s ambiguity.


“Flight” is set in an indeterminate time on the coast of central California as well as further inland in the coastal mountains. The story could have taken place any time between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s. The Torres farm is located on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific coast, at the edge of the continent. The country to the east, toward which Pepe flees, is a wilderness first of redwood forest and then dry, rocky hills and mountains. It is the ideal setting for the confrontation of man against nature.


Animal imagery dominates “Flight.” Pepe’s mother compares him to a big coyote, a foolish chicken, a descendant of “some lazy cow,” and a big sheep. He is described as grinning “sheepishly.” His wrist flicks like the head of a snake. After his horse is shot underneath him, Pepe crawls, worms his way, wriggles, darts, and flashes like an animal. As he is crawling away after his hand is cut, he slides “into the brush on his stomach” and crawls close to a rattlesnake. His movements are those of a rattlesnake. These images evoke his father’s death as a result of falling onto a rattlesnake. On his final day, Pepe moves toward the top of the ridge “with the effort of a hurt beast.” He tries to speak, but can only make a “thick hissing noise.” When he lances and drains his infected hand, he whines “like a dog” at the pain. He again tries to speak, but can produce only a “thick hiss.” Only at the very end is he able to stand erect on his feet, like a human.


“Flight” is a short story which can almost be read as a folktale. It is set in an indeterminate time, almost a “once upon a time.” Pepe is the hero who is sent out into the world on an errand, much as Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk” was sent to sell the cow. Pepe encounters a problem, and he must flee for his life. His mother is his helper, and she gives him his father’s coat and rifle for warmth and protection on the journey, as well as advice on how to survive. Pepe is, like many folktale heroes, a peasant. He passes into the wilderness and is tested. However, Pepe loses his horse and his father’s rifle. He loses his power of speech and is reduced to the level of an animal. The “dark watchers” provide an element of the supernatural; it is never explained whether they are some type of imaginary power or just the men pursuing Pepe.


Although “Flight” is similar in tone and form to a folktale, it is written in a highly naturalistic style. Naturalism is a style of fiction which developed from the ideas of Charles Darwin’s mid-nineteenth century theories of evolution and natural selection. Naturalist writers, according to M. H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, “held that a human being belongs entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any other mode of participation in a religious or spiritual world beyond nature; that such a being is therefore merely a higher-order animal whose character and fortunes are determined by two kinds of forces, heredity and environment.”

Steinbeck was influenced by such naturalist writers as Theodore Dreiser, as well as by his study of biology at Stanford. “Flight” is considered a masterpiece of naturalist writing. This story is a combination of a folktale form and a scientific attitude toward the human condition. The folktale and naturalistic short story are conflicting forms and styles, and this conflict emphasizes the ambiguity of the story’s ending. Did Pepe simply die, as a failure and an animal, or did he succeed in his quest for manhood by standing up before his enemies?

Historical Context

California Geography

Steinbeck’s “Fight” is set on the mid-California coast about fifteen miles south of Monterey and in the coastal mountains to the east. This was familiar terrain to Steinbeck, who was born and raised in Salinas. The Salinas Valley is the valley to which the title The Long Valley refers. As an adult, Steinbeck lived in Pacific Grove, a short distance from Monterey. He was very familiar with the terrain, from the rocky cliffs above the Pacific south of Monterey to the redwood forest inland to the dry, saw-tooth mountains to the east, then to the fertile Salinas Valley further east. This is the country through which Pepe passes on his flight from his pursuers.

In the 1930s, when Steinbeck was writing many of his works, the valley was a fertile farming region. During the Great Depression, however, many of the area’s inhabitants were forced to sell their land to wealthy industrialists, who compelled those who worked the land to work hard for little in return. The people in the area who had farmed for generations were often Mexicans or descendants of the pioneers who had settled the land in the mid-nineteenth century. Pepe’s Indian features could be attributed to earlier intermarriage between Mexican settlers and Native Americans from the area.

The dialogue in the story highlights the area’s Spanish influences. Not only do specific phrases in Spanish appear in the dialogue, but the family uses the familiar form of the personal pronouns, “thee” and “thou,” instead of the formal “you” when speaking with each other. Spoken English no longer makes these distinctions, unlike other languages. The resulting archaic feeling to the language helps place the characters in another, mythical time, or the indeterminate era in which folktales take place.

The Labor Movement

Steinbeck studied biology at Stanford in the 1920s. He developed a biological view of the human condition based on Darwinian ideas of evolution, natural selection, and adaptation. He liked to set man against nature in his writing, as he does in “Flight,” and to examine how well man can survive in the wild. In addition, he was sympathetic to the poor and the exploited, who often became the central characters in his writings. He supported the labor movement, and he despised the exploitation of workers by corporate farms and large ranches. In novels like The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, his clear sympathy for dispossessed farmers and striking workers led to accusations from some critics that he was a communist. Steinbeck addressed the political and economic stresses of the 1930s by writing of the effects on the poor, but he did not subscribe to a specific ideology.

“Flight” was written during the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through the 1930s. During that time, many people lost their jobs, homes, and became itinerant, often moving their entire families westward in hopes of finding work on farms that had not become part of the Midwestern “dustbowl” region. The poor became a viable political group because they had very little to lose. In this atmosphere, many labor unions, both in the industrialized North and the agricultural West, formed and became powerful. By exerting their political clout, and with the assistance of President Franklin Roosevelt’s activist relief agenda, unions were able to compel Congress to enact laws establishing a minimum wage, worker’s rights to organize and bargain collectively, and safe practices in the workplace.

Critical Overview

Well received by critics and the reading public when published in The Long Valley in 1938, “Flight” is considered one of Steinbeck’s best stories. It was written at the height of his powers and published a year before The Grapes of Wrath. However, Steinbeck’s views have declined in popularity in the decades since he first published these works. His romantic portrayals of dignified and noble common men are now seen by some as simplistic. In spite of this, his forceful and energetic writing style continues to earn him readers.

Critics still debate the meaning of “Flight.” Most see it as a parable of what it means to be human, or in terms of the story, a man. Some see the story as showing how Pepe earns the right to call himself a man by suffering on his flight from his crime. Edward J. Piacentino in Studies in Short Fiction, catalogs the many animal references in the story and concludes that “the patterns they form give ‘Flight’ a richly suggestive texture that is often characteristic of some of the more artistically impressive short stories of twentieth-century literature.” He notes that while Pepe is still at home on the farm, his mother refers to him in the imagery of

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s: Many street gangs that arose during the 1920s in order to take advantage of Prohibition move on to other illegal ventures. The romanticized “Dead End Kids” (also known as the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys) star in a number of movies during this time.

    1990s: Gang members range from grade-school children to adults. Drug dealing and related crimes are a major activity and means of profit for gangs. In Los Angeles alone, there are an estimated 70,000 gang members. In 1997, a new California program attempts to curtail gang violence by bringing criminal charges against parents of gang members. The program makes use of a 90-year-old law requiring the reasonable care and supervision of children.
  • 1930s: During the Great Depression, murder rates are considered high. They peak in 1933 at 9.7 murders per 100,000 people annually.

    1990s: Murder rates begin to fall in urban areas after skyrocketing in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1996, the murder rate hovers near 10 per 100,000 people.
  • 1930s: During the Great Depression, many farmers lose their farms because they are unable to pay their mortgages. Part of the problem is that farmers produce more than people are able to buy. President Roosevelt creates the Agricultural Adjustment Agency in 1933 to address this problem. The agency is declared unconstitutional in 1936 but is redeveloped and reinstated in 1939. Other programs developed by the government during the same time seek to protect farmland from being misused or overused. These are eventually taken up by the Farm Security Administration.

    1990s: Many farmers in the 1980s and 1990s go bankrupt. Musicians such as John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson organize the Farm Aid concerts to assist families who have lost their livelihood. Other farmers struggle to remain profitable and become increasingly involved in environmental land issues, including prevention of soil erosion and runoff and contamination of crops from insecticide and herbicide residues.

domestic animals. For example, an ancestor of his must have been “a lazy cow,” and Pepe is “a big sheep,” and a “foolish chicken.” Twice she also refers to him or his ancestors as having the traits of a “lazy coyote.” This and several references to his skill with the knife as being “snakelike,” are indications of his “primitive animalism” underneath his domesticity.

Piacentino finds that this use of domestic animal imagery in the first part of the story is in contrast to the imagery of wild animals used to describe Pepe’s predicament and behavior in the mountains. Doves and quail are stalked by a wildcat “creeping toward the spring, belly to the ground.” Lizards on the trail slither away from Pepe and his horse. At night owls hunt rabbits. After his horse is shot out from under him, Pepe himself must act like an animal, “worming,” “wriggling,” “crawling,” “slithering,” and “hissing.” At the end, Pepe climbs to the top of the ridge “with the effort of a hurt beast,” and though unable to speak, stands like a man. His fall is not just a fall from grace; it is also the fall from youthful innocence in attaining maturity.

John H. Timmerman sees “Flight” as a story of “an exploration of one individual’s flight into unknown regions—a spiritual odyssey into the high, arid regions far from the nurturing sea.” Timmerman uses letters written by Steinbeck and selections from Steinbeck’s notebooks and other published works to supply a background to Steinbeck’s philosophy of life. Steinbeck’s passionate interest in marine biology and the sea was, in the 1930s, a strong influence on his work. The metaphor of the sea as a nurturing mother is evidenced in “Flight” as the secluded Torres farm by the sea. Pepe’s flight from this protected environment for the dry, unknown mountains is not only, as Timmerman says, a story of “a modern man in search of his manhood and finding the animal within,” it is also “a devolution, paced by a divestment of civilized tools and in incrementally intensifying animal imagery.” In a notebook entry about the humanity’s evolutionary development from lower forms which lived in the sea to an organism able to stand on dry land, Steinbeck had written, “Oh man who in climbing up has become lower. . . . What nobility except from pain, what strength except out of anger, what change except from discomfort.” When Pepe loses his tools, his water, and his protective clothing, he is stripped down to himself alone. As his thirst takes away his human speech, his movements are described as those of a snake. Although Pepe has lowered himself to the level of a snake, he finally regains his humanity. In standing up to his responsibility, he becomes a man.

Dan Vogel, in an article in College English, finds that “Flight” shows characteristics of myth and tragedy. Pepe’s flight is an “ordeal of transformation from innocence to experience, from purity to defilement.” The physical pain of the festering cut to his right hand and the psychological pain of being the hunted are the components of his ordeal. Pepe must separate himself from the mother and lose the knife, gun, hat, and coat of the father before he can stand alone. Vogel sees “Flight” as telling the myth “of the natural miracle of entering manhood.”

In contrast to most critics, Walter K. Gordon asserts that Pepe’s flight is not the story of a youth leaving behind his mother and the tools of the father to become a man, but rather the opposite. In Studies in Short Fiction, Gordon argues that the story shows “man’s moral deterioration and regression that inevitably results when he abandons responsibility for his actions.” While Pepe and his family believe that the experience in Monterey has made him a man, the story demonstrates that he is unable to utilize the tools he has been given to help him succeed in his flight. He does not learn and grow and attain a sense of maturity from his experiences. For Gordon, “Flight” is a journey away from manhood.

As these various critical interpretations show, the ambiguity of the story itself lends it to conflicting interpretations of what it means. The value of “Flight” is that it is complex and does not yield easy answers to the human condition.


Joyce Munro

Munro is an lawyer who works for UAWFord Legal Services. She is pursuing a doctorate in British and American literature at Wayne State University. In the following essay, she provides an overview of several critical interpretations of “Flight,” but gives special focus to it as a work in which Steinbeck combines a naturalistic outlook with what could almost be called a folktale, with Pepe featured in the role of a Trickster.

Most of the criticism of Steinbeck’s “Flight” discusses the story as Pepe Torres’s journey from childhood to maturity. Nineteen-year-old Pepe wants very much to be considered a man and not a child. However, when he is given the responsibility of going to Monterey alone, he is unable to complete his errand without getting into trouble. He drinks too much wine, then knifes a drunken man who insults him. His flight into the mountains and the hardships he endures reduce him to the level of an animal. At the very end, Pepe stands up on the ridge to face his pursuers. He is shot and falls. To Edward J. Piacentino, Pepe’s fall from the ridge is a fall from childhood into maturity. By standing up to his pursuers, Pepe finally faces responsibility for his actions in Monterey. Dan Vogel, in an essay in College English, sees the story as mythic and tragic. Pepe’s flight is an ordeal taking him from innocence to experience, and Pepe’s death is the death and burial of childhood. John H. Timmerman suggests that the central theme of “Flight” is that Pepe discovers, tragically, “that indomitable, spiritual consciousness of himself as human that separates him from the animals.”

Other critics also see a spiritual dimension in Pepe’s journey. Not only does Pepe move from childhood to maturity, he also grows from reacting like an unthinking animal to acting like a responsible human. John Antico writes of the animal-like, crawling Pepe that “[i]t is only by standing up on two feet and facing death that the sub-human Pepe can give birth to Man.” In an article on “Flight” in the Explicator, William M. Jones sees Pepe’s major

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Red Pony, also by Steinbeck, was first published in 1937 and revised in 1945. It is the story of a boy’s confrontation with death and his resulting maturation.
  • The Pearl, Steinbeck’s last work of short fiction, was published in 1947. It is a parable of a poor fisherman who discovers a pearl of great value which brings evil to his family. Like “Flight,” it is told in almost the tone and form of a folktale.
  • “The Bear,” by William Faulkner, is included in Go Down, Moses, first published in 1940. This story is really a novella in a collection of short stories, all set in a particular place, Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and featuring characters who appear in more than one story. “The Bear” is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy who is finally allowed to hunt with the men. The main character seeks “to earn for himself the name and state of hunter.” The novella displays the complex interrelationships among different races and social classes when a group of men go into the wilderness to hunt.
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway was published in 1952. This novella is told in the form of a fable that chronicles an old fisherman’s struggle to land a legendary fish. The tone, like that of “Flight,” is almost mythic.
  • Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, first published in 1970, is the chilling tale of a young girl’s flight from her own identity in response to the pressures of racism, poverty, and brutality.
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko was published in 1977. It traces the efforts of Tayo, a young Native American soldier released from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after World War II, to evade the memories and nightmares of his captivity. As he realizes that the country he fought for during the war has no place for him and that he has no role in his home pueblo, he is compelled to begin a quest to find—and heal—himself.

flaw as being the sin of pride. “The details of Pepe’s flight show how Pepe gradually conquered the family pride that caused his original sin and how through suffering he expiated that sin.” By undergoing the hardships in the mountains and by being reduced to the level of an animal, Pepe makes amends both for his own impulsive action of stabbing a man who insulted him and for his condition of being born with original sin.

However much the reader wants a satisfying ending to this dramatic story, “Flight” refuses to give one. Walter K. Gordon argues in Studies in Short Fiction that Pepe actually flees from maturity. Pepe is first broken down in the story “from boy to animal, then from animal to an inanimate part of nature.” How can one story generate such different interpretations?

Because the story itself refuses to give Pepe either a clear triumph or a defeat at the end, it remains open to interpretation. This lack of closure at the end keeps the reader thinking about what the story means long after it has been read. The critics who interpret Pepe’s stand at the end of the story as redemptive overlook the particular features of the story itself. Perhaps this is why their arguments do not explain the story satisfactorily. The story is more ambiguous than these readings suggest.

Another look at the animal imagery in the story opens up further interpretations of “Flight.” The narrator describes Pepe as having “sharp Indian cheek bones and an eagle nose.” As he throws the switchblade, “Pepe’s wrist flicks like the head of a snake.” The comparisons of Pepe to wild animals and the reference to his Indian heritage invite the

“The folktale and the naturalistic story are very different, almost opposite, styles. For Steinbeck to superimpose them in the same story is for him to write a story which is based on a built-in contradiction.”

reader to consider the significance of the coyote in Native American folklore. The fact that Mrs. Torres makes two references to the coyote suggests that the coyote has a special meaning in the story. The coyote is not just a wild animal or a sly, lazy animal, but a form of the Trickster in some Native American traditions. A Trickster is a “disruptive character appearing in various forms in the folklore of many cultures,” according to Merriam Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary. The Trickster is part divine and part animal. He has a skill or magic power which he uses sometimes to benefit humankind but which sometimes backfires on him. Often he can change his shape. He freely crosses the boundaries both between human and animal and between the divine and the human.

During both his nights on the mountain, Pepe hears a coyote. Like Coyote the Trickster, Pepe has a dual nature. Mama Torres is certainly aware of this. Her son is both boy and man, and human but with potential to act with animal-like instinctive reflexes. Each time he asserts to her that he is a “man,” she refuses to acknowledge it, responding that he is a “peanut” or “a foolish chicken.” At the same time, she thinks of him as “fine and brave.” After Pepe rides off to Monterey, her younger son Emilio asks her, “Did Pepe come to be a man today?” She replies, “A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed.” She thinks Pepe is “nearly a man now.” When Pepe returns from Monterey changed, he again asserts, “I am a man now, Mama,” and this time she nods and says, “Yes, thou art a man, my poor little Pepe. Thou art a man. I have seen it coming on thee. I have watched you throwing the knife into the post, and I have been afraid.” For her, Pepe is at the same time both a man and her “poor little Pepe.” But the man she acknowledges is the one who too easily throws the knife, the one she has feared he might become. The distinction between “man” versus “child” and “man” versus “animal” is made early in the story.

When Pepe begins his flight to the mountains, “his face was stern, relentless and manly.” But as he goes on, he is gradually reduced from riding to walking to crawling like an animal up the dry mountains. Pepe, the man-boy and the man-animal slides on his stomach, wriggles, and squirms his way forward, much like the rattlesnake he encounters. He gets up on his feet “[w]ith the effort of a hurt beast.” When he tries to speak, he can only make “thick hissing” sounds. When he drains his infected hand, “he threw back his head and whined like a dog.”

The terrain itself almost seems to take on human characteristics. The trail “staggers” down. The granite is “tortured.” The oak trees “whisper.” The mountain has “jagged rotten teeth” and “granite teeth.” Pepe begins by observing the animals, but later, they are observing him. After the mountain lion watches him for hours, then slinks away into the brush, “Pepe took his rifle in his left hand and he glided into the brush almost as quietly as the lion had. Only when the dark came did he stand up.” Pepe has become more animal than man.

As the plot of the story resembles a folktale concerning a Trickster, other aspects of the story also resemble a folktale. The story is set in an indeterminate time, almost a “once upon a time.” Pepe rides to Monterey like a youth in search of his fortune or his manhood. When his manhood is challenged, he reacts unthinkingly and with fatal results, and he must flee for his life. His mother gives him talismans of his dead father, the coat and the rifle, and he rides into the wilderness. “The dark watchers” in the wilderness add a supernatural element to the story. In the folktale, anything can happen. Frogs change into princes and men into toads. On his flight, Pepe is “changed” into an animal who crawls, wriggles, and worms his way along. At the end, he seems to change back into a man, depending on how the reader interprets his stand against his pursuers.

But while the story has some elements of a folktale, it is at the same time a naturalist work of fiction. Naturalism refers to a style of writing fiction which is almost scientific in its attempt to portray characters and how they react to their environment. This approach to fiction is, according to M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, “a product of post-Darwinian biology in the mid-nineteenth century,” which holds that “a human being belongs entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any other mode of participation in a religious or spiritual world beyond nature; that such a being is therefore merely a higher-order animal whose character and fortunes are determined by two kinds of forces, heredity and environment.” The folktale and the naturalistic story are very different, almost opposite, styles. For Steinbeck to superimpose them in the same story is for him to write a story which is based on a built-in contradiction.

This type of contradiction may be the story’s major strength. It helps to explain why the ending is ambiguous. Is Pepe a man or an animal? Or, like the Trickster, is he two things at once, animal and divine? Perhaps the story resolves this question by refusing to resolve it. This leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to whether Pepe succeeds in becoming a man.

Source: Joyce Munro, “Overview of ‘Flight’,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.

John H. Timmerman

Timmerman is affiliated with the Department of English at Calvin College. In the following excerpt, he discusses how Steinbeck’s use of thematic patterns and images in “Flight” effectively portrays the main protagonist as a person “in search of his manhood,” whose powerful and enduring spirit enables him to rise above “the animal in man.”

Steinbeck’s interest in marine biology was inflamed to a passion in the early 1930s. The sea, with its endless surgings and its proliferation of life, would remain a powerful influence upon his life and art throughout his career. We can acknowledge the homing quiet and clashing of dubious battles in his valleys; we can celebrate the high, sun-splashed reaches of his mountains; but we must return over and over to the timeless swell of life and death in the sea as a metaphorical pattern as well as a geographical place in his work.

The sea represents, at once, life and death. For Steinbeck it is the mother: the bringer of life in swarming generation. It is also, beneath its unruly and deceptive surface, a place of primeval violence. That uneasy juxtaposition is captured superbly in Cannery Row. In chapter six, Doc surveys the sea, from quiet tidal pools to the deep reaches. His vision

“While the story has some elements of a folktale, it is at the same time a naturalist work of fiction.”

moves from the serene grace of the shallows to the primeval undertows. There a chaotic world of ferocity reigns, a feral world. For Steinbeck, probing into the sea is a probing into the origins of life itself, a descent into the mythic subconsciousness of human nature. From The Log from the Sea of Cortez to The Winter of Our Discontent, the sea functions powerfully in Steinbeck’s prose.

The sea also functions metaphorically in “Flight”—by its absence. In one of his notebooks of the early 1930s, during one of his frequent breaks from writing stories to pen personal reflections, Steinbeck turned his attention to the sea. “Man is so little removed from the water,” he observes. “When he is near to the sea near the shore where the full life is, he feels terror and nostalgia.” There we find our evolutionary predecessors, our lost memory: “Come down to the tide pool, when the sea is out and let us look into our old houses, let us avoid our old enemies.”

Having paused to look into the tidal pools, Steinbeck recounts the course of humanity:

We came up out of the water to the barren dry, the desert dry. It’s so hard to get used to the land. It is a deep cry. Oh man who in climbing up has become lower. What good thing but comes out of the depths. What nobility except from pain, what strength except out of anger, what change except from discomfort. We are a cross race so filled with anger that if we do not use it all in fighting for a warm full body, we fight among ourselves. Animals fight nature for the privilege of living but man having robbed nature of some of its authority must fight man for the same right.

It is precisely that movement into the dry reaches, where we fight like animals “for the privilege of living,” that marks the thematic pattern of “Flight.” The story is a fictionalization of the idea Steinbeck expressed in this notebook entry; Pepe is very much modern man in search of his manhood and finding the animal within. But, as Steinbeck discovered in telling the story, Pepe also discovers something more, a human spirit that is inviolable and

“The story changes from a simple narration of a posse’s manhunt to an exploration of one individual’s flight into unknown regions—a spiritual odyssey into the high, arid regions far from the nurturing sea.”

undefeatable, possessing an enduring power that lies below and rises above the animal in man.

The change in the title of the story from “Manhunt” to “Flight” is in itself significant. The story changes from a simple narration of a posse’s manhunt to an exploration of one individual’s flight into unknown regions—a spiritual odyssey into the high, arid regions far from the nurturing sea. Like the change in title, the story itself changed dramatically in the writing. As it first developed, far more attention was given to the knifing itself. After buying the necessary things in Monterey, Pepe stops at a church to light a candle for his father and then visits the house of Mrs. Rodriguez and her two daughters. After affirming that Pepe has grown to be a man, Mrs. Rodriguez tells him that the surly Carlos is drunk in the kitchen. Pepe, avowing that he is a man, says he will send the troublesome Carlos away. He enters the kitchen to confront him.

The passage that follows, from the Long Valley notebook, amplifies the scene. In a fashion he adopted to conserve ink and paper during this penurious time, Steinbeck did not pause in his writing to observe minor paragraph breaks:

“Awaken!” said Pepe. He shook a pan. A big black face arose from the table, and sullen sleepy eyes looked at him. “Who are you?” “I am Pepe Torres. Mrs. Rodriguez wants you to go away now.” Behind him, Mrs. Rodriguez said helplessly, “This is the son of Jose Torres. You know him, Carlos.” The sullen eyes looked at her and then back at Pepe. “I know Jose Torres. He was a thief.” The sentence was uttered as an insult, was meant to be insulting. Pepe stepped back. “I am a man.” He looked inquiringly at Mrs. Rodriguez. She shook her head. Pepe’s stomach was sad and then ice got into his stomach and then the ice grew up to his beard. His hand went into his pocket and came out and hung listlessly in front of him. He was surprised at the sound of his voice. “Thou art a liar and a pig.” Carlos stood up. “Dirty naked Indian. You say that to me?” Then Pepe’s hand flashed. The blade seemed to bloom from the black knife in midflight. It thudded into the man’s chest to the handle. Carlos’ mouth was open in amazement. His two black hands came up and found the knife and half pulled it out. And then he coughed, fell forward on the table and drove it in again. Pepe looked slowly around at the woman. His sweet girlish mouth was quizzical, “I am a man,” he said. “I will go now.”

While Steinbeck conveyed the entire scene indirectly in the final version, having Pepe report what happened in several quick sentences, the excised portion shows that the act of killing is allied with Pepe’s manhood, and death itself is attended by blackness, both of the knife and of Carlos.

The opening line of the next paragraph in the first draft, inked out in a heavy line, indicates one direction the story might have taken: “They found him in the church sitting in a pew and looking at the lights on the altar. He had said many [undecipherable word] Ave Marias.” After the crossed-out line, Steinbeck wrote, “Pepe’s movements were swift but unhurried.” He heads back to his house, covering the same route through Point Lobos that he had taken earlier. From here the final version follows with a few exceptions. In the first draft, Pepe shoots one of the trackers; in the final version he does not. Most of the revisions were the ones Steinbeck typically made, changing passive verbs to active constructions and sharpening details. The materials included in the two-page notebook entry, “Addenda to Flight,” written several days after the first draft, are incorporated into the conclusion of the final version.

With its riveting power as a story, its feral imagery that stalks nearly every paragraph, and its mystical ambiguity, “Flight” has both enchanted and puzzled critics. It has occasioned some of the very best literary criticism of Steinbeck’s work as scholars match their wits against a compelling drama. For its sheer, evocative power, few of Steinbeck’s short stories match it.

Artistically, the tale is a tour de force, with layer upon layer of craftsmanship revealed in close reading. The ostensible plot and conflict—Pepe’s quest for manhood against intractable odds of humanity and nature—appear simple enough. Since his father’s death from a rattlesnake bite, Pepe inherits the place of manhood in the family. The one legacy from his father is the black-handled knife, with which Pepe demonstrates a fluid grace. But Mama Torres is reluctant to allow Pepe the place of manhood, berating him incessantly as a “peanut,” “lazy coyote,” or “big sheep.” Nonetheless, she “thought him fine and brave, but she never told him so.”

As Pepe leaves for Monterey to buy some medicine, his parting words are, “I will be careful. I am a man.” The trip is allied with his manhood, and indeed he will acquire the adult knowledge of death on the trip. When a drunken man at Mrs. Rodriguez’s house calls him a name—in the first draft he called Jose Torres a thief—Pepe’s sense of manly honor will not permit it. The knife, says Pepe, “went almost by itself.”

Many readers have focused exclusively upon that action and the subsequent flight to the exclusion of suggestive imagery patterns undergirding the tale. Thus, Dan Vogel sees the tale as “the ordeal of transformation from innocence to experience, from purity to defilement.” In a brief note on the story [“Steinbeck’s ‘Flight,’” Explicator 18 (Nov. 1959)], William M. Jones suggests,

The details of Pepe’s flight show how Pepe gradually conquered the family pride that caused his original sin and how through suffering he expiated that sin. Not only does he subdue the proud flesh . . . but in so doing he regained a place in nature that his family, scratching away to get what they could out of the world, had failed to find. This progress seems to be Steinbeck’s explanation of the maturing process.

Walter K. Gordon argues, “What is important in ‘Flight’ is not the crime itself but Pepe’s mental and physical response to it, how he deports himself when the circumstances are propitious for a boy to become a man,” an effort at which, in Gordon’s view, Pepe ultimately fails. Like Steinbeck’s note in the Tortilla Flat notebook, detailing humanity’s trek from the sea to the arid heights, however, the story bears a yet more supple richness and probing of what it means to be human than these views suggest.

In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mr. Shiftlet, spellbound by his own empty phrases, asks Mrs. Lucynell Crater, “What is a man?” The answer comes some time later: “a moral intelligence.” The same question puzzled John Steinbeck. Is humanity the product of evolutionary eons, the offspring of the dark sea’s surging?

The Log from the Sea of Cortez suggests as much:

“A third pattern is woven into the loss of civilized tools and the heavy use of animal imagery—the increasing images of darkness.”

There is tied up to the most primitive and powerful racial or collective instinct a rhythm sense or “memory” which affects everything and which in the past was probably more potent than it is now. It would at least be more plausible to attribute these profound effects to devastating and instinct-searing tidal influences during the formative times of the early race history of organisms.

Or, in Steinbeck’s view, is humanity also a moral intelligence? His answer unfolded steadily throughout his literary career. In The Grapes of Wrath, he speculates,

For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

And in a letter to John O’Hara written a decade later, he asserted,

The great change in the last 2,000 years was the Christian idea that the individual soul was very precious. Unless we can preserve and foster the principle of the preciousness of the individual mind, the world of men will either disintegrate into a screaming chaos or will go into a grey slavery. And that fostering and preservation seem to me our greatest job.

Steinbeck’s own answer to the question is that humanity is unique by virtue of mind and spirit.

In the hot, sun-blasted world of “Flight,” however, when a lazy boy asserts his manhood with a knife, when civilization’s code of conduct is violated and the posse mounts, man is very much reduced to an animal. One recalls Steinbeck’s reflection in his notebook: “Oh man who in climbing up has become lower.” Pepe’s flight into the mountains is also a devolution, paced by a divestment of civilized tools and in incrementally intensifying animal imagery. He loses gun and knife, saddle, horse, and food. John Ditsky notes the pattern of loss [in “Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’: The Ambiguity of Manhood”]:

Beyond the simple deterioration of his possessions—as when his clothing tears away or his flesh is ripped—leading to a contemplation of man’s naked state like that in King Lear, there is the importance of the fact that the objects just named are Pepe’s from his father; they are, as the knife is in fact described, “his inheritance.” Pepe’s attempt to sustain the manhood he has claimed in a single violent act—by means of the tools which were his father’s badge of manhood and his estate—fails; he is finally stripped down to what he brings with him within himself: his own gifts, his own courage.

Stripped of civilized tools, Pepe’s movements are increasingly described in verbs that suggest a primordial or serpentine creature. Pepe “crawled,” “wormed,” “wriggled,” “darted,” “flashed,” “slid,” “writhed,” and “squirmed” in the final stages. Furthermore, his paralyzing thirst strips him of the one thing that separates humanity from animals—speech: “His tongue tried to make words, but only a thick hissing came from between his lips.” Even his tongue becomes infected with blackness—“Between his lips the tip of his black tongue showed”—and the only sound of which he is capable is a “thick hiss.”

As several critics have mentioned, a third pattern is woven into the loss of civilized tools and the heavy use of animal imagery—the increasing images of darkness. From his early fascination with the lights on the altar and the sun-swept cliffs of his home, Pepe’s world is subsumed by blackness, culminating in the Dark Watchers. He leaves for his flight on a morning when “Moonlight and daylight fought with each other, and the two warring qualities made it difficult to see.” Louis Owens observes,

The theme of death is woven on a thread of blackness through the story. It is Pepe’s black knife which initiates the cycle of death. When Pepe flees he wears his dead father’s black coat and black hat. It is the two “black ones,” Rosy and Emilio, who prophesy Pepe’s death. The line of gangrene running the length of Pepe’s arm is black, foreshadowing his death, and it is the “dark watchers” who finally symbolize death itself. From the beginning of the story, Pepe grows increasingly dark, until in the end he will be black like the watchers.

The climactic final portrait is thick with darkness, and even as a new morning breaks the sky, the eagle, which has been present from the start, is replaced by predatory black vultures.

Yet that progression is incomplete. Too many readers confine their attention to that stripping and figurative pattern. At his moment of most profound abnegation, wandering a black wasteland, stripped of civilized tools, an animal contending with animals, Pepe reclaims a uniquely human attribute, the power at once to defy and to submit to his own death. It is the conscious decision of a human, not an animal, and it is accompanied by spiritual awareness: “Pepe bowed his head quickly. He tried to speak rapid words but only a thick hiss came from his lips. He drew a shaky cross on his breast with his left hand.” When the first bullet misses him, Pepe hauls his broken body straighter still to receive the death blow.

John Antico is one of the few scholars to pay attention to that scene and the story’s religious dimension. He observes [in “A Reading of Steinbeck’s ’ Right’,” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring 1965)], “It is only by standing up on two feet and facing death that the sub-human Pepe can give birth to Man. An animal does not face death; death happens to it. A man is aware of what he is facing, and it is this awareness that makes him a man.” Yet, Antico wonders what exactly enables Pepe to get up and face death. What is this quality of manhood that he has discovered? It is not a miracle in response to his sign of the cross. Rather, it arises from an indomitable power within Pepe himself:

Indeed it was a long struggle for Man to emerge, and what prompts this sub-human to get up from all fours and stand on two feet is the inexpressible quality within him which later developed into what we call religion. To attempt to name or define this quality would, however, falsify it. It is not God or religion as civilized man knows them, but that inner quality which eventually leads to religion and the concept of God.

Many have read the story as a supreme document of literary naturalism—as indeed it is. Stripped of all civilized customs and tools, man engages in an animalistic struggle for survival. In the naturalist tradition, “Flight” ranks with London’s “To Light a Fire” and Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as among the best of a kind. But the story is not only that. It is a discovery of what separates humankind from the animals.

In the article “Cutting Loose,” Michael Ratcliffe provides a narrative account of an interview with Steinbeck in 1962 on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Prize. Steinbeck reflected on the Nobel speech he had made, pointing out, “A story is a parable; putting in terms of human action the morals—and immorals—that society needs at the time. Everyone leaves the bullfight a little braver because one man stood up to a bull. Isaiah wrote to meet the needs of his people, to inspire them. It is a meeting of needs.” Ratcliffe asked what kinds of needs, and Steinbeck responded, “Needs of beauty, courage, reform—sometimes just pure pride.” It may well be that Pepe’s response in “Flight” is pure, indomitable pride. His standing to receive the fatal bullet is the asseveration his speechless tongue can no longer make: I am a man! But it is signaled by religious signs, and that too is a pattern of the story. Antico correctly notes, however, that

One hesitates to mention the numerous triads with all their Biblical overtones throughout the story, for then one is tempted to find or seek out strict Biblical parallels or a rigid sort of symbolism or religious allegory which twists the significance of these details all out of proportion. Steinbeck’s method is not symbolism or allegory; he merely suggests religion and Biblical overtones; he actually seems to blur the edges of his analogies so that one feels a religious atmosphere but not a strict and limited Christian reference.

Antico’s caution is well observed. The religious references do not suggest that the story is a parable, a modern crucifixion of a saintly man. Rather, the imagery supports the central premise—that Pepe, finally, is not an animal but a man discovering, albeit tragically, that indomitable, spiritual consciousness of himself as human that separates him from the animals.

While Steinbeck changed the title of his story from “Manhunt” to “Flight” to draw attention from the civilization that pursues to the individual that flees, there is an applicable irony in the first title. Pepe also hunts his manhood, and in his act of knowing acceptance, he finds it. While the story bears all the trappings of a naturalistic document, or to use the terminology Steinbeck was becoming fond of, a nonteleological telling, the flight of Pepe does arrive at a goal.

Source: John H. Timmerman, “‘Flight’: What Is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?” in The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, pp. 189-98.

Edward J. Piacentino

Piacentino is an Associate Professor of English at High Point College. In the following essay, heattempt[s] to demonstrate [that] there are a significant number of animal references which seem to function either to define features of Pepe Torres’ character or to accent some of the physical challenges he experiences during his flight for survival

“Dubbed a sheep, a cow, and then a chicken, Pepe, at least in his mother’s eyes, is, at this stage of his innocent life, much like a domesticated farm animal that needs to be fed, sheltered, and generally watched over by others.”

and the resulting psychological traumas of this ordeal.

Published initially in The Long Valley (1938), “Flight,” a work that one of Steinbeck’s most discerning critics [Warren French, in John Steinbeck, 1975] has called a tale of “frustrated young manhood,” a “depressing account of an unprepared youth’s failure to achieve maturity,” has often been regarded as one of John Steinbeck’s best stories. Peter Lisca, in his analysis of the story [in The Wide World of John Steinbeck, 1958], sees Pepe Torres’ flight as reflecting two levels of meaning. “On the physical level,” Lisca observes, “Pepe’s penetration into the desert mountains is directly proportional to his increasing separation from civilized man and reduction to the state of a wild animal. . . . The symbolic meaning of Pepe’s flight moves in the opposite direction. On this level, the whole action of the story goes to show how man, even when stripped of all his civilized accouterments . . ., is still something more than an animal.”

Other critics have also given notice to the story’s animal references. Joseph Fontenrose, for instance, in correcting an erroneous comment made by Edmund Wilson about The Long Valley, generally interprets the plants and animals of the stories in this collection as having a “symbolic function, helping us to understand the human characters who are really central and really human.” John M. Ditsky, who sees the meaning of Pepe’s manhood as ambivalent—“the contradictions inherent in a situation in which a man gains his life only to lose it”—generally perceives that Pepe must revert to brute animalism as an essential stage in becoming a man, or at any rate must use animal mannerisms to “preserve his manhood.” Ditsky goes on to offer only brief support for this claim by citing in the last part of the story Pepe’s movements, his primitive way of treating his wounded hand, his lancing of his infection, and his desperate digging in an attempt to find water.

The most cogent and perceptive treatment of animal references in “Flight” yet to appear is a brief article by Hilton Anderson, which persuasively demonstrates that “by repeated references to snakes, by the use of such words as crawl, wiggle, wriggle, zig-zag, and hiss, and by his physical descriptions of Pepe, Steinbeck has suggested a rather strong kinship between Pepe and a snake.” Anderson’s interpretation of Pepe as exhibiting snake-like traits is, however, too reductive, for it fails to take into account the diversity and suggestiveness of the other animal references in the story. In other words, some of the characteristics Anderson cites seem to be more related to animallike behavior generally than to the mannerisms of a snake exclusively. But more will be said about this later.

Animal imagery abounds in “Flight,” from the reference in the first sentence to “hissing white waters” of the Pacific Ocean to the “thick hiss” that comes from Pepe’s lips as he tries desperately to speak just before he is shot and killed at the end. In characterizing Pepe near the outset, Steinbeck points out his “sharp Indian cheek bones” and his “eagle nose,” the latter a suggestive image which serves to establish Pepe’s primitive, animal-like nature. Mama Torres, Pepe’s mother, likewise uses animal imagery in describing her son’s laziness. As she tells Pepe,” ‘Some lazy cow must have got into thy father’s family, else how could I have a son like thee’.” And at an earlier time, while she was pregnant with Pepe, she playfully and simplistically points out to him, “‘... a sneaking lazy coyote came out of the brush and looked at me one day. That must have made thee so’.” The coyote mentioned here is, of course, a wild animal, an appropriate reference to highlight Pepe’s primitive animalism.

Pepe’s animal-like nature is further emphasized by the repetition of his somewhat snake-like appearance (He has a “tall head, pointed at the top.”), and also as he throws his big black knife into a redwood post, his wrist, it is noted, “flicked like the head of a snake.” This last image, while reinforcing Pepe’s quick, seemingly instinctive manner of reacting, should perhaps also be viewed in the broader context in which the snake is a universal emblem of evil. In this context, the snakelike quickness that Pepe displays in this basically carefree activity of knife throwing importantly reflects his impetuous nature and foreshadows the ease with which he succumbs to evil in murdering a man in Monterey. As Steinbeck describes Pepe’s rash, seemingly instinctive action during the quarrel scene that leads to the murder, one can see a first-hand manifestation of the youth’s latent animalism: “... the man started toward Pepe and then the knife—it went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before Pepe knew it.” From the apparent noncommittal manner with which Steinbeck recounts Pepe’s spontaneous, unthinking action, one may get the distinct impression that the author does not wish to call the reader’s attention to the fact that the youth is morally culpable, anymore than any cornered, enraged animal would be under similar perilous circumstances.

Another way of interpreting the snake in the image used to describe Pepe’s wrist action when he throws his knife, particularly if one is willing to think in terms of the snake as being poisonous, is to see it as a force potentially destructive to human life. This is especially true when the snake senses his security is in jeopardy. After all, a snake, whether it be poisonous or not, will, by its very nature, usually attack potentially threatening elements that come within its striking range. And in fact this is almost precisely what Pepe, who exhibits snakelike traits, seems to do in Monterey in the fatal quarrel scene. In this scene, which Pepe himself describes to his mother after the fact, he strikes out to defend himself when, in the kitchen of Mrs. Rodriquez, a man, whom he senses to be his adversary, starts toward him in anger, threatening his security. Thus the affinity between the quick movement of Pepe’s wrist and the defensive reaction of a distracted snake becomes functionally appropriate in the quarrel scene for defining another significant facet of Pepe’s character.

There are other animal references in the first part of the story that accent Pepe’s primitive animalism. When Mama Torres orders Pepe to go to Monterey to have the medicine bottle refilled, she calls him a “big sheep,” which by conventional association can be interpreted as an established symbol of primitive, gentle innocence (the lamb being a universal symbol of innocence). Yet, in retrospect, this reference becomes ironic, for Pepe’s nature, as his murderous behavior forthrightly demonstrates, is not that of any submissive domesticated farm animal but rather that of a wild beast. Also, before he begins his journey to the town, Mama Torres calls him a “big coyote,” that will probably sit, she tells him, in the church in Monterey, “flapping . . . [his] mouth over Aves all day while . . . [he] looked at the candles and the holy pictures.” The coyote reference here seems to take on a different meaning from that discussed previously. Initially, it should be remembered, Mama Torres had seen the appearance of a coyote as a sign prefiguring Pepe’s laziness. In this later scene, however, the coyote Mama Torres uses to characterize her son suggests Pepe’s primitive animalism as reflected in the fact that he has been conditioned to respond through very basic, repetitive, mechanical behavioral patterns—which in this instance are evidenced in prayer by rote. Finally, just before Pepe, who claims at this time to be a man, departs, Mama Torres—who is not as convinced of Pepe’s manhood as he himself is—calls him a “foolish chicken,” an apt and degrading metaphor to designate Pepe’s weakness, instability, and immaturity. Dubbed a sheep, a cow, and then a chicken, Pepe, at least in his mother’s eyes, is, at this stage of his innocent life, much like a domesticated farm animal that needs to be fed, sheltered, and generally watched over by others.

The sheep reference is reintroduced soon after Pepe’s departure for Monterey in the description of Emilio and Rosy, his younger brother and sister who remain at home in the relatively safe, secluded environment of their farm home, sleeping, we are told, in boxes “full of straw and sheepskins.” This reference to sheepskins is thematically functional as a counterpoint, for it serves to recall by symbolic association the primitive, innocent, and largely protected environment which the boy Pepe has left. As far as we know Mama Torres does not tell Emilio and Rosy specifically why Pepe will have to flee to the mountains after his return from Monterey, and if this conjecture is correct then most of the animal references which have been employed up to this point in describing Pepe, who as a carefree and lazy youth remained on the farm, reinforce the notion of the Torres’ home as a place mainly of sheltered innocence. Yet this innocence, Steinbeck implies, is only for children.

The second part of the story which focuses on Pepe’s flight to the mountains in an effort to escape his mysterious pursuers also contains numerous suggestive animal references. In fact, an important pattern emerges here when late on the first day of his flight, Pepe moves farther and farther away from sheltered domesticity into the unpredictable and unprotected realm of primitive nature. As Pepe’s horse makes his way slowly and cautiously along a steep mountain trail of broken rock, it is pointed out that lizards “scampered away into the brush as the horse rattled over the little stones.” This seemingly incidental event may actually be viewed as a microcosm of Pepe’s repeated response to his predicament: that is, the lizards flee the potential and uncertain danger of the large and intruding horse as Pepe himself flees his inimical pursuers.

This pattern of using animals to accent Pepe’s flight is repeated several other times. As Pepe’s horse continues to proceed along the trail, the sound of his hooves also frightens vigilant birds and rabbits that sense the danger. Moreover, on the evening of the first day of Pepe’s flight, doves and quail that gather near a spring are stalked by a wildcat that “was creeping toward the spring, belly to the ground . . . “. This situation, like the two previously cited, parallels Pepe’s own and provides another illustration of withdrawal from danger as fitting behavior when the circumstances of survival depend on man’s ability to resort to strategies of primitive animalism. And finally on the night of the first day, the pursuit and flight pattern is further illustrated when the owls hunt the slopes, looking for rabbits. This incident like the others recreates through remarkably similar animal actions the tremendous fear and tension that Pepe’s flight from danger has caused him. In short, the similarly patterned behavior of the animals in this series of scenes serves to reinforce quite blatantly the primitive animalism of Pepe Torres.

As Pepe progresses farther into the mountains, an environment of uncertainty and hostility, he seems to feel even more compelled to act in the manner of a hunted wild beast. When his horse is shot by one of his pursuers, Pepe, Steinbeck observes in the scene that follows, moves with the “instinctive care of an animal,” “worming” and “wriggling” his way to safety behind a rock. The point Steinbeck seems to be making here is certainly not vague, for he emphasizes it throughout the story—namely, the naturalistic view that man must resort to behaving like a brute animal in his struggle to survive. Even though Pepe spots a single eagle flying overhead, free and unencumbered, just before his horse is shot, this eagle becomes ironic when viewed in retrospect and within the context of Pepe’s own greatly restricted and reduced mobility, the result of the untimely loss of his horse and a painful, near maiming injury to his right hand.

Other animal references also serve a functional thematic purpose during the period of Pepe’s flight. In fact, it might be argued that nearly every successive animal image becomes more threatening and sinister than the ones that preceded it. Soon after the injury to his hand, Pepe views a number of wild animals in the following order of appearance: a small brown bird, a high-soaring eagle that “stepped daintily out on the trail and crossed it and disappeared into the brush again,” a brown doe, a rattlesnake, grey lizards, a “big tawny mountain lion,” that sits watching him, and last circling black birds, presumably buzzards, a universal portentous sign of disaster, in this case Pepe’s own approaching death.

It is curious and perhaps significant to note that Pepe displays an almost animal-like cautiousness and vigilance during this time. Though he crawls very near to a rattlesnake before actually seeing it, he, nevertheless, manages to avoid its deadly fangs (unlike his father, who tripped over a stone and fell on a rattlesnake which fatally bit him). Though the grey lizards may not be as formidable a threat as a poisonous rattlesnake, still Pepe, in his animal-like urge to survive, does not want to take any chances and consequently crushes one of these unsuspecting lizards with a stone as it creeps near him. Interestingly, this action seems to anticipate Pepe’s own sudden destruction at the end of the story. The mountain lion, the largest and possibly the most dangerous of the animals Pepe observes during his ordeal, watches Pepe for a long time and in turn is viewed by Pepe at a safe distance before it finally slinks away into the thick brush.

Just after the lion departs, Pepe, hearing the sounds of horses’ hooves pounding loudly on the rocks and the sharp yelp of a dog, and sensing danger to be near, instinctively glides quickly into a nearby brush “almost as quietly as the lion had” and then crouches “up the hill toward the next ridge,” where he stays until dark. Pepe’s withdrawal for self-preservation and the emphasis on his distinct crawling and crouching movements aptly complement his many other previously observed animal-like mannerisms. Then, a short time later, when greatly bothered by the excruciating pain in his infected arm and very much dismayed by having carelessly lost his gun, Pepe, whose state again resembles that of a wild animal, climbs to the top of a ridge “with the effort of a hurt beast.” And finding he cannot speak, the only sound that he utters from his lips is an unintelligible hissing noise, an utterance that is another striking manifestation of his transformation into animalism, a sound, moreover, that he repeats on the next day, the final day of his life, when he realizes that his pursuers (he hears the “crying yelp” of their hounds) are still following his trail.

In observing Pepe’s hissing and crawling and several other of his mannerisms, one may be inclined to accept the view of Hilton Anderson, cited previously, that Steinbeck seems to be consciously emphasizing close affinities between Pepe and a snake. To draw such a connection seems quite logical, except that Anderson tries to push his analogy too far outside the bounds of reasonable credibility. When Pepe crosses himself with his left hand just before the start of the final scene in the story, Anderson, recalling the always readily accessible Edenic myth, sees Pepe’s action as an exorcism of his “serpent qualities.” This observation, though ingenious, is not entirely accurate, however; for as noted earlier in this essay, Pepe is portrayed in the last section of the story as exhibiting several other animal-like traits, such as the dog-like whine he makes when he scrapes his infected arm with a sharp stone or his withdrawing into the brush as the mountain lion had done, neither of which relates to the snake analogy or to the Edenic archetype.

Furthermore, though Pepe Torres stands erect, apparently transcending his animalism in exhibiting some degree of manliness at the story’s conclusion, the sense of his fall or loss must not be interpreted exclusively within the limited context of the Edenic myth but in the more general sense of a human being’s loss of youthful innocence as represented here in Pepe’s death.

The final animal reference that should be commented on is the circling, scavenging buzzards, a foreboding reminder that the end of Pepe’s flight is inevitable death. As the ending of “Flight” clearly indicates, Pepe can flee no farther (He finally reaches the top of the big rock on the ridge’s peak), and importantly his subsequent stoicism and courage, reliable indicators of his maturity, reveal he realizes this: “Once there, he arose slowly, swaying to his feet, and stood erect”—this time as a man, but a man on the verge of losing the precious sense of living he has only recently acquired through the dual acts of murder and the ordeal of flight.

Thus in “Flight,” as I have attempted to demonstrate, there are a significant number of animal references which seem to function either to define features of Pepe Torres’ character or to accent some of the physical challenges he experiences during his flight for survival and the resulting psychological traumas of this ordeal. One set of these references establishes a readily discernible pattern wherein before his journey to Monterey Pepe’s innocence is complemented through descriptions of selected domestic farm animals while later his frenzied flight, which, as we have seen, becomes a jungle-like struggle for survival, is complemented through descriptions of wild, potentially dangerous animals. In the mannerisms of these wild, predatory animals, moreover, a second pattern emerges as they become imposing threats to weaker, smaller animals, which at the sign of danger are compelled to withdraw to safety. This pattern, it should be noted, can be conveniently viewed as a close parallel to Pepe’s own precarious predicament after he commits murder in Monterey. In addition, there are references in which animals seem to be consciously employed as ominous signs, prefiguring Pepe’s inevitable doom. Viewed within the context of the story, then, the various animal references and the patterns they form give “Flight” a richly suggestive texture that is often characteristic of some of the more artistically impressive short stories of twentieth-century literature.

Source: Edward J. Piacentino, “Patterns of Animal Imagery in Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 437-43.

Walter K. Gordon

Gordon is affiliated with Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In the following essay, he discusses Pepe‘s moral deterioration in “Flight.”

Critics have generally agreed with Peter Lisca’s contention [in The Wide World of John Steinbeck, 1958] that “Flight” describes “the growth of a boy to manhood and the meaning of that manhood,” thereby identifying Pepe Torres’ experience with that of Huck Finn, Henry Fleming, George Willard, and Eugene Gant in one of the most familiar intellectual odysseys in American literature. I should like to suggest, however, that Steinbeck’s short story is not really in the Bildungsroman tradition at all; for rather than depicting the spiritual evolution of an adolescent developing and struggling toward manhood, the story, I think, portrays just the opposite—man’s moral deterioration and regression that inevitably results when he abandons responsibility for his actions. Pepe, then, begins as a child and becomes by running away less than an animal rather than a man.

Steinbeck’s parable of crime and punishment is not vitally concerned with either but merely employs

“Rather than depicting the spiritual evolution of an adolescent developing and struggling toward manhood, the story, I think, portrays just the opposite—man’s moral deterioration and regression that inevitably results when he abandons responsibility for his actions.”

the archetypal pattern of the chase as a framework for psychological delineation of character. Steinbeck, for instance, never explicitly tells us that Pepe did kill his victim, nor do we know the specific circumstances out of which the crime evolved. What is important in “Flight” is not the crime itself but Pepe’s mental and physical response to it, how he deports himself when the circumstances are propitious for a boy to become a man. It is true that Pepe, his mother, brother, and sister all think that his drunken quarrel in Mrs. Rodriguez’ kitchen initiates him into manhood. Mrs. Torres even says in this connection, “Pepe goes on a journey. Pepe is a man now.” But it is patently evident that Steinbeck does not accept this primitive ethic, for at no time thereafter does he portray Pepe as an adult with any of the duties, obligations, or responsibilities that adulthood implies. Nor does Steinbeck show any growth or intellectual change in his protagonist—no enlightenment, no increased perception of his world—which normally accompany the process of growing up. Indeed, we can measure Pepe’s intellectual, physical, and moral deterioration from that night when he returns from Monterey to tell his mother of his decision to escape retribution for his crime by fleeing into the mountains.

Steinbeck attempts to illustrate this deterioration on the symbolic as well as the narrative level and incorporates into his story several objects associated with Pepe’s father—the long, black-handled knife, the black coat, and the saddle. It is significant that each of these symbols of adulthood is lost or abandoned in Pepe’s flight from responsibility. Dan

“Only when having been separated from his mother and having cleansed himself of all the accoutrements and artifacts of his father, can the youth stand alone.”

Vogel interprets this as a divesting of the artifacts of the father because the youth, now a man and able to stand alone, no longer needs them. But is not the point here precisely that Pepe is not able to stand alone? Does he not sorely need these objects to survive, their loss putting him at the mercy of a hostile environment that makes of him more a thing than an adult?

Also supporting this view of Pepe’s flight is its structure, which is oriented around the two-stage dehumanization of the protagonist, first from boy to animal, then from animal to inanimate part of nature, an indistinguishable part of the barren landscape. Pepe begins the first stage of his regression by shunning humankind in his avoidance of the red-cheeked fat man on the trail, then by later losing the outer trappings (his hat and the tear in his jeans) that distinguish him from the animals. When his horse is shot, he is forced to walk, then crawl, then wriggle forward on his stomach. Steinbeck describes him at this point as moving “with the instinctive care of an animal.”

The second stage of his retrogression, his progressive identification with a physical waste land that symbolizes his increasing moral and spiritual degeneration, begins when one of the posse’s bullets slivers a piece of granite that pierces Pepe’s hand. At this point Pepe becomes one with the setting of the story. Here the union is only temporary, and he is able to remove the sliver of stone from his hand. In order to stop the bleeding, however, he gathers spider webs on two occasions and presses them into his wound. Later, in order to assuage his thirst, he eats mud; and as he retreats further, those faculties which separate man from lower forms of nature disappear, and Pepe loses the power of speech, his tongue being unable to articulate words and giving rise to hissing sounds only. The final degradation takes place when after being struck by two bullets, he rolls down a hill, starting a small avalanche that covers only his head, an action symbolic of the obliteration of all reasoning powers. The identification with nature and the journey from manhood and its compelling responsibilities are complete!

Source: Walter K. Gordon, “Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’: Journey to or from Maturity?” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1966, pp. 453-55.

Dan Vogel

Vogel is chairman of the Department of English at the Jerusalem College for Women in Israel. He is the author of The Three Masks of American Tragedy (1974) and a critical biography of poet Emma Lazarus. In the following excerpt, Vogel examines the mythical elements of Steinbeck’s “Flight.

More than a mere allegory, “Flight” reveals characteristics of myth and tragedy. A myth is a story that tries to explain some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon, and is especially associated with religious rites and beliefs. The natural phenomenon, for Steinbeck, is not the facts of nature, with which historical myths deal; rather, it is . . . the development of innocent childhood into disillusioned manhood. The myth that Steinbeck wrought also contains another quality of myth, the rite. The plot of “Flight” narrates symbolically the ritual: the escape from the Mother, the divestiture of the Father, and the death and burial of Childhood. To discern these mythic symbols, it is necessary to review the narrative facts.

At the beginning of the story, Pepe, though 19 years of age, has all the innocence of the “toy-baby” his mother calls him... .

When his rather domineering mother—who constantly taunts him with his inability to be “a man”—asks him to go to Monterey, “a revolution took place in the relaxed figure of Pepe.”. . . He is asked, surprisingly, to go alone; he is permitted to wear his father’s hat and his father’s hatband and to ride in his father’s saddle... .

When Pepe returns, he has killed a man with his father’s knife, left behind him at the scene of the crime. The look of innocence is gone; he has been shocked by a fact of life, an extreme independent act. His mother quickly understands and helps him outfit himself for the flight into the mountains. She gives him especially his father’s black coat and rifle. Weighted down by the accoutrements of his father, Pepe separates himself from his mother. She recognizes the change. She tells the little boy, “Pepe is a man now. He has a man’s thing to do.” . . . Logically, however, this is not necessarily so. A man might possibly have been expected to give himself up and pay for his crime. It seems to me, then, that Pepe’s mother perceived that her son is entering manhood and must stand alone. This he must do.

The ordeal of transformation from innocence to experience, from purity to defilement begins. There is the physical pain of the ordeal, symbolized by a cut hand that soon becomes gangrenous. There is the psychological pain—the recognition of a strangeness in this life that is omnipresent, silent, watchful and dark—the sense of Evil, or Tragedy, or Retribution. This realization is symbolized by the narratively gratuitous, unrealistic presence of the black figures, the “dark watchers” who are seen for a moment on the tops of ridges and then disappear. . . . These are the silent inscrutable watchers from above, the universal Nemesis, the recognition of which signals a further step into manhood. . . .

Only [when] having been separated from his mother and having cleansed himself of all the accoutrements and artifacts of his father, can the youth stand alone. But to Steinbeck this is far from a joyous or victorious occasion. It is sad and painful and tragic. Pepe rises to his feet, “black against the morning sky,” . . . astride a ridge. He is a perfect target and the narrative ends with the man against the sky shot down. The body rolls down the hillside, creating a little avalanche, which follows him in his descent and covers up his head. Thus innocence is killed and buried in the moment that Man stands alone.

Thus the myth ends, as so many myths do, with violence and melodrama. What the myth described is the natural miracle of entering manhood. When serenity of childhood is lost, there is pain and misery. Yet there is nevertheless a sense of gain and heroism which are more interesting and dramatic. It is a story that has fascinated many from [William] Wordsworth to [Ernest] Hemingway, and what Steinbeck has written is a myth that describes in symbols what has happened to each of us.

Source: Dan Vogel, “Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’: The Myth of Manhood,” in College English, Vol. 23, No. 3, December, 1961, pp. 225-26.


Antico, John. “A Reading of Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, Spring, 1965 pp. 45- 53.

Gordon, Walter K. “Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’: Journey to or from Maturity?,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. Ill, No. 4, Summer, 1966, pp. 453-55.

Jones, William M. “Steinbeck’s ‘Flight’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 18, November, 1959, Item 11.

Further Reading

French, Warren. “Adventures in the Long Valley,” in John Steinbeck, pp. 80-94. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961.

Discussion of Steinbeck’s short fiction which finds “Flight” comparable to Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, “since Pepe, like Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, is an impetuous but not too intelligent young man who is destroyed when a social situation places upon him responsibilities he is unequipped to assume.”

McCarthy, Paul. “The Steinbeck Territory,” in John Steinbeck, pp. 23-45. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980.

Discusses “Flight” as a story which is enriched by its successful blend of several important elements. McCarthy notes that the story’s symbolism, imagery, and setting combine with “such traditional themes as the flight from society into the wild, and passage from innocence to experience” to form an “excellent story” which is richer and more complex than other Steinbeck stories, such as “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail.”

Young, Stanley. “The Short Stories of John Steinbeck,” in The New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1938, p. 7.

Review of The Long Valley which finds “Flight” a story concerned primarily with Pepe’s struggle with the primitive emotion of raw fear. Young considers the story “as terrifying and as vivid as the flight of Reynard the Fox as [John] Masefield set it down.”


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FLIGHT . The image of a human being escaping the bonds of earthly life to float and soar about the skies unencumbered and free appears in religious myths, mystical tracts, ritual dramas, and imaginative expressions around the world, from the most archaic to the most contemporary of cultures. While of course their specific historical circumstances and motivations vary, one still feels that in some ways the imagination of the Paleolithic cave dweller who painted the figure of a man with a bird's head on the walls of the caves at Lascaux is not so different from the imagination that created the ancient Greek story of Icarus yearning to fly to the sun or that of the poets of Vedic India who sang praises of the long-haired ascetic who "flies through the air, looking on all shapes below, the friend to all the gods" (gveda 10.136.4). Perhaps, too, this imagination is not so different in the end from that which helped lift the Wright brothers into the air above Kitty Hawk.

Accounts of human flight are at times quite dramatic, as in the neo-Hebraic text the Apocalypse of Moses, which tells of Moses' ascension into the various heavens, each one inhabited by frightening and dreadful angels who breathe fire and lightning and whose sweat flows into a mighty burning river. Other tales of flight convey a mood of peacefulness, as in the nineteenth-century accounts of Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified, a Carmelite nun who floated about the yard of her nunnery for hours at a time, sometimes perching softly in the treetops like a bird. Some accounts are quite charming, like the medieval Sanskrit text that tells neophyte yogins that a person trying to master the art of levitation may have some difficulty at first and so will bounce across the ground like a jumping frog, but after increased practice will fly about with ease (see Yogatattva Upaniad 5355).

Rituals as well as myths also frequently include references to or enactment of aerial travel. Alchemists and Daoist priests in ancient China, for example, clothed themselves with feathered wings while performing various religious ceremonies so that they might fly about the skies with the immortals. Similarly, at one point in the Vedic Vajapeya rite the priest and the ritual's patron are instructed to climb the sacrificial pillar, at the top of which they spread their arms as if flapping their wings and proclaim, "We have come to the heavens, to the gods we have come! We have become immortal" (Taittīriya Sahitā 1.7.9). The Vedic ritual system as a whole is often described in ornithological terms. The performance of the Agnicayana (fire ritual), for example, revolves around the construction of an altar in the shape of a bird, suggesting that the ritual transports its oblations to the heavens the way a bird soars through the skies.

Dimensions of Magical Flight

Scholars have offered a variety of theories regarding the origin and meaning of humanity's fascination with magical flight. Some, such as Arthur Maurice Hocart, an anthropologist, have seen in this theme remnants of an archaic solar worship and reverence for the king (who was felt to be the sun, or the son of the sun), who was always carried about on the shoulders of his subjects and thus "flew" everywhere he went. Others, such as Geo Widengren, a scholar of Near Eastern religions, have seen in myths and rituals involving flight distinct elements of religious ideologies based on divine kingship; the protagonist exemplifying such ideologies (originally the king, but later also a prophet or savior) is said to ascend to the realm of the high god in order to receive the sanction to rule the earthly community below. Some theorists feel that the theme represents elements of initiation and rites of passage: The flight typifies the state of being in which the initiate stands between the old and the new modes of existence. Some psychologists, especially those influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, have argued that the desire to fly is really a subliminal desire for sexual power, and that the feelings accompanying such an experience are repressed aspects of sexual arousal. Students of other disciplines in the social sciences maintain that magical flight expresses a person's search for a legitimation of authority over other people, or a wish to be free of personal limitations.

There is no doubt that to fly is to have power, and some theorists have held that the search for power is the central motivation common to all religious experience and expression. Whether or not this means, however, that themes of magical flight in religious myths and rituals derive from specific modes of power (such as royal prestige, prophetic influence, personal gratification, or existential autonomy) will remain open to debate. The issue is complicated by the fact that many types of personssovereigns, saints, visionaries, magicians, priests, ascetics, mystics, lovers, philosophershave been said to undergo such uplifting experiences. Since the 1950s Mircea Eliade has argued that it would be a mistake to conclude that the mythic theme of magical flight derives from only one source, or that it reflects only one stage in human cultural or personal development. According to Eliade, magical flight and its related symbolism (learning the language of birds, the cultivation of ecstasy, rapturous mystical images, and so on) reflect an experience of abolishing everyday ways of knowing the world, the desire for which is expressed in images of transcendence and freedom. Eliade further maintains that this desire is, in fact, constitutive of humanity itself. If this interpretation is correct, then symbols of magical flight not only derive from a moment in human history but also reveal a structure of human consciousness, an existential dimension to the human imagination that "must be ranked among the specific marks of man" (Eliade, 1960, p. 106).

The point is well taken. Studies in the history of religions have repeatedly emphasized that Homo sapiens is homo symbolicus, defined in part by the ability to make and be moved by symbols, especially symbols of various extraordinary modes of being. At the start of the twentieth century James G. Frazer and Julius von Negelein, among others, noted that religions from around the world have used the image of the bird to signify the human soul, suggesting that celestial and aerial symbols often represent sublime emotions and spiritual ideals. One might recognize such themes in Augustine's account in his Confessions of his experience at Ostia when he and his mother, both radiant with spiritual love, soar up to the heavens from where the celestial bodies shine onto the earth. One finds similar themes in traditional Islamic accounts of Muammad's Miʿrāj, in which the Prophet ascends through the seven heavens of the vertical cosmos to learn sacred lessons from his predecessors in the prophetic lineage who now live in each heaven and draw near to the throne of Allah. This ascension has become a mythic and poetic paradigm for the practices and ideals of ūfī mysticism. Tales of a person's flight through the skies frequently include an emotional tone of longing to be free of the bonds that tie humanity to the ways of the world. A similar longing perhaps enlivened the imagination of the Hebrew psalmist who sang, "Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then I would fly away and be at rest" (Ps. 55:6).

Protagonists who fly through the air do so for more than emotional and mystical reasons. They may assert their ability to rise above the laws of the physical world and thus to gain control over what may be experienced as an oppressive universe. This may be inferred from the South Asian use of such Sanskrit terms as kaivalya ("autonomy") to describe one of the goals of yogic practice, which is marked by such autonomous acts as flying through the air (see Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra, chap. 4 and its commentaries). Similarly, the Theravāda Buddhist tradition teaches that an adept monk can fly cross-legged through the atmosphere "like a bird in flight" (see Majjhima Nikāya 1.33, etc.).

At other times, the world is understood to reflect the beauty and wisdom of the divine plan; to fly about it, then, is to see more of it than is normally possible. This may be part of what the Persian ūfī Farīd al-Dīn ʿAar longed to do when, in his epic poem The Conference of Birds, he expresses a wish to fly through the air to all regions of the earth in order "to enjoy all beauties."

At other times, people may want to fly in order to see into the future (movement through vertical space is often associated with movement through time); to escort dead people to their new lives in the unknown world; to obtain valuable medicinal or cultic knowledge from various spiritual beings; or to locate souls that have become lost in the different layers of the universe. While the religious specialist most adept at such divination is the shaman of north-central Asia, the ecstatic experience characterized by such flights appears throughout the world.

The ability to fly through the air therefore often includes an ethical or normative dimension, for the protagonist who can travel to the future, as well as to other worlds, can see what kinds of lives people on earth can expect to have in other realms after they die. Subsequent to such a flight, the aerial traveler can return to earth to tell people how to act so that they may live in the more comfortable or prestigious afterworlds. Such is the case, for example, in the Zoroastrian tale told in the Ardā Wirāz Nāmag, in which the priest Virāf falls into an ecstatic sleep after drinking a cup of mang and travels through the heavens and hells that are the respective postmortal homes of the pious and the infidel members of the priestly community. Having gained this knowledge, he then returns to his colleagues on earth and tells them what he has learned so that they can adjust their religious practices accordingly.

Types of Magical Flight

The various scenarios in the world's myths and rituals involving extraordinary aerial flight are so numerous that one could distinguish any number of forms and interpret their individual meanings in an equal number of ways. To arrive at a universal typology of flight, then, is to generalize in a way that might make even thoroughgoing structuralists somewhat wary. The following schema is intended to be comprehensive, but does not pretend to include all variations.

Autonomous this-worldly flight (levitation)

Hagiographies from religious traditions around the world often include depictions of various saints, mediators, devotees, and other exemplary figures who are able at certain times to float up off the ground without visible assistance and without injury. Sometimes these experiences are intentional and desirable, as is implied in a lesson from the Yogatattva Upaniad (117): "Thrusting the tongue into the back of the throat and focusing one's eyes on the spot between the eyebrows, one sits in the posture in which one gains the power to float up into the air." At other times, these experiences seem to catch the community by surprise, as in a story about Alfonso Liguori, who, while giving a sermon one day, offered himself to an image of the Virgin and, stretching out his arms (like a bird?), floated several feet off the platform, whereupon the two thousand people listening were amazed and filled with admiration. While most traditional hagiographies express wonder at such events, many also include implicit or explicit criticism of people who willingly drift about in the air in front of others, since such behavior is either physically dangerous or distracting to the normal person's religious concentration or constitutes an arrogant display of spiritual authority. The ūfī tradition, for example, criticizes those who undertake a magical levitation in order to enact a miracle or gain a vision, for to do so is comparable to making the pilgrimage to Mecca merely for the sake of business or pleasure.

The Bollandists' Acta Sanctorum uses such descriptive terms as a terra levabatur ("raised above the surface of the earth"), corporalite elevatus est ("he or she was elevated bodily"), and raptus ("taken up") to describe those events in Roman Catholic history in which a person is reported to have floated up off the ground while deep in prayer, during moments of deep emotion, or while performing devotions. Since the classical period in India, Sanskrit texts have used such technical terms as laghuman ("lightness"), utkramaa ("stepping upward"), and gauravahīnatā ("gravity destroying") to describe the power a yogin gains while learning to meditate properly. Islam distinguishes two types of mystics, those who are passively "drawn upward" (majdhūb ) and those who actively stride (sālik ) upward through the spheres by their own arduous reflection and effort. But such technical terms, among any number of others from the literatures of the world's religions, seem too specialized for comparative use. The English and French word levitation has been used since the nineteenth century by European hagiographers to describe such events in their respective traditions. While the term seems somewhat clumsy, it might suit the comparativist who has recognized such themes in other religions as well.

Levitations may be intentional or unintentional, repeated or unique, momentary or long-lasting. They may take the person over an extensive geography or they may involve rising just an inch or two above the ground. In any case, the adept remains independent of external assistance and, while he or she may be said to alter the physical laws of the world, never leaves the physical structure of the cosmos.

Although levitations are often depicted as strange and astounding events that arrest people's attention and thrill the storytellers, they are of themselves rarely if ever soteriologically transformative and do not constitute an ultimately valuable experience. Rather, tales of levitation mark the esteem that the particular tradition holds for the central figure, or they serve as a means by which the tradition recognizes those specific practices and attitudes (spiritual integrity, strength of will, loving purity and devotion, self-discipline, obedience to the divine, etc.) that it holds to be most valuable.

Dependent this-worldly flight

To the category of dependent magical flights belong those instances in which a person is lifted up off the ground by a flying animal, spirit, or divine creature of some sort and is escorted through the skies over a wide area of the earth and sometimes at great height. These flights are similar to autonomous levitations in that the protagonists never leave the realm of the atmosphere and thus remain within the worldly cosmos, the realm of human activity and community. They differ from levitations in that the protagonists are dependent on another being or outside agent to bring them into the skies.

Sometimes these flights allow a hero to escape in a horizontal direction and at great speed from a situation of great anxiety or terror, often from death personified. Accordingly, the emotional tone of such stories is fervent and fearful. Folklorists have used the German term magische Flucht to describe such a flight from a frightening predicament and have found the theme in cultures all over the world. Eliade has noted that "it is important to distinguish one essential element [in such horizontal high-speed flights]: the desperate effort to be rid of a monstrous presence, to free oneself" (Eliade, 1960, p. 104).

At other times, this-worldly flights escorted by a supernatural being reflect less frightening feelings and signify less anxious situations. Sometimes they bring the central character to a new and highly desirable land or a more satisfying life in a distant earthly paradise. Sometimes they free him or her from the drudgery of daily chores long enough to add new wonder to their understanding of the world. Sometimes they show the character the superiority of his or her religious tradition over another, for to fly over the heads of the followers of another tradition is to be better than they are.

In general, tales of escorted this-worldly flights either express a notion that escape or existential change is possible no matter how bleak things look, or help the members of the religious community reaffirm the worthiness of their tradition and encourage people from other traditions to become part of their own. As such, many tales of an escorted this-worldly flight serve conversion as well as self-affirming functions.

Otherworldly flights (ascensions)

A third general category of magical flights involves a protagonist's journey to dimensions or levels of the sacred cosmos other than the earthly one. These journeys may be solitary and autonomous or they may be guided by supernatural beings. In either case, otherworldly flights, or ascensions, necessarily involve a radical transformation of one's being, a change in ontological status so powerful that one moves from one mode of existence to another. This transformation is typically depicted as being of ultimate value and is considered soteriologically efficacious. Such experiences reward specific people for their commitment to religious practices, their transformative state of mind, or their embodiment of respected personality traits. The central axis of these aerial journeys tends to be a vertical one, although there are instances of horizontal travels to other worlds as well. Whereas stories of the magische Flucht type of this-worldly flight evoke emotions of release, freedom, safety, or personal power, narratives of ascent evoke emotions arising from the transcendence of this world and a concurrent disjunction with normal reality and personal existential situations. If this-worldly flight gets one out of the grasp of something horrible or above the heads of everybody else in the world, ascension gets one out of the world altogether.

Myths of vertical travel to the heavens above the skies are often associated with the protagonist's previous or subsequent descent along the same axis to the hells or otherworlds below. Therefore, ascensions, like other religious forms of magical flight, often include divinatory and ethical elements. However, unlike levitations and this-worldly flights (which involve travel across the geographies of the terrestrial world), an ascension takes one beyond the dimensions of human space and history, since vertical movement is often synonymous with movement through, or the abolition of, time. Ascensions are typologically different from levitations and this-worldly flights in that ascensions often include apocalyptic or eschatological themes. Thus, although they appear in other traditions as well, it is in Zoroastrianism, apocalyptic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that myths of ascension are most prevalent, for it is in these traditions that the end of history is most consistently associated with the ascension of a savior into the vertical heavens above the terrestrial realm.

Figures from the world's religions who ascend to other worldsprophets, visionaries, saints, founders, perfected beings, and so onsometimes return to earth with new power or knowledge that is of soteriological benefit to the community as a whole. Such an ascending and returning mediator might well function, then, as a shaman. In other instances, he or she remains in the sacred world above, never to return. Such a person might then serve as a model for others in their religious practices and attitudes, or as an example of a new and transformed being.

See Also

Ascension; Birds; Shamanism.


The best place to begin further reading on flight and flight symbolism is with three works by Mircea Eliade: Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (New York, 1960), pp. 99122; Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), pp. 102108; and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (New York, 1964), pp. 190198, 477507, and elsewhere. As always, Eliade's works are useful for their extensive bibliographies as well as their typological insights.

Students interested in the varieties of magical flight (more specifically, varieties of the magische Flucht of this essay's typology) in the world's folktales should look to Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature, 2d ed., rev. & enl., 6 vols. (Bloomington, Ind., and Helsinki, 19551958). Sample motifs include the following: D670, Magic Flight; E372, Soul in Form of Bird; F61, Person Wafted to Sky; F62, Bird Carries Person to or from Upper World; F1021, Extraordinary Flights through the Air. Folklorists would also want to see Antti Aarne's Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, translated and enlarged by Stith Thompson as The Types of the Folk-Tale (1928; reprint, New York, 1971), entries 313314, "The Magic Flight," or Aarne's Die magische Flucht (Helsinki, 1930).

Those who wish to find traditional accounts of levitations, magical flights, and ascensions in the lives of Christian saints have no better place to turn than the Acta Sanctorum, a mammoth collection (64 volumes) of hagiographies edited by the Bollandists in a project that was begun in the seventeenth century by Johannes Bollandus and was carried on by Godefridus Henschenius and subsequent editors from the Society of Jesus in Belgium (Brussels, 16431931). A less imposing collection, and one centering exclusively on aerial events in the lives of the saints, is Olivier LeRoy's pedantic yet still somewhat amused Levitation: An Examination of the Evidence and Explanations (London, 1928). For accounts of celestial travel, usually by the soul after death, in antiquity, see Josef Kroll's Die Himmelfarht der Seele in der Antike (Cologne, 1931). A recent work that in a way complements LeRoy and Kroll is Ioan P. Culianu's "Le vol magique dans l'antiquité tardive," Revue de l'histoire des religions 198 (JanuaryMarch 1981): 5766; a short study of instances in late antiquity when people who are supposed to be able to fly fail to do so.

For views of the soul as a bird, see James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, part 2, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul, 3d ed., rev. & enl. (London, 1911), or Julius von Negelein's "Seele als Vogel," Globus 74 (1901): 357361, 381384. Arthur Maurice Hocart's notion that magical flight derives from an ancient solar worship appears in his "Flying through the Air," Indian Quarterly (1923): 2831 (also in Indian Antiquary 52 [1923]: 8082). Readers will find Geo Widengren's ideas on divine kingship and the aerial motif in his The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book (King and Savior III ) (Uppsala, 1950) and Muammed, the Apostle of God, and His Ascension (Uppsala, 1955).

For a study of Zoroastrian notions of ascension, see Martin Haug's Über das Ardâi Virâf nameh (Munich, 1879). For a collection and discussion of Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Greek, Roman, and Persian apocalyptic tales of ascension, see Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, edited by John J. Collins, special issue of Semeia 14 (1975).

New Sources

Luck-Huyse, Karin. Der Traum von Fliegen in der Anticke: mit 12 Aildungen. Stuttgart, 1997.

William K. Mahony (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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Three different groups of animalsinsects, birds, and mammalsinclude species that have evolved the ability to fly. This ability developed independently in each group through separate evolutionary processes. Recent research has shown that a fourth group of animals, the now-extinct winged reptiles known as Pterosaurs, were probably capable of true flight as well. Whereas the aerodynamics of flight apply equally to all types of flying animals, the mechanical details of flight vary significantly among the groups.

All insects, birds, and mammals that fly move themselves forward by flapping their wings. They do not depend exclusively on gliding and soaring to remain aloft. However, many species of birds combine extensive gliding and soaring with episodes of true flight to conserve energy.

Forward flight is produced in all true flying animals in a similar way. Each animal moves its wings up and down in a circle or figure-eight pattern. The wings are moved downward and backward, producing forward thrust and lift. Then the wings are rotated and moved back to the original position to start a new stroke.


Insects have two pairs of wings, but one pair may be small and degenerate or modified into wing covers. So insects may use either one or two pairs of wings in flight. In insects with one pair of wings, such as flies, mosquitoes, wasps, and bees, the tip of the wing moves in an oval path. On the down stroke, the wing is held parallel to the body and is moved forward and down. On the upstroke, the wing is turned perpendicular to the body plane.

Wing movement in insects with two pairs of wings, such as dragon flies, is similar, but the front and rear wings move alternately, one wing moving down while the other moves up. Because of the exoskeleton anatomical structure of insects, muscles are not attached directly to the wings. Instead, the wings are attached to the thorax (chest area). Four sets of muscles inside the thorax cause it to flex and twist, thus moving the wings.

Bats and Birds

Some people think that bats are birds because both fly. Bats and birds do have some common features, such as very lightweight skeletons, but bats are mammals, not birds. The bones of a bat's wing are quite distinct from a bird's. The long bones of a bat's wings are actually finger bones with a thin, leathery membrane stretched between. Only the thumbs of the bat remain as useful digits. The thumbs have strong claws that the bat can use for climbing.

In birds and bats, the muscles that control wing movement are attached directly to the wing bones. Birds have large chest muscles that are attached to a deep, keel-like sternum (breastbone). The depth of the sternum gives the wing muscles additional leverage, allowing for strong flapping motion. Smaller muscles return the wing to the upper position. Pterosaurs also had deep, keel-like sternums.

Birds also have specially designed wing feathers to aid flight. These feathers flatten out, overlap, and lock together on the down stroke to produce lift. As the wing is drawn back up, the individual feathers separate and rotate. This allows air to flow between the feathers, reducing drag. The downward movement of the wing propels the bird forward and provides lift. In forward flight, the body does not remain stationary in the air, so the wing always moves forward relative to the air. From the viewpoint of the bird, the tip of the wing moves in an oval or figure-eight path, with the wing tip moving forward and downward on the "power" stroke then upward and backward on the return stroke.

Most birds and all bats spend their time in the air in forward flight. Birds fly by flapping or gliding. Bats do not glide efficiently, so they flap continuously. Flapping consumes large amounts of energy. To conserve energy while staying aloft, many birds alternate flapping and gliding. Birds such as woodpeckers and many sparrows flap furiously, then fold their wings and glide through the air like little guided missiles. This produces an undulating motion to their flight path: they move up and forward while flapping, then move down and forward while gliding.

The long wings of many larger birds allow for extended periods of soaring and gliding. In contrast, the short, tiny wings of a hummingbird must be flapped constantly to keep the bird hovering in the air. Not surprisingly, hummingbirds must consume an enormous number of calories each day to provide the energy for their constant flapping.

Hovering is a specialized form of flight that is characteristic of, but not unique to, hummingbirds. Kestrels and kingfishers often hover when hunting. Other birds hover occasionally as well. However, hovering requires large energy expenditures, so it is common only among hummingbirds, whose body mass is very small.

In flight, hummingbirds can move forward, backward, up, or down. Hovering allows hummingbirds to hang motionless while drawing calorie-rich nectar from the blooms of plants. This allows hummingbirds to obtain nectar that would otherwise be out of reach. Hummingbirds have specialized shoulder joints that allow the wing to be rotated completely around to an upside-down position. By rotating the wing this way, the hummingbird is able to gain lift from both the forward and backward strokes of its wing. The wing tip follows a figure-eight pattern as in other birds, but the specialized shoulder joint allows the figure eight to be turned sideways. While performing these adjustments, it is not unusual for hummingbirds to reach a flapping frequency of up to 100 times per second.

Energy Requirements of Birds

The expression "eats like a bird" is often used to describe someone who eats a very small amount of food, but this is not an accurate description. Relative to their body weight, birds eat an enormous amount of food. An active hummingbird may eat three or four times its own body weight in food every day. This would be like an 80 kilogram (180 pound) person eating 240 kilograms (530 pounds) of food each day. Hummingbirds (and other birds) eat so much food because sustained flight requires that their large muscles work constantly, and this expenditure of energy must be replenished continually.

The metabolic rate is the rate at which a bird, or any animal, converts food calories into available energy. Flight takes a large amount of energy, so a high metabolic rate is necessary. To maintain the high metabolic rate necessary to provide energy for flight, birds must consume foods with the greatest possible energy content.

Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins all provide energy. Birds can use as much as 90 percent of the energy found in these foods. The diet of birds varies according to species, but common sources of carbohydrates include seeds, fruit, and flower nectar. Protein comes from such sources as insects, worms, fish, and small mammals, depending on the species, size, and habitat of a bird.

Seeds are rich in carbohydrates and fats, both of which are good sources of calories. Most fruit contains sugar, but fruit is not very high in calories compared to seeds and nuts. That is why fruit-eating birds need to spend long periods of their day feeding to get enough food. Flower nectar, which provides a rapidly metabolized, high-energy source, is mostly sugar dissolved in water. Twenty percent of all bird species utilize this energy source at least part of the time. Although nectar is good for quick energy, it contains little protein or fat. So birds supplement their nectar diet with other sources.

Insects are an excellent food source for birds. Insects are high in protein and fats and therefore contain a lot of energy-producing calories. Most people are surprised to learn that insects provide as much as 50 percent of the calories in a hummingbird's diet! Unfortunately for birds, insects are not always available. Although they are common in spring and summer, they die off during the colder months. Insect-eaters must switch to other foods or move to warmer areas where insects are more common. Birds of prey, including owls and hawks, rely on small mammals and fish as sources of protein.

How Birds Conserve Energy

Because flight requires so much energy, bird species have evolved various energy-saving techniques. Geese, cranes, pelicans, and other large birds often fly in formation. This is an energy saving technique. Each bird's downward wing stroke creates an updraft. By flying in formation, each bird is able to use the updrafts produced by the bird just in front of it. This provides extra lift and saves energy over long distances. The lead bird does not get any benefit, so birds take turns leading the formation. Energy saving formations include the familiar "V" of geese and swans and the ragged diagonal line in which brown pelicans often fly.

Gliding and soaring are two other energy saving techniques. Gliding is "coasting" on the wind in a straight line or gentle curve while gradually losing altitude. Soaring is using air currents to gain altitude.

The long, slender wings of albatrosses and shearwaters are ideal for gliding. Using a combination of gliding and soaring, an albatross can fly over hundreds of kilometers of ocean surface in search of food without flapping. The glide path starts high above the ocean waves with the bird headed down-wind and slowly losing altitude in a long, straight glide. Close to the ocean surface, the wind speed is less because of friction between the air and ocean surface. As it gets close to the water surface, the albatross turns into the slower wind and, using its momentum, soars back up to the original altitude, never flapping its wings unless absolutely necessary. It then turns back downwind and repeats the process.

Gulls, hawks, and many other birds soar to take advantage of updrafts created when wind encounters an obstacle such as a cliff or mountain. Birds can soar on these updrafts for long periods of time with little effort.

Other species, such as eagles and vultures, take advantage of rising columns of heated air called thermals to soar with little effort to great altitudes, from which they glide downward to the next thermal. Their long, broad wing shape allows them to take advantage of these upward air currents. Thermals occur because warm air is less dense than cold air. Denser cold air forces the less dense warm air to move upward as the cold air flows in to replace the warm air. Thermals are often found over plowed fields and darkly colored parking lots. Most birds whose flight patterns rely on thermals are searching for prey or carrion. Some birds, including storks, use thermals to migrate, climbing within one thermal, then gliding downward to the next.

Wing Shape and Flight Behavior

Each different kind of bird has a unique wing shape specially adapted to that bird's flight behavior and habitat. Birds that skim the surface of large bodies of water have glider-like wings that are long but slender and tapered to take advantage of the aerodynamic conditions of their environment. The narrow wings of birds of this type, such as the albatross, minimize drag, whereas the spectacular length of their wings (over 3.3 meters in the Wandering Albatross) provides sufficient lift.

Eagles, vultures, and hawks have wings that are both long and wide. This combination of length and width produces a large wing surface area that is ideal for soaring. These birds also have other specialized adaptations for soaring. For example, at the tips of their wings, each flight feather operates separately and independently of the others. This reduces drag due to turbulence, helps prevent air from spilling over to the top of the wing (which would reduce lift), and increases the bird's ability to make the small flight adjustments necessary for optimal soaring.

Just as the flight patterns of ground-dwelling birds differ from those of sea birds, such as the albatross, or high-altitude birds, such as hawks and eagles, so do their wing shapes. Ground-dwelling birds, including pheasants and turkeys, need to be able to fly rapidly for short distances. Their typical behavior is to remain motionless for as long as possible until a predator approaches too closely, then explode into flight with much noise, thus distracting and confusing the predator. This kind of flight requires a short, broad wing attached to powerful chest muscles. This wing design also allows the bird to change direction rapidly. However, such a short, rounded wing is not suitable for extended flight. Although they are not ground-dwelling birds, parrots and other tree-dwelling birds also exhibit this type of wing. Because they do not need to fly great distances, their rounded wings enable them to maneuver quickly through the many trees of their forest homes.

High-speed birds, including falcons and swallows, have slender, tapered wings that can be flapped rapidly and efficiently to produce high-speed flight. All birds capable of high-speed flight exhibit this wing shape that produces little drag. Peregrine falcons are widely reported to have the fastest flight of all birds. One falcon overtook an airplane flying at 175 mph. However, this was in a dive. The highest speed ever reported for a bird in level flight was 218 mph for a spine tailed swift, Hirandapus caudacutus, in the Cachar Hills of India. This speed was recorded by timing the flight of the bird between two known points using a stopwatch.

It would seem that flight gives enormous evolutionary advantages. The Pterosaurs inhabited a wide variety of different habitats and survived for 140 million years. Bats occur in every part of the world except the Arctic and Antarctic. Worldwide, there are thousands of different species of birds, with 1,700 different species found in North America alone, inhabiting a wide variety of ecological niches. However, the insects are the real success story of flight. Nearly one million insects have been identified, and many entomologists estimate there at least that many more. Insects were the first to evolve the ability to fly, and they have made the most of it!

see also Gliding and Parachuting; Locomotion.

Elliot Richmond


Audubon Nature Encyclopedia. Philadelphia: Curtis Publishing Company, 1971.

Curtis, Helena, and N. Sue Barnes. Biology, 5th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 1989.

Wetmore, Alexander. Song and Garden Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1975.

Internet Resources

"Flight Mechanics." The Bird Site. <http://www.nhm.org/birds/guide/pg018.html>.


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Flying organisms include insects, birds, and bats, all of which evolved the ability to fly (and the wings that flight requires) independently. Flying squirrels, flying fish, and other animals that only glide are not considered capable of true flight. In general, flight requires an animal to generate enough lift to overcome the force of gravity. Unless it is hovering, the animal also needs to generate directional thrust, to move once it is in the air. The different groups of animals manage these tasks in different ways.


Among the many other titles insects hold (including being the most numerous and diverse group of animals) they can claim the title of the first flying organisms, having taken to the air tens of millions of years before the pterosaurs (extinct flying dinosaurs), and hundreds of millions of years before birds and bats. Most insects can fly, or are descended from flying ancestors, and are grouped in the subclass Pterygota ("having wings"). The more primitive, nonflying insects are grouped in the class Apterygota ("not having wings"). Unlike wings of the other flying animals, insect wings are not modifications of legs but rather separate appendages , outgrowths of the thorax. It is not known how insect wings evolvedthe fossil record is not that completebut there are many hypotheses, including the ideas that wings first evolved for gliding, as solar collectors, or as gills on aquatic juvenile insects.

Insects manipulate their wings using two kinds of muscles: direct, which are attached to the wing, and indirect, which alter the shape of the thorax. In flight with the indirect muscles, the wing acts as a lever, with a part of the thorax as its fulcrum , and tilts up or down as the thorax changes shape.

Many insects are so small that the relative thickness of the air is too great for them to fly as birds, bats, and airplanes do. Instead, because of the viscosity of the air, they move in a way more akin to swimming than gliding or soaring.


Flight has evolved independently in vertebrates at least three times: in pterosaurs, birds, and bats. Although scientists know that pterosaurs, like bats, flew on wings consisting of skin stretched from the hand to the body, it is not known how they kept such large bodies airborne. Bird wings, on the other hand are made up of flight feathers. Both birds and bats provide most of the thrust for flight with their wing tips, tilting them on both the down stroke and the upstroke so that they cut into the air at an angle and pull the body forward. Most of the lift, however, is provided by the base of the wing. In both birds and bats, as in airplanes, the wing is thicker at the front, convex on the top, and concave or flat on the bottom. As this shape slices through the air, a low-pressure zone is formed by the faster-moving air on top of the wing, and the higher pressure air beneath the wing pushes up on the wing, creating lift. To lighten their bodies and minimize the amount of lift they have to create, both birds and bats are usually relatively small, and birds have hollow bones.

see also Bird; Insect; Evolution; Scaling

Robbie Hart


Borror, Donald J., Dwight M. DeLong, and Charles A. Triplehorn. An Introduction to the Study of Insects. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders, Co., 1989.

Brock, Fenton M. Bats. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Ehrlich, Paul R., David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.


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flight / flīt/ • n. 1. the action or process of flying through the air: an eagle in flight the history of space flight. ∎  an act of flying; a journey made through the air or in space, esp. a scheduled journey made by an airline: I got the first flight. ∎  the movement or trajectory of a projectile or ball through the air. ∎  [as adj.] relating to or denoting archery in which the main concern is shooting long distances: short, light flight arrows. ∎ poetic/lit. swift passage of time: the never-ending flight of future days.2. a group of creatures or objects flying together, in particular: ∎  a flock or large body of birds or insects in the air, esp. when migrating: flights of Canada geese. ∎  a group of aircraft operating together, esp. an air force unit of about six aircraft: a refueling mission in which his crew topped off three flights of four F-16A jets.3. the action of fleeing or attempting to escape: refugees on the latest stage of their flight from turmoil.4. a series of steps between floors or levels: she has to come up four flights of stairs to her apartment. ∎  a series of hurdles across a racetrack. ∎  a closely spaced sequence of locks in a canal.5. an extravagant or far-fetched idea or account: ignoring such ridiculous flights of fancy.6. the tail of a dart.• v. [tr.] shoot (wildfowl) in flight: [as n.] (flighting) duck and geese flighting. PHRASES: in full flight escaping as fast as possible. ∎  having gained momentum in a run or activity: when this jazz pianist is in full flight he can be mesmerizing.take flight1. (of a bird) take off and fly: the whole flock took flight | fig. my celebrityhood took flight. 2. flee: noise that would prompt a spooked horse to take flight.


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1. Any form of locomotion in air, which can be active or passive (gliding). Mechanisms of flight have evolved mainly in birds, bats, and insects: these animals are adapted for flight by the presence of wings, which increases the ratio of surface area to body weight. Birds possess powerful flight muscles: the depressor muscle runs from the underside of the humerus to the sternum and is responsible for the downstroke of the wing; the levator muscle works antagonistically, producing the upstroke. Flight in insects works in a similar fashion but the muscles that control the wing movement are attached to the thorax. A few species of mammals, reptiles, and fish have developed flight to a lesser extent. For example, flying squirrels (order Dermoptera) possess a membrane attached to the limbs that can open and function as a parachute, allowing the animals to glide.

2. Part of a survival mechanism in an animal that is generated in response to a threatening situation. A potentially dangerous situation can induce the release of adrenaline, which prepares the animal for `fight or flight' by increasing the blood pressure and heart rate and diverting the blood flow to the muscles and heart. See alarm response.


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a number of birds or objects flying through the air together; anything resembling a flight of stairs; a flock flying in company. See also bevy, covey, skein.

Examples: flight of academicians; of aeroplanes; of airmen; of angels, 1602; of arrows, 1545; of bees, 1823; of birds [young birds taking first flight together]; of butterflies, 1832; of clouds, 1886; of cormorants, 1430; of doves, 1430; of dunbirds, 1875; of eloquence, 1760; of fish-hooks [used in spinning trace]; of flies, 1486; of fowls, 1688; of goshawks, 1430; of hurdles, 1486; of larks; of locks [canals]. 1861; of mallard, 1486; of pigeons, 1605; of plover; of rails, 1852; of stairs; of steps, 1820; of storks, 1720; of swallows, 1486; of terraces, 1855; of widgeon; of woodcock.


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flight1 act of flying OE.; collection of beings or things flying together XIII; volley (of missiles) XVI; set of steps XVIII. OE. flyht, corr. to OS. fluht, (M)Du. vlucht :- WGmc. *fluχti, f. weak grade of Gmc. *fleuʒan FLY2.
Hence flighty †swift, rapid XVI; given to flights of fancy, etc.; inconstant XVIII.


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flight2 act of fleeing. OE. *flyht = OS., OHG. fluht (Du. vlucht, G. flucht), ON. flótti, f. the base of FLEE.