Red Pony by John Steinbeck is considered one of the author’s finest works. Actually the Red Pony is four short stories put together as one novel. The four stories are “The Gift,” “The Great Mountains,” “The Promise,” and “The Leader of the People.”
The main characters are very interesting and their behaviors and attitudes are very realistic based on the era this novel was written (1949). Jody Tiflin is the protagonist; he is the only child of Carl Tiflin. He starts out as a ten-year-old and with each preceding story he grows into an older, wiser, and more mature young boy. He is disciplined pretty severely by his dad, and is expected to do his chores and follow instructions or be punished. He can be a mean little boy at first, as all little boys can be, and he has dreams like any little boy though not all of the things he wishes for and dreams about could ever come true.
Carl Tiflin has a right-hand man named Billy Buck. He is the trusted hired hand on the farm, and is very knowledgeable about caring for horses. Billy likes Jody and does everything he can to help the young boy get along in life. Carl Tiflin is very hard working and well organized; he knows what he is doing on his farm. And while he is basically a good man and a fair father, he can be kind of rough and rigid when it comes to Jody. Mrs. Tiflin does all the cooking for the men who work on the farm; she does cleaning and housework as any housewife would do. Like her husband, she can be kind of tough on Jody, but she really loves him and enjoys watching him grow up.
Mrs. Tiflin’s father, Jody’s Grandfather, does not live on the farm but he visits on occasion. He has stories to tell, like when he was a boy and he led a wagon train across the western plains all the way to California. He tells this story over and over, as though it was the most important thing that ever happened to him, which maybe it was. Gitano is an interesting Latino character that was born in the Salinas Valley in a little adobe house that was built where the Tiflin farm now stands. Gabilan is Jody’s red pony.
SUMMARY of the PLOT:
Jody is the protagonist and he is the most important character by far in this story. The themes and characters and plots all revolve around Jody and his maturation process. His character is also developed in terms of his encounters with the natural world. In each of the four separate stories, Jody grows up a little bit and learns an important lesson about morality. In the first story (“The Gift”) Jody learns that even a wonderful gift like a horse can bring sadness and tragedy. There are several horses on the farm, along with pigs and cows. Jody’s gift is a red pony, and it gets the name Gabilan. Jody does a real good job taking care of the pony, by brushing it every morning and working with it when he comes home from school in the afternoon. But Jody never gets to learn to ride Gabilan because the pony becomes ill after catching a cold in the rain. Billy the hired hand had to administer some drastic measures to try and save the pony, like cutting open a sac of puss and also cutting a hole in the horse’s throat so he can breathe.
Sadly, Gabilan runs away and Jody finds him dead with vultures picking on the corpse, a grizzly scene for anyone especially for a little boy. In “The Great Mountains” Jody has a longing to explore the mountains. When the old Mexican man appears in the story, Gitano, he explains that he was born on this land, and wants to stay for the rest of his life. Carl Tiflin says he can stay for the night, but that’s all. Jody talks to him about the mountains while the old man is polishing his sword. The next day the old man is gone, apparently seen riding off into the mountains.
In “The Promise” Billy and Jody’s dad get together and agree that Jody should have another horse, but this time he should raise that horse from the time it is born as a colt. But he’ll have to work extra hard to earn the colt. Jody is very willing to work hard. But nothing comes easy on this farm, and the birth of the colt is just another case in point. The mare Nellie is sick and Billy Buck has to take his pocketknife and cut the new colt out of the mare’s stomach. In “The Leader of the People” Jody’s grandfather comes to stay at the farm. it’s Jody’s mom’s father, and Jody’s dad is not very happy about having the old man around. But the grandfather’s stories unfold about crossing the great plains and it occurs to Jody that his grandfather was a good leader, and that maybe someday Jody, too, will be a leader of people.
SCHOLARLY CRITIQUES of the RED PONY
Author Chuck Etheridge has written an essay titled “Raising Cain: Steinbeck’s the Red Pony and the Reversal of Biblical Myth.” Etheridge contends that Steinbeck wrote the Red Pony using some themes from the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. The Cain and Abel “myth” is “central” to Steinbeck’s entire literary career, Etheridge claims. In his essay, Etheridge explains that there are three key parts to the Cain and Able story, and a reader can easily see how the Red Pony was influenced by this Biblical story. In the first part of Cain and Able, Cain is the son who is hurt by the “withheld approval of a distant parent” (in this case, Jody is hurt by his father’s reluctance to show affection towards him); in the second part, Cain is said by Etheridge to have a “divided consciousness” (one part of Joey want to do what he is expected to do; the other part of him wants to rebel against his father); in the third part of Cain and Able God shows a preference for those who raise animals over those who “till the land” (Jody loves animals in this case).
The Cain and Able “myth” – as it relates to Jody – is that Cain and Abel both brought gifts to give to God; Cain’s consisted from crops (“fruit of the ground”) and Abel’s was “the firstlings of his flock” (animals from the farm). In the Biblical myth, God “had no respect” for Cain’s gift but he did respect and accept Abel’s gift of an animal. Cain is very angry at God for the rejection, and later Cain murders his brother. When Steinbeck embraces this Biblical story as a theme to be used in his own stories, he is writing “…from the heart of the myth,” according to Etheridge’s use of critic Ricardo Quinones’ quotes. In fact Quinones makes the point that being rejected when one is offering a gift to another is “…to have one’s self denied, rendered worthless, obliterated.”
The biography of Steinbeck presents the fact that the author was treated coldly by his own father. At an early age his father “withdrew emotionally from his son,” Etheridge quotes from Steinbeck’s biographer (Jay Parini). The rejection by his father was “a quiet act of sabotage that left Steinbeck emotionally stunted, unable to connect in later life to his own sons” and very shy with everyone except those who are closest to him. Steinbeck never was able to resolve his “complex, unhappy feelings about his father,” and those emotions have found their way into the Red Pony, it seems. Clearly, Jody’s father is not a warm person.
On page 4 in the opening story Steinbeck describes Mr. Tiflin as a “tall stern father”; on page 5 readers learn that Jody’s father was “a disciplinarian” and that Jody obeyed him in everything without question of any kind.” It is interesting to learn that Steinbeck wrote the Red Pony while caring for his mother, who was quite feeble resulting from a stroke. His father was also ill at that time, suffering from a heart attack. But it seems clear from Steinbeck’s biography that as a younger man Steinbeck got very little nurturing and a tiny amount of love and support. Indeed, Jody had parents who were not cruel but hardly loving to him – similar to Steinbeck’s situation growing up.
And as to the gift itself, the red pony, it is given to Jody but not with joy or celebration at all; it is given with a tension that is typical of the relationship between father and son on this farm. “…If I ever hear of you not feeding him or leaving his stall dirty, I’ll sell him off in a minute,” his father warns. This crossly phrased statement creates “a kind of doom in the air,” Steinbeck writes; this brings the Cain and Abel gift issue into focus again. A gift like this should be a time of joy, but with Jody’s hard-edged dad, it was more tension than joy. “God’s preference seems arbitrary and apparently denies Cain free will,” Etheridge writes, alluding again to Cain and Able. And there is also an element of “laying down the law” in what Carl Tiflin said to his son. And Tiflin leaves the job of showing Jody how to care for his pony to the hired hand, Billy.
Jody may be obedient when it comes to doing what his parents want him to do, but he is also rebellious on another level, as essayist Joyce Hart writes in the book Novels for Students. Steinbeck, “slowly but surely,” hints that Jody is becoming more independent of his parents and is doing things that rebellious little boys will do. For example, out of anger Jody kicks a muskmelon with his heel. “He doesn’t feel good about his action,” Hart explains. He knows very well that it was wrong to destroy perfectly good food and he “tries to hide the evidence by burying the cracked melon,” Hart continues. And shortly after that scene, Steinbeck writes that Jody is feeling “a spirit of revolt” with his buddies at school; later, after school, Jody points his unloaded gun at the house, knowing that if his father happened to see him doing that, his father would tack on another two years prior to allowing Jody to have ammunition in the weapons. These are all signs of rebellion in a fairly typical young boy who outwardly is totally obedient to his parents. Also, those are signs that he is testing the waters and moving closer towards maturity.
Yet another example of Jody becoming a young boy rather than a “little boy” is when he attacks the buzzard – a bird “nearly as big as he was,” Steinbeck writes. The fight is ugly, and Jody risks being hurt by the buzzard, but the rage he feels over the loss of his pony is expressed in this case like a boy growing up and not fearing a big raptor. Jody’s dad seems unaware of how his fast son is growing; he tells Jody the buzzards weren’t at fault, seemingly out of touch with a boy Jody’s age. But Billy Buck butts in and says, “Jesus Christ! Man,” to Carl Tiflin, “can’t you see how he’d feel about it?” This is an only child being raised out in the boondocks, and of course getting a pony as a gift was a big deal to him. He is heartbroken.
In the next chapter, “The Great Mountains,” Hart points out that Jody shows his emerging maturity by keeping a secret; it’s hard for very little boys to keep secrets, but as they get a bit older, they are better at it. Jody doesn’t tell anyone about the sword that Gitano has in his possession. “It would be a dreadful thing to tell anyone about it, for it would destroy some fragile structure of truth,” Steinbeck writes. Jody understands that the sword represents something that, according to Hart, “must be kept in the realm of the unknown.” Also, Jody understands why the old man Gitano leaves on the horse named “Easter” (Jody’s dad was talking about putting the horse down, i.e., killing it).
Hart mentions that in the third chapter, “The Promise,” Jody gets his second chance to raise a pony, and again the young boy learns that life is often interrupted with death, as the mare dies during the birthing of Jody’s new colt. Before the colt is born, Jody is given yet another chance through Steinbeck’s narrative to learn what adults already know – how babies are made. He witnesses the mare being bred – “thus initiating him to sexuality, another important stage in the rite of passage.” Not only does Jody see the breeding process, he closely monitors the entire process of pregnancy right up to delivery; and then he is heartbroken to realize the mare will die. He gains “compassion,” Hart explains, by seeing the pain Billy experiences as the hired hand (who is more like a big brother to Jody than just a farm hand) “…must choose between the life of the mare and the survival of the colt.” The final chapter, “The Leader of the People,” gives readers a chance to see what a sensitive person Jody is growing up to be, juxtaposed with how insensitive his father can be towards the grandfather. Jody seems to know that his grandfather needs to feel wanted in the same way that Jody has always had a need to be wanted, too.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the 4th chapter Jody has matured enough to “pass the ritual, or rite of passage, from childhood to adulthood,” Hart continues. The reason Hart believes this is because Jody now thinks of others besides himself; Jody even makes a glass of lemonade for his grandpa, and his mom first thinks Jody just did that to get one himself, but soon she realizes that it was unselfish on Jody’s part and, Hart concludes, “she is dumbfounded by the realization that her little boy has grown up.”
Patrick W. Shaw has published an essay in a New Study Guide to Steinbeck’s Major Works, with Critical Explications; Shaw puts the Red Pony into further perspective by explaining that Steinbeck himself had a sick pony as a little boy. And while he was writing the Red Pony on the dining room table just outside his mom’s sick bedroom door, he was interrupted constantly by his mother’s incontinence. He “personally had to change her bedclothes,” Shaw explains. He washed between nine and twelve sheets a day, and while “contemplating his mother’s death and the experiences surrounding it, he tried to ‘sneak in a little work’ (Steinbeck) and to put events ‘into the symbolism of fiction'” Shaw continued. So readers know that the author was under quite a bit of personal family stress when he wrote the Red Pony, which may (or may not) explain the tension between Jody and his parents in the story.
It is clear that young Jody had to experience the good with the bad, and the beautiful with the ugly, in order to grow up. Shaw paraphrases and quotes from the story, to fully paint the picture of how frightening the birth of his new colt turned out to be. This kind of situation means a kid has to grow up in a hurry. Nellie, the mare, was “standing rigid and stiff” (Steinbeck) so Billy Buck did not hesitate to take a “horseshoe hammer” and crush Nellie’s skull. How horrifying for a young boy, to watch the mother of his new colt be killed so the colt could be saved.
Billy cut into Nellie’s stomach, and “plunges his hands into the hole, and drags out ‘a big, white, dripping bundle'” (Steinbeck) – and “with his teeth he tears open the birth sac and lays a black colt at Jody’s feet” (Shaw). “There’s your colt,” Billy tells Jody. “I promised. And there it is,” Billy continues. As Jody leaves to get some water, as Billy has demanded, the young boy tries to be happy, but “the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him” (Steinbeck). Shaw also mentions the importance of the “male value system” in this book; that is, the colt is male, and “Billy does not hesitate to kill the mare” to “symbolize the dominance of the male in the value system…in which Jody must mature.” Moreover, nearly all the males have names, but Jody’s mother is just “Mrs. Tiflin” or “his mother.” Points well made by Shaw.
Another symbolic event that takes place in the story – bringing readers to the realization that Jody was growing up emotionally – is when Jody changes his mind about killing the mice in the barn. He had asked his father, and received permission, to club a bunch of mice; but the next he instead sits on the porch with his grandfather, a gesture of identity and support for the old man (whose stories Carl hates hearing over and over). “Like Grandfather and Gitano, Jody will grow old and die. Nature can be violent, bloody, and unforgiving,” Shaw continues. “But against those qualities stands the potential of human compassion, the one human trait which separates humans from the buzzards that symbolize survival by dependence on death and carnage” (Shaw).
Essayist Wilton Eckley (Reference Guide to Short Fiction) points out that while Jody is fascinated with his grandfather’s stories, he can’t accept his grandfather’s philosophy about those days way back when. Jody says to his grandfather that perhaps he too could lead people one day; but his grandfather squelches that idea saying, “There’s no place to go. There’s the ocean to stop you.” While Jody surely respects his grandfather, he doesn’t believe him that the “westerning” has died out of people. Jody just may be the person to revive that westerning, Steinbeck implies. Interestingly, Eckley points out that during the maturation process that Jody is going through, he is more influenced by Billy Buck, Gitano, and his grandfather, than he is by his parents. This could be argued either way, but Eckley is probably right. Especially Eckley seems on target when he claims that through Jody’s associations and relationships with Billy Buck, Gitano, and his grandfather, Jody “…from a naive and somewhat selfish child to a person who has a glimmer of understanding of the sense of accomplishment and of loss that is so much a part of human existence.”
Jody also learns, especially from Billy Buck, that one “cannot really count on anything in the natural course of events,” and he learns that “death is as much a part of life as is the living of that life…”
Meanwhile, another critic – Anthony Bernardo – has written an essay about the Red Pony that offers some interesting insights. Steinbeck wrote this book “with mystical speculations” integrated into the realistic detail of Monterey County, “which he knew so well.” Readers paying attention to the details of this story will encounter Steinbeck’s “…distinctive combination of naturalism and transcendentalism,” Bernardo asserts. This story is about much more than the characters and the master plots, Bernardo continues. In “The Great Mountains” it’s about seeing the old Latino Gitano as “both a symbol of human decay and the enduring power of human ideals,’ Bernardo explains. Those human ideals are passed down from generation to generation like the sword that Gitano polishes and takes with him.
And so, according to Bernardo, the Red Pony is not so much a tale of a young boy going through different stages of maturation as it is “…the exploration of man’s complex relationship with nature.” There is a wealth of symbolism, foreshadowing, and conflict in the story that keeps it alive with reader expectation. When Jody senses an omen of “doom” as the rainy season arrives, indeed there is doom and sadness when his first pony dies, due in fact to the rain. There is irony in the titles of two chapters, Bernardo writes; “The Gift” is ironic because Nature “makes no gifts” – and “The Promise” is ironic because nature keeps no promises. Even the mysterious mountains to the west of the Tiflin farm “symbolize the inscrutability of nature,” in Bernardo’s opinion, since “no one except Gitano knows what lies beyond them.”
In conclusion, an essay by Jean McConnell presents the story not as naturalism but as “a much-loved adolescent story, largely because of the realistic yet sympathetic portrait of Jody and his world.” Jody is portrayed by Steinbeck as growing up “surrounded by the violence and death that are an integral part of farm life.” And yet, McConnell adds, notwithstanding all the indifference to violence around him, Jody is a “very attractive character” simply because of Steinbeck’s “insightful portrayal of his wholehearted devotion to his pony and his intuitive understanding of the old men.” McConnell asserts that the Red Pony is on one level a “horse story”; on another level, the story is “a symbolically complex psychological study of a young boy’s youthful quest for knowledge and his growing awareness of the meaning of death.”
Does anyone every really come close to understanding the meaning of death? Probably not, but in the case of Jody, having been exposed to it during the formative years of his life, he will likely be able to come to terms with it as he grows as old as his grandfather and Gitano.
Bernardo, Anthony. “The Red Pony: The Gift. Masterplots II: American Fiction Series,
Revised Edition (Work Analysis). MagillOnLiterature Plus / EbscoHost.
Eckley, Wilton. “The Red Pony: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Detroit: St.
James Press. Gale Document Number: GALE/H1420007687.
Etheridge, Chuck. “Raising Cain: Steinbeck’s the Red Pony and the Reversal of Biblical
Myth.” In Short Story Criticism, Ed. Joseph Palmisano, Vol. 77, 2005, pp. 297-326.
Hart, Joyce. “Critical Essay on ‘The Red Pony.'” in Novels for Students, Ed. David a. Galens,
Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
McConnell, Jean. “The Red Pony: The Gift.” Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Fiction
Series. Accession Number: 9270000381, EbscoHost.
Shaw, Patrick W. “Steinbeck’s the Red Pony (1945)” in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph
Palmisano. Detroit: Gale, 2005, p. 186-205.
Steinbeck, John. The Red Pony. New York: Bantam Books, 1955.
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