The Red Pony

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The Red Pony

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

John Steinbeck


John Steinbeck's The Red Pony—which some critics believe represents one of Steinbeck's best works—is divided into four separate sections, unlike standard chapters. The sections are held together by common characters, location, and themes, and they follow a similar time line, but the continuation of story line is not as smooth as the transition between normal chapters of a novel. They all follow the trials of Jody Tiflin, however, as he progresses through the rites of passage from young boy to young man.

It is through the red pony, which Jody receives as a gift from his father, that he learns about death. This is a painful experience for a shy young boy who is so proud of his pony that he invites friends home from school just to look at the small horse. Likewise, it is through other animals that populate this book that Jody also learns about sex, old age, sickness, and birth. He is gently guided through his journey from boy to man with the help of a ranch hand named Billy Buck, who is reputed to know more about horses than any man around. However, even Billy cannot defy nature and must learn that he cannot make promises that he cannot keep. Through Billy and Jody's mother, Jody learns compassion and understanding. Jody's father is not as open to other people, but Steinbeck takes care not to depict Jody's father as a villain. Steinbeck treats all his characters fairly and fleshes out their personalities to their fullest extent possible within the confines of his stories.

Three of the sections of this novel were published separately before being collected in the book The Red Pony. The first two, "The Gift" and "The Great Mountains," were published in the North American Review in 1933, and the third, "The Promise," appeared in Harper's in 1937.

Author Biography

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902, the son of John Ernst, a government employee, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a schoolteacher. He grew up in the midst of an agricultural community on the east side of the coastal mountains, and when he turned seventeen, he began a six-year relationship with Stanford University, sporadically attending classes in literature and writing but never attaining a degree. In 1925, he gave up furthering his education and moved to New York City, where he worked for a time as a laborer on the construction project of Madison Square Gardens. He became discouraged about not finding a publisher for his writing, so one year later he returned to California.

He lived off and on at his parents' home, even after marrying Carol Henning, the first of his three wives. He continued to write, and in 1929 Cup of Gold, his first novel, was published. It was not until 1935 that Steinbeck enjoyed commercial success with his fourth novel Tortilla Flat, and from that point on his career as a writer was set. In the next sixteen years, he would write eleven novels, numerous short stories, three plays, and five movie scripts. His most notable works include Of Mice and Men (1937), which was made into a play in the same year and adapted for film many times; The Red Pony (1937), which was made into a movie in 1949 and adapted for television in 1973; The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which was made into a movie in 1940 and 1991; Cannery Row (1945), which was adapted as a movie in 1984, and East of Eden (1952), which was adapted as a movie in 1954 and again in 1984.

During World War II, Steinbeck worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, first stationed in North Africa and then Italy. Later, during the Vietnam War, he also was a foreign correspondent, this time for Newsday.

Steinbeck's themes often revolved around what he saw as the evils of materialism, and his books were often his attempts to fight for human dignity and compassion in the wake of political and corporate corruption and rampant poverty. The Grapes of Wrath, probably his most famous work, was both widely read as well as banned and burned. Steinbeck spent two years living with farmers who had lost their lands in the Dust Bowl and migrated from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life, in order to gain firsthand experience in the hard luck of their lives. In 1940, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Steinbeck would go on to win many more awards in his lifetime, including the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. He also won an Academy Award nomination for best original story for his screenplay Lifeboat. After his success with Grapes of Wrath, however, critics maintained that Steinbeck had lost the passion in his writing, some even going so far as to state that he won the Nobel Prize mostly for his early works.

Steinbeck moved back to New York in his latter years, somewhat disappointed by the reaction of the citizens of his hometown of Salinas. This was a conservative group of people who found Steinbeck and his novels too liberal and thus too disruptive for their tastes. He married Gwyndolyn Conger by whom he had two sons, one of whom was tragically addicted to codeine at the age of seven and would go on to write his own book, criticizing his father as a parent. In 1950, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott. On December 20, 1968, while in New York, he died of a heart attack.

Plot Summary

The Gift

The story begins with a long description, focused on everyone who lives on the ranch getting up in the early morning. First to appear is Billy Buck, the only help on the ranch, who is presented as a very meticulous man, who rises from his bed in the bunkhouse. When he hears Mrs. Tiflin ringing the triangle, he walks slowly toward the house, not entering until he hears the sounds of Mr. Tiflin's boots on the kitchen floor. It would be impolite for him to sit down at the breakfast table before Mr. Tiflin, his boss.

Jody Tiflin, the young protagonist of the story, is the last one to get out of bed. He is portrayed as an obedient and somewhat shy son. Jody's father, Carl Tiflin, is described as stern. He is a man of few words. Jody does not bother to ask his father where he is going that morning, but because his father has boots on, Jody knows that his father and Billy will be riding their horses somewhere that day. Later, when he watches his father and Billy round up a bunch of old milk cows, Jody knows that they are driving the cattle to the butcher's.

Jody spends most of his day alone, playing with his dogs, wandering around the ranch. As he roams the land, he senses change in the air. He also notices two big black buzzards, a sure portent of death.

Mrs. Tiflin is always busy in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, guiding Jody through his chores. When Jody's chores are finished, he heads outside with a rifle his father has given him, a rifle without bullets. Jody will have to wait two more years before he will be allowed to use live ammunition. "Nearly all of his father's presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat," Jody thinks. When Carl and Billy return, Jody discovers that they have brought with them a red pony, a present for Jody.

Jody takes very special care of the red pony, whom he names Gabilan. The pony is somewhat wild, but it takes a liking to Jody, who slowly and gently teaches it to wear a bridle. One day, after a brief but cold rainstorm in which the pony gets chilled, it develops an illness that Billy is unable to cure. The pony dies, leaving Jody devastated.

The Great Mountains

This section begins with Jody in a foul mood. He's looking for trouble and does not stop until he has killed a bird with his slingshot. He does not appear remorseful about the death and only hides the evidence because he does not want "older people" to find out what he has done. He knows they would not approve.

Jody stares at the mountain range in the distance and wonders who lives there. He asks his mother and father and Billy, but no one can tell him much about what exists in the far ranges. As Jody makes up stories in his head about who might live there, he notices the figure of a man walking toward the ranch. It turns out to be an old man, who tells Jody that his name is Gitano. The man has come back to his home to die. Gitano used to live on the same property where the Tiflins now live. As a matter of fact, Gitano's family claim to this land goes far back into history.

Media Adaptations

  • Steinbeck wrote a screenplay for The Red Pony, and it was produced in 1949, starring Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum. Noted American composer Aaron Copeland wrote the musical score. The story was rewritten for television in 1973 and starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.

Mrs. Tiflin is surprised by the appearance of this old man. She remembers the old adobe house that used to exist on the property, but she knows nothing of this man or his family. Soon Mr. Tiflin and Billy come to Mrs. Tiflin's rescue and tell the man that he cannot stay there. There is no work available, and Mr. Tiflin cannot afford to feed anyone else. He does, however, invite Gitano to stay for dinner, sleep overnight in the bunkhouse, and have breakfast with them in the morning. That is the best he can do. Gitano accepts.

Jody shows Gitano to the bunkhouse and eventually gains enough nerve to ask the old man if he came out of the mountains. The man answers in the negative. Jody pursues his line of questioning, and finally Gitano tells him that once he did go into the mountains but he cannot remember much about them except that it was quiet and nice up there.

Jody invites Gitano to walk with him to the barn to see the horses that his father owns. Gitano is taken by an old horse that Jody refers to as Easter. It is the first horse that his father ever owned. "He's thirty years old," Jody tells Gitano. "No good any more," Gitano replies. "Just eats and pretty soon dies."

Carl overhears this conversation and adds, "Old things ought to be put out of their misery," taunting the old man. Billy tries to soften the tone by adding, "They got a right to rest after they worked all their life. Maybe they just like to walk around." Carl continues to search for sore points in Gitano, and Jody recognizes his father's harshness.

Before going to bed, Jody sneaks into the bunkhouse and watches Gitano go through a bag of his belongings. Included in the bag is a long, old sword, something that Gitano's father gave to him. In the morning, Gitano does not appear for breakfast. When Jody searches through Gitano's things, everything is there except the sword. They all soon discover that the old horse Easter is also missing.

The Promise

Carl's father decides to give Jody another chance at having a pony. He makes arrangements for one of his mares to be mated. Jody must take the horse to a neighbor, who owns a stallion. Just before arriving at the neighbor's, the stallion sees Jody bringing the mare and breaks free as Jody is walking the mare up the road. Jody hides, as the stallion is very big and acting strangely. He watches the two horses and fears that the stallion will kill his mare. Jess Taylor, the owner of the stallion, tries to convince Jody to go away, but Jody insists on watching the mating.

Much later, Jody becomes impatient while waiting for signs that his mare has been impregnated. Billy warns him that it will take a long time before they will see any signs. Jody asks a lot of questions of what it will be like to watch the birthing, and Billy explains a lot of the details. After they talk, Jody asks, "Billy, you won't let anything happen to the colt, will you?" Billy knows that Jody blames him for the loss of the red pony and tries to assure Jody that everything will be all right, but he says he cannot promise anything.

A year passes, and Jody almost gives up hope. One morning, his mother shows Jody how to make a warm mash for the mare. This signals that the mare is showing signs of pregnancy. From then on, Jody is ever watchful of the mare as she goes through her changes, growing wider with every day. When the time comes, Jody stands at Billy's side, watching everything that he does.

Billy grows restless and more serious as the mare becomes more and more uncomfortable in her attempts to deliver. Finally, Billy inspects the mare internally and discovers that the colt is turned the wrong way for delivery. The mare will not be able to push the colt out of her without tearing up her insides.

Billy tells Jody to go outside, but Jody insists on staying and watching. Billy picks up a hammer and tells Jody to at least turn his head away. Jody then hears the smash of hammer against bone as Billy kills the mare by bringing the hammer down on her head. When the mare falls, Billy cuts her belly and pulls out the colt. Although Jody tries to feel excited and happy about the birth of the colt, his feelings are tainted with the image of Billy covered in blood and the body of the dead mare.

The Leader of the People

Mrs. Tiflin receives a letter from her father stating that he will be visiting her soon. When Carl finds out that his father-in-law is coming, he immediately begins complaining. When Mrs. Tiflin asks what it is about her father that irritates him so, Carl states that he talks too much. Mrs. Tiflin tells Carl that he talks a lot, too, but Carl says that the real problem with his father-in-law is that he only talks about one thing. At this point, Jody breaks into the conversation with "Indians and crossing the plains!" These are the two topics that Mrs. Tiflin's father continually refers to. He craves telling stories about how he led a caravan of people across the plains and how they had to deal with the Native-American populations that they encountered. Carl is tired of the stories because he has heard them so many times.

When Grandfather finally arrives, every topic that someone else brings up seems to remind him of a story from his past. Soon, he is lost, recounting his own history and his adventures, telling stories that they all know by heart. Carl is the most impatient and most rude, interrupting his father-inlaw, telling him that he'd already heard that story. Jody, contrary to his father, encourages his grandfather to tell more stories.

In the morning, everyone sits down at the breakfast table and wonders where Grandfather is. Mrs. Tiflin assures them that Grandfather will be coming soon. It's just that he is very particular about dressing himself in the morning. Carl begins to poke fun at his father-in-law. When Mrs. Tiflin criticizes Carl's insults toward her father, Carl gets angry with her. He raises his voice and complains about the stories, asking no one in particular why he has to listen to his father-in-law's stories over and over again. No one notices that Grandfather is standing at the doorway to the kitchen.

There is tension in the air. Carl tries to apologize, but in order to do so, he must lie. He tells his father-in-law that he was just trying to be funny. Grandfather does not really believe him. "An old man doesn't see things sometimes," he says. "Maybe you're right."

After breakfast, Grandfather seems to have lost all his energy. He tells Jody that maybe he will leave early. "I feel as though the crossing wasn't worth doing," he says, making a reference to the topic of all his stories. He confesses that it's not really the stories that are important but the way the telling of the stories makes him feel. He had hoped that other people in listening to the stories would feel just as he did. Grandfather had led many people out West. When they reached the ocean, they stopped. When Jody tries to cheer up his grandfather by saying that maybe one day he would lead people, Grandfather says, "There's no place to go." Then he adds, "There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them."


Billy Buck

Billy Buck is the ranch hand who is known for his gentle understanding of horses. He promises, at one point, that nothing will happen to Jody's red pony. Unfortunately, the pony becomes very sick, and Billy cannot save him. Billy feels very bad about having made a promise that he could not keep.

When one of the mares becomes impregnated, Billy knows better than to promise anything to Jody. He tells Jody that he will do his best to give him a healthy colt but that there are no guarantees. In order to deliver the colt, however, Billy must kill the mother, for the colt is turned the wrong way in her womb.

Billy's character is in stark contrast to Carl Tiflin's. Billy is more sensitive, more compassionate, less harsh, and more understanding. He listens to Billy, and he also listens to Grandfather's stories, just as he always listened to them. He is much more sensitive toward Gitano, who has worked hard all his life and, according to Billy, deserves time to rest.


Gitano is an old man who comes back to the Tiflins' ranch to die. It was on this same property that he and his father were born. It is not explained how they lost their property, but Gitano insists that he is staying there until he dies.

Gitano is told that he is not welcome on the property, and because he does not have any other place that he wants to go, early in the morning he disappears with the old horse Easter and a sword that his father had left him.


Mrs. Tiflin's father comes to visit his daughter and her family. He is a proud man whose time has passed. He has nothing to look forward to, and so he lives in the past. The highlight of his life occurred while he led pioneers across the Plains into California. Once he reached the ocean, he had nowhere else to go. Since that time he has been angry at the ocean for having stopped him. To give himself a sense of worth, he constantly repeats his stories. He does not understand that other people do not get the same feelings that he gets in retelling them. His spirit is broken when his son-in-law tells him, indirectly, that he is tired of hearing the same stories over and over again.

Jess Taylor

Jess Taylor is the neighbor who owns the stallion that eventually impregnates Jody's mare. He rescues Jody when the stallion breaks loose to get to the mare that Jody is leading up the long driveway. Jess suggests that Jody wait in the house but understands Jody's desire to watch the mating.

Carl Tiflin

Carl Tiflin has very little about him that is likeable. He is a hard worker, and he recognizes that his son deserves to be rewarded for being so good. His saving grace is his sensitivity in knowing to bring home one of the most thrilling gifts he could give his son. However, after bringing home the red pony, Carl has very little to do with helping Jody raise the pony. Likewise, Carl knows that after the pony dies, he needs to replace it with something else. He offers Jody another try at raising a colt by having his mare impregnated. However, once again, it is Billy, not Carl, who helps Jody through the whole ordeal.

Carl is not very sympathetic when Gitano shows up at the ranch. He does not have any empathy for the old man, not even as much empathy as he has for his old horse Easter. When Gitano takes the horse into the mountains, Carl assumes that Gitano has stolen him. He has no awareness that Gitano has gone into the mountains to kill the horse and then to kill himself.

Carl's worst side appears in the last story when his father-in-law comes to visit. Carl is totally incapable of showing the old man any respect. He is bored with his stories and lets everyone, including his father-in-law, know it. Through his crudeness, his father-in-law's spirit is broken.

Jody Tiflin

Jody is the young boy on whom the stories in this novel focus. The stories follow a rite of passage for Jody as he learns how to be responsible for animals and to experience the pain of losing an animal to death, and he begins to show signs of maturing into a man.

Jody is often quiet and shy, but he soaks in all the conversations and emotions that are around him. He painfully watches his red pony grow more and more ill. In the end, he also finds his pony on top of the hill, having run away to die. He sees the buzzards come down and begin to consume the dead pony.

Later he watches his mare and a neighbor's stallion mate and then patiently awaits the new colt. The arrival of the colt is traumatic due to complications, and the mare must be killed. Jody learns about the cycles of death and birth through witnessing the lives of the animals around him.

It is not just the animals that teach him, though. Jody is very aware of Gitano's impending death, more so than anyone else around him. He is a curious boy and has deep insights into the emotions of those around him. When he sees Gitano's sword, he senses that he must keep a secret. When he hears that Gitano has gone up into the mountains, he knows why Gitano has gone there. Likewise, Jody is also very sensitive to his grandfather's feelings. He knows that his father has broken his grandfather's spirit, and Jody tries to repair it.

Mrs. Tiflin

Mrs. Tiflin is never given a first name, and she is seldom seen outside of the kitchen. Her character only comes to life in the last story, when her father comes to visit. She finally speaks back to her husband in this story, letting him know her true feelings about his impatience with her father. Other than that one moment, Mrs. Tiflin is either cooking or cleaning.


Rite of Passage

Over the course of the four sections of this book, the protagonist, Jody Tiflin, goes through several experiences that force him to encounter many difficult emotions. In the process of dealing with the harsh realities of life, Jody changes from a naive young boy into a responsible and maturing young man. Many ancient cultures have specific ceremonies for inducting a young boy into the realm of grown men. These ceremonies are often referred to as rites of passage. In modern cultures, even though the ceremony is less traditional or formalized, young boys and girls still experience, sometimes randomly, certain types of rituals that mark them for life. In urban settings, in the absence of strong family relationships, this rite of passage might be experienced through membership in a gang. Biologically, every young boy and girl goes through physical changes that signal the onset of adulthood.

Jody's rite of passage is expressed in his having to come to terms first with the care and development of a young, somewhat wild colt. Next, he must face the death of his colt, which makes him reflect on the brevity of life, including his own. This concept of death is further developed when Gitano appears in the second section and when Grandfather comes to visit in the last story. Jody becomes involved in the process of aging and the sense of loss of purpose when he takes an interest in both old men. Gitano is compared to the old horse Easter, both of them having worked hard in their youth and now being set out to pasture. Jody senses Gitano's need, like an old animal, to find some place to die. With his grandfather, Jody understands the loss of purpose that comes over some old people when they are no longer appreciated.

These experiences deepen Jody's respect for life. He thinks about emotions that as a child he had never considered before. He takes an interest in others, moving from the egocentric focus of his youth into the more compassionate stage of an adult. In addition, when he watches the mating of his mare with the neighbor's stallion, he gains a deeper understanding of procreation. He watches Billy deliver the colt at the expense of the mare's life. These are tough circumstances that mark Jody's entrance into adulthood.


The theme of death looms over all the sections of this book. In the opening pages, Jody wanders out into the field and encounters buzzards, probably having found a dead cow out in the pastures. Shortly after receiving the red pony as a gift from his father, the pony becomes ill and runs away to die. Jody finds the dead pony with buzzards standing on the carcass. He kills one of the buzzards but later is reminded by Billy that the buzzards were not responsible for the red pony's death. Although Jody wants to vent his anger on someone or something, he learns that there is really no one to blame. He must accept death as a part of life.

The red pony's is not the only death that occurs. Gitano, the old ranch hand, returns to the place of his birth to die. Gitano shows Jody an old sword that he carries with him, a sword that was handed down to him by his father. Gitano does not have much to say about the sword, but Jody senses that it represents something very serious in Gitano's life and, possibly, in Gitano's reasons for being there. Jody tells no one about the sword, and the next morning when Gitano disappears with the old horse Easter and the sword, the reader is left to surmise that Gitano has gone into the mountains to die.

In the third section, there is the horrific death of the pregnant mare. Billy must kill the mare in order to save the colt. This is a hard decision that he must make. Either the colt or the mare must be sacrificed. Possibly because Billy feels guilty about the death of the red pony, he chooses to save the colt so that he can give the young horse to Jody.

In the last section of the book, although Grandfather is not near death or showing any signs of ill health, there is a sense that his life is over. Grandfather loses his sense of purpose. The greatest experience in his life ended many years earlier, and since then, he has remained stuck at the shore, unable to move ahead. Grandfather represents a more symbolic form of death.

Old Age

Tied in with death is the theme of old age. As presented in this book, old age has very little meaning. There is the old horse Easter who has been put to pasture after having served her master with many years of hard labor. Gitano is like Easter in many ways. He is very old, and he has worked many years. He cannot or does not choose to work any more and has decided to die. Although Billy argues that Gitano has a right to rest and be taken care of, Carl is not ready to take on that responsibility. Carl is more sensitive to his horse than he is to Gitano, who is a stranger. Carl even admits that it would be more humane to shoot his old horse than to let him suffer the aches and pains of aging. Although Gitano has family members to go to, he chooses not to burden them. He decides to go off into the mountains possibly to kill himself rather than to allow someone else to take care of him.

Grandfather, in the last section of the book, also has trouble dealing with old age. Carl is no more sympathetic toward his father-in-law than he was with Gitano. Carl is tired of hearing Grandfather's old stories. He makes Grandfather feel that his time has passed and that no one is interested in hearing about the old days and Grandfather's glory. Grandfather, feeling lost about his present situation, returns to the stories in order to return to a time when he felt worthwhile. He led many people out to the West Coast. He faced challenges and hardships that he feels his son-in-law does not understand. Modern life is too soft for him. However, Grandfather is too old for new adventures, or so he believes. There is no place left to be discovered, no place left to go to, no need for him to lead people anywhere. Old age is more a punishment for Grandfather than a reward for all the experiences of his youth.


Linked Short Stories

Three of the four stories in this book were published as separate short stories. What holds these stories together so that they can be considered a book is the elements that they have in common. These are common characters, setting, and themes. Linked short stories are not as tightly connected as the chapters in a book. First of all, they stand on their own, each section completing a thought. Second, the connections between the sections are rather loose. There is no explanation of anything that was left unresolved in the previous section. For example, when Billy delivers the colt in the third section, there is nothing said about Jody's reaction or the care of the colt in the fourth section. It is almost as if the colt did not exist in the final chapter of the book.

However, there's enough of a connection between the sections that the reader gets a sense of continuation. Jody continues to have similar experiences that move him forward into the world of adults. Personality traits of Carl, Jody's father, remain consistent from first section to the end. Billy feels sorry about Jody having lost the red pony in the beginning of the book and remains sensitive about this through the third portion, when he must decide to kill the mare in order to save the newborn colt.

Linked short stories might have been used in order for Steinbeck to publish each section separately and thus gain an audience for the novel. Choosing between linked short stories and chapters may just reflect a preferred style of writing. With linked short stories, each section develops a theme and completes it. In writing chapters, themes are usually only slightly developed in each separate chapter and then more fully engaged throughout the entire work, coming to conclusions only in the last chapters.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research the California trail across the plains to the West Coast. Draw a map of one of the major routes. Provide a mileage scale; highlight major natural formations that the pioneers might have seen along the way; mark major intersections and supply points; locate major tribes of Native Americans. Accompany this map with short diary excerpts from actual pioneers, to give a fuller understanding of the intensity of this trip.
  • Write a coming-of-age short story of a young girl or boy who must face a specific challenge that changes her or him forever. This could be written as fiction or taken from your own experience.
  • Shortly after writing The Red Pony, John Steinbeck left his hometown of Salinas, California, and moved to New York. Find out why Steinbeck became disgruntled about Salinas, and then write a story as if you were a local journalist covering his move to the East Coast.
  • The last chapter in The Red Pony, "The Leader of the People," centers a major portion of its action on the decaying haystack. Reread this chapter and find as many symbols as you can that are contained in the haystack and Jody's insistence in wanting to kill the mice that he finds there. How is the haystack connected to the grandfather? What is the significance of Jody wanting Grandfather to help him? Why do you think Steinbeck used the haystack in this chapter?
  • Pretend that you are Gitano from the chapter "The Great Mountains." Write a poem expressing your feelings as you ride up into the mountains with the old horse Easter. How would you relate to Easter? What would be your thoughts at being rejected by the Tiflins? Come up with your own interpretation of why Gitano took the horse and his sword and left without telling anyone.
  • Research how to raise a colt from birth to the point when a horse is old enough to be ridden. Write out a schedule, as if you were a trainer, for the steps to be taken at the appropriate ages of the horse to get it used to accepting a bridle through taking a saddle and being ridden. In your research, find out if this training has changed from the 1930s to the present time.


The setting of this novel is at the ranch and in agricultural valleys of California during the early part of the twentieth century. It is a time of transition, when old ways are quickly vanishing. This is reflected in the characters Gitano, whose Spanish heritage has been wiped out by the white settlers, and Grandfather, whose mission in life has been exhausted because there is no more frontier to be discovered.

In placing the story on a western farm, Jody has the opportunity to witness the basic elements of life—procreation, birth, and death—by watching the animals around him. Because he lives in a somewhat remote area, he gains his knowledge from nature.

Although Grandfather believes there is no more frontier left, Jody eyes the mountains, where no one lives and few people that he knows have ever been, as a place of great mystery and possible future exploration. He also wonders about the ocean and what might lie beyond.


Steinbeck employs many different symbols in his writing. Most obvious is the ruined adobe house in which Gitano was raised. The adobe was a mud construction that demanded regular care. The structure eventually becomes all but washed away, similar to the Spanish culture that Gitano represents. Gitano comes back to die on his family's homeland. However, the Tiflins have taken over the property and do not welcome Gitano back. This symbolizes the taking over of the valley by white settlers, who eventually pushed the Spanish and Mexican cultures away.

The Gabilan mountains symbolize many things for different characters in the story. For Jody, they are wild and mysterious, and that is why he decides to call his red pony Gabilan. The mountains represent his adulthood, in some ways, as he knows he wants to explore them as soon as he is old enough. To Grandfather, the mountains are meaningless now. Previously, they had represented a challenge as he fought to traverse them on his way to the ocean when he first crossed from the Plains into California. Now, they are just in his way when he wants to visit his daughter. They represent nothing special. They remind Gitano of his youth, and they represent a place of death.

The haystack in the last section of the book symbolizes the past for Grandfather. Jody tells the story about the old boar (which could be construed as a pun for the word bore, as when Grandfather repeats his stories), in which the pig dug into the haystack to get the mice and the haystack smothered him. In much the same way, Grandfather continues to dig into the past, repeating his stories for anyone who has the patience to listen to him. Grandfather, too, is slowly smothered by his past, as he finds no way of living in the present.

Historical Context

Crossing the Plains to California

Many of the trails that lead across the Plains to the West Coast began along the Missouri River in such places as Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri. From here, pioneers heading either to Oregon or California would begin their long and treacherous treks across the wild lands.

The major routes followed the Platte River in Nebraska to the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, a nearly eight-hundred-mile-long section of the trail and a halfway mark for many of the pioneers. At the Sweetwater, the trails split, one taking a more northern route (like the Mormon Trail) and others taking a southern route.

The next major junction was the Snake River, which many people picked up at the Fort Hall trading post in Pocatella in southern Idaho. At this point, those people interested in going to California broke away from the groups that were crossing the mountains to Oregon.

Before the gold rush in 1849, the majority of people took the trail to Oregon to the Willamette Valley. Between 1841 and 1848, it is estimated that over eleven thousand people immigrated to the Oregon valley with less than three thousand continuing south to California. However, during the peak of the gold rush, almost two hundred thousand people are estimated to have taken the southern route to California, while only thirty-five hundred crossed over to the more northern territories.

Despite Jody's grandfather in The Red Pony declaring that there was no place for him to go at the end of the trail because the ocean stopped him when he reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Monterey, where he probably lived, was actually one of the major seaports on the Pacific Ocean in the late 1800s. He could have hopped onto any of the large trading/importing ships and traveled to any place in the world.

Salinas, California

Salinas, California is called the Salad Bowl of America for all the lettuces and other salad greens that are grown in this lush valley. Located just east of the coastal mountains that separate Salinas from the seaside town of Monterey on the Pacific Coast, Salinas enjoys the benefits of a dry, warm climate.

Salinas was not always an agricultural area. Initially, it was the home to several small tribes of Native Americans, who lived there for many thousands of years before Spanish soldiers and missionaries arrived. Under Spanish rule, the main focus of the population was the coastal areas, and so the valley, where Salinas is located, was largely left on its own. However, when the Mexicans over-threw the Spanish rulers, the Mexican government began giving out land grants. From these land grants grew the communities that would eventually make up such towns as Salinas.

During the early stages of the gold rush, James Bryant Hill bought a large land grant in the valley and was one of the first people to plant crops there. It would not be until 1867 that a partnership between a few large farmers and cattle rancher Eugene Sherwood would be formed. These men laid out a plan for a half-mile square that would become the heart of Salinas City.

At the time of the writing of The Red Pony, wheat was still the main crop grown in the valley. Most of the land was still used for cattle. Today, Salinas is known for its crops of lettuce, artichokes, broccoli, sugar beets, and beans. Due to its rich valley soils, Salinas would eventually become one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the United States.

Critical Overview

John Steinbeck enjoyed a very long writing career. His first book was published in 1929, when he was twenty-seven years old, and his last book went to print in 1961, seven years before his death. However, he did not, despite his having won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962, enjoy critical support throughout his entire writing career. As a matter of fact, many critics believed that his finest work was The Grapes of Wrath, which was published early in his career, in 1939. Similarly, some believed that the awarding of the Nobel Prize was actually a reflection on his early stage of writing and not for the works that he created after 1939.

Steinbeck's first three novels received very little attention. It was not until he published Tortilla Flat (1935) that he gained recognition. Over his long career he achieved great success, though some critics choose to give more weight to the works written in his early career. The works produced within this time frame include The Red Pony.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s: Migrant farm workers, most of them coming north from Mexico, are subject to the dictates of the farm owners and suffer poor wages and working and living conditions. In 1936, some of them go on strike for better wages, employing a former colonel of the army to lead them. They are equipped with machine guns and steal red flags from a highway crew, threatening the residents of Salinas by telling them that a communist army is about to take over the city.
    Today: Although working and living conditions still remain difficult for migrant workers, there are many support groups who have rallied for better wages, health facilities, and educational opportunities for those who work on California farms.
  • 1930s: Salinas, California, is still mostly a cattle-raising land, with wheat and lettuce grown on some farms. The population of Salinas is about fifty thousand people.
    Today: Salinas is known as the salad bowl of America, providing most of the states with salad greens. The population has increased to almost five hundred thousand people.
  • 1930s: Steinbeck irritates most of the population of his hometown of Salinas by his proletariat views of workers' rights in his novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath. His books are burned in protest.
    Today: The citizens of Salinas have constructed a huge Steinbeck Center, which draws an average of one hundred thousand visitors a year. The city is planning a three-year celebration for the one-hundredth birthday of Steinbeck.

In general, Steinbeck's work was often praised for its positive view of life. When he used California as a setting, critics believed that his work flowed more naturally and clearly, such as in The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. Although his male characters were often well developed and thus highly complimented by reviewers, Steinbeck was often criticized for neglecting the women in his stories, for leaving them flat and stereotypical.

A reviewer for the Library Journal praised a new edition of Steinbeck's collected works, which includes The Red Pony, calling it "something special" and "essential for all serious American literature collections." In an earlier review, a writer for the Library Journal referred to Steinbeck as belonging in "America's elite class of writers." In offering an overview of all of Steinbeck's works, Warren French, writing in the Reference Guide to American Literature, described The Red Pony as "Steinbeck's most popular and masterful work."


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and focuses her writing on literary themes. In this essay, Hart examines Steinbeck's methods in creating the rites of passage theme in his novel.

John Steinbeck's The Red Pony was originally written as four separate short stories, with each story showing different stages of Jody Tiflin's rite of passage into manhood. In each story (or chapter), Steinbeck carefully and skillfully brings together specific circumstances that the young Jody must face. Through the use of explicit examples, as well as subtle metaphors, Steinbeck emphasizes certain character traits of Jody and shows how his personality matures from the first section to the last. By looking closely at Steinbeck's methods of demonstrating the changes in Jody, a greater appreciation of the author's writing skill is unveiled and a deeper appreciation of the story is gained.

The first section of The Red Pony is called "The Gift," and the first time that Jody is introduced to the reader, he is referred to as "the boy Jody." Immediately following this, Steinbeck writes: "He was only a little boy, ten years old." There is no doubt in the reader's mind, at this point, that Jody is young. Steinbeck makes sure that Jody is perceived as nowhere near being a man, not even a young man. Jody is also very obedient, Steinbeck

relates. When he hears his mother ring the triangle, a sign to get out of bed and down to the kitchen for breakfast, there is absolutely no hesitation. "It didn't occur to him to disobey the harsh note."

Jody washes his face and turns away from his mother "shyly." When he sits down at the table, he scrapes away "a spot of blood from one of the egg yolks." With these words, Steinbeck presents the innocence of Jody. Not only is Jody obedient and shy but he is unaware of mating; he is presexual. Billy Buck, the ranch hand, must inform Jody that the spot of blood is the sign of fertilization that the rooster has left behind. It's interesting to note that Steinbeck does not have Jody's mother or his stern father report this fact to Jody. Later on, the reader will discover that Billy is the one person most responsible for Jody's rite of passage. Steinbeck, at this initial stage, is foreshadowing these circumstances.

Next, Steinbeck has the young boy wishing to go along with his father and Billy as they prepare to take a herd of cattle to town to be butchered. This is a grown-up chore, and Jody longs to be included. So despite Jody's conscious innocence, something is stirring inside of him, something that senses the changes that are about to take place that will push him into that world of men. In the meantime, however, Jody is patient and so in awe of his father that, even though he wants to go along, he does not even ask permission to accompany them.

To further insinuate the transition that Jody is about to experience, Steinbeck then has Jody climb up the hill and look back at the ranch from an elevated position, where "he felt an uncertainty in the air, a feeling of change and of loss and of the gain of new and unfamiliar things." At this same point in the story, Steinbeck brings in the image of two buzzards, which signal death. Although Jody may be unfamiliar with some aspects of nature, he is not unaware of the cycle of life and death. He is disturbed by the buzzards, but he understands that, ugly as they may be, they rid the land of carrion. Death brings life to the buzzards, and the buzzards, in turn, rid the land of contamination. Jody is old enough to understand this on a rational level. He has yet to experience loss and death on an emotional level. The events that are about to unfold will teach him those very lessons, and they will mark the first steps toward adulthood.

Slowly but surely, Steinbeck hints at a sense of revolt stirring inside of Jody, another of the initial signs that a child is beginning to move away from his parents, moving toward independence. The first mention of this occurs as Jody smashes a muskmelon with his heel. He doesn't feel good about his action. He knows it is wrong, and he tries to hide the evidence by burying the cracked melon. However, just a couple of paragraphs later, Steinbeck mentions that Jody was feeling "a spirit of revolt" once he joined his friends at school. After the school day has ended, Jody again goes up into the hills, this time with a shotgun, and aims it at the house. Although the gun is unloaded, Jody knows that if his father had seen him do it, he would have to wait another two years before his father would give him any ammunition. With these examples of rebellion, Steinbeck shows that Jody is straining at the reins, wanting to be rid of his father's restrictions but, at the same time, still in fear of them.

The next big event, the gift of the red pony, marks yet another stage in the young boy's development. First of all, the pony cost money, which means that Jody's father, in giving Jody a valuable gift, is developing a trust in his maturing son. Jody has somehow shown his father that he is worthy of that investment, and now he must prove it. In caring for another living creature, Jody will also develop a sense of responsibility. In attending to the pony, Jody will hopefully develop a meaningful relationship that will open up his heart to more mature emotions.

The depth of those emotions is increased as Jody learns to take care of the pony. He is first exhilarated by the joy of owning the pony. Then, when the pony becomes ill, Jody's heart is wrenched by fear and worry. On top of being distressed about the pony, Jody's innocence is strained in another area. His complete trust that adults always know what they are doing is challenged when Billy promises that it won't rain on the day that Jody decides to leave the pony in the corral while he goes to school. It does rain that day, and the pony's illness appears to be a direct result of the inclement weather. Billy, with whom Jody has entrusted not only the care of his horse but also the care of his emotions, has disappointed him. This disillusionment with the adult world is another stage in the progression towards maturity. Children place all their faith in people who are older than they are when they believe that they themselves are not capable of making decisions. However, as they grow more experienced, the adult world appears in a more normal fashion; that is, men and women are seen as fallible. They are not the gods of wisdom and perfect understanding that children once believed them to be. In understanding that adults are capable of making mistakes, children gain courage to trust their own instincts and to reach their own conclusions about the world. Steinbeck demonstrates this stage in Jody's development by making Billy imperfect, by making him, despite all his wisdom, subject to at least an occasional error in judgment.

Before the first section of this novel ends, Steinbeck hurls Jody into a battle, a sure sign that the young boy is entering a sort of initiation rite into manhood. The pony has run away to die, and Jody finds the pony's dead body being attacked by a flock of buzzards. Angered by the death, Jody takes his frustration and pain out on one of the buzzards. Earlier, Jody smashed a muskmelon, something a young boy would do. Later, he slings rocks at small birds and rabbits. Here, in the final scene of this chapter, Jody takes on something that "was nearly as big as he was." The battle that Steinbeck describes is not a pretty sight, but it signifies an age-old scene. Jody faces death in defeating the buzzard. Now, Jody's feelings are fully bloomed, as noted by Billy's comment to Jody's father, who appears to be unaware of how much Jody has grown. When Carl Tiflin tries to comfort Jody by telling him that the buzzards didn't kill the pony, something that a father might tell a much younger son, Billy retorts: "Jesus Christ! man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?" Billy steps in as caretaker, sort of a cross between a father figure and an older brother. Carl appears unable to accept that his son is becoming a man, whereas Billy not only sees but welcomes the changes.

Each of the succeeding chapters reiterates the changes that Jody is going through. In "The Great Mountains," Jody holds a secret to himself when Gitano, the old man who comes to die at his birthplace, shows him an old sword that he carries with him. Holding onto a secret is a very difficult task, especially for a child. The fact that Jody is capable of doing this without being told to do so demonstrates a further example of his maturity. He senses that the sword represents something that must be kept in the realm of the unknown. "It would be a dreadful thing to tell anyone about it, for it would destroy some fragile structure of truth." At the end of the chapter, only Jody is capable of understanding why Gitano disappears with the old horse Easter. Steinbeck does not state the reasons, leaving the reader to manufacture the ending, just as he leaves his character Jody to do the same.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Steinbeck wrote The Pearl (reissued in 2000) in a fable form, in which he relates the woes of a poor Mexican fisherman who finds a pearl one day and decides that it will change his life for the better. Unfortunately, the fisherman finds out that life is not so simple.
  • Coming-of-age stories abound, and some of the best were written by Ernest Hemingway. His stories about Nick Adams have been collected as The Nick Adams Stories (1981) and follow the development of the main character from childhood to adulthood.
  • In her book Mona in the Promised Land (reissued in 1997), Gish Jen writes her interpretation of adolescence, complicated by her Chinese-American teenager's decision to convert to Judaism.
  • The setting of William Saroyan's novel The Human Comedy (reissued in 1991) is wartime America, and its protagonist is a young boy who is determined to become the fastest deliverer of telegrams. What he does not foresee is the effect that the telegrams will have upon the receivers, as wartime brings news of many deaths.
  • Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath (reissued in 2002) was burned in his hometown because of its pro-labor elements. Most critics believe this was Steinbeck's greatest work.
  • In a more humorous vein, David Sedaris's discussion of childhood is contained in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2001), in which he gives his readers an insight into what life was like for him growing up in North Carolina.

The third chapter, "The Promise," gives Jody another chance to raise a pony. However, if this were the only purpose of this section, it would be redundant, since the reader has already been exposed to Jody's ability to care for a pony. So "The Promise" takes on a more meaningful theme, leaving the raising of the colt to the imagination of the reader. The action of this section focuses on reinforcing two concepts already presented in previous chapters—the cycle of life and death and the realization that there are no guarantees in life. It also provides Jody with an up-close view of the mating process. Jody witnesses the impregnation of his mare, thus initiating him to sexuality, another important stage in the rite of passage. Jody not only observes the mating, he monitors the complete development of the consequences of that encounter. He learns patience from having to wait for signs of pregnancy and eventually the delivery of the colt. He gains compassion from watching the suffering of the mare in the delivery, as well as the suffering of Billy when he must choose between the life of the mare and the survival of the colt. In the last chapter of this book, Jody transfers the compassion he has gained to a member of his family.

Compassion is one of the final stages of full maturity. In childhood, the world appears to revolve around the self. Everything is defined by how it affects the self. Only a fully mature adult is able to relinquish the need to think only of him- or herself in order to comprehend and empathize with the emotions of other people. In "The Leader of the People," the final chapter, Jody's maternal grandfather makes a visit. His grandfather lives in the past, and this annoys the other adults in the family. Grandfather is a storyteller; however, his stories have been repeated so many times that everyone knows them by heart. For the adults who lack compassion, Grandfather is a bore. In this chapter, Steinbeck sets Jody at odds with his father. Carl is the least compassionate person. He makes rude remarks and is, in the end, somewhat embarrassed when Grandfather overhears him complain about the stories.

Jody, on the other hand, who has been deemed "Big-Britches" by his father, a term meant to imply that he is growing up, but with negative connotations, is very sensitive to his grandfather's needs. He knows what it feels like to be the butt of his father's insults. Since Jody has gained the insight of compassion, he is able to transfer his feelings to his grandfather, whereas his father is unable to do this. Jody understands, maybe intuitively, that Grandfather needs to feel wanted. Grandfather's stories are not so much to glorify himself as to relive those feelings of people coming together and doing something magnificent. Once Grandfather reached the furthest edges of the West, there could be no more "westering" for him. He had reached his limits.

While Grandfather, in old age, finds life waning, Jody finds life just beginning. At the opposite ends of the spectrum, the young and the old meet and learn from one another. In the final lines of the story, Steinbeck demonstrates that Jody has passed the ritual, or rite of passage, from childhood to adulthood, by having him think not of himself but purely of someone else. He tries to console Grandfather in the best way that he can. When Grandfather tells him that the ocean stopped his progress, Jody tries to pick up the trail by stating that when he grows up, maybe he'll lead people. When Grandfather protests that the land has run out, Jody tells his grandfather, "In boats I might, sir." When Grandfather further discourages him, Jody feels sad, but he is not defeated. Instead of giving in to his grandfather's depression, Jody offers a gift: "If you'd like a glass of lemonade I could make it for you." Grandfather gives in, and when Jody's mother discovers that she is mistaken in believing that Jody is doing this just to con a glass of lemonade for himself, she is astonished. Her surprise goes deeper than just realizing that Jody has made a very unselfish act; she is dumbfounded by the realization that her little boy has grown up.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Red Pony, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


French, Warren, "Steinbeck, John," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.

Review of The Grapes of Wrath & Other Writings, 1936–1941, in Library Journal, September 1996.

Review of Novels & Stories, 1932–1937, in Library Journal, November 1, 1994.

Further Reading

Benson, Jackson J., John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography, Penguin USA, 1990.

To better understand the writings of Steinbeck, it helps to understand his life, as much of the material of his books comes from his personal experience. Benson offers a comprehensive look into the life of Steinbeck.

Hill, Cherry, The Formative Years: Raising and Training the Young Horse, Breakthrough Publishing, 1988.

This definitive study of what it takes to raise a colt provides the information required to take on this task.

Steinbeck, John, Working Days: The Journals of "The Grapes of Wrath," 1938–1941, edited by Robert Demott, Penguin USA, 1990.

While creating the novel, Steinbeck kept a daily journal of his accomplishments and his frustrations. For an insider's look into the mind of an author, this book provides not only interesting background material for the novel but also a lesson for would-be writers.

Wallsten, Robert, ed., with Elaine Steinbeck, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, Viking, 1975.

Steinbeck was a prolific letter writer. This collection is the next best thing to an autobiography.