The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, 1937

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by John Steinbeck, 1937

John Steinbeck's The Red Pony is a series of four vignettes dealing with the young boy Jody during his formative years on his father's California ranch. Each story focuses on a specific aspect of Jody's passage from childhood to the threshold of adulthood.

In the opening story, "The Gift," Jody at one point gazes at the ranch from a nearby hill and feels "an uncertainty in the air, a feeling of change and of loss and the gain of new and unfamiliar things." As this story and the succeeding three unfold, change is the central theme. The gift is a red pony colt that Carl Tiflin, Jody's father, gives him. Naming him Gabilan, Jody devotes every spare moment he has to the colt and his welfare. On a cold day in the fall the pony is left in the corral and gets soaked by rain. Although Billy Buck, the ranch hand who is an expert with horses, assures Jody that rain cannot really hurt a horse, the pony takes cold. Billy Buck and Jody desperately work to save the pony, but one morning they find that the pony has escaped from the barn. Searching frantically, Jody finds the dying pony surrounded by buzzards. Plunging into their circle, he grabs one by the neck, holds it to the ground, and smashes it with a piece of quartz.

In this story Jody learns that Billy Buck, a man in whom he had the greatest confidence is infallible like all human beings. He also learns that in nature's scheme of things one cannot always wreak vengeance on a principal cause. Carl Tiflin explains to him that the buzzards did not kill the pony. "I know it," Jody responds wearily.

The second story, "The Great Mountains," is about an old man named Gitano who was born on the land now comprising the Tiflin ranch and who has returned to his roots to die. Carl Tiflin's reaction, however, is barely hospitable as he offers the man a meal and a night's sleep in the bunkhouse, telling him that he should not come to die with strangers. Curious youngster that he is, Jody engages Gitano in conversation. He is particularly intrigued when he learns that as a child the old man had gone into the mountains with his father, an area that Jody has always wanted to see. The boy also learns that Gitano's prize possession is a "lean and lovely rapier with a golden basket hilt … pierced and intricately carved." To Jody's questions about the origin of the rapier, Gitano says that he does not know, that he just keeps it. Jody realizes at this point that he must never tell anyone about the rapier. "It would," he realizes, "be a dreadful thing to tell anyone about it, for it would destroy some fragile structure of truth." Although he may not be able to verbalize such a truth, Jody has reached another level in his growth from child to adult. When Gitano takes an old horse from the ranch and rides off into the mountains, Jody lies down in the grass near the brush line, covers his eyes with his arms, and is "full of a nameless sorrow."

In "The Promise" Jody gets the chance to have a colt of his own. After the mare Nellie is bred, the youngster waits impatiently for the birth of his colt. When the time finally arrives, however, Billy Buck recognizes that something is terribly wrong. The colt is turned wrong, and Billy has no choice but to kill Nellie with a hammer blow to the head and cut a gaping hole in her stomach to bring the colt out. With his face and arms dripping blood, Billy lays the colt at Jody's feet, whispering, "There's your colt. I promised. There it is. I had to do it—had to." As Jody goes for hot water and a sponge, "the tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him." Jody recognizes that adults, too, can feel a sense of loss, just as he himself did at the earlier loss of his pony.

The last story, "The Leader of the People," focuses on the visit of Jody's maternal grandfather, whose biggest experience in life was leading a group of immigrants west in days long past. In response to her husband's complaint that all the old man does is talk of this experience, Mrs. Tiflin says, "That was the big thing in father's life. He led a wagon train clear across the plains to the coast and when it was finished, his life was done. It was a big thing to do, but it didn't last long enough." Jody, of course, is eager to hear his grandfather's stories, and it is to the boy that the old man can express his true feelings. It is not the stories themselves that are his main concern but rather the way he wants people to feel about them, the whole idea of "westering." "We carried life out there," he says, "and set it down like those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader." To Jody's comment that perhaps some day he too could lead the people, his grandfather replies, "There's no place to go. There's the ocean to stop you." He goes on to say that westering has died out of the people, that there is no hunger for it anymore. Jody again feels the pain of sadness and loss.

Taken in chronology, the stories cover approximately three years in the life of Jody Tiflin, and each represents a new stage in his maturation. His parents play only a secondary role in the process. Of primary importance are Billy Buck, Gitano, and his grandfather. Through his relationships with these men Jody moves 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. He learns that one cannot really count on anything in the natural course of events, that death is as much a part of life as is the living of that life, and that love may be defined in various ways.

—Wilton Eckley