Style and Technique
“The Gift” was the first of three stories published in 1937 as the novella The Red Pony. (The other two stories are “The Great Mountains” and “The Promise”; a fourth story, “The Leader of the People”’ involves the same characters.)
It was in the 1930’s, the decade when Steinbeck’s fiction grew out of what he knew best—the paisanos of Monterey, the inhabitants, such as the Tiflns, of the small towns and rural valleys of California, and the dispossessed migrant farm laborers of In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1938)—that Steinbeck produced his greatest work. He mastered the colloquial language of the people about whom he wrote, and his broad experience among the townsmen, farmers, and farmworkers enabled him to describe these people, their lives and their work, authentically and with intricate detail. Not especially innovative in style and technique, Steinbeck wrote “The Gift”’ like most of his fiction, in the third person and from the omniscient point of view. The plot is straightforward and readily comprehensible. What is masterful about Steinbeck’s style is his rendition of detail.
Having worked as a horse trainer for the United States Army, Steinbeck, like his character Billy Buck, knew horses. From Billy the reader learns that horses are “afraid for their feet,” that a horse that puts its whole nose and mouth in the water to drink is spirited, and that the moods of horses are expressed by their ears. Steinbeck was an equally keen observer of human action and motivation. When Carl and Billy come in for breakfast, Jody habitually listens to their steps to hear if they are wearing flat shoes or boots because boots mean that they will be riding somewhere. Though the sounds are implanted in his memory, he always looks under the table anyway, to make sure. In the glow of first possession of the red pony, Jody tortures himself by imagining that the pony has disappeared, or that rats have gnawed holes in the saddle; in his good fortune, the possibility of loss seems so threatening that the possibility must be entertained to soften the loss should it occur. As such passages suggest, Steinbeck’s “gift” to the reader is a sensitive, moving depiction of the end of childhood.