Essays and Criticism
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...
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