Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The principal theme of The Red Pony is the exploration of man’s complex relationship with nature, as presented through Jody’s education. For Steinbeck, all nature, including man, is bound together. The Red Pony is filled with descriptions of natural phenomena—weather, animals, and plants—reflecting and directing events in the story, as when the rainy season gives Jody an omen of doom and, later, exposure to the rain fatally sickens Gabilan, or when Grandfather compares Jody’s planned mouse hunt to the slaughter of the American Indians, showing how human mistreatment of the natural world parallels man’s mistreatment of his fellowmen. The unity of nature does not, however, preclude its harshness: The deaths of Gabilan and Nellie, the approaching death of Gitano, and Grandfather’s sense of failure show how nature ignores human desires. The titles “The Gift” and “The Promise” are ironic, for these stories reveal that nature makes no gifts and keeps no promises. Nor can even the wisest character in the stories, Billy Buck, alter this situation. Steinbeck is here in the naturalist tradition, which sees the world as indifferent to human notions of right and wrong.
Yet naturalism is only one side of Steinbeck’s vision. He also belongs to the Emersonian transcendentalist tradition, which sees nature as mysterious but nevertheless as a bounteous wellspring of hope. Death thus becomes an opportunity for new life, as when the...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
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The themes of death and life converge naturally in the first three stories, preparing readers for the final section of the sequence, "The Leader of the People." This story brings the sequence to an end with another vision of death and change. Jody's grandfather comes to visit, retelling his time-worn stories of the great wagon crossing. Carl Tiflin cruelly hurts the old man by revealing that nobody except Jody is really interested in these repetitious tales. The grandfather realizes that Carl is right, but later he tells Jody that the adventurous stories were not the point, that his message was "Westering" itself. For the grandfather, "Westering" is a force like the frontier, the source of American identity; now with the close of the frontier, "Westering" has ended. Westerners have degenerated to petty landholders such as Carl Tiflin and aging cowboys such as Billy Buck. In his grandfather's ramblings, Jody discovers a sense of mature purpose, and by the conclusion of the sequence he, too, can hope to be a leader of the people.
In "The Promise." the third story, Jody learns of the intricate connections between life and death, when, in order to get his son another colt, Carl breeds one of the mares. But the birth is complicated, and Billy Buck must kill the mare to save the colt.
(The entire section is 220 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)