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 dead body of Gabilan provides food...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
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