How does Steinbeck employ naturalism in "The Leader of the People"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Such critics as Donald Pizer find Naturalism to be more empowering than Realism because it better illustrates what is natural and human; that is, the experiences and emotional conditions of ordinary and even lowly characters. In John Steinbeck's chapter from The Red Pony, "The Leader of the People," there are certainly several elements of Naturalism:

  • Attention to details and ordinary circumstances

Naturalist writers customarily begin their narratives with detailed descriptions of the setting. Steinbeck describes the ranch in the Salinas Valley as one in which the wind does not reach; it is still, with the ranch-hand and boy as part of the natural scene of dogs, cats, doves, and mice.  Because the characters in this narrative are as ordinary as the animals, there is a realistic feel to the story.

  • Vivid images that convey meaning

Like other naturalists, Steinbeck describes nature often as mirroring the behavior of humans in the narrative. For instance, in his exposition, Steinbeck writes,

High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind.

A flock of white pigeons flew out of the black cypress tree as Jody passed, and circled the tree and landed again. A half-grown tortoise- shell cat leaped from the bunkhouse porch, galloped on stiff legs across the road, whirled and galloped back again.

Thus, the antithesis of the progressive movement of "westering" that the grandfather speaks of is presented with the clouds being pushed back to the East and the animals moving in circular motions, rather than ones of progress in any direction. Jody and his family live in "cup" of the Salinas Valley where life is rather isolated and repetitious and conditioned. Their actions have been, the grandfather observes, reduced to the banal:

“Have the people of this generation come down to hunting mice? They aren't very strong, the new people, but i hardly thought mice would be game for them."

  • Determinism

The natural forces of heredity and environment determine a person's fate.  For instance, the grandfather observes the Billy Buck is perhaps the only one on the ranch who could make the journey West like the pioneers whom he led because the others are too weak.

A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day.

 But, people now are like the hog that Jody tells his grandfather about, and his grandfather replies that hogs will do such things: 

Well, Riley ate a hole into that same haystack, and it fell down on him and smothered him."

Throughout his narrative, Steinbeck indicates that the characters act in accord with the drives and impulses of animals in nature. In fact, these drives are conditioned.  Carl, Jody's father is conditioned to be hard and cruel; even when he tries to appease his wife by not criticizing his father-in-law, he continues to disparage him. Before he arrives, Mrs. Tiflin explains to her husband in deterministic words why her father speaks continually of the wagon train that he once led,

It's as though he was born to do that, and after he finished it, there wasn't anything more for him to do....

  • Symbolism

After the Grandfather overhears Carl, he is crushed. He sits outdoors where "the shadows were black at white noonday" and a hawk, a predator symbolizing the strong versus the weak, watches the grandfather who contradicts Jody in his effort to offer hope,

...there's no place to go...there's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.

Jody's final act of asking for lemonade is a symbolic gesture meant to express to his grandfather an understanding of his feelings.