Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Gift” is about a young boy’s passage from innocence to experience. The “gift” is more than a pony; it is also maturity. Jody grows up through taking responsibility, through facing death, and through accepting the fallibility of his hero.

Harsh father that he is, Carl Tiflin does help his son grow up by the way in which he gives Jody gifts. He gives Jody a rifle, but no bullets, because he knows that the boy is not ready for the power to kill until he comprehends the meaning of death. Similarly, the pony is given on the condition that Jody take full responsibility for its care.

Steinbeck sends Jody to the spring or to the cypress tree, places that Jody vaguely associates with life and death, respectively, when he needs to think things out. It is from the cypress tree that Jody first sees buzzards circling; he hates them because they eat carrion and are associated with death, but he recognizes that they are a necessary part of the natural cycle. His irrational but understandable attack on the buzzard at the end of the story purges his rage, and Billy understands that this cathartic attack on “death” is not necessarily a childish reaction.

Perhaps most important to Jody’s maturation is his recognition, and then acceptance, of Billy’s fallibility. He is angry at Billy for being wrong about the rain, and Jody’s faith in his hero is shaken by Billy’s failure to save Gabilan. However, his final acceptance of Billy’s love and his knowledge that, though he failed, Billy gave his best, are adult attitudes.

Especially in the 1930’s Steinbeck’s stories celebrated the interrelatedness of love and work. In almost every story, one figure of wisdom, authority, and love seems to represent the author’s point of view. Invariably, this character is a person of compassion and sensitivity, and is also a worker who is skilled and competent but unpresumptuous and sharing. In “The Gift”’ this character is Billy Buck; it is he who guides Jody through the traumatic transition to manhood.