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Gary D. Schmidt (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Schmidt, Gary D. “Steinbeck's ‘Breakfast’: A Reconsideration.” Western American Literature 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 303-11.

[In the following essay, Schmidt offers a reappraisal of “Breakfast,” contrasting the story with a similar passage found in Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.]

When John Steinbeck's The Long Valley was published in 1938—just a year before The Grapes of Wrath—it received a mixed critical reception, even though it contained several short stories which eventually came to be recognized as some of Steinbeck's masterpieces. The volume included “The Chrysanthemums,” “Flight,” “The Snake,” and the three short stories that make up The Red Pony. Yet reviewers gave scant praise to these. Eda Walton, writing for The Nation, noted that Steinbeck's “stories are competent, but reading them one goes through no authentic experience.”1 Stanley Young, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that all the stories have “a directness of impression that makes them glow with life, small-scale though it is.”2 And Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker, suggested that though some of the stories were beautifully written, “Mr. Steinbeck is trying just a mite too hard to be sensitive and Open to Beauty.”3

In choosing four of the best stories from the volume, Fadiman selected “The Chrysanthemums,” “The White Quail,” “The Harness,” and “Breakfast,” and in so doing he was the last critic for some time to nod a kind head towards “Breakfast.” Since that time it has received little critical attention. One of the reasons for this might be its length; it is by far the shortest story in the collection, taking only four pages. And Steinbeck's almost verbatim repetition of the tale in chapter twenty-two of The Grapes of Wrath seemed to imply that the earlier piece was a mere draft, a short scene which had no artistic integrity of its own but which needed a larger context.

And so Peter Lisca has called it a “short sketch” and a “fragment.”4 Jackson J. Benson refers to it as little more than a scene, though a “very moving and very real scene.”5 When the editors of the Steinbeck Quarterly decided to devote part of their fifth volume to the stories of The Long Valley, no essay on “Breakfast” was included. Tetsumaro Hayashi's rationale for this was that “Breakfast” is “a comparatively insignificant piece and a rarely anthologized one.”6 When Pascal Covici selected the story for the Viking Portable Library's Steinbeck in 1943, he entitled the story simply “A Fragment” and introduced it as “one of many working notes for The Grapes of Wrath.7 (It actually came out of research for In Dubious Battle.) But recently R. S. Hughes has argued that the work is a completely worked out, symmetrical “sketch” that finds its unity in the slow progression of the dawn.8

The literary criticism of this short story is correspondingly slight. James Hanby has suggested that “Breakfast” is a humanistic vision of the twenty-third psalm, in which the Salinas Valley becomes the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the hospitality of the migrant family mirrors the hospitality of the Good Shepherd, a hospitality that Edwin M. Moseley has interpreted as a “ritual communion.” In his Jungian analysis of the story, Carroll Britch has seen the older man as a god-man, lord of the archetypal human family as well as the elements of the world. The narrator, Britch suggests, finds in the old man an unconscious projection of his own more primal tendencies. And most recently, John H. Timmerman has found the significance of the story in its emphasis...

(This entire section contains 3705 words.)

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on the family, pointing ahead to Steinbeck's great theme of the family of man.9

Certainly “Breakfast” is not Steinbeck's most important short story. And in many ways it is a simple scene, gathered from his walks around the migrant camps of the Salinas Valley from the summer of 1934, when Steinbeck set out to experience first-hand what he would be writing about in In Dubious Battle. The narrator—apparently a migrant picker (but perhaps the writer?)—comes upon a small family on the side of the road just before dawn. The young mother fixes hot biscuits and bacon while nursing her child. The father and grandfather come out of a tent and offer breakfast to the narrator. Dawn breaks as they finish and the two men invite the narrator to come to the cotton fields with them to see if they can get him on; they have been working for twelve days and have new dungarees. The narrator refuses and walks away down the country road.

If “Breakfast” were only a sketch or fragment—a simple preparation for a chapter in The Grapes of Wrath—we might expect that Steinbeck would have transferred it bodily into the novel with little change. But that is not the case. There is a wholeness about the story, a completeness about its scene, about the moment which has stayed with the narrator. It is a wholeness not necessarily maintained in the later version. While many of the details are the same, the major difference lies in the perspective of the character who comes upon the family group. In The Grapes of Wrath this character is Tom Joad, who has spent the first two-thirds of the novel taking care of his family. He comes upon the group after they have settled in a government camp, having fled a Hooverville that had been burned by the Farm Association.10 That is, he comes upon the scene bearing with him a context which differs starkly from the image now before him. Steinbeck includes more dialogue in the novel's version. The girl greets Tom (she averts her eyes in “Breakfast”) and there is an amiable exchange before they all sit down to eat. Tom announces that he plans to look for work, and then the dawn begins to show. The light seems to call the other two from their eating, for they stop as soon as it shows on their faces, bringing with it the promise of another day of work. There is no certainty that Tom notices the dawn; it is unclear if he, like the narrator of “Breakfast,” sees the light reflected in the older man's eyes. When they ask if Tom wishes to come with them, he agrees almost with joy, and there the scene ends. Steinbeck will later subdue the joy when they go to lay pipe and hear that the Farm Association has lowered their wages.

The emphasis in the scene from The Grapes of Wrath is very much on the sheer activity; it is a single part of the general waking up of the Weedpatch Camp. It also stresses the absolute kindness and goodness of the migrant workers, the unity of their families, and their willingness to extend their generosity and concern outside of their own family circles. In the novel this works towards Steinbeck's increasingly wide definition of the family and contrasts with the hardheartedness of the Farm Association. But the concerns of “Breakfast” are quite different, and though many of the same details are used, most of them work in different ways and towards different meanings. This comes about because of the much stronger presence of the narrator in the short story. The reader is consistently aware of the presence of the narrator, consistently aware that all of the events are perceived and interpreted through his perspective. It is also a scene which is in the narrator's past. Though there is no clue as to how long ago it occurred, it is clear that this incident has had a strong effect on him, one which he recalls with pleasure again and again.

The narrator calls the scene “a sunken memory” and finds himself bringing more and more detail out of it with each remembering. When he presents the scene, then, it is as a creation of his memory, and presumably includes what he recalls only upon ordered reflection. The story is a culmination of his attempt to articulate the meaning which he feels is in the scene, a meaning which still eludes him at the end of the story. For remembering is not enough to make the details cohere in a meaningful way, even though it brings “the curious warm pleasure.”

By the end of “Breakfast,” the narrator's memory has produced a vivid scene, but he is conscious of his own failure to find the source of the beauty in it. Claude-Edmonde Magny suggests that the narrator recognizes “that the scene is pregnant with a profound poetry that he cannot elucidate, that he cannot communicate to the reader.”11 And though Magny does not examine the real source of that poetry, it is true that this tension—this inability to communicate what he knows is beautiful—is at the very center of the story. Much of what the narrator reports are details which seem to elicit no reaction from him. The opening paragraphs emphasize the visual, particularly light in relationship to objects. Light colors the rims of the mountains which seem to circle this family and set it apart. The light colors the earth lavender. It seeps out of the cracks of the rusted stove and reflects on the tent, announcing the presence of this family to the narrator. When the two men come out, they stand and watch the growing light, water dripping from their cheeks, and as the dawn comes it reflects in the older man's eyes and shines on their faces. By the end of the story the very air is blazing with light. But the narrator, though he remembers the details, takes no meaning from them. The light has no meaning from him other than as a phenomenon acting upon the natural world. Instead of seeing the light as part of a larger pattern, he simply “walked away down the country road.”12

Other sensory details are similarly vivid. He smells the frying bacon and baking bread—“the warmest, pleasantest odors I know” (90). He hunches his back against the cold. He hears the baby sucking and tastes the bacon and scalds his throat with the coffee. All of these details are vivid and he recognizes that something in them holds significance; but when he walks away it has clearly eluded him. And when he admits “that's all,” he is confessing his ignorance about their significance.

Steinbeck stresses the importance of memory by framing the story with the narrator's attempts to remember. But memory has failed, for it has brought no order to all the details. The narrator is unable to bring the fragmented impressions into an ordered whole, and the story suggests that this is principally because he is alone and hardened against the very thing that suggests beauty to him. He claims, “I know, of course, some of the reasons why it was pleasant” (92). The phrase, “of course,” is directed at the reader and is really an equivocation. It implies that he recognizes why the scene was pleasant, though this is undercut by the uncertainty of the following sentence.

The reader has no assurance that he does really know why it was pleasant or beautiful. The food itself is the thing which brings him the most pleasure; indeed, eating brings all of the characters great pleasure. Even the baby does nothing but feed. “We all ate quickly, frantically, and refilled our plates and ate quickly again until we were full and warm” (92), the narrator reports, and the compound sentence and repetition of “quickly” seems to emphasize the frenetic activity. Certainly this would be one of the reasons the narrator would give as to why the scene was pleasant.

But the final line brings to a climax the tension in the story, for he recognizes that the source of beauty lies in categories with which he is not familiar, or from which he is cut off. Perhaps with a sigh he says, “But there was some element of great beauty there that makes the rush of warmth when I think of it” (92). His previous emphasis on the visual suggests that he thinks it might be a sort of aesthetic beauty which gives this warmth, and certainly this is part of it. The two men are struck by the light on the mountains; they stand looking quietly at it, and their faces are lit by the dawn. But perhaps this is only the narrator reading this interest into them. After they watch quietly, “they yawned together and looked at the light on the hill rims” (90). Yawning hardly suggests aesthetic rapture. When the dawn comes, they are perhaps simply facing east so as to judge the time. Once the light comes up they know they “got to get going” (92).

To the men, then, the light may be the harbinger of a new day of work and prosperity and hope, or it might be a thing intrinsically beautiful in itself. What is significant is that to the narrator it means neither of these things. It is simply there, like the valley itself. Even if he is able to sense that there is a beauty in the surroundings—the fact that he is at least able to list off the details suggests this—he is cut off from its effects.

But there is a stronger source of the beauty, one which Steinbeck was to use more in the version in The Grapes of Wrath. The narrator does not come upon a simple group, but a family which is bonded in many complex ways. They represent three generations bound closely together, living in a common tent, working towards a common purpose: survival. The woman is the giver of life, feeding both her child and the men. The men have taken on the traditional role of providers, and they are filled with joy because they have been able to provide well for the last twelve days.

There is a great sense of life in this family. The two men look alike and are presumably father and son. The child makes its presence felt not by wailing, but by sucking as its mother keeps it from the cold. There are food and warmth and pleasant cooking smells and new clothes. And there are water and light, so that when the men come out of the tent the water shines on their faces and drips from their beards. All these are images of fertility and fecundity.

The family is marked by a routine, but it is a routine which they all happily participate in. When the narrator first sees the camp, he is struck by the activity of the girl. “The mother moved about, poking the fire, shifting the rusty lids of the stove to make a greater draft, opening the oven door; and all the time the baby was nursing, but that didn't interfere with the mother's work, nor with the light, quick gracefulness of her movements. There was something very precise and practiced in her movements” (90). There is a splendor in these ordinary, mundane movements which betoken the morning ritual. The men rejoice in the meal she has prepared, and she rejoices in the way they have provided, expressing her happiness in pointing out their new clothes—her only line. And when the men go off to work, they seem to go anxiously, grateful for the chance, walking into the light.

But this is not an exclusive family unit. Like some of the families that Steinbeck was to write about in The Grapes of Wrath, this family extends its boundaries to include another, thus sharing their prosperity. The older man's invitation to eat breakfast comes almost as a command: “Well, sit down with us, then” (91). The narrator calls this a signal and squats on the ground by the packing case. They all eat together and throw the dregs of their coffee on the ground like a libation. When they prepare to leave, the younger man offers to help the narrator get a job picking cotton with them, even though it means that the picking will be done that much sooner. In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom notes this after the two men offer to help him get a job laying pipe, and when he asks why they are cutting their own throats, the older man says, “I dunno. Got no sense, I guess.” In both cases the reason for the offer is that for a moment, the narrator and Tom are included in a widened family circle.

Yet the narrator willfully cuts himself out of that circle, even though it seems at first that he is clearly one of them. They are not suspicious or threatened by him. They recognize his situation and needs, offering him food and the chance at a job. But at the same time he is not one of them. No names are exchanged (the characters in The Grapes of Wrath learn each others' names only after they are headed towards the job). He is alone, walking down the valley even before dawn, with no apparent destination except the country road. Steinbeck uses parallel sentences to emphasize his aloneness: “They [the two men] walked away together. … And I walked away down the country road.” Instead of moving towards work—and towards the dawn—he moves in the other direction, away from the family group, unable or unwilling to enter into the family in the way Tom Joad would.

The narrator gives no reasons for his turning away. But he does not leave these rich images of new life unaffected. The family itself—their commitment, their bonds, their living—is the source of the beauty. But the narrator, who has no bonds like these and seems unwilling to establish them, cannot articulate the meaning of what he has seen. His groping after details leaves him still ignorant, still unable to see what the reader sees. Here is Steinbeck the writer focusing on the significance of narrative choices. All that we as readers see is seen through the limited and bound perspective of this laborer/wanderer, who feels beauty—visually in the light, tangibly in the warmth of the oven and the goodness of the food—but remains apart, unable to judge the impact of the beauty. The narrator of the story is affected, and perhaps directs the reader towards the source of what has affected him, while remaining himself unable to articulate fully how the reader should see and judge the significance of the events he relates.

There is another leave-taking going on when the narrator turns away from the family: the artist turning from the subject. In some ways the narrator here is equivalent to Steinbeck the author. He too wandered the Salinas Valley, meeting workers and their families, sitting by their fires and eating with them. But none of these encounters developed into long-lasting relationships; they were things of a moment. In part these meetings came out of a genuine concern for the hardships of these families during the Depression years, but as a writer he was also on a fact-finding mission and so must inevitably be displaced from them. The narrator of “Breakfast” stays for a moment, gathers the impressions, and then detaches himself, moving towards an unknown goal down a country road. Steinbeck the writer could hardly have been much different.

But this narrator is more than a persona for Steinbeck. He is a paradigm for all authors. The quandary posed about the nature and efficacy of memory for the narrator is a quandary which faces all who work towards producing a coherent work of art, a work which shapes details into a meaningful unity. When the narrator is unable to articulate meaning or to find the source of beauty which is obviously there and which he senses, he is struggling with the same sorts of difficulties which all artists struggle with: How does one go about creating a work of art? How does one lead a reader to the significance of what is being written? And he finds—as all artists must—that simple remembering is not enough.

And so the artist fashions sunken memories, trying to bring more details out of them, choosing from among these, moving beyond the mere curious pleasure. Here the author and the narrator of “Breakfast” part company, for memory does not fail for Steinbeck, who allows for its limitations. He is able to articulate the great beauty and he is able to create a thing of art. And though he would later incorporate much of it into a larger work of art, “Breakfast” still maintains its own artistic integrity and wholeness.


  1. Eda Lou Walton, “Review of The Long Valley, by John Steinbeck,” The Nation 1 October 1938: 331-32.

  2. Stanley Young, “Review of The Long Valley, by John Steinbeck,” The New York Times Book Review 25 September 1938: 7.

  3. Clifton Fadiman, “Review of The Long Valley, by John Steinbeck,” New Yorker 24 September 1938: 72.

  4. Peter Lisca, John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978): 189, 191.

  5. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: The Viking Press, 1984): 291.

  6. Tetsumaro Hayashi, “Introduction,” Steinbeck Quarterly 5 (1972), 67.

  7. Pascal Covici, ed., The Portable Steinbeck 2nd ed. (New York: The Viking Press, 1946), 417.

  8. R. S. Hughes, Beyond The Red Pony: A Reader's Companion to Steinbeck's Complete Short Stories (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987), 70-71.

  9. James A. Hanby, “Steinbeck's Biblical Vision: ‘Breakfast’ and the Nobel Acceptance Speech,” The Western Review: A Journal of the Humanities 10 (1973), 57-59; Edwin M. Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), 182; Carroll Britch, “Steinbeck's ‘Breakfast’: Godhead and Reflection,” in Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics, and Intellect, eds. Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), 7-34; John H. Timmerman, The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 205-7.

  10. Much of “Breakfast” appears in chapter twenty-two of John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: The Viking Press, 1939): 394-98. For a detailed comparison of the short story and its reappearance in the novel see Robert Benson, “Breakfast,” in Tetsumaro Hayashi, ed., A Study Guide to Steinbeck's The Long Valley (Ann Arbor, Michigan: The Pierian Press, 1976): 33-39.

  11. Claude-Edmonde Magny, The Age of the American Novel (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972): 170.

  12. John Steinbeck, The Long Valley (New York: The Viking Press, 1938): 92. All further quotations from the story are from this edition and will be parenthetically marked in the text.


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John Steinbeck 1902-1968

(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck) American novelist, short-story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents criticism of Steinbeck's short fiction works from 1992 through 2000. See also, "The Chrysanthemums" Criticism.

Steinbeck is recognized as one of America's best short-story writers. Although best known for his novels, he first began to develop a distinct literary voice and to experiment with characterization, concision, and thematic unity in his short stories. Addressing the repercussions of social exploitation, Puritanism, and materialistic values in his fiction, Steinbeck is noted for his sharp, forceful idiom, wry humor, and profound compassion for the poor, the inarticulate, and the politically oppressed.

Biographical Information

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902. After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, he worked a variety of odd jobs, including store clerk, surveyor, and ranch hand, to pay for his college education. Steinbeck later incorporated these experiences and, by extension, his concerns about the working class into his writings. While intermittently taking biology and literature classes at Stanford University during the early 1920s, Steinbeck developed a “biological” view of humanity, a perspective that highly influenced his fiction. He believed that such evolutionary concepts as adaptation and natural selection apply to human society, and that more profound observations could be gleaned from examining social groups rather than individuals. After a brief stint as a journalist in New York City, Steinbeck returned to California and completed his first novel Cup of Gold (1929). Despite the publication of this work, Steinbeck found it necessary to sell stories to magazines in order to support himself financially. These stories were later collected in the volumes The Red Pony (1937) and The Long Valley (1938). Steinbeck continued to write short fiction throughout the 1930s, but after the success of his novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937), he focused almost exclusively on writing novels until his death in 1968.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and The Red Pony, two volumes of thematically linked stories, are not generally considered short-story collections in the traditional sense, but most critics deem them integral to Steinbeck's development as a short-story writer. The Pastures of Heaven is a loosely related collection set in California's Corral de Tierra Valley. These stories concern a group of people who fail in their attempt to establish an idyllic farming community free from restrictive urban pressures. Most critics agree that the characters in this volume—ordinary people whose illusions and self-deceptions prevent them from confronting life's realities—illustrate the frustration, despair, and isolation associated with contemporary American life. The Red Pony originally comprised three stories—“The Gift,” “The Great Mountains,” and “The Promise”—and the volume was expanded in 1945 to include “The Leader of the People.” This collection details a boy's maturation and his acceptance of death when he loses his colt to pneumonia. Exploring such themes as the loss of innocence and faith, these stories evince Steinbeck's belief that suffering and grief are inevitable and must be experienced to live life fully.

The Long Valley, Steinbeck's most popular short-story collection, contains all of his extant stories, including The Red Pony, the previously published Saint Katy the Virgin (1936), and those stories set in the Long Valley. The volume also includes such widely anthologized stories as “The Chrysanthemums,” “The Harness,” and “The White Quail.” While critics agree that the work suffers organizational problems because of its all-inclusive nature, they concede that Steinbeck's insightful treatment of such psychological concerns as repression, fear, violence, and suicide overshadows the volume's structural flaws. Throughout the collection, the majority of the characters are tormented people who are unable or unwilling to confront what Steinbeck has termed the “tragic miracle of consciousness.” “The Chrysanthemums,” for example, involves a woman who seeks love but is manipulated by a crafty vagrant, while “The Harness” focuses on a man who remains emotionally dependent on his domineering wife despite her recent death. Steinbeck further explores self-deception in “The White Quail,” a story about a woman whose obsessive identification with a white quail reflects her inability to accept herself or others.

Critical Reception

Early critical reaction to Steinbeck's short fiction was generally favorable, but following World War II his literary reputation began to decline. During the 1950s and 1960s commentators began to fault Steinbeck's stories for being sentimental, philosophically simplistic, and overly theatrical. Contemporary critics recognize, however, that Steinbeck's short fiction reflects the social and psychological concerns evident in his novels and that his stories often served as preparatory sketches for his longer, more celebrated works. Despite critical trends, Steinbeck's realistic yet sensitive portrayal of ordinary working-class people has consistently garnered praise, and when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962, the awards committee lauded his “sympathetic humor and sociological perception.” Today he remains one of America's most respected authors.

Robert S. Hughes, Jr. (essay date winter-spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Hughes, Jr., Robert S. “What Went Wrong? How a ‘Vintage’ Steinbeck Short Story Became the Flawed Winter of Our Discontent.Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 1 & 2 (winter-spring 1993): 7-12.

[In the following essay, Hughes analyzes the relationship between “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” and the novel The Winter of Our Discontent and explicates the reasons for the story's critical success and the novel's failure.]

Steinbeck's novel The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) has often been compared, almost always unfavorably, with the short story from which it grew, “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” (1956). Though both works were written late in his career, the short story has been called “vintage Steinbeck” and praised for its objective, nonteleological point of view, whereas the novel has been criticized for its heavy-handed moralizing and cited as proof of the author's decline.1 How can two so closely related works supply such opposite evidence of Steinbeck's art?

One answer is genre. Expanding a short story into a novel can be tricky, even when considering only the most obvious generic differences. Simply incorporating short pieces into longer works was nothing new to Steinbeck. Earlier in his career he had drawn on such stories as “The Raid” (1934), “Breakfast” (1936), and “The Snake” (1935) in the making of novels In Dubious Battle (1936), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Cannery Row (1945). But never before had he attempted to construct a longer narrative upon the frame of a shorter one.

This is precisely the relationship between The Winter of Our Discontent and “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank.” Steinbeck uses the same basic characters, setting, and situation in each. Protagonists in both works plan to rob a bank. Although Ethan Allen Hawley in Winter aborts his robbery, he, like Hogan, betrays friends and neighbors to increase his own wealth. Similarities between the two works abound, even in such small details as the Mickey Mouse mask each man chooses as disguise and the “I Love America” essay contest that both the Hawley and Hogan children enter. But whereas in the short story Steinbeck succeeds with these materials, in the novel (most critics agree) he fails. Reloy Garcia explains why. The Winter of Our Discontent, he says, is “a bloated short story rather than a full-fledged novel.”2

What went wrong? Why in Steinbeck's most autobiographical novel is the protagonist barely credible and the setting vague? Why is the narrator, who espouses Steinbeck's deeply held beliefs, so intrusive? Why does the point of view shift illogically? And why do the themes of degeneration, malaise, and spiritual bankruptcy in America during the 1950s and early sixties turn muddy? For these questions, genre can provide some answers.

Between the short story and the novel I will make a simple distinction: “A short story is short, and a novel is long.” In this view, the qualitative differences between the two genres derive primarily from length. As Janet Burroway explains, the short story can “waste no words.” The novel, in contrast, aims for “scope, breadth, and sweep.” The story focuses on “one central action and one major change” in character. The novel can range through several consciousnesses and can include digressions and subplots. Hallie Burnett uses a “tightwire” metaphor to illustrate these differences: “In a short story,” she says, the author must “balance on a tightwire of total consistency.” In a novel, he or she must stride on several wires, “juggling characters and plot and values at the same time,” yet avoid “falling off.”3

John Steinbeck was one year away from receiving the Nobel Prize when he published The Winter of Our Discontent. This novel shows that even a Nobel laureate is susceptible, like the tightrope walker, to “falling off.” The tale of Ethan Hawley's moral decline has many sources in addition to “Mr. Hogan”—Shakespeare, the Bible, T. S. Eliot, the English Romantic poets, and early American history. Steinbeck invested increasing emotion in the project as he proceeded, writing with a kind of “desperation,” says Jackson J. Benson, and an overriding moral purpose. The epigraph—“This book is about a large part of America today”—suggests that Steinbeck envisioned himself as an “American-conscience figure,” a prophet like Isaiah warning his wayward people from the brink of disaster. Add to this the burden of autobiography—characters closely resembling himself, his family, and neighbors, setting reflecting his adopted hometown of Sag Harbor on Long Island, and a time frame (Easter through July 4, 1960) nearly identical to the dates of composition—and one can see how Winter evolved into a novel with more conflicting aims than its author could sustain.4

Moreover, Steinbeck allowed no one but his typist to see the manuscript. “All the mistakes in this one are going to be my own,” he told his agent, Elizabeth Otis. Though he read some passages to his wife, Elaine, on his instructions she listened without comment. Later she recalled the manuscript to Benson: “It was awfully false and coy to me, but that was one thing I couldn't say to John. I didn't like it at all.” She lamented not telling her husband to rethink his project. “But I simply couldn't,” she said, “He'd asked me long before not to, and then he got into it so deeply that nobody could correct it.”5

“How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” has a happier history. Published in the prestigious Atlantic and almost universally praised, the short story represents Steinbeck's best work during this phase of his career. Mr. Hogan is a middle-aged grocery clerk who lives in the mid-1950s among the aspiring middle class. The Hogan's house on Maple Street looks identical to another house on the block, and no doubt like many others in town. Mr. Hogan, himself, resembles his neighbors in every respect but one. While they succumb to blinding routine, he keeps his eyes open. As the narrator tells us, “Mr. Hogan was a man who noticed things, and when it came to robbing a bank, this trait stood him in good stead.” Steinbeck's tongue-in-cheek treatment of Hogan's perfect crime leads Warren French to call the story a lighthearted, “frivolous” satire.6

Though French's reading of the story—suggesting little thematic likeness to the novel it inspired—has by now become standard, “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” does indeed develop similar themes. As John H. Timmerman says, “The moral concerns that sparked the novel are implicit in the short story.”7 Both reveal the hypocrisy of those who publicly endorse values of hard work, religion, and the American way of life, yet privately betray these values. Some examples from the story: Although Mr. Hogan belongs to the Knights Templar Lodge, a chivalric order, he nonetheless robs a bank. Although Mrs. Hogan is nominally religious, she divines messages in her teacup and has her fortune read with tarot cards. And although the Hogan children enter the “I Love America” contest for apparently patriotic reasons, they think only of the “all-expense-paid” trip to Washington, D.C., they may win, as well as instant celebrity on radio and T.V.

Just as “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” foreshadows the thematic concerns in The Winter of Our Discontent, so too do several key lines in the novel recall the short story: “A guy got to make a buck,” “Look out for number one,” “Everybody does it,” “Strength and success—they are above morality, above criticism,” and, finally, “Are the eaters more immoral than the eaten?” Both Ethan and Mr. Hogan outwit their unsuspecting neighbors. Does this make the two men less moral than those they dupe? Or does it show the protagonists, on the contrary, to be superior—smarter, nimbler, and more alert? In the story, these questions are whispered; in the novel, they are broadcast.8

The difference between the two works, then, lies not so much in theme as in contrasting ways Steinbeck develops theme and other elements in these genres. Let's consider point of view, characterization, and setting, as well as theme. First, the most obvious difference between the works is narrative point of view—consistently third person and objective in the short story; omniscient and shifting from third person to first person in the novel. A short story, to recall, must maintain a consistent focus, whereas a novel can range through several consciousnesses and points of view, precisely the difference between “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” and The Winter of Our Discontent. Save one authorial comment—“Mr. Hogan was a man who noticed things” (p. 631)—the short story is told without intrusion and entirely from outside the mind of the protagonist. Mr. Hogan's thoughts and feelings, his motives for robbing a bank, and any pangs of guilt he may suffer remain a mystery. In contrast, the novel includes editorial intrusions from shifting points of view, leaving the reader to wonder sometimes who is talking—the narrator, the protagonist, or the author himself. During one rambling commentary Ethan pauses and says, “Strange how the mind goes romping” (p. 121). Even the most patient reader may think “strange” too benign a word.

Next, characterization and setting are other differences. Since a short story can “waste no words,” it often focuses on a single character and few scenes, depicting these economically. In “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank,” Steinbeck deftly sketches the protagonist—a stereotypical family man and clerk of Fettucci's Grocery. As mentioned, Mr. Hogan is conventional in every respect except one—he “noticed things.” He is a “quiet, capable man,” according to French, “who brooks no nonsense and appears supremely satisfied with himself, his family, and his inconspicuous position.” With few words, Steinbeck establishes the type. He also captures the essence of the middle-class neighborhood in which the Hogans live: “East Maple Street,” “brown-shingle house,” “big tree in the yard” (p. 629). The images are crisp.9

In contrast, Ethan's family (based on Steinbeck's) and their New Baytown home (resembling Sag Harbor) seem vague. Their autobiographical origins, which could have rendered characters and setting vivid, compelled Steinbeck, instead, to disguise. As Benson points out, Steinbeck was afraid the Sag Harbor setting might create another tourist nightmare as happened at Cannery Row. He also feared for his privacy and that of his neighbors. Therefore, Steinbeck generalized Sag Harbor and its people. In the novel he calls New Baytown “handsome” (p. 43) and “lovely” (p. 181), but gives few of the real place names and descriptions that made such novels as Cannery Row memorable. The Hawleys' “white-painted shiplap [house] with a fanlight over the front door” and “widow's walk on the roof” (p. 8) approaches this kind of graphic detail; yet after its introduction, since no one again mentions the “fanlight” or “widow's walk” or other memorable features, the house recedes into the prevailing fog that envelops the novel. Only Marullo's grocery (which mirrors Fettucci's in the short story) stands out crisply: side door on the alley just steps from the bank, gleaming cans and jars stacked to the ceiling, “counter, cash register, bags, string, and that glory in stainless steel and white enamel, the cold cabinet” (p. 14). Marullo's grocery sticks in the reader's mind because it is detailed, concrete, and revisited often. Few other images in the novel have such sharp outlines.

In the novel Steinbeck displayed a similar reluctance to depict his characters vividly. Ethan Allen Hawley, the most autobiographical protagonist Steinbeck ever created, differs from Mr. Hogan in being neither consistent nor a recognizable type. Ethan is a quirky, eccentric Ivy Leaguer and unlikely grocery clerk who “sermonize[s] to canned goods” (p. 16) and calls his wife such names as “Miss Mousie,” “Darling chicken-flower” (p. 5), and “Duck blossom” (p. 105). Benson attributes these eccentricities to the protagonist's autobiographical origins. “A small town shopkeeper,” says Benson, “end[s] up with the fancies and sensibilities of a big-time writer.”10 Hawley's wife calls him “silly” (p. 6) and wishes he were something more. “Everybody's laughing at you,” she says. “A grand gentleman without money is a bum” (p. 40). Even his children are “sick of being poor” (p. 85).

Ethan's problem, no doubt like Mr. Hogan's, is what Steinbeck called the “social-economic bind” (p. 196) in which middle-class breadwinners often find themselves—a home to provide, children to support, appearances to maintain. But whereas Mr. Hogan solves the problem without “hanky-panky” (p. 630), Ethan wavers indecisively, talks to himself, and belatedly stumbles upon some solutions. He has Marullo deported and takes over the store, he swindles his alcoholic best friend, Danny, out of his family's land, and he outwits the greedy Mr. Baker, who wants the land to build an airport. Ethan's quick moral decline has troubled critics. As Garcia says, he goes from “one flat condition (unadulterated goodness) to another (complete evil), never going through the internal conflict necessary to infuse him with life and interest.”11 Although successful in creating Ethan's prototype (Mr. Hogan) in the short story, Steinbeck fails to flesh out this prototype in the novel.

Finally, Steinbeck also handles theme differently in these two genres. His contrasting approaches stem, I believe, from his different purposes in writing. As frequently happened in his career, some works he expected to be “major” failed, whereas others he wrote merely for relaxation won critical acclaim. As he told Elizabeth Otis: “I had no intention of writing [“How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank”].” The story emerged from “a vagrant tendency of my mind” which if resisted “goes into a pout.”12 While Steinbeck apparently “dashed off” this short story for “entertainment,” the novel it inspired he wrote with a kind of “desperation” to indict a morally slipping America. He seems, in fact, to have subjugated his art to his patriotism. Consequently, as Granville Hicks argues, “The book is neither convincing as a piece of fiction nor persuasive as a sermon.” And Timmerman brings us back to our genre comparison when he says, “For Mr. Hogan we have no why, no motivation for the action. … For Ethan Allen Hawley, however, the why becomes a roar of confusion.”13

Expanding a short story into a novel can be tricky. Never before had Steinbeck attempted it. He worked in self-imposed isolation. His sources were many. And the onus of being an “American-conscience figure” coupled with the burden of autobiography weighed on him. Although The Winter of Our Discontent remains a valuable document revealing Steinbeck's troubled vision of America at the dawn of the 1960s, to recall the “tightwire” metaphor, Steinbeck—balancing on too many wires and juggling too much—fell off.14


  1. Warren French, John Steinbeck (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), 158.

  2. Reloy Garcia, “Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent” in A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1974), 250; 254.

  3. Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987), 15-16; Barnaby Conrad, The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction (Cincinnati: Writer's Digest, 1990), 243; Hallie and Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer's Handbook (New York, Harper Collins, 1975), 133.

  4. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1984), 870; French (1975), 160, 167. The “American-conscience figure” label comes from Steinbeck's son, John IV, in his autobiographical book, In Touch, as quoted by French, 167.

  5. Benson, 871-72.

  6. John Steinbeck, “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank,” in The Portable Steinbeck (New York: Viking, 1971), 631. All further references to this work appear in the text; French (1975), 160; see also French's 1961 edition of John Steinbeck, 170.

  7. John H. Timmerman, The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1990), 275.

  8. John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent (New York: Viking Press, 1961). Text quoted is the Penguin paperback, 1982, 54, 190, 211, 255. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  9. Burroway, 15-16; Warren French, “Steinbeck's Winter's Tale” in Modern Fiction Studies, 11 (Spring 1965), 73.

  10. French, Steinbeck's “Winter's Tale,” 73; Benson, 872.

  11. Garcia, 251.

  12. “To Elizabeth Otis” (3/7/56), Letters to Elizabeth; A Selection of Letters from John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis, eds. Florian J. Shasky and Susan F. Riggs (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1978), 65 (letter dated 3/7/56).

  13. Granville Hicks, “The Winter of Our Discontent” (rev.), Saturday Review, 44 (June 24, 1961), 11 (quoted in Garcia); Timmerman, 276.

  14. French, John Steinbeck (1975), 167.

Principal Works

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The Pastures of Heaven 1932

Nothing So Monstrous 1936

Saint Katy the Virgin 1936

The Red Pony 1937

The Long Valley 1938

How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. 1943

The Crapshooter 1957

Cup of Gold (novel) 1929

To a God Unknown (novel) 1933

Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935

In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936

Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937

Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts (drama) 1937

The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939

The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942

The Moon Is Down: A Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942

Cannery Row (novel) 1945

The Pearl (novel) 1947

A Russian Journal (travel essays) 1948

Burning Bright (novel) 1950

East of Eden (novel) 1952

Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957

Once There Was a War (nonfiction) 1958

The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961

Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature (speech) 1962

Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962

America and Americans (travel essays) 1966

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (letters) 1975

Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath” (journal) 1989

Kevin Hearle (essay date winter-spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Hearle, Kevin. “The Pastures of Contested Pastoral Discourse.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 1 & 2 (winter-spring 1993): 38-45.

[In the following essay, Hearle asserts that the “discourses that are dialogically opposed to one another in The Pastures of Heaven represent variations on two competing perspectives—rural and urban—on the pastoral.”]

In “Discourse in the Novel,” the Russian theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin states,

[T]he central problem in prose theory is the problem of the double-voiced, internally dialogized word in all its diverse types and variants. … [T]he object is always entangled in someone else's discourse about it, it is already present with qualifications, an object of dispute that is conceptualized and evaluated variously, inseparable from the heteroglot social apperception of it.1

In The Pastures of Heaven, the object Steinbeck approaches dialogically is the American “pastoral” West. The title of the book—which is explained in the initial, framing chapter as the exclamation of a Spanish soldier when he first came upon the valley by accident—itself provides clues to the conflicting nature of the various American discourses of the pastoral.

“The pastures of heaven,” however, is only one of many possible translations of “Las pasturas del cielo.” Del can mean either “of the” or “from.” Cielo is the Spanish word for both “heaven” and “sky.” Moreover, the relatively unambiguous pasto is the common Spanish word for “pasture.” Pasturas, which means either “pastures” or “fodder,” is such an unlikely word for a Spanish corporal to use that it suggests the possibility that Steinbeck employed it specifically because of the ambiguity involved in any translation of the term.2

Thus, by presenting his audience with the translated title as if the “original” Spanish—which is, of course, a name of his own construction—is unproblematic and monologic, Steinbeck accomplishes a number of things. For readers with even a basic understanding of Spanish, he underlines at the beginning of his book the bilingual consciousness that Bakhtin says is crucial for the appreciation of language as discourse (p. 62), while he simultaneously subverts the idyllic implications so much a part of American pastoral expectations. Furthermore, by never mentioning even the possibility of variant translations, he emphasizes the contested nature of discourse, the way in which each discourse tries to achieve hegemony by denying the existence, or at least the validity, of other discourses.

The discourses that are dialogically opposed to one another in The Pastures of Heaven represent variations on two competing perspectives—rural and urban—on the pastoral. The book's structure enacts the collapse of that most American of pastoral discourses: Jeffersonian agrarianism; and the catalyst that sets off the collapse is the intrusion of urban, industrial culture into the valley.

The body of the book, that which takes part in the valley itself, is the story of two symbolically conflicting families and forces—the Munroes and the Whitesides—and the story of a failed romance. This core of stories set in the valley is further framed by the opposition, both structurally and symbolically, of the heads of the two families—Bert Munroe and John Whiteside—who as Fontenrose notes are the characters who appear most frequently in the book.3

This opposition and the failed-romance plot form the structure that ties together the separate stories. Bert's section is the first story set in the valley, and John's section is the last. Bert and his family are new to the valley. John's father Richard had been “the first citizen of the valley,” and John in his turn has become the first citizen of the Pastures of Heaven. Bert and his family came from town. John was born in the valley to a family with dynastic intentions.4

Early on in the story of the Munroes, Steinbeck alerts readers that the site of contestation will be language and thought itself. The Munroes' moving into the valley causes a rearrangement in the community's discourse about itself that is presented as being both mental and physical,

The Battle farm was haunted. They had always considered it so, even those who laughed at the idea. Now a man came along and proved them wrong. More than that he changed the face of the countryside by removing the accursed farm and substituting a harmless and fertile farm.

(p. 18)

In reality, the old farm has been changed; however, because discourses do not change or readily share their authority with other discourses, one farm is “substitut[ed]” in discourse for another.

Furthermore, that Bert's thoughts are presented as “coming to him” (p. 19), rather than being the results of his own reasoning, suggests that his Battle farm is the home of a discourse that speaks through Bert without his being conscious of it. As Bakhtin puts it,

Only a single and unitary language [or discourse], one that does not acknowledge other languages alongside itself, can be subject to reification. … Characteristic for the novel as a genre is not the image of a man in his own right, but a man who is precisely the image of a language.

(p. 336; italics in the original)

It is not surprising then that the home Bert makes for his family out of the Battle farm is the city dweller's reified vision of pastoral comfort, with “steel beds painted to look like wood” and the whole “made to look like a hundred thousand other country houses in the West.” It is a vision of rural life mediated by the experience and discourse of an industrial and commercial America. It is no longer a farmhouse; instead, it has become a place of rest where neither the seventeen-year-old son nor the nineteen-year-old daughter appears to do any work.5 The result is a change in discourse corresponding to the change in function: it has become a “country house” (p. 12).

The Munroes thoughtlessly represent the force of the town and town values by speaking its discourse as if it were the natural discourse. And the conflicts between the Munroes' commonsense notions of what rural life should be and the discourses of this isolated farming community reveal the flaws and contradictions in the agrarian ideal, and serve as the catalyst for the action in the various chapters.6 Unconsciously then, the Munroes form the vanguard of the attacking army in what will become the farm battle, the struggle of Jeffersonian agrarianism to remain a viable ideology and life-style in twentieth-century America. Steinbeck foreshadows the victory of the discourse that speaks through Bert Munroe by making Bert the only character who reappears in the book after the chapter in which he is the main character.

For most critics, the climax of the battle between the Munroes and Whitesides is the fire that burns down the Whiteside house in the book's penultimate chapter. The instigator of the brush clearing that burns down the house is, of course, Bert Munroe. Bert, who has asbestos shingles on his house, tells John, “I've always wondered why you didn't have a band of sheep,” and then advises him to burn the thick brush off his hill to create spring pasturage. John wants to get a lot of men to help with the clearing, but Bert assures him that with five men there will be no danger (p. 215). Of course, when the beautiful house, the center of all the Whitesides' authority in the valley, and the focus of their dreams of dynasty, burns to the ground, Bert Munroe blames coal oil in the basement for the fire (pp. 217-19).

In reality, however, the end of the Whiteside dynasty is the result of a failed romance, and that romance fails, at least in part, because of pressures exerted by the contradictory pastoral discourses that it attempts to contain. The house symbolizes the family's dynastic intentions, but the dynasty fails before the house is consumed by the fire. On first reading, though, it may seem that the dynasty fails because of a successful romance; after all, it is the marriage of Bill Whiteside, John's only child, to Mae Munroe, and the young couple's subsequent move to Monterey—an implicit rejection of the country—that signals the end of the Whiteside dynasty in the Pastures of Heaven.

Still, a failed romance is what brings about the end of the Whiteside lineage in the valley. Furthermore, the failed-romance plot is important because it emphasizes that for the Whitesides the stakes of the battle with the Munroes are their continued existence as a lineage in the valley, and because it shows Steinbeck using other stories dialogically—one of the main resources that Bakhtin identifies for the creation of heteroglossia. Here Steinbeck refracts the romance plot of Owen Wister's The Virginian.7

Chapter Eight, the crucial section for the Whitesides, is where The Virginian comes into play. In The Pastures of Heaven, it is the story of Molly Morgan, the new schoolteacher. In The Virginian, the romance plot is based on the arrival of Molly Wood, the new schoolteacher. She comes to an isolated western community; she instantly becomes one of the most important people in the community because of her position and her personal merit; and she is the center of interest of many bachelors. That is the romance plot of Wister's novel, and of Molly Morgan's story in The Pastures of Heaven.8 From that point on, however, Steinbeck's story undercuts the romance plot of Wister's novel. Bill Whiteside is not Jeff, the laconic salt-of-the-earth hero of The Virginian. Bill does tend cows, but he is far closer to being one of the mooning shepherds of ancient pastoral than he is to being the romantic cowboy hero from Virginia. The outcome of the two romance plots is therefore very different.

While interviewing for the job of local schoolteacher, Molly Morgan develops such a sudden and great affection for John and Willa Whiteside and their home that when John offers her the position and asks where she intends to board she replies, “I want to live here.” And even though the Whitesides never take boarders, they agree to take her in.

Mrs. Whiteside's explicit concern about the arrangement seems to be that Bill will not measure up to Molly (p. 136). And Bill's reaction when he first sees Molly is less than promising. He is transformed into a lovesick puppy, while Molly becomes an important person in the valley. By virtue of being the teacher, Molly takes over as the favored arbiter of cultural and academic questions (pp. 135-36), a position similar to that once held by the original Whiteside in the valley.

The Whitesides have found the right woman for the dynasty, if only Bill can become a strong enough suitor to displace her long-absent father in her affections. Bill, however, shows himself to be singularly unperceptive about Molly. Molly tells him the story of her father's disappearance and of her hope that her father is still alive somewhere, but Bill calls her father “an irresponsible cuss” and wonders why dear old Dad has never written to her.

Bill's perspective is perfectly logical; however, it is also monologic. Molly's discourse is similarly monologic; she, despite all the evidence to the contrary, perceives the father who abandoned her family when she was a child as a good and loving family man. Bill fails to understand that Molly's discourse is driven by her emotions, and Molly is too afraid of the truth to be comfortable with Bill's logic. Locked as they are in their opposing discourses, each one evaluates what the other says in terms of his or her own discourse, and so they speak past each other.

Chapter Eight of The Pastures of Heaven stops following the plot of The Virginian at the point where the hero rescues the schoolteacher from danger. Instead, Steinbeck's story at that point becomes the negative to Wister's positive. After their conversation about her father, Molly avoids Bill. When she decides to hike up to visit the shack which legend has it was built by the bandit Vasquez, Bill wants to go along. Uncharacteristically, he is willing to leave work for the day, if Molly will allow him to accompany her. Molly, however, believing that Bill lacks imagination, decides that she would rather go alone, reasoning that he would turn her “adventure” into a mere “trip” (p. 137).

As she is returning from her hike, Bill comes up the path to check on her; she has been gone a long time and people were beginning to worry about her. This action is as close as Bill will ever come to rescuing Molly from anything. Moreover, Bill, unlike the Virginian, is not injured, and Molly does not nurse him back to health. Instead, Bill, not knowing what daydreams have constituted her adventure, manages to mock all the romantic notions with which she had happily passed her day. From this point on, the romance plot only degenerates further.

Molly and Bill do not get married, and, most important of all, unlike the Virginian and his Molly, they do not fill their house with the large numbers of children necessary for a proper dynasty. It is interesting, though, that the inspection Jeff the Virginian undergoes from Molly's great-aunt is similar to the inspection Alicia Whiteside gives Bill's mother Willa when she becomes engaged to John (p. 204). After the inspection, Alicia decides that she can die, because there will be children. By switching the burden of being inspected from Jeff to Willa, and by making it John rather than Willa Whiteside who inspects Molly, Steinbeck both makes the point that dynasties dehumanize those who marry into them by turning them into breeding stock and emphasizes that it is mostly women who suffer from that dehumanization. Steinbeck further undercuts the notion, implicit in The Virginian, that passing the inspection will lead to lots of children and the desired dynasty by making Bill Whiteside an only child.9

Bill does not replace Molly's father in her affections; he does not win over the most eligible woman in the valley; and he does not secure the succession of the Whitesides in the Pastures of Heaven. Molly, still fixated on her father, is soon driven away from the valley by the fear that the lush who is Bert Munroe's new hired man is her father (pp. 140-44). The ultimate collapse of the house of Whiteside is a foregone conclusion.

But to say Bill has failed is to accept the value system of The Virginian's discourse, and that is exactly what readers should not do. To blame Bill is to fail to see Molly's responsibility for her own delusion, and to accept the ideology of male sexual dominance in the discourse of The Virginian.10 Steinbeck warns against such simplistic readings of Bill:

“Tell me the truth, Willa. Is he—stupid?”

“No,” she said consideringly. “No, he's not stupid. In some ways he's harder and brighter than you are. He isn't your kind, John. …”

(pp. 209-10)

Bill's “failure” in the romance plot is less important than his father's thematic failure of imagination. Bill is not John's kind; John Whiteside wanted a dynasty, as did his father before him. And Steinbeck makes it clear that the dynasty they have planned is pastoral in nature. Before Richard begins his search for a wife, he has acquired “a little band of sheep” (p. 192). There is a pastoral song competition when John reads Virgil and decides to try writing some poetry himself. The narrator sums up the pleasance and the pastoral suspension this way:

Most lives extend in a curve. There is a rise of ambition, a rounded peak of maturity, and gentle downward slope of disillusion and last a flattened grade of waiting for death. John Whiteside lived in a straight line. He was ambitionless; his farm not only made him a good living, but paid enough so he could hire men to work it for him. He wanted nothing beyond what he had or could easily procure. He was one of the few men who could savor a moment while he held it. And he knew it was a good life he was leading, a uniquely good life.

(pp. 207-08; italics mine)

The problem here is that this good life is unique. This pastoral dream requires the labor of many people to produce the ease of one man. In another veiled critique of the hypocritical “self-sufficiency” of dynastic agrarian culture, Alicia Whiteside, because she has become an invalid through her attempts to provide children for the dynasty, can manage to run the household only by employing neighboring country girls as domestic help. Clearly, for Steinbeck, dynasties are not the answer.

Richard Whiteside, however, proudly declares that the house should last five hundred years, and that he will be buried there to make it harder for later generations of Whitesides to leave. The neighbor's response to this attempt to extend paternal authority beyond the grave is telling: “It sounds fine, but that's not how we work out here” (pp. 190-91). In this symbolically most American of valleys,11 patriarchal authority extends only until the child reaches adulthood. As Jay Fliegelman has shown in his study of patriarchal authority and the ideology of the American Revolution, the idea of a father imposing his will on a grown child runs counter to the ethos of the founding acts of the American nation.12 Through the Whitesides, Steinbeck reveals that the most American, and supposedly most democratic, of ideals—Jeffersonian agrarianism—is in truth based on the most un-American and undemocratic of principles.

In conclusion, Steinbeck uses many of the central discourses of the American West—rural idyll, the cowboy individualist, and the yeoman farmer/backbone of democracy—dialogically in opposition to one another in The Pastures of Heaven to critique the pastures-in-the-sky nature of American national discourses of the West as garden—las pasturas del cielo. To interpret any of the discourses separately as the correct discourse is to make the same mistake Bert Munroe and John Whiteside make in being, as Bakhtin puts it, “image[s] of a language” (p. 336).


  1. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 330.

  2. Carlos Castillo and Otto F. Bond, eds., The University of Chicago Spanish-English/English-Spanish Dictionary (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), pp. 37, 139; Gabriel Berns, interview with distinguished scholar of Spanish translation, October 10, 1988; Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1990), pp. 39-41, 277-80. It is possible that Steinbeck never knew the peninsular Spanish “pasto”; however, given that he learned much of his Spanish working as hay boss, Steinbeck probably knew the New World Spanish “pastura.” Steinbeck certainly would have known the multiple meanings of “del” and “cielo.” Thus, it seems likely that he wanted the variant translations of “the pastures of the sky” and “the fodder for heaven” to be lurking in the background of “the pastures of heaven.” All subsequent biographical references are from Benson, passim.

  3. Joseph Fontenrose, Steinbeck's Unhappy Valley: A Study ofThe Pastures of Heaven” (Berkeley, California: Joseph Fontenrose, 1981), pp. 6-7.

  4. John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven, 5th ed. (New York: Viking Penguin, 1988), pp. 191, 188-220; all subsequent citations are to this edition.

  5. Ibid., p. 17. Only a city dweller, in his “nostalgia” for a life he has never led, would believe that life as a small farmer would offer “rest and security”—one or the other perhaps, but certainly not both.

  6. Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 76-77. Owens points out that although the Munroes act as catalysts, the incidents were bound to happen eventually, and they force the “victims” to reconsider the delusions by which they have been living. Also, the difficulty of recognizing that the Munroes are not “cursed” (Pastures, p. 19) wraps the readers in illusions just as surely as the valley's inhabitants have wrapped themselves in their illusions.

  7. John J. Murphy, “The Virginian and Antonia Shimerda: Different Sides of the Western Coin,” in Women and Western American Literature, eds. Helen W. Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski (Troy, New York: Whitson Publishing Co., 1982), pp. 162-78. Murphy delineates the importance of Wister's character to the myth of the West.

  8. James D. Hart, The Popular Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950), p. 207; Max Westbrook “Afterword” The Virginian, 13th ed. (New York: New American Library, 1979), p. 318; Robert DeMott, Steinbeck's Reading (New York: Garland, 1984); “Steinbeck's Reading: First Supplement,” Steinbeck Quarterly, 18 (Summer-Fall 1984), 97-103; “Steinbeck's Reading: Second Supplement,” Ibid., 12 (Winter-Spring 1989), 4-8; James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, eds., The Great Western Pictures (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1976), pp. 383-85. There have been four movie versions of The Virginian, including the hugely successful early talkie version with Gary Cooper in 1929 (while Steinbeck was writing The Pastures of Heaven). And, although DeMott does not list The Virginian or any other books by Wister in Steinbeck's Reading or in either of the supplements, knowledge of Steinbeck's reading is necessarily incomplete. Still, The Virginian was the best-selling book in America in 1902—the year of Steinbeck's birth—and has remained in print for almost ninety years. Given that the Steinbecks were a bookish family, that young John loved novels of adventure, and given the above-mentioned plot similarities and the two teachers both named Molly, it seems probable that Steinbeck did, in fact, read The Virginian. This does not constitute proof, but the argument for coincidental similarity is less credible than the hypothesis that Steinbeck was familiar either directly or indirectly with Wister's archetypal Western tale.

  9. Owen Wister, The Virginian, 13th ed. (New York: New American Library, 1979), pp. 314-16.

  10. Bakhtin, Dialogic, pp. 311-12. “Incorporated into the novel are a multiplicity of ‘language’ and verbal-ideological belief systems. … The[se] … systems, while of course utilized to refract the author's intentions, are unmasked and destroyed as something false, hypocritical, greedy, narrowly rationalistic, inadequate to reality.” See also Murphy, “Virginian and Antonia,” p. 167.

  11. Owens, p. 74, cites the European discovery of the valley on the first page and in 1776.

  12. Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), passim.

Further Reading

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French, Warren. “The Red Pony as Story Cycle and Film.” In The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, edited by Jackson J. Benson, pp. 71-84. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Traces Steinbeck's adaptation of The Red Pony. from short-story cycle to screenplay.

———. “Travels through the Long Valley.” In John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, pp. 60-8. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Thematic analysis of the stories in The Long Valley.

Hughes, Robert S., Jr. “Steinbeck and the Art of Story Writing.” In The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald R. Noble, pp. 37-50. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1993.

Identifies and discusses Steinbeck's best short stories.

Levant, Howard. “The Red Pony as Story Cycle and Film.” In The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, edited by Jackson J. Benson, pp. 84-94. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Stylistic examination of The Red Pony.

Meyer, Michael J. “Fallen Adam: Another Look at Steinbeck's ‘The Snake.’” The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald R. Noble, pp. 99-107. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1993.

Investigates the theme of the fall of man in “The Snake.”

Scholtmeijer, Marian. “Human Sexuality: Body Trouble.” In Animal Victims in Modern Fiction: From Sanctity to Sacrifice, pp. 180-87. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Analyzes the theme of sexuality and animal imagery in “The White Quail.”

Tiwari, I. D. “The Long Valley.” In Steinbeck's Heroes in His Short Stories and Novels, pp. 39-59. Delhi: Rekha Publishing House, 1992.

Thematic and stylistic overview of the stories in The Long Valley.

Additional coverage of Steinbeck's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 35; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, 21, 34, 45, 75, 124; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9, 212, 275; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 5, 7, 17, 19; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 6; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 11, 37; Something About the Author, Vol. 9; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 135; 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults.

Christopher S. Busch (essay date summer-fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Busch, Christopher S. “Longing for the Lost Frontier: Steinbeck's Vision of Cultural Decline in ‘The White Quail’ and ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 3 & 4 (summer-fall 1993): 81-90.

[In the following essay, Busch contends that Steinbeck illuminates “modern personal and cultural degeneration through reference to frontier types” in “The White Quail” and “The Chrysanthemums.”]

In the course of his forty-year career, John Steinbeck consistently integrated elements of American frontier history, mythology, and symbolism into his fiction and nonfiction. Steinbeck's fascination with the frontier past germinated during his boyhood in Salinas, at that time a cowtown described by Jackson J. Benson as “a throwback to the frontier towns of a half-century before.”1 This vital interest in the frontier West remained with him throughout his life, impelling him in American and Americans to validate traditional mythic conceptions of the nation's Western heritage. He writes:

The dreams of a people either create folk literature or find their way into it; and folk literature, again, is always based on something that happened. Our most persistent folk tales—constantly retold in books, movies, and television shows—concern cowboys, gunslinging sheriffs and Indian fighters. These folk figures existed—perhaps not quite as they are recalled nor in the numbers indicated, but they did exist; and this dream also persists.2

While a number of critics have noted Steinbeck's focus on frontier themes, several seek to distance Steinbeck from the traditional Wild West mythology he embraces above, as well as from traditional visions of pioneers' agrarian and westering experiences on the frontier. In “‘Directionality’: The Compass in the Heart,” for example, John Ditsky argues that The Grapes of Wrath shows “mere westering leads nowhere,”3 and Chester E. Eisinger describes “the bankruptcy of Jefferson's ideal” in “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath” and claims that “we must seek another road to the independence and security and dignity we expect from democracy.”4 Warren French argues that Grapes represents “an attempt … to explode rather than perpetuate the myths and conventions upon which Western genre fiction [is] based.”5 And in his recent study, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America, Louis Owens holds that

Steinbeck again and again in short story and novel held the dangers of the westering myth up to view. … Steinbeck saw no cornucopia of democracy in the retreating frontier, but rather a destructive and even fatal illusion barring Americans from the realization of any profound knowledge of the continent they had crossed.6

Though these views reflect a developing critical consensus regarding Steinbeck's vision of the frontier, Steinbeck's own words in America and Americans, and the words of a sympathetic farmer he presents in Travels with Charley, who laments, “This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone?”7 haunt us and call us back to reconsider the nature of Steinbeck's deeply held vision of the frontier past.

Though French has distanced Steinbeck's work from the western genre, in fact Steinbeck's preoccupations closely parallel issues central to literary western stories and novels, particularly those that examine contemporary cultural degeneration. William Bloodworth discovers in the literary western “the sense of a vanished world in which action, gesture, and character had more significance than it does [sic] in the present.”8 Similarly, David Lavender, citing the works of Conrad Richter and Willa Cather, describes the frequent appearance of characters plagued by “a vitiation of energy” who experience “the universal tragedy of lost strength.”9 In “Steinbeck's ‘The Leader of the People’: A Crisis in Style,” Philip J. West describes Steinbeck's affiliation with this tradition, reflected in his depiction of the “diminished stature of society in the Salinas Valley … [which] is … hinted at in the epic devices that outlive epic greatness.”10 In fact, not only in The Red Pony but throughout his career, Steinbeck frequently exhibited concern that when compared to the frontier past, contemporary American life often lacks integrity and meaning, and that contemporary Americans increasingly resemble “a national kennel of animals with no purpose and no direction.”11 In delineating these deficits in culture and character, Steinbeck consistently represents the mythic frontier past and its prototypical figures—yeomen, cowboys, scouts, frontier fighters, hunters, wagonmasters, and westering pioneers—as an ideal or standard, while at the same time portraying modern characters who are, at best, diminished descendants of these idealized frontier types.

This comparative strategy appears, for example, in Steinbeck's characterization of such diverse figures as the hapless “hunter,” Hubert Van Deventer, in The Pastures of Heaven (1932), the inept “scout,” Pimples Carson, in The Wayward Bus (1947), and even the effete store clerk, Ethan Allen Hawley, in The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), who painfully recognizes the disparity between his own experience and that of his legendary ancestor.12 Valuing the skill, self-reliance, and forthright vision of their cultural (and at times biological) forebears yet incapable of similar achievement themselves, such characters often live destructive lives that can only be described as diminished perversions of mythic frontier life. Steinbeck's effort to illuminate modern personal and cultural degeneration through reference to frontier types is also convincingly revealed in two stories from The Long Valley collection, “The White Quail” and “The Chrysanthemums.”

In “The White Quail,” Steinbeck describes the protagonist, Mary Teller, as a diminished modern yeoman who attempts to create a perfect garden in the post-frontier West. Mary's husband, Harry, contributes to this project for a time, but ultimately recognizes its perverse nature and hunts down and kills the white quail, which, in Mary's mind, symbolizes the garden's perfection. Owens argues that “Mary's garden is an attempt to construct an unfallen Eden in a fallen world, a neurotic projection of Mary's self.”13 He concludes that the story ultimately reveals “the futility of holding to the Eden myth—even the danger of the illusion.”14 In describing Mary as yeoman and Harry as hunter, however, Steinbeck does not sharply undercut the myth of agrarianism as Owens suggests. Instead, by revealing the degenerate nature of the characters' personalities and actions, Steinbeck satirizes the narcissism and pathological self-delusion that cripple the modern American imagination and reflect the culture's degeneration.

As a frontier-based narrative, Steinbeck's story achieves much of its power through the dualistic quality of its setting and characters. Steinbeck purposely sets the story on a “frontier,” or borderland possessing attributes of both a wilderness and a Crèvecoeurian “middle region” to emphasize the story's thematic connection with frontier history:

Right at the edge of the garden, the hills started up, wild with cascara bushes and poison oak, with dry grass and live oak, very wild. If you didn't go around to the front of the house, you couldn't tell it was on the very edge of town.15

This setting functions as a modern suburban frontier, similar in appearance to the historical frontier, but diminished in size, a kind of mock frontier. The setting is both like the historical frontier and unlike it at the same time, just as the characters are both types and antitypes of mythic frontier figures.

In her effort to tame this frontier and transform it into a garden, Mary Teller appears to be a descendant of the homesteader, or yeoman, celebrated in the agrarian myth. Yet, in actuality, Mary is a diminished yeoman whose approach to nature inverts the yeoman's traditional approach to the land. Where the pioneer yeoman saw opportunity in the wilderness and approached it with expectancy, Mary sees danger in “the dark thickets of the hill”: “‘That's the enemy,’ Mary said one time. ‘That's the world that wants to get in, all rough and tangled and unkempt’” (pp. 26-27). Where the yeoman gained strength and virtue through contact with the soil, Mary protects herself from contact with nature by wearing a “sunbonnet” and “good sturdy gloves” (p. 25), and hires workers to carry out the actual labor.

Harry joins his wife on this suburban frontier as a diminished hunter, reminiscent of the Wild West hunter in the Leatherstocking tradition, yet curiously distinct from the type as well. Like the hunter, Harry appears near the story's end as a skilled marksman more at home in the wilderness of the hill beyond the garden than in the garden itself. But in his unconsidered acquiescence to Mary's neurotic wishes, his choice of an air gun as a weapon, and his pursuit of the harmless white quail as prey, Harry becomes a ridiculous figure, scarcely resembling the self-reliant frontier hunter whose “physical strength, adaptability to nature, resourcefulness and courage”16 defined him as a heroic type.

As the story progresses, Steinbeck intensifies the distinction between the ideals of frontier yeoman and hunter and the modern setting and characters. Robert S. Hughes, Jr., argues that in both setting and plot, the story is “unusually static.”17 Implicit in the idea of frontier development is change and progress, but here stasis becomes the ideal: “‘We won't ever change it, will we Harry?’” Mary begs. “‘If a bush dies, we'll put another one just like it in the same place’” (p. 24). Whereas the yeoman harvested trees to build a shelter and food crops to feed a family, Mary's “harvest” consists of the sight of birds that “come to my garden for peace and for water” (p. 27), “bowls of flowers [which] were exquisite” (p. 25), and ultimately the white quail, “an essence boiled down to utter purity” (p. 33). And whereas the yeomen faced life-threatening challenges from Indians seeking to reclaim their land, droughts, floods, and fires, Mary and Harry must defend themselves against such dubious adversaries as snails and slugs:

Mary held the flashlight while Harry did the actual killing. … He knew it must be a disgusting business to her, but the light never wavered. “Brave girl,” he thought. “She has a sturdiness in back of that fragile beauty.”

(p. 26)

Near the story's end, the diminished Tellers face a final threat to their garden world in the form of a cat pursuing the quail. James C. Work argues that the white quail is a “life force,”18 and Owens claims that the cat represents “the real world that Mary cannot keep forever from her garden.”19 Yet the Tellers' reaction to these two animals further emphasizes the protagonists' degeneration. As “an albino. No pigment in the feathers” (p. 35), the quail is indeed rare. But like the bowls of flowers and the garden itself, the quail is valued not for its genuine affinity with nature but rather for its distinctiveness, or isolation, from the “impurity” Mary imputes to the uncontrolled natural world. Similarly, though the cat is obviously a threat to the quail, it presents no real danger to the Tellers. What is significant in this minor conflict is that the Tellers elevate it to the stature of crisis, just as the snail hunt takes on exaggerated meaning earlier. The story's final episode thus becomes a testament to the Tellers' diminishment.

Harry's decision to kill the white quail, instead of the cat, at the end of the story may be seen, as Owens suggests, as an attack in frustration against “the heart of Mary's illusory garden.” But Harry is not “an exile from the unreal Eden” as Owens claims.20 Though they are at odds in their valuation of the white quail, the Tellers are much more alike in their misplaced values than they are different. As Steinbeck depicts them, they are both degenerate types: she a modern yeoman, he a modern hunter. They are Americans whose contracted imaginative vision interprets cats, slugs, and snails as adversaries to be destroyed, and whose unproductive suburban pleasure gardens provide meaningless challenges that ironically prove insurmountable. In their effort to create a “pure” landscape to mirror Mary's obsessive preconceptions and to give them both sensate pleasure, the Tellers lose perspective and forfeit any authentic relationship with the complex reality of nature and with each other. Their world is, as Owens argues, “an emotional wasteland without any certain hope for fructification, spiritual or physical.”21 Through this satire on modern western “settlement,” Steinbeck exposes the suburban frontier and its “settlers,” and questions what remains in American character of the physical capability and expansive vision of the West's pioneers.

In “The Chrysanthemums,” a second story in The Long Valley collection, Steinbeck again addresses the issue of cultural degeneration, this time in connection with the idea of westering. Work argues that “Elisa's life [on the foothill ranch] is dull, repetitive and vaguely frustrating,” whereas “the itinerant tinker who pulls up to her fence one afternoon is a virile life-force who comes into her closed valley, arouses and confuses her emotions, and leaves.”22 Owens agrees with Work's assessment of Elisa's situation, claiming that “Elisa is seeking symbols of commitment in a world of physical, spiritual, and emotional isolation and sterility,”23 a world revitalized in the story by “the fertilizing imagination of the tinker.”24 As Hughes persuasively argues, however, the tinker is a self-serving character who “lives for his own pleasure.”25 French identifies him as an “unscrupulous confidence man,” and reads the story as an indictment against “the manipulation of people's dreams for selfish purposes.”26

In contrast to the tinker's ambiguous character, Elisa can be seen as the truly vital life force in the story. Although her frustration with the limitations placed on her by her situation causes her to find the tinker's life attractive, Elisa's authentic connection to the earth validates her own life and serves as a strong contrast to the basic deception practiced by the tinker. The tinker, far from being a symbol of vitality, is rather a symbol of the degeneration of westering mythic energies, which were founded on acts of discovery and exploration. Although troubling in its apparent denigration of Elisa's situation, in actuality, the story celebrates her authentic connection to a realistic garden and reveals through the character of the tinker the absence of significant direction or purpose that debilitates modern American culture.

The story opens in late autumn, traditionally associated with the decline of the year and here symbolic of cultural decline as well.27 In his portrayal of Elisa, Steinbeck creates an image of a person at home in nature, comfortable in a garden of her own making, and free of the neuroses that plague Mary Teller:

Her face was eager and mature and handsome. … She brushed a cloud of hair out of her eyes with the back of her glove, and left a smudge of earth on her cheek in doing it. Behind her stood the neat white farm house with red geraniums close banked around it as high as the windows.

(p. 4)

In tending her garden, Elisa has “a gift with things,” Steinbeck writes, “planter's hands that knew” how to work in concert with nature's seasonal cycles (p. 5). Although critics often emphasize the sterility of Elisa's life, in fact, she operates, in contrast to both her husband and the tinker, as a vital force that maintains the yeoman's idealized connection with the land.

The tinker contrasts sharply with Elisa, functioning as a symbol of both personal and cultural degeneration. Steinbeck emphasizes the importance of this figure as a symbolic descendant of the westering pioneers by placing him at the reins of an anachronistic vehicle, “an old spring-wagon, with a round canvas top on it like the cover of a prairie schooner” (p. 7). Elisa and her husband own a roadster. The tinker enters the scene, then, as an important symbol of frontier westering that seems to emerge again on a post-frontier landscape. Yet degeneration, not vitality, distinguishes this modern westerer, who becomes an antitype of the pioneers. His condition reflects both his own degenerate moral “vision,” which neither values Elisa's patient nurturing of the land and gift of chrysanthemum sprouts nor exhibits any scruples about deceptively manipulating her emotions, and the decay of a central, once-grand westering tradition. Steinbeck highlights the disjunction between the tinker and the pioneers through his description of the wagon:

Elisa … watched to see the crazy, loose-jointed wagon pass by. But it didn't pass. It turned into the farm road in front of her house, crooked old wheels skirling and squeaking. … Words were painted on the canvas, in clumsy, crooked letters. “Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed.” Two rows of articles, and the triumphantly definitive “Fixed” below. The black paint had run down in little sharp points beneath each letter.

(p. 7)

Reminiscent in shape only of the frontier settlers who pioneered the vast reaches of the continent and etched their destination and the epic stature of their adventure—“California or Bust”—on their canvases, the tinker and his rig, trade, and lack of direction all point symbolically to his degenerate state as a diminished descendant of the pioneers. In marked contrast to Elisa's vibrant flowers, the tinker's “horse and … donkey drooped like unwatered flowers” (p. 7), and unlike the westerers Grandfather celebrates in “The Leader of the People,” the tinker has no destination, no purpose or goal in mind: “‘I ain't in any hurry, ma'am. I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather’” (p. 8). Roads and the places they lead figure prominently throughout Steinbeck's fiction. By contrasting the tinker's journey with the mythic westering trek in terms of both its directionality and relative significance of purpose, Steinbeck argues that not only this representative man but much of the culture is off its “general road,” its historical road of destiny (p. 8). Unlike the pioneers, whose linear movement became a metaphor for both personal and cultural progress, this modern-day westerer simply travels in circles, not building a new culture but patching up the old, broken, worn-out one symbolized in the pots and pans he repairs.

The great irony of “The Chrysanthemums” is that a woman of tremendous vitality and connection with the natural world would be attracted to the aimless life of the tinker. Some critics argue that the narrowness of Elisa's life, symbolized by the fog-shrouded farm that resembles a “closed pot” in Steinbeck's opening description (p. 1), prompts her to idealize the tinker's carefree existence. Though Elisa's life clearly is not entirely satisfying, she seems nevertheless to misapprehend the truly bankrupt nature of the tinker's life. “‘That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there,’” (p. 14) Elisa comments as the tinker departs, and through her gift of chrysanthemum sprouts she vicariously joins him on his circuitous route. But the trip into town undeceives her, for on the roadside she discovers her discarded chrysanthemums, symbol of her earth-based vitality, cast aside by the tinker, providing ample evidence, in Owens's words, of “the tinker's broken faith.”28

Here Steinbeck clearly indicates that despite Elisa's dissatisfaction with human relationships in her life, her connection with the earth, a realistic yet beautiful garden, is authentic, just as her gift of chrysanthemums is authentic and vital. The life of the tinker, on the other hand, lacks physical, moral, and spiritual direction. By consciously manipulating Elisa's fascination with the pioneer spirit of freedom and adventure—in fact, by fraudulently posing as the modern embodiment of that spirit—simply to increase his trade, the tinker crushes Elisa's vital nature and destroys the momentary emotional and psychic pleasure she experiences by vicariously joining the tinker on his “adventurous” journey. Through his depiction of the tinker as a degenerate modern descendant of the westering pioneers, Steinbeck contrasts the aimlessness of modern American culture with the purpose and accomplishment of the westering heritage in American history. In his intrusion and despoilment of Elisa's imperfect but significantly productive and life-giving garden, the tinker becomes for Steinbeck a dark portrait of modern America's physical and transcendentally spiritual distance from its agrarian and westering past, a figure entirely lacking any respect for Elisa's wholesome connection with her land or a supra-material, visionary conception of personal or cultural advancement and progress.

Like Travels with Charley, America and Americans, and The Wayward Bus, among others, “The White Quail” and “The Chrysanthemums” reveal an important dimension of Steinbeck's fascinating, often paradoxical vision of America's frontier heritage. Whereas Ditsky, Owens, and French emphasize Steinbeck's self-distancing from traditional frontier mythology and history, here we see his appropriation of that legacy as a kind of ideal against which to measure contemporary American culture. Perhaps the greatest significance of these two stories, in addition to their thematic embrace of frontier ideals, is their date of publication; for although it may be argued that Steinbeck's celebration of the frontier past in Travels with Charley and America and Americans represents the nostalgic musings of an aging writer, these stories appeared, of course, as Steinbeck neared the pinnacle of his artistic powers in the thirties, indicating an early (and enduring) fascination with the mythic frontier West not yet fully appreciated.


  1. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1984), 138, 134.

  2. John Steinbeck, America and Americans (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 33-34.

  3. John Ditsky, “‘Directionality’: The Compass in the Heart,” The Westering Experience in American Literature, Bicentennial Essays (Bellingham, Washington: Bureau for Faculty Research, Western Washington University, 1977), 219.

  4. Chester E. Eisinger, “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath,A Casebook onThe Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Agnes McNeill Donohue (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968), 150.

  5. Warren French, “Another Look at The Grapes of Wrath,A Companion toThe Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Warren French (Clifton, New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1972), 222.

  6. Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 4.

  7. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1963), 168.

  8. William Bloodworth, “Literary Extensions of the Formula Western,” Western American Literature 14 (Winter 1980), 295.

  9. David Lavender, “The Petrified West and the Writer,” American Scholar 37 (Spring 1968), 301-302.

  10. Philip J. West, “Steinbeck's ‘The Leader of the People’: A Crisis in Style,” Western American Literature 5 (Summer 1970), 140.

  11. Steinbeck, America and Americans, 139.

  12. John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven (New York: Viking Press, 1932); The Wayward Bus (New York: Viking Press, 1947); The Winter of Our Discontent (New York: Viking Press, 1961).

  13. Owens, Re-Vision, 113.

  14. Ibid., 114-115.

  15. John Steinbeck, “The White Quail,” in The Long Valley (1938) (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 21. Subsequent citations refer to this edition.

  16. Delbert E. Wylder, “The Western Novel as Literature of the Last Frontier,” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, eds. David Mogen et al. (College Station, Texas: Texas A& M University Press, 1989), 121.

  17. Robert S. Hughes, Jr., Beyond the Red Pony: A Reader's Companion to Steinbeck's Complete Short Stories (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1987), 63.

  18. James C. Work, “Coordinate Forces in ‘The Leader of the People,’” Western American Literature 16 (Winter 1982), 280.

  19. Owens, Re-Vision, 114.

  20. Ibid., 116.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Work, “Coordinate Forces,” 280.

  23. Owens, Re-Vision, 112.

  24. Ibid., 109.

  25. Hughes, Companion, 61.

  26. Warren French, John Steinbeck (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961), 83.

  27. John Steinbeck, “The Chrysanthemums,” in The Long Valley (1938), (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 3. Subsequent citations refer to this edition.

  28. Owens, Re-Vision, 112.

John Ditsky (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “‘Your Own Mind Coming Out in the Garden’: Steinbeck's Elusive Woman.” In John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, pp. 3-19. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Ditsky explores the depiction of women in several stories from The Long Valley.]

During the period in which John Steinbeck wrote the three Depression novels that are the special focus of this Third International Steinbeck Congress, he also published one other notable volume of fiction: the memorable assemblage of short stories collectively entitled The Long Valley.1 Few readers or critics of Steinbeck would argue with the claim that these four volumes represent Steinbeck at his best. But as Robert S. Hughes, Jr., noted in his paper for the Tenth Salinas Steinbeck Festival in August 1989,2 there are very different orientations in Steinbeck's short fiction as opposed to his novels, with the differences being bridged perhaps only in the hybrid work The Pastures of Heaven. Moreover, little of The Long Valley has anything to do with the struggles of the American worker, the preoccupation of the novels that are our subject.

Tetsumaro Hayashi, our director, originally suggested a paper on Steinbeck criticism as it is today and as it will be in the future. But I feel I exhausted my powers as sage and guru when I did much the same sort of thing in 1988 at the Ninth Salinas Steinbeck Festival. And the future of Steinbeck criticism is rapidly passing into younger hands that have no need of my powers of prophecy. I would therefore like to speak about parts of The Long Valley in a way that expands upon the observations I made in Salinas in 1988, and also springs from some of what I had to say in the same city a year later. In so doing, I would like to try to pin down some of the characteristic means by which Steinbeck, as though he were a writer of detective fiction, made a lifelong quest of understanding that elusive thing called Woman—and perhaps, like most of us, failed.

The most prominent of Steinbeck's feminist critics is certainly Mimi Reisel Gladstein, who has written with conviction about Steinbeck's “indestructible” females, as well as about the apparent “misogyny” The Wayward Bus evidences.3 More recently, she has also written about the curious anomaly by which Steinbeck, who knew so many remarkable women in his life, fails to recreate them in his own fiction.4 Gladstein fairly admits that the autonomy of the artist includes the right to do precisely that if he chooses, but she just as rightly raises the issue of the peculiarity of the situation. The Depression novels clearly prove that Steinbeck's depiction of events on the picket lines and at the hiring tables does not reflect the “actual” presence of charismatic women at those scenes in the “real” 1930s. With the classic exception of the “indestructible” Ma Joad, the women in In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath are apt to be either sad or silly—or both. But in The Long Valley, as Susan Shillinglaw has recently been proving, women—or the Woman—come into their own, albeit a bit at a time.5 That this quest for the nature of Woman occupied Steinbeck for a lifetime is a subject beyond the scope of this chapter. That certain key stories in The Long Valley speak to the issue is what I intend to address.

In the three labor novels being discussed during this congress, the world of action is the world of men, with the women surrendering their relative passivity only in the third volume of the trilogy, if we can call it that, The Grapes of Wrath. There, it is true, Ma's assumption of the “male” function of action does come to represent the potential for revolutionary change in the human family, but its highest and most notorious achievement is the closing tableau, in which revolutionary action can also be said to be passion of a sort. Indeed, what Rose of Sharon participates in is a curious kind of act of love that has reminded some readers, myself included, of the results of another Passion, the biblical one, in its culmination in a version of the Pietà.6 Woman here has not yet succeeded in moving out of her mythical and archetypal role; rather, she has simply stretched it a bit.

Hughes pointed out in Salinas that while the novels focus on society, the short stories deal with individual psychology. It is in the short stories, then, that we might expect to see women portrayed as individuals, whether or not they are confined there to doing the womanly appropriate things. In a recent issue of the Steinbeck Quarterly, I discuss one of the stories from The Long Valley, “The Murder,” in which Woman is truly presented as the unfathomable Other, with her nearly species difference conveyed by Jelka's being a member of the Slavic race.7 I also suggest that there is ambiguity in “The Murder” over whether Jim Moore's point of view, in its failure to understand womankind, is not also characteristic of Steinbeck himself. It may be significant that the last two stories in The Long Valley before the Red Pony pieces deal in a way with womankind: “The Murder,” with its aforementioned ambiguities; and “St. Katy the Virgin,” which I am not for a moment going to risk considering as a commentary on the female sex—though I did wake up in the middle of the night recently with the troubling question of whether St. Katy, that nasty little porker, might at least subconsciously have served as the model for Cathy Ames.


I am not about to deal with those stories in which Steinbeck may be throwing up his hands at the impossibility of understanding women, any more than I wish to deal with the symbolic implications of the collection's title, which just may allude to the existence of a patient, everlasting, and naturally female place where Man—male horse, male rider—thinks he is free to act. I want to deal with those three of the first four stories in the collection that attempt to answer the question “What is Woman?”: “The Chrysanthemums,” “The White Quail,” and “The Snake.” These stories have been extensively analyzed before, and I do not expect to be able to do much that is truly novel with them here, but perhaps I will be able to glean something from them that can take our thinking in a new direction.

Many of us have written about “The Chrysanthemums,” surely the most often anthologized of Steinbeck's pieces, but few of us have wholly agreed. Like the other stories under consideration today, its ambiguities are centered in the mystery of Woman herself, but unlike the others, it pretends to a sympathy the others do not possess. Interestingly, however, what might strike a male reader as Steinbeck's most “feminist” piece of fiction does not seem to evoke the same response among women. In a recent class of mine, the women were deeply divided over the issue of whether Elisa Allen is a sympathetic figure or not. It would seem that more than half a century after the writing of “The Chrysanthemums,” women are impatient with a character who appears to be unable or unwilling to do anything about her own perceived state of entrapment.

But Elisa's entrapment is deeply rooted in character, and her psychology is complicated by the fact that she both dresses and addresses her work in her garden in a mannish fashion. Furthermore, in her encounter with the tinker, it is the freedom of his man's life on the road that appeals to her as much as, if not more than, his maleness. I have written recently about the theatricality of this story,8 and I would extend my remarks now by observing that Elisa is manipulated by the tinker into playing the female role, finding him some work to do and thus catering to his maleness, before he will complete the pretended transaction by accepting her unwanted flowers—which he, of course, abandons heartlessly. It is on the strength of this bit of dramatic self-delusion that Elisa indulges in her narcissistic cleansing, admiring, and adorning of her body. Her bewildered husband, Henry, noting the results, inadvertently but accurately describes them as “a kind of play.” But he also describes what he sees as “strong,” a curious term to use to describe a woman in the full flush of womanhood—that is, a woman fully possessed of stereotypical womanliness. Elisa is enough of a person by this time—a woman with a man's sense of freedom—that she can even consider going with Henry to the fights, and one can only guess what rewards poor Henry might have reaped later had she indeed gone. But only moments after the not-unexpected finding of the discarded chrysanthemums along the road, Elisa subsides into a state of “crying weakly—like an old woman.” It is a tribute to the perceptiveness of Steinbeck's presentation of the equivocal nature of human sexuality to note that after half a century or more, we have not by any means run out of things to say about this little story.

But no single Steinbeck story is able to express the ambiguities of the writer's attitudes towards Woman. Her mysteriousness would remain largely unfathomable to him until, perhaps, quite late in his career. To enlarge upon a point made earlier, we remember that Steinbeck's greatest novel ends with an awestruck visit to a shrine to femaleness, and that the book's last word is “mysteriously,” referring to Rose of Sharon's smile.9 The mystery of femaleness presented in “The Chrysanthemums” is approached from another angle in “The White Quail.” Again, the female character is so preoccupied with her long-planned garden that she chooses her husband on the basis of whether or not the garden will “like” him (TLV [The Long Valley], p. 28). When her choice lights on Harry Teller, her beauty makes him “hungry,” but access to her “untouchable” nature depends on his compliant acceptance of the importance of her garden to her, for he recognizes—in the line which is the title of this paper—that the garden is the expression of her psychology (p. 29). But her mind, when it comes “out in the garden,” is a curious one indeed, for she talks about the garden “almost as though she were talking about herself,” and yet when she refers to a particular fuchsia tree—part of the garden that is herself—she calls it “he” (p. 31). This “he” is meant to protect the garden from intrusion from the wild world without; “pretty” Mary is not bothered by the process of destroying “slugs and snails” for her garden's sake, and she is willing to poison an intruding cat to preserve what is meant to be a bird sanctuary (pp. 31-32). Harry wonders what is going on inside her “cool, collected mind,” but Mary indicates that she may not be what he thinks he sees; indeed, when she looks indoors from outside one evening, she finds herself “seeing” herself through the window, and she admires what she sees—and also the ability to appreciate her doubleness (pp. 33-34). But she cannot reveal herself to Harry on this score, for that would ruin things; her mind is as spoilable as her garden.

The secret garden of Mary's mind is thus preserved from infiltration in the same way she withholds her body from Harry when he cannot understand her attempts to prettify his man's world of business ethics. Later, when Harry has the temerity to crave an Irish terrier puppy, Mary's “curse of imagination” causes her to become feverish with a psychosomatic headache. One notes here, and with interest, the connecting of the power to imagine with the sexuality of the female, even to the extent of punishment by denial of sex—not to mention the proverbial headache that accompanies the denial, if not as part of the same incident then at least as part of the same page of narrative (TLV, p. 36).

One dusk, which Mary considers her “really-garden-time,” a “little white hen quail” appears in her garden, and Mary immediately concludes—rather remarkably—that the quail is “like the essence of me, an essence boiled down to utter purity” (TLV, p. 38). The quail brings Mary memories of a ritual three “ecstasies,” a sequence of moments in which her imagination stood poised on the threshold of experiences new to her: candy she mustn't taste, praise for her patience “like a gentian,” and news of her father's death (p. 39). Mary's inhumanly protracted “purity,” embodied in the quail, is next seen as threatened by a cat, and Harry's refusal to use poison against “animals in my garden” brings on predictable results: the headache, the locked bedroom door. Harry promises to shoot the cat with his air rifle to scare it off and thus protect what Mary calls “the secret me that no one can ever get at” (p. 41). Instead, he kills the quail, of course, though he tells himself he just wanted to scare it away, and he buries it outside the garden. Interestingly, the story switches focus at its ending to Harry; having killed his wife's “secret me,” he blames himself and bemoans his loneliness.

Mary Teller can be called a pathological, grown child or what you will, but the salient fact of her story's narration is that it changes sides. At its ending, the male figure accepts his fate: he will never get inside his wife's mind and soul, and the story has already suggested that his access to her body may be at an end. The otherness of Woman has been confirmed again, as mystified men are left outside the garden with the unruly elements of existence: cats, dogs, horses, and tinker's dams. The balance of empathy seems to have shifted: the last words of “The Chrysanthemums” are “old woman,” but those of “The White Quail” are a man's wailed “I'm so lonely!” (TLV, p. 42). The stories tally, however, in terms of the presentation of Woman as mysteriously possessed of the ability to order the garden of herself through the powers of the imagination. In the process, we have also moved closer to the narrative form of the parable.

Parabolic form is approached even more closely in “The Snake,” the third of the stories on Woman under consideration. In it, the mystery of Woman is heightened by the fact that Steinbeck makes use of (but alters) an incident that took place in Ed Rickett's lab to present supposedly objective observations in a supposedly objective milieu. The woman in this story has no name, however; she is neither Allen nor Teller. She is a case history: something that happened. She enters a scientist's domain with a special request—to purchase a snake and watch it feed. We learn nothing about her but her gender. But in the process, she becomes a species watching another species—Woman watching reptile—and thereby she also becomes an intermediate subject for observation: she becomes Woman being watched by Man watching a reptile consume a rat. Man, the reader presumably included, is thus tempted to stand back and annotate the proceedings. In effect, she offers herself, albeit unintentionally, as datum.

Putting things another way, this is the third in a sequence of fictional relationships between men and women. Like Mary Teller's husband, Dr. Phillips recognizes through his experience with his woman visitor that he is lonely—“alone,” as the story puts it. The same recognition would come to Doc in Sweet Thursday, but before what most readers take to be a sentimentalized, hence improbable, mating ritual. In the two laboratory stories, however, the objective scientist is made to discover his aloneness through contact with the other “species,” Woman. Dr. Phillips is introduced as being methodical in his life and work, which are inseparable as routines from one another. He will stroke a cat moments before coolly putting it to death to become a science exhibit. The woman, when she arrives, is not interested in his preparation of slides; indeed, her presence causes him to abort a preparation sequence. The dispassionate technician is moved by the sight of the woman to want to “shock” her and reach her; in fact, the operative word is “arouse” (TLV, p. 77). Her apparent passivity is the motivation—something he thinks must signal a low metabolic rate, “almost as low as a frog's.” As the story progresses, the woman's black, seemingly unfocused eyes seem to become “dusty,” the word used to describe Jelka's in “The Murder” (pp. 77-78, 86).

Many have noted the empathy between woman and snake, something Steinbeck heightens for artistic purposes, partially by having Dr. Phillips be alone with the woman. No other male observers are present, which apparently was also the case in the real-life basis for the story; thus the woman's imitation of the snake's movements—which Steinbeck avoids having to make truly bizarre by having Phillips turn away while the snake devours the rat—takes on a semblance of the grotesque that it might not otherwise possess for anyone who has bottle-fed an infant and observed his or her own imitative response. Phillips had expected empathy for the rat, not the snake, but the woman has surprised him, and he feels almost a moral revulsion for what he has allowed to occur, for he objects to making sport of “natural processes.” The killing of the snake is to the scientist “the most beautiful thing in the world,” “the most terrible thing in the world” (TLV, p. 83). This is that “burning bright” force of life and death in the universe which Man may worship and measure; Woman simply embodies it naturally—as the Other.

It should be remembered that the woman specifically requests a male snake as her surrogate, a snake that, when it is about to devour its prey, almost seems to “kiss” the rat's body (TLV, pp. 78-79, 84). In “The Murder,” communication between the genders is achieved in a way—through violence—but the three stories under discussion are united by sexual ambivalence, and repressed sexuality expresses itself through the male, the animal, and even the aggressor. As a scientist, Phillips is capable of criticizing this anecdote as literature, like Ethan Allen Hawley's self-conscious posturings as Jesus and Judas. But all he has read about what he calls “psychological sex symbols” does not help him understand the mystery of Woman. Clearly, this man who intended to shock and arouse has himself been sexually troubled—attracted and repulsed—by his visitor, whom he vows to leave to her practices “alone,” but for whom he then searches the streets of his town for “months” afterward, never again encountering her (p. 86). “The Snake” is thus what the movies used to call a “different kind of love story.”

It is notable that Steinbeck wrote these stories while he was married to his first wife, Carol, surely a remarkable woman even in a life rife with remarkable women. But my purposes are not those of biographical speculation. I am interested in the way in which, as these stories appear in The Long Valley one after another, the stage slowly turns 180 degrees until Man, not Woman, is downstage, and the audience has to look a distance upstage to see Woman through his eyes. In such extended works as The Grapes of Wrath and The Wayward Bus Steinbeck shows the spheres of activity of men and women as separate worlds with separate rituals, practices, and arcana. Yet Steinbeck, as I noted in my paper for the Tenth Salinas Steinbeck Festival in 1989,10 regularly referred to his work in the writing of Grapes as “she” or “her.” This is usage common to men who, like Juan Chicoy in Bus, work on the engines of automobiles and buses. But Steinbeck's text is as lubriciously female as any that might titillate and tantalize such a critic as the late Roland Barthes.11 As I have also noted before, Steinbeck's muse was clearly a woman. Hence his artistry is a love affair of sorts, and if we wish to find the embodiment of the remarkable (if Other) Woman he knew in “real life,” it is in his art that we must seek it, or her.


In The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck described an Edenic landscape that inspired the men who set eyes upon it with the vain ambition to impose their wills upon it. That this landscape is described in feminine terms is as evident there as it is in The Long Valley. The stories we have been looking at, with their two gardens and a snake, suggest that the locus of the discovery of the knowledge of good and evil is a feminized Edenic landscape, and that within that landscape men struggle to understand their destinies—destinies altered by the appearance of Woman in their midst. To strain the analogy just a bit more, it could be argued that moral struggle in Steinbeck's fiction is in a very real sense an Adamic attempt to tame—or name, and thus subdue—Woman, or womanly ambiguity. A recent student of mine has shown quite forcefully, for instance, that in that very moral and final Steinbeck novel The Winter of Our Discontent, Ethan Allen Hawley is saved by discovering, in his daughter, Ellen, the synthesis of the values represented by wife Mary and seductress Margie Young-Hunt.12 In East of Eden, the moral quandary of Cathy Ames is “solved” by Abra, in an extension of the same sort of thinking. But this is to go even beyond the identification of Woman with setting, or even with plot. It is to argue the oneness of Woman and Steinbeck's art itself.

Within that oneness, however, exists a duality that may at first escape the reader's attention. In whatever manner these stories show Woman as Other, the fact that men do not understand them whether or not they seek to is not enough of a commonality to generalize further. The conventionalized lives of Elisa Allen and Mary Teller are in differing degrees the products of their own doing, expressed, as with the very different woman in “The Snake,” as gender confusion. The latter woman expresses that confusion, however, not merely by means of emulation of the male but by imitation of the animal as well. It could be argued that many of Steinbeck's males are so domesticated that in a time more oriented toward strictly gender-determined role-playing, they—not the women—stood a great risk of being accused of being the repositories of normalcy, the ones someone like Huck Finn might have feared would “sivilize” him. I realize that I am putting a cosmetic face on a process of taming that others would prefer to blame on the women, but it is often the women in Steinbeck who dare, even when they fail to conquer when they stoop. They dare by straining against the traces they find themselves in, or, to put it biblically, they kick against the pricks—or their husbands. Some of them delve into animality to reach for a new stage of evolution. Consider Jelka from “The Murder”; include her and her husband's descriptions of her in animal terms, for example, and you just might have to accommodate a woman whose intentions of getting her husband's attentions on her own terms could reach the extreme of bringing about the slaying of her cousin. Jelka's accommodation with her husband can be put on a level with that of “Jerry and the Dog” in Albee's Zoo Story, but it is also a leap beyond the norm of behavior that shocks and staggers us—like the ending of The Grapes of Wrath or Burning Bright.

In this sense, many of Steinbeck's women can be seen, if not as extraordinary individuals in the career sense, at least as what the jargon of another field of study might term “facilitators”—those who make it possible for others, especially men, to advance to new levels of comprehension, or community. When the men are reduced to drawing lines in the dirt, the women are seizing jackhammers—and baring their breasts to strangers. Two of my former students, Judy Wedeles and Beth Everest, have pointed to the surprising centrality of women in East of Eden, including—seemingly irrelevantly—by flying in the air.13 The willingness to be gravid, but not bound by gravity, seems another and perhaps fairer way of characterizing Steinbeck's women. To put things another way, though these women often do not play by the rules, they manage to achieve autonomy. They do so without bothering to consult with the men, and, of course, that leaves the men mystified and uncertain. It is in this sense that I suggest that Steinbeck's approach to his art resembles the way he presents his women. They are the art and the women, up to God-knows-what in the powder room; they are Delphic and arcane and beyond control. They are autonomous and will likely change on a man at any moment. They are, in effect, process.

Men's work and women's work are often kept separate in Steinbeck, most notably in The Wayward Bus. I am not suggesting the contrary, but something closer to the notion that “man's work” is Woman. “She” is unpredictable and apt to follow her own lead no matter what plans the man has made for her. He may sharpen his pencils of a morning and write his intentions in a journal to his editor, but that does not predict that his work will obey his wishes; rather, he will obey it. In a letter to Dennis Murphy edited and introduced by Robert DeMott, Steinbeck wrote that “your only weapon is your work.”14 But he also advised Murphy to keep his work “pure and innocent and fierce.” That is an interesting sequence of adjectives, and one that might seem to make no sense in the normal scheme of things. To some married men, however, including Steinbeck, they might very well seem to be the description of a wife.

In his introduction to the Murphy letter DeMott notes that Steinbeck described his “words” as his “children,” and surely this notion is also worth pursuing critically. Certainly, the Murphy letter does end by describing “creativeness” as “precious stuff” of which the world has very little. But if, without stretching things too far, I can use this almost Whitmanesque terminology to refer to the finished books as the author's seed, I can just as well refer to the creative act itself in sexual terms. The work is to be “pure and innocent and fierce,” but the work is also one's “only weapon.” Steinbeck was involved in his never-to-be-finished Arthurian project when he wrote to Murphy, and indeed, there is a palpable tone of knightly questing about the letter. I don't doubt, therefore, that when Steinbeck speaks of a “weapon” he is subconsciously thinking of a sword, and when and if he does, he is also introducing more sexual ambivalence into his imagination of a “female” body of writing. The results of this ambivalence are the same as they are in the short stories, for when the writer has performed well, Steinbeck tells Murphy, it is because he has been able to preserve his “holy loneliness.” So the holiness of the love object transfers to the creator, but in the process he becomes isolated and aware of his incompleteness.

Interestingly, Ernest Hemingway was at work on what eventually was published as The Garden of Eden while Steinbeck was working on the Arthurian project and writing the letter to Murphy. That novel about sexual ambivalence may remind us of the Eden story in Genesis, where the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil is customarily associated with the realization of sexual identity, after which the Garden is closed off to the honeymoon couple and guarded by an angel with a fiery sword. East of Eden, however, the human race goes on, and considerably more creatively. I spoke above of the husband-wife analogy between the writer as Steinbeck sees “him” and “his” work. Certainly Steinbeck was recovering from contentious marriages to two exceptional women when he wrote those lines, and it is not surprising that he would naturally think of a creative relationship as an adversarial one.

To Steinbeck, apparently, the art of fiction was tantamount to a domestic argument. Somewhere along the line, the work was sure to develop a mind of its, or her, own, an appendage not at all in the cards in the beginning. Sooner or later it would want to “have its own head,” something not unlike having its mind “coming out in the garden.” The writer's capitulation to the autonomy of his own works is hardly unique, but his candor about the process may nearly be. In his tentative dedication of East of Eden to Pat Covici, Steinbeck refers to the period during which a writer is with his book as a time when they are “friends or bitter enemies but very close as only love and fighting can accomplish.”15 Early in the Eden journal, he developed the gender aspect of this notion at length:

I do indeed seem to feel creative juices rushing toward an outlet as semen gathers from the four quarters of a man and fights its way into the vesicle. I hope something beautiful and true comes out—but this I know (and the likeness to coition still holds). … It seems to me that different organisms must have their separate ways of symbolizing, with sound or gesture, the creative joy—the flowering. … The joy thing in me has two outlets: one a fine charge of love toward the incredibly desirable body and sweetness of woman, and second—mostly both—the paper and pencil or pen.16

Moments later, his “mind blasted … with an idea so comely, like a girl, so very sweet and dear that I will put her aside for the book. Oh! she is lovely, this idea.”17 As said above, this way of relating to one's creative work is not unique to Steinbeck, though possibly the intensity described may be; indeed, the word “comely” here may remind us of the ardor expressed in the Song of Solomon, in which case it is only mildly farfetched to say that for Steinbeck, the work is the Rose of Sharon.

Putting himself down on the left-hand pages of the Eden journal, Steinbeck then went on to set down on the right-hand sheets Woman, his work. The day's work done, the journal closed, the two lay together in the dark. My quest for Steinbeck's elusive Woman has not been meant to seem a glib response to Gladstein's salient questioning about the absence of remarkable women in Steinbeck's work. Rather, it suggests one means of answering her concerns by noting one way in which his work mirrors the life he lived, for if the twinned creative outlets for Steinbeck's “juices” were Woman and work, then ultimately Steinbeck's elusive and remarkable Woman is the work herself.


  1. John Steinbeck, The Long Valley (New York: Viking Press, 1938). Hereinafter identified as TLV.

  2. Robert S. Hughes, Jr., “A Form Most Congenial to His Talents: Steinbeck, the Short Story, and The Pastures of Heaven,” in press, San Jose Studies.

  3. See Mimi Reisel Gladstein, The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1986), and Bobbi Gonzales and Mimi Reisel Gladstein, “The Wayward Bus: Steinbeck's Misogynistic Manifesto,” in Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics and Intellect, ed. Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edward Mellen Press, 1989), pp. 157-73.

  4. Mimi Reisel Gladstein, “Women in the Migrant Labor Movement,” in press, San Jose Studies (1989 San Jose The Grapes of Wrath Conference paper).

  5. Susan Shillinglaw, “‘The Chrysanthemums’: Steinbeck's Pygmalion,” in Steinbeck's Short Stories inThe Long Valley”: Essays in Criticism, ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi. Steinbeck Monograph Series, no. 15 (Muncie, Ind.: Steinbeck Research Institute, Ball State University, 1991), pp. 1-9.

  6. See my “The Ending of The Grapes of Wrath: A Further Commentary,” Agora 2 (Fall 1973): 41-50, reprinted in my Critical Essays on Steinbeck'sThe Grapes of Wrath” (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989), pp. 116-24.

  7. See my “Steinbeck's ‘Slav Girl’ and the Role of the Narrator in ‘The Murder,’” Steinbeck Quarterly 22 (Summer-Fall 1989): 68-76.

  8. See my “‘A Kind of Play’: Dramatic Elements in John Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Wascana Review 21 (Spring 1986): 62-72.

  9. I take my cue from Leslie Fiedler, “Looking Back After 50 Years,” San Jose Studies 16 (Winter 1990): 54-64.

  10. See my “The Late John Steinbeck: Dissonance in the Post-Grapes Era,” San Jose Studies 18 (Winter 1992): 20-32.

  11. In this connection, an anecdote from recent experience seems appropriate. In October 1989 in Moscow, when Robert DeMott addressed the Moscow Writers' Union, he tried to save some time by handing a passage from Working Days over to our toothsome translator for direct translation into Russian. The passage had to do with the difficulty of coming to an end of the creative process. Unfortunately, due to unknown differences between Russian and English idioms, the translation began to seem to allude to other sorts of coming not unknown in English as well. In short, the audience was soon guffawing and tittering over what seemed to be Steinbeck's inability to achieve sexual satisfaction, when, in fact, simply finishing The Grapes of Wrath was all that was on his mind. Or was it? If the manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath were to have appeared to its progenitor veiled in nothing more substantial than a Freudian slip, should we be surprised?

  12. Jocelyn Roberts in an unpublished paper on The Winter of Our Discontent.

  13. Beth Everest and Judy Wedeles, “The Neglected Rib: Women in East of Eden,Steinbeck Quarterly 21 (Winter-Spring 1988): 13-23.

  14. John Steinbeck, Your Only Weapon Is Your Work, ed. Robert DeMott (San Jose, Calif.: Steinbeck Research Center, 1985), p. 4.

  15. John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: TheEast of EdenLetters (New York: Viking Press, 1969), p. 179.

  16. Ibid., p. 10.

  17. Ibid., p. 11.

Michael J. Meyer (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Meyer, Michael J. “Finding a New Jerusalem: The Edenic Myth in John Steinbeck.” In Literature and the Bible, edited by David Bevan, pp. 95-116. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Meyer considers the Edenic myth in the stories of The Pastures of Heaven.]

Even as the earliest settlers set foot on the shores of America, one of the predominant goals that brought them to this new country was the belief that God had ordained a new Eden/Jerusalem/Canaan for His chosen people. The land, a fertile garden in the eyes of newcomers, appeared to have all the requirements of the Biblical cities and countries that were associated with faith and rebirth, with innocence and sinlessness. Therefore it was no surprise that the colonists, mostly devout Puritans, proclaimed America to be a reclaimed garden of Eden—a place where the true believer could claim what was impossible for his forefathers on the European continent—that is, a sense of hope that the new world would be a place to regain all that had been lost in Adam's fall. God had restored his faithful by providing a new country which would foster a re-embracing of the precepts of an Almighty Father and which would eventually become the regained Paradise so longed for by the faithful.

America symbolised a new opportunity for the Christians to recreate the early mythology of their religion; however, unlike Adam, these patriots were determined not to fall victim to the temptation of the demonic Satan, the snake who beguiled the first mother. Instead, inspired by their brotherhood in Christ, they would form an idealistic kingdom, a heaven on earth as they awaited the second coming.

This initial idealistic concept of the Puritans would later become the archetypal vision which would be labelled the American Dream. This Dream consisted of a vision of peace, prosperity and loving acceptance that mirrored the original Eden of the distant past. Not surprisingly, the idealism was destined to be strained by man's concept of his own self-importance and by his rejection of God's approbation in exchange for the monetary success (a sign of election) so attainable in this new land of milk and honey. The distorted dream thus became a concept of self-aggrandisement and accomplishment rather than a commitment to the moral precepts espoused by the Puritan founders. Yet, despite the setback, the vision of an America as a type of Eden continued to find its way into the literature produced by its people.

Of all the authors influenced by a desire to reclaim America's Edenic heritage and principles, John Steinbeck was perhaps foremost in shaping the myth of Eden into a wide variety of stories and novels, suggesting that the hope and idealism espoused in the Eden myth were essential qualities that Americans of the 1930s through the 1960s needed to recapture before real progress of the human race could occur.

Beginning with The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, Steinbeck began to examine the pluses and minuses which would be encountered in reshaping a new Eden for his time. The Pastures of Heaven, like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, was a collection of short vignettes involving the Corral de Cielo, a lush valley that Steinbeck populated with characters who were seeking renewal of life and hope in an isolated Edenic location in California. Steinbeck ironically had reformed an actual valley, the Corral de Tierra, to his archetypal Eden.

In chapter one, the valley is discovered by a Spanish corporal who is stunned by “the green pasturage on which a herd of deer browsed” and “by the perfect live oaks in the meadow of the lovely place.”1 His exclamation of surprise, “Holy Mother! Here are the green pastures of Heaven to which our Lord leadeth us”,2 stuck as the name of the valley, although the corporal did not live to enjoy it. Only a hundred years later is the place reclaimed when twenty families settled and lived prosperously and at peace on a land that was rich and easy to work. As Steinbeck notes as chapter one closes: “The fruits of their gardens were the finest produced in central California.”3

Ironically however, chapter two begins with a cursed farm, “sodden with gloom and threatening.” Although the farm was bounded by the best and most prosperous farms of the valley, the first owner, George Battle, seemed to bring with him an unsettling sense of futility. His son John continued the tradition with mad religious obsessions and was eventually killed by a snake's poisonous bite. After another owner, the Mustrovic family, mysteriously disappears, the farm is seen as cursed and passes to another family, the Monroes. The Monroes were based on an actual family, the Morans, that Steinbeck was acquainted with, and they are identified by the author as the antagonists of the novel who seem to inherit the curse despite their good intention to restore the land to perfection.

Seemingly influenced by former failures, Bert Monroe, the patriarch of this clan, attempts to find a new Eden to start over and transform the tragedy of the past. Despite his hope that his own personal curse (failure in the competitive world of the city) and the farm's curse have cancelled each other out, one of the other settlers, T. B. Allen, suggests that the two curses may have mated and produced a “lot of baby curses that will infest the whole valley.”4 Again the Eden parallel is evident as the dual curses, like man's fall from grace, poison the property owner's heart and eventually cause the destruction of a perfect garden. The baby curses also bring to mind how Adam and Eve's fall had resulted and how original sin is being handed down to future generations. It also suggests how the promise of Eden eventually wilted under the temptation of Satan.

The imagery used suggests that initially Steinbeck felt that the American dream of a new Eden was little more than a fantasy utilised by individuals to cope with the reality of a fallen society. The following chapters illustrate that the attempt to restore Eden is eventually futile and four episodes can be cited that serve as specific evidence of Steinbeck's continued use of the image to make his point about America's continuing fascination with establishing a new paradise.

The first story Steinbeck tells is of the Wicks family, whose patriarch is named Shark. Wicks' Eden is imaginary, consisting of a fictional $50,000 bank account and his beautiful daughter, Alice. The former makes him seem the perfect investor and earns him the respect of his neighbours who are unaware of the fantasy nature of his fortune. The latter is described by Steinbeck in terms of a natural Eden:

Her skin was as lucent and rich as poppies; her black hair had the soft crispness of a fern stem, her eyes were misty skies of promise something most people had spent all their lives looking for.5

Yet Alice's beauty is countered by her stupidity and dullness, and Shark has to be concerned that her innocence and naiveté will eventually lead her to fall from the chaste life he envisions for his treasure. The possible defloration of Alice is the loss of a human Edenic figure, a disfigurement of her former perfection. Defending Alice's purity leads Shark to monitor even her menstruation as evidence that she has remained unmolested.

The son of the Monroes, Jimmie, is the ultimate temptation for Alice, and, as such, Shark attempts to protect her from him just as he protects his imaginary fortune. The turning point in the story is a dance Alice attends while her father is out of town. The young men, especially Jimmie Monroe, are awed by Alice, and, in her innocence, Alice ends up kissing Jimmie.

When Shark returns, the kiss is magnified in his eyes to the ultimate fall from purity. Like Adam, in Shark's absence, his Eden has been destroyed. He contemplates shooting Jimmie in retribution for the loss he has experienced, but he ends up returning home a broken individual who must be ironically restored through his wife Katherine. He ultimately decides that his physical Eden must be left. However, enabled by Katherine's encouragement, Shark is able to create a new Eden of the mind, feeling that the lifelessness of his physical expectations could be restored by a life within, a paradise better by far than his fantasy fortune and his unattainable wish for his daughter's continued innocence.

A second story that illustrates Steinbeck's adherence to the Eden myth is the tale of Junius Maltby. Chapter six in the novel portrays Junius as an immigrant who spent his time as a clerk until his doctor suggested his ill health necessitated a move from San Francisco to the more efficacious pastures of heaven. Reforming both his Eden and his health, Junius lives the life of a natural recluse on two hundred acres of grassy hillside and five acres of orchard and vegetable life acquired when he married his landlady, Mrs. Quaker. Junius' concept of Eden is that of laziness: reading books, dangling his feet in the stream, and ignoring reality. When a smallpox epidemic kills off his wife and his two older sons, he is left with a small baby to raise. Since Junius is troubled by responsibility, eventually he continues his laissez faire attitude to both his land and to his child, Robbie. He hires an old German man, Jakob Stutz, to help him with the farm and to serve as a companion who can discuss great books with him. Both men share their passive life of philosophical speculations with the young child. Thus Junius says:

It seems to me that a good thing or a kind thing must be very large to survive. Little good things are always destroyed by evil little things. Rarely is a big thing poisonous or treacherous. For this reason in human thinking, bigness is an attribute of good and littleness of evil.6

Poverty and idleness thus become Junius' happiness. He is content to sit in the sun and dangle his feet in the stream, and his son follows his example until he is six and is required to go to school. Since Junius' Edenic concept does not agree with his neighbours, Robbie is teased and tortured at school and is the subject of pity from his teacher and the other mothers of his class.

Soon Robbie's behaviour and love of laziness begin to rub off on his peers, and the citizens begin to feel obligated to instruct the Maltbys what a real Eden is: success, clothes, and education. The visit of Miss Morgan, the school teacher, is designed to do just that. The ironically pretend-world and the disorganisation of the Maltbys has a surprising appeal to Miss Morgan as she exclaims: “How utterly lovely and slipshod.”7 The afternoon ends up being one of the most pleasant Miss Morgan has ever spent. She sees in the Maltby's Eden pleasure and relaxation an idyllic harmony. Therefore, she hesitates when the school board suggests donating clothes to Robbie to make him more presentable.

The gift of clothes proves counter-productive as Junius is offended and goes back to the city to resume his job as an accountant. Like Adam, he leaves the Eden he has created to attain what the selfish others believe is important. Robbie is to accompany his father, and the value of the land in currency becomes more important than the freedom and happiness of the Maltby's unusual lifestyle. This also illustrates Steinbeck's belief that the Edenic atmosphere is different for each individual, an idea he continues in the tale of Pat Humbert, who also attempts to create an Eden, in chapter ten.

Growing up with aging parents, Humbert finds himself criticised for his youth as his parents continue to isolate themselves and be unhappy and discontented with their lives. After their deaths, Humbert closes off the parts of the house that hold memories of his parents' negative attitude. However, he has been shaped by their depression and continues to hear their authoritative and demanding voices despite the fact that they are dead. The house becomes an opposite of Eden: “bleak and utterly dreary,”8 containing a wave of cold, lifeless air complete with the smell of funeral flowers and age and medicine. It is as though the house is infested by the ghosts of the past, of an Eden destroyed.

Ultimately, however, Pat struggles for a renewal, engaging in the company of others and falling in love with Mae Monroe, the daughter of the “cursed” family. Enticed by a wild rose climbing on the side of Humbert's house, Mae comments that she would really like to see the beautiful inside. This motivates Pat to envision and transform his residence to an Edenic garden. Not wishing to be seen recreating his paradise, Humbert travels by night to gain the acquired furniture and decorations for a refurbished and elegant home. Modelling his Eden on Mae's vision of a Vermont home seen in a magazine, Pat finishes the remodelling and dreams that the gloom and doom of his earlier years with his parents will be dispelled. But before he can show Mae the refurbished home, his vision is destroyed by the news of her engagement to Bill Whiteside, another resident of Las Pasturas. In despair, Humbert destroys the old furniture, clothing and decorations that stood for his parents and abandons his visions of an Eden that will appeal to Mae. Again Steinbeck seems to suggest that a literal Eden cannot be sustained against potential curses and falls, and yet America, like the residents of pastures, persists in hoping to attain such a goal.

The renewed paradise is a fantasy; harsh reality dominates the human desire to recapture the perfection of Eden. Steinbeck describes Humbert after his rejection as “shrunken and dry with disappointment.”9 Similarly, the newly decorated house/Eden is dark and utterly dreary in contrast to its potential as a symbol of renewal. Thus Edens are again shown to be fragile and different in the eyes of individuals.

The epilogue or chapter twelve is designed to parallel the Spanish corporal in the first chapter and to provide a framework to mirror the fantasies and dreams of the outside world when contrasted with the reality of the little valley. It depicts six individuals taking a tour of the Monterey peninsula. In fact, perhaps the passengers on the sight-seeing tour gave Steinbeck an idea for his later allegory, The Wayward Bus. In any case, their reaction to Las Pasturas is similar to that of the Spanish corporal.

Each sees in it his own definition of Eden, unaware that it is not exempt from the human condition, that it too is flawed by the fall. For the business man, the valley is a vision of riches and wealth: “Some day there'll be big houses in that valley, stone houses and gardens, golf links and big gates and iron work.”10 If he had the money, he would buy the property and subdivide it.

The young newlyweds like the peacefulness of Las Pasturas. But ambitions and expectations of friends draw them away from the dream possibility. They rationalise that they must face responsibility, rather than escape it.11 Similarly, the young priest considers the potentials of a parish in Las Pasturas, but his idyllic vision of nothing dirty or violent, of quiet love, is dispelled with a realisation that this kind of ministry would not be ministry at all. The true Christian must be in the world, but not of the world.

Finally, the old man sees the potential of Las Pasturas for reflection, to make something out of his past and to understand the meaning of his existence. Even the driver envies the residents the peace and quiet of Las Pasturas. However, symbolically, the town is located at the end of the tour, and the sight-seeing bus must return from its mountaintop experience of an idyllic Eden toward the setting sun, the death-in-life of the real world.

Steinbeck seems to say in the framework as he does in the body of the novel that evil conquers, that mankind's dreams will constantly be destroyed by the encroachment of a sin-sick world. From vagrants and low-lifes to the prestigious settlers of Las Pasturas, no one is exempt from the dark side of existence, and that dark side, at least at this point in Steinbeck's career, is inevitably triumphant. It is this fact, the capitulation of man to evil, that marks the continuing attempt of Steinbeck to portray the dilemma of moral ambiguity. Affected characters may try to maintain a balance between good/evil, between dream fantasies and realities, but they should not be shocked if they are rudely awakened by the dominance of the latter. The bleak world of Las Pasturas leaves the reader sceptical about all Edens. The facts seem to indicate they are merely forgeries, lapsed gardens that frustrate and defeat the rebuilders.

As Richard Peterson summarises Steinbeck's emphasis, he concludes that the basic dilemma is man's inability:

… to adapt his vision to natural and human factors. Steinbeck does not deny the value of the dream … He does, however suggest that men of imagination and feeling have to be aware of the forces which threaten them. they will have to accept the cruel twists of fate and overcome the human mediocrity and idiocy which exist in ominous abundance in the world if they are to succeed in fulfilling their visions of harmony and peace which the tourists mistakenly believe exist in the Pastures of Heaven.12

Similarly Richard Astro in his analysis of Pastures [The Pastures of Heaven] states “that while man's highest function on earth may be to break through to an understanding of the cosmic whole and to act to benefit the social order, his fallibility often undermines his potential greatness. …”13


  1. John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven, Penguin ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1982, p. 2. All further references are to this edition.

  2. Ibid., p. 3.

  3. Ibid., p. 4.

  4. Ibid., p. 20.

  5. Ibid., pp. 26-27.

  6. Ibid., p. 94.

  7. Ibid., p. 104.

  8. Ibid., p. 201.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid., p. 240.

  11. Ibid., p. 241.

  12. Richard Peterson, “The Turning Point: The Pasture of Heaven” in Ted Hayashi, ed. A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook of His Major Works, New York: Scarecrow Press, p. 40.

  13. Ibid., p. 41.

Patrick W. Shaw (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Shaw, Patrick W. “Steinbeck's The Red Pony (1945).” In A New Study Guide to Steinbeck's Major Works, with Critical Explications, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, pp. 186-205. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.

[In the following essay, Shaw relates the origins and offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the four stories that comprise The Red Pony.]


The Red Pony consists of four short stories, each originally published independently over a period of approximately five years. “The Gift,” which tells of the red pony, was published in the North American Review in November 1933. “The Great Mountains” was published in the same journal the following month. The third story, “The Promise,” was published in Harper's magazine in October 1937. “The Leader of the People” was not published in America until 1938, in The Long Valley, a collection of Steinbeck's short stories. It had previously been published in the English magazine Argosy in August 1936. The four stories were brought together as a novella in 1945, when they were published as The Red Pony in a special illustrated edition. All four of the stories, however, were written in the early 1930s. Steinbeck also wrote a movie script for The Red Pony—significantly different from the short novel—which was produced in 1949.

The “pony story,” as Steinbeck called it, was written under rather unusual circumstances, beginning in the spring of 1933. In the early 1930s the entire country was in the midst of the Depression, and Steinbeck himself was not yet famous and had little money. He was much influenced by the biologist Ed Ricketts and was developing a serious interest in biology. His mother was dying, and he and his wife Carol moved back to the family home in Salinas, California, to help care for her. The letters he wrote as The Red Pony was taking shape offer an excellent account of its composition. Steinbeck was trying to come to terms, as he says, with the fact that “Half of the cell units of my mother's body have rebelled.”1 Because of his mother's incontinence, Steinbeck personally had to change her bedclothes. “There are terrible washings [of 9-12 sheets] every day. … I wash them and Carol irons them” (82). The pony story which he began was based loosely upon his own childhood experience with a sick pony. Writing on a dining-room table just outside his mother's sick-room door, Steinbeck would compose a few lines or a paragraph, then be interrupted to go empty her bedpan or change her sheets (83). Contemplating his mother's death and the experiences surrounding it, he tried to “sneak in a little work” (82) and to put events “into the symbolism of fiction” (76). In a letter written in June 1933, he refers to the experience as “a very long siege” that could “last for years,” and a “sentence” which he could not leave (78). He longed for time to spend a few hours at the beach or to go camping with friends.

Confined to home by his mother's paralysis, Steinbeck began to form a thesis of life itself—a thesis that “takes in all life, and for that part, all matter” (79). Steinbeck tried to explain his thinking to a friend:

A further arrangement of cells and a very complex one may make a unit which we call a man. That has been our final unit. But there have been mysterious things which could not be explained if man is the final unit. He also arranges himself into larger units, which I have called the phalanx. The phalanx has its own memory—memory of the great tides when the moon was close, memory of starvation when the food of the world was exhausted. Memory of methods when numbers of his units had to be destroyed for the good of the whole, memory of the history of itself.


Elucidating his theory in another letter, Steinbeck noted that “the group is an individual as boundaried, as diagnosable, as dependent on its units and as independent of its units' individual natures, as the human unit, or man, is dependent on his cells and yet is independent of them” (75). Steinbeck realized his theory was not without its faults, explaining that he was “neither scientist nor profound investigator,” and that he was trying to understand his mother's dying in terms of a “tremendous and terrible poetry” (81).

As the months wore on, Steinbeck's father also began to break under the strain; and Steinbeck worried that his father would end up “in the same position as my mother” (88). The elder Steinbeck lost his eyesight, and was “like an engine” shaking “itself to pieces” (88). “Death,” Steinbeck wrote, “I can stand but not this slow torture wherein a good and a strong man tears off little shreds of himself and throws them away” (89). On top of all this, Steinbeck's dog Tillie died and was replaced by another dog named “Joddi” (87-88)—a name similar to that he gave the boy protagonist of The Red Pony. As his biographer Jackson J. Benson writes, “Writing had always been in part for [Steinbeck] an escape; now escape became a way of surviving.”2

Under such circumstances, Steinbeck wrote “The Gift” and “The Great Mountains.” His mother died shortly after Christmas 1933, and in the early spring of 1934 Steinbeck wrote “The Promise” and “The Leader of the People,” which would eventually serve as the final stories for The Red Pony.


The Red Pony consists of four stories: “The Gift,” “The Great Mountains,” “The Promise,” and “The Leader of the People.” The setting for each of the stories is the Carl Tiflin ranch, near Salinas, California. In addition to the usual house and outbuildings, prominent landmarks on the ranch are a cold water spring and a great black kettle under a cypress tree. Here pigs are killed and scalded. No definite dates are given in the stories, but certain details such as the lack of electricity and the absence of motorized vehicles suggest the early twentieth century. The events of all four stories cover approximately two and one-half years, beginning in the summer of Jody's tenth year, but the sequence in which the stories appear may not be the same sequence in which the events of Jody Tiflin's life occur.

Jody Tiflin is an obedient little boy, “with hair like dusty yellow grass” and “shy polite gray eyes.”3 Billy Buck, the middle-aged ranch hand, is “a broad, bandy-legged little man” whose eyes are “watery gray” and whose hair protrudes from beneath his Stetson hat like spikes (137). Carl Tiflin is a “disciplinarian” and a “tall stern father” (138). Mrs. Tiflin is given no specific description, and is referred to only once as “Ruth.”


Jody returns home from school one day to discover that his father and Billy Buck have brought him a red pony colt and a red leather saddle back from their trip to Salinas. He is very excited about the pony and is admired and envied by his school-mates, who know “instinctively that a man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot” (143). He names the pony “Gabilan,” which means “hawk” and which is also the name of the nearby mountains. In the ensuing months Jody is diligent in caring for and training the pony, with Billy Buck's guidance. Seeing the progress his son has made with the pony, Mr. Tiflin promises him he can ride Gabilan by Thanksgiving, three weeks away. Jody worries about how ashamed of him everybody will be if he does not ride well.

Before Thanksgiving, the weather turns cold and rainy. Jody is careful to make sure Gabilan is kept dry in his stall. When the sun returns, Billy Buck assures Jody that he can safely leave Gabilan out in the corral during the school day. He promises Jody he will watch Gabilan and put him back in the barn if the rain should return. While Jody is at school, the rain returns, and though Jody wants to run home to check his pony, he is afraid of doing so because of the punishment he knows he would receive for leaving school. After school he hurries home to “see Gabilan standing miserably in the corral” (150), cold and wet. He accuses Billy Buck of being wrong about his assurance that it would not rain, and Billy feels guilty.

Despite all of Billy's efforts to help Gabilan, the colt gets worse. His “eyes were half closed” and “thin fluid ran from his nostrils” (152). A large lump forms under his jaw, a sign of “strangles,” and Billy Buck must slash it open with a knife to keep the colt from suffocating. During the night the wind and rain return, and Jody runs to the barn to find that the colt has once again left his stall and wandered out into the storm. This time Billy Buck has “to open a little hole” in Gabilan's windpipe to allow him to breathe. Jody watches as the “blood ran thickly out and up the knife and across Billy's hand” (157).

At daylight Jody awakens to find that the barn door has swung open and that the pony is gone once again. He easily tracks Gabilan through “the frostlike dew on the young grass” (158). A buzzard is sitting “on the pony's head and its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid” (159). Jody grabs the bird and smashes its head with a piece of white quartz rock, but not before the buzzard vomits “putrefied fluid” (159). Billy Buck and Carl Tiflin find Jody by the pony, and his father asks him if he knows that “the buzzard didn't kill the pony” (159). Billy Buck lifts Jody to carry him home, looking back at Carl Tiflin to say “'Course he knows it. … Jesus Christ! man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?” (160).


It is midsummer and Jody destroys swallow nests, sets rat traps so the ranch dogs will get their noses snapped, and kills a thrush with his slingshot. After beheading and disemboweling the bird, he washes the blood from his hands in the tub filled by the spring. Then he thinks about the mountains in the distance and how little he knows about them. He remembers asking his father what lies between the mountains and the ocean which is on the other side. Though his father tells him “nothing,” Jody knows “something was there, something very wonderful” (162). Yet he is afraid of the “terrible” mountains. Turning to face the east, he then sees the Gabilans, which are “jolly mountains, with hill ranches in their creases” (162). He remembers that “battles had been fought against the Mexicans on the slopes” (162).

Jody returns to the house just as a bony old man dressed in worn cowboy clothing arrives. “I am Gitano,” he tells Jody, “and I have come back” (163). Jody runs to get his mother, and Gitano then explains to them that he was born in an old adobe house on the ranch and that he has returned to stay until he dies. Jody then gets his father from the barn, and Carl Tiflin tells the old man that he cannot stay and will have to leave tomorrow.

Jody shows Gitano to the bunkhouse, and finally gets up enough nerve to ask him if he is from the “big mountains.” The old man tells him he has been in the mountains only once, when he was a little boy accompanied by his father. He tells Jody he cannot remember what was there. “I think it was quiet—I think it was nice,” he tells Jody (166).

Among the horses on the ranch is one with yellow teeth, protruding rib bones, and painful movements. Jody explains to Gitano that it is old Easter, the first horse his father ever had. Jody's father says that such old things should be shot and put out of their misery. Billy Buck tells him that after having worked all their lives, animals should be allowed to rest and “just walk around” (167). Jody realizes that Carl Tiflin is “probing for a place to hurt in Gitano” (167). After Carl Tiflin and Billy Buck leave, Jody apologizes to the old man, while Easter lets Gitano rub his neck and mane.

That night after supper Jody returns to the bunkhouse to find Gitano holding a “lovely rapier with a golden basket hilt” (169). Gitano is angry at the intrusion and will not let the boy examine the sword. He will only tell Jody that he got it from his father. Leaving the bunkhouse, Jody realizes that he “must never tell anyone about the rapier” because to do so would “destroy some fragile structure of truth” (170).

Next morning Jody arises to learn that both Gitano and old Easter have disappeared. Later, a neighbor, Jess Taylor, informs the Tiflins that early that morning he saw an old man riding an old horse without a saddle, and holding something shiny like a gun in his hand. He was headed into the mountains. Carl Tiflin tells the neighbor that Gitano's stealing the old horse will just save him the cost of having to bury it. Jody thinks about the towering mountains, the rapier, and old Gitano. He lies down in the “green grass near the round tub” at the spring, filled with longing and a “nameless sorrow” (171).


Jody is returning from school one spring day, pretending to lead an army and collecting grasshoppers and other creatures. When he reaches home, his mother informs him that his father is waiting to see him. Fearing punishment for some misdeed, Jody goes to find his father in the pasture. Carl Tiflin tells Jody that he can take the mare Nellie to a neighbor's ranch to be bred, if he will accept responsibility for her and the colt she will throw, and if he will work off the $5.00 stud fee. Though his insides are “shriveling,” Jody calmly tells his father that he will accept the responsibility. That evening, with bats and nighthawks flying about, Billy Buck explains to Jody that it will take nearly a year before the colt is born. Jody promises he will not get tired of waiting. Next morning he takes Nellie to be bred and is almost killed when the stallion Sun Dog breaks loose and charges down the hill to meet Nellie.

Jody wants Billy Buck to promise that he will not let anything happen to Nellie's colt, but Billy remembers the red pony and says that he cannot promise anything. Jody often goes to the spring, to think and be soothed. But he thinks also of the pigs that are slaughtered near the black cypress tree and scalded in the black pot.

Christmas passes. Then January. By February, Nellie still has not given birth. Finally, Jody is awakened one night by Billy Buck, telling him the colt is about to be born. They run to the barn to find Nellie “standing rigid and stiff” (185). Realizing something is wrong, Billy Buck takes a horseshoe hammer and crushes Nellie's skull. He then cuts her stomach open with a pocket knife, plunges his hands into the hole, and drags out “a big, white, dripping bundle” (186). With his teeth he tears open the birth sac and lays a black colt at Jody's feet. “There's your colt,” Billy says. “I promised. And there it is” (186). Leaving the barn to get water which Billy has demanded, Jody tries to be happy, but “the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him” (186).


Billy Buck is raking the last of the old year's hay. Jody is interested in the mice that live in the haystacks and vows that he will now kill “those damn mice” (188). Billy warns him that he must first get his father's permission. Carl Tiflin returns home on horseback, carrying a letter from Mrs. Tiflin's father which says he will arrive today for a short visit. Carl Tiflin is not pleased with the news, complaining that all the old man can talk about is Indians. Mrs. Tiflin is at first angry with her husband's attitude, but then quietly explains that her father's leading a wagon train “clear across the plains to the coast” was the “big thing” in his life and after he had done it, there was nothing left for him to do (189).

Jody, who is excited by his grandfather's visit, goes out to meet the “old man,” who is dressed in black and has a white beard and “sternly merry” blue eyes (191), and he arrives in a horse-drawn cart. Jody announces that he is going on a mouse hunt tomorrow and asks Grandfather to come with him. “Have the people of this generation come down to hunting mice?” Grandfather chuckles. He says that in the past when “the troops were hunting Indians and shooting children and burning teepees” it was like a mouse hunt (192). Billy Buck comes out of the bunkhouse to meet them, for he holds Grandfather “in reverence” (193). Grandfather knew Billy's father, Mule-tail Buck, a man whom he respected. At dinner, Grandfather begins to retell his frontier stories, and Carl Tiflin reminds him that everyone at the table has heard them “lots of times.” Jody knows how his grandfather feels “collapsed and empty” inside, and encourages him to continue his Indian stories (194). Billy Buck, Carl Tiflin, and Mrs. Tiflin sit at the table but do not listen.

Jody gets permission from his father to kill the mice the next day, then goes to bed and thinks of his Grandfather on a huge white horse, “living in the heroic time” (196). He arises next morning eager to kill the mice, but at breakfast Grandfather overhears Carl Tiflin complain about having to hear Grandfather's tales “over and over” (197). Carl Tiflin apologizes, but Grandfather tells him that he is probably right. Jody is no longer interested in killing the mice, but sits instead on the porch with Grandfather. Grandfather explains to Jody that he feels that the crossing was not worth doing. It was not getting to the coast that mattered, he says. The important thing was “movement and westering” (199). Now, he says, “There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them” (199). Westering is done, and there is no place left to go. Jody then offers to make Grandfather a glass of lemonade, but when his mother asks if he wants one for himself, he declines.


As most previous analyses recognize, the stories which comprise The Red Pony detail Jody Tiflin's initiation into death and his awakening to the need for human compassion. As R. S. Hughes phrases it, “Steinbeck focuses on the progress of Jody's initiation into the reality of death” by objectively presenting “graphic descriptions of suffering, violence, and death.”4 This initiation is a fundamental and significant element in the stories, but Steinbeck seemed to have most in mind an experiment in point of view. He describes his intent during the early stages of writing The Red Pony:

It is a very simple story about a boy who gets a colt pony and the pony gets distemper. There is a good deal in it, first about the training of horses and second about the treatment of distemper. This may not seem like a good basis for a story but that entirely depends upon the treatment. The whole thing is as simply told as though it came out of the boy's mind although there is no going into the boy's mind. It is an attempt to make the reader create the boy's mind for himself.

(SLL, 71)

In my analysis of The Red Pony, I will focus upon the interrelationships among the initiation motif, the point of view that tries to “make the reader create” Jody's mind, and Steinbeck's characteristic use of symbols.

Howard Levant is correct in noting that whereas the “objective events” of the story “are self-contained,” they are presented to the reader through Jody's “innocent point of view.” Levant goes on to explain that “each episode begins with a focus on Jody's childish faith in adults or a child's world.” In this process, “death and imperfection are everywhere” and “nature is a merely neutral element.”5 It is important for us to keep in mind that while the story is not presented from the first person point of view, the narrative focus is indeed upon Jody, for it is through his experiences that we as readers must form our evaluation of the various narratives that make up The Red Pony. Moreover, recognizing that Jody is indeed a child forced to cope with life in an exclusively adult environment which is frequently narrow and unfriendly is important to our understanding of Steinbeck's intent. Brian Barbour correctly anticipates this conflict when he notes that Jody's father personifies cruelty, inhumanity, and a near total lack of compassion.6

A reader unfamiliar with The Red Pony may come to it expecting to find a children's tale or a story of pastoral innocence. The title suggests the happy story of a boy who gets his heart's desire, a pony. This tone of innocent contentment is continued in the first two paragraphs of the story, with Billy Buck's taking care of the animals, the mother's call to food and warmth of the breakfast table, the summer weather, and Jody's carefree obedience. From such a beginning a reader may well anticipate a nostalgic, escapist account of “good” actions set in a past era. Such benign expectations are soon negated, however, and the contrast between what the title and opening paragraphs may connote and what Steinbeck actually describes is a major element in the impact which The Red Pony has upon us as audience. Far from a happy tale of innocent experiences on a western ranch, Steinbeck gives us what superficially seems to be an unrelieved account of disappointments, meanness, and death. There is nothing idyllic about any of the four stories. Only in the subtext of the narrative can we discover the philosophical positives which counterbalance the textual negatives.

What Steinbeck gives us in the narrative context of the stories is the objective account of a ten-year-old boy who is being reared in geographical and psychological isolation. That is, Jody is physically isolated on a ranch in the Salinas Valley of California and psychologically isolated in that he has no contact with the cosmopolitan world of cities and large numbers of people. His only contact with the world off the ranch is at his school, and Steinbeck only briefly mentions this part of Jody's life, thus suggesting its relative insignificance in the formation of Jody's responses to the world. The lessons Jody learns are from life, not from books. The distance of other families or neighbors is indicated when Jody takes Nellie to be bred and has to walk steadily for an hour before reaching the road that leads to Jess Taylor's ranch. Having no brothers or sisters, and having only brief contact with his schoolmates, Jody is surrounded by adults—isolated, that is, in a world that is psychologically “foreign.” Within the space of a relatively short period of time, he is forced to deal with the realities of sexuality (epitomized by the breeding frenzy of the horses); with human cruelty (his father's harsh treatment of Jody's grandfather and Gitano); and death (the red pony and Nellie). As a child, therefore, he is a kind of stranger in a strange land of adults and adult problems. That the final scene in the short novel shows Jody acting with loving kindness toward his aging grandfather does not prove that he has transcended these problems, but it does suggest that Jody is preparing to enter his own adulthood with more understanding and compassion than the adults with whom he has been reared.

In light of Jody's compassion, we need also to note the dominance of the “male” attitudes in Jody's life—attitudes which too often seem coldly pragmatic and lacking in compassion. We see this masculine hardness in both Carl Tiflin and Billy Buck. Though Jody's father is capable of giving and of parental love, he seems more prone to squelch those emotions. As the narrator of the story says, “Carl Tiflin hated weakness and sickness, and he held a violent contempt for helplessness” (151). Moreover, his harsh, sarcastic condemnation of Jody's grandfather in “The Leader of the People” shows a meanness of spirit which few readers can condone. The ranch hand Billy Buck is less prone to such hard treatment of others than is his boss, but he, too, is ultimately hard and practical. His devoted nurturing of the sick colt Gabilan is ironically counterbalanced by his bloody killing of the mare Nellie to save the second colt. Billy well knows that he can save the mare by “tear[ing] the colt to pieces to get it out” (178), but he chooses instead to save the colt and sacrifice the mare. That this colt is male, as shown by the masculine pronouns Billy uses (186), and that Billy does not hesitate to kill the mare to save it symbolize the dominance of the male in the value system which determines the rural life in which Jody must mature. Further, practically all the male characters in the novella are conspicuously named (Billy Buck, Carl Tiflin, Gitano, Jody Tiflin), but the only human female in the novel (Jody's mother) is identified almost exclusively as “Mrs. Tiflin” or “his mother.” Such a naming device suggests her subservience to her husband and to the male patriarchy in general, and significantly emphasizes her lack of individual identity. Even her displeasure at Carl Tiflin's harsh attitude toward her father is implied by gesture, never by direct outspoken opposition, though clearly she has good cause to express her anger at such churlish behavior. In passing, we might note also that her father is a man who does not fit into the hard, pragmatic mold which Carl Tiflin and Billy Buck epitomize. He is a man of compassion and understanding, as shown in his awareness that “hunting Indians and shooting children and burning teepees” shows a lack of human love like the pointless killing of mice (192). And similar to his daughter in the story, he is given no specific identification. He is designated only as “Grandfather.”

Jody must choose between this masculine, pragmatic hardness and the compassionate nurturing usually identified as feminine. We are never told of Jody's choices overtly in the story, for as I have noted, the style remains predominantly objective and non-judgmental; and the overall tone reflects the same hard pragmaticism we have associated with the masculine world of the ranch. That is, Steinbeck passes no substantive judgments against the male attitudes which are part of a pattern of behavior adopted to cope with a nature that is often violent, bloody, and unforgiving. As Steinbeck himself has pointed out, he never takes us inside Jody's mind. Yet, rather subtly, Steinbeck's management of the feminine elements in the short novel suggests what the harsh life of the rural ranch can do to an individual: it can render him insensitive to the emotional needs of others and remove him from the nurturing compassion that is important in human relationships if humans are to be anything other than predators and vultures and mere victims to those who are physically stronger. We see this predator-victim life symbolized by the circling buzzards, the quail Jody wants to shoot, the cows and pigs which are slaughtered, and (ironically) in the name “Gabilan,” which means hawk.

That Steinbeck had the conflict of the feminine- masculine sensibilities in mind while writing The Red Pony is substantiated by “The Chrysanthemums,” a short story he published in the same year as “The Promise,” which would become part of The Red Pony. “The Chrysanthemums” focuses upon a woman who is isolated on a Salinas Valley ranch (like Jody) and whose femininity is repressed if not totally destroyed by a male-dominated society. It is probably Steinbeck's best short story and clearly demonstrates his subtle management of the theme of artistic sensibility at odds with a hard, pragmatic world, the same theme we see in The Red Pony when Jody's innocence and innate compassion must confront a world in which such qualities have little value. As John H. Timmerman wisely points out in a footnote to his own comments about “The Chrysanthemums,” it is a mistake “to pass modern liberation theories onto Steinbeck,”7 but certainly he was innately, if not consciously, sensitive to the issues arising when any individual is squelched by a prevailing social bias.

Keeping to his objective style and unemotional tone, Steinbeck does not reveal to us which way Jody will go—toward the “stern” hardness of his father and bloody pragmatism of Billy Buck or toward the kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately perhaps more humanitarian way personified by his mother and Grandfather. Yet, as I note above, by the simple fact that Jody decides at the end of “The Leader of the People” to forego the killing of the mice and spend time on the porch with his despondent grandfather, Steinbeck suggests that Jody is moving toward an understanding of the human predicament which neither his father nor Billy Buck has attained. Grandfather's experience during his visit to the Tiflin ranch has taught him that if the life epitomized by Carl Tiflin's attitude is typical of the settlement of the country, then the fight for the land and the crossing of the continent “wasn't worth doing” (199). “Westering,” that dream of adventure and a belief in the unstoppable progress of the human animal (the phalanx as Steinbeck called it), somehow “died out of the people” (199). Grandfather knows the Pacific Ocean halted the dream of the westward migration, and “There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them” (199). Yet we as audience, as perhaps will Jody as he further matures, realize that it is only the physical movement that has been halted, the geographical, literal limitations that have been reached. The psychological or emotional “frontiers” are left to be explored, and the ocean which Grandfather sees as a barrier can serve just as easily as a symbol for the limitless mystery of human life that is yet open to exploration. (We recall that Steinbeck himself was nursing his dying mother as he wrote The Red Pony and that with his biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, he would soon set sail to explore the oceans, both literally and symbolically.) John H. Timmerman summarizes The Red Pony in this way: “Working through the major themes of death and renewal, of dreams such as Grandfather's and the confines of civilization upon it, is also the theme of freedom and constraint that especially marks the tension between Carl and Jody Tiflin.”8 Timmerman is correct, for indeed Jody quietly insists that he have the freedom to dream of a life which transcends the harsh confines of the ranch and the narrow-minded attitudes personified by his father.

We should note, however, that Jody does not rebel against the realities that are forced upon him. He adjusts. This ability to adapt to adverse conditions—this “toughness”—is Jody's great strength, and the positive balance to what otherwise appears to be the harsh negativism of the story. He moves from a boy too ready to kill and dismember birds to a young man who forgoes the needless clubbing of mice. It is not a romantic, sentimental misunderstanding of nature's design which leads Jody to appreciate life. He is surrounded by death constantly, and he himself inflicts death. At no point does Steinbeck's management of point of view lead us to believe that either the author or his young protagonist believes in a benevolent natural purpose. Humans die as surely as pigs and ponies and old horses. Death is part of the natural cycle, just as are the seasons which appear in the stories. Like Grandfather and Gitano, Jody will grow old and die. Nature can be violent, bloody, and unforgiving. But against those qualities stands the potential of human compassion, the one human trait which separates humans from the buzzards that symbolize survival by dependence on death and carnage. As Howard Levant notes, “in feeding on carrion, buzzards mark the point at which death becomes an ugly imperfection that cannot be accepted serenely.”9 Jody senses but cannot articulate that there must be more satisfying approaches to coping with the impending death which nature forces upon all living things. Old Gitano's ascent into the mountains on a horse conspicuously named “Easter” symbolizes this spiritual potential and offers to Jody a kind of epiphany, a suggestion that there is something beyond the mere biological processes of birth and death. Human existence does not cease in the stomach of a hungry buzzard.

We noted earlier Steinbeck's theory of the phalanx, his idea that human individuals arrange themselves into larger units, like cells in the body (see the “Background” discussion). Some readers of The Red Pony feel that Steinbeck compromises his point of view management by trying to work the phalanx theory into the narrative design. R. S. Hughes, for instance, argues that Grandfather's comments about “the big crawling beast,” which presents the phalanx idea, do not “fit thematically” into “The Leader of the People.”10 Viewed in terms of The Red Pony as a narrative unit, and in light of the theme of Jody's continued initiation and maturity, however, Grandfather's awareness that the individual must see himself or herself as part of a larger unit of humanity becomes an integral part of Steinbeck's purpose. The failure to make this association between the individual and humankind collectively is what renders Carl Tiflin such an insensitive, cruel man. Moreover, it is Billy Buck's determination to keep his promise about the second colt and not to lose face as a man that leads him to kill the mare Nellie, the symbol of life's continuity. And later, though Billy Buck has some admiration for Grandfather, he ceases to listen to the lessons the old man is trying to impart through his tales. While Grandfather talks, Billy idly “watched a spider crawling up the wall” (195). Only Jody listens, though he, too, has heard the tales before. Jody is yet too young to articulate what he learns from Grandfather's experiences, but the last scene we have in the short novel is Jody taking a lemon from his mother to make lemonade for Grandfather. This visual image which groups Mrs. Tiflin, her father, and Jody separates them in our minds from Billy Buck and Carl Tiflin and suggests that Jody's future alliance will be with those who represent artistic sensibilities and humanity. Thus Grandfather's lesson about the unity that took many individuals to the ocean (the phalanx) is an important part of Jody's increasing awareness. Grandfather's ideas offer him an alternative to the hard, bloody life into which Carl Tiflin and Billy Buck have initiated Jody. Jody has learned the literal lesson from Gabilan who leaves his stall and wanders beyond the confines of his corral that if one steps beyond the narrow confines of fences, he risks death. Grandfather's experiences with a wider, multi-ethnic world beyond the ranch give Jody an alternative to that “fenced” mentality. As Grandfather teaches, it is the “westering” that matters, the questing, the searching, the going beyond apparent confinements. He fears that it “has died out of the people” (199), but in Jody we see some hope that the questing spirit can be revived. As I noted earlier, Steinbeck's intent is not a message of Pollyanna optimism, but he does want to suggest that Jody (and each of us) has choices that transcend the mere acceptance of the cold, final deaths we see in the red pony, Nellie, the buzzards, and in Carl Tiflin's indifferent crushing of the moth that tries to fly to the light (194).

Finally, in contrast to the death images that dominate the narrative, we need briefly to analyze Steinbeck's symbols of the life force. The spring and the ocean are the most apparent of these symbols. We have already mentioned the ocean and how Grandfather views it as a barrier, though it serves equally as a symbol of life itself. We can elucidate the point that the ocean serves as a symbol of the mysterious, spiritual force by noting Jody's earlier dream of the ocean that lies beyond the great mountains which he imagines old Gitano crossing (171). Significantly, Jody is lying near the spring when he imagines the mountains and the ocean, a point we will return to in a moment. Here in “The Great Mountains” the mountains (not the ocean) serve as barriers. One reaches the freedom of the ocean only after surmounting the mountains, which Jody imagines as towering “ridge after ridge after ridge” (171). Jody, however, does not envision the mountains as being either insurmountable or negative. In fact, he longs to enter them and move, like Gitano, toward the great ocean that lies beyond. The mountains symbolize the life experience Jody must acquire (sexually, morally, experientially) before he can move into the more abstract, mysterious, psychological realm emblematized by the ocean. He cannot, of course, articulate the ideas at such a young age, but his innate or instinctive awareness of the literal and spiritual quests which await him are the cause of the “nameless sorrow” (171) which fills him as he contemplates the mountains and the distant ocean.

That Jody is associated with the life force and not the death force symbolized by the buzzards and other similar images we have already noted is witnessed by the fact that Jody is lying in “the green grass” near the spring (171). The spring and the tub it fills with water so “cold that it stung his mouth” (154) are first mentioned in “The Gift,” the story which is otherwise so dominated by death and death symbols. Quite literally, when Jody pops the bloody tick between his thumbnails, he washes the death away in the cold spring (158)—a minor act of salvation. Immediately following this cleansing of the blood from Jody's hands, we are given the scene in which he discovers his pony dead, its eyes being punctured by the buzzards (159). With this juxtaposing of contrasting scenes, Steinbeck makes a point about seeing and not seeing. Jody has literally seen much; now he must learn to see in the sense of understanding. He must commence to see beyond the literal, to comprehend the lessons that his experiences have taught him. It is in light of this transition which is taking place for Jody that placing “The Great Mountains” immediately after Jody's finding his dead pony makes sense. From the small act of washing the tick's blood off his hand in the cold spring, Jody now sees the approach of human death in the form of old Gitano and must contemplate the larger concept of a transcendent spiritual life as symbolized by the great ocean.

Steinbeck reiterates the important symbolic connection between the spring and ocean by mentioning the spring early in “The Great Mountains” and repeating a similar blood/hand image. In angry frustration at his pony's gruesome death, Jody has killed and dismembered a thrush, itself a symbol of natural beauty and love.

The hills were dry at this season, and the wild grass was golden, but where the spring-pipe filled the round tub and the tub spilled over, there lay a stretch of fine green grass, deep and sweet and moist. Jody drank from the mossy tub and washed the bird's blood from his hands in cold water. Then he lay on his back in the grass. …


Again the spring symbolizes the source of Jody's absolution; but in this instance the reiterated scene serves also to remind us that Jody is about to move a step closer to an awareness of the interconnected quality of all life, further away from being a senseless destroyer of life. It is while lying beside the spring, his hands literally and symbolically cleansed, that he becomes aware of the distant mountains and begins to contemplate their “secret” (160). Old Gitano then enters Jody's life and will soon thereafter enter the mountains to await the end of his own life, thereby connecting the spring-mountain-ocean symbols. Thus, the end of the short novel, when Jody chooses not to kill the mice but chooses instead to bring his grandfather a drink, serves not only to connect the various stories within the story by reminding us of the spring from which Jody has drunk; it suggests also that Jody seems to have learned the lesson implied by the spring-ocean symbolism.

Ironically, the life force implied by the spring-ocean symbology stands in contrast to the other important water symbol Steinbeck employs. Rain throughout the novella symbolizes death. This is not a unique symbolic usage (Ernest Hemingway, for instance, uses rain extensively in A Farewell to Arms to symbolize death), but Steinbeck does use the symbol quite effectively to make the point that like water from the earth (the spring) and water from the sky (rain), life and death are natural processes. Steinbeck limits the rain symbology to “The Gift” and “The Promise,” the two stories dealing with the horses and in which death is most graphically depicted. The rain motif is especially dominant in “The Gift.” Jody wishes that “it might not rain before Thanksgiving,” (149) when he is scheduled to ride Gabilan for the first time, but the rain does come. Billy Buck then promises Jody that it will not rain again, so Jody “went to school [and] left Gabilan standing out in the corral” (150). But Billy is wrong, for again the rain returns, soaking the pony and causing the illness that leads to his death. Ironically, the rain that is usually welcomed on a dry-land ranch here is ominous and threatening, a foreshadowing of disaster. Then in “The Promise,” when the mare Nellie is about to give birth to the colt that is to replace the dead Gabilan, Steinbeck uses the rain again as a symbol of impending death: “The night was black and thick. A little misting rain fell. The cypress tree and the bunkhouse loomed and then dropped back into the mist” (183). Coupled with the black cypress tree under which the hogs are slaughtered, the rain is doubly ominous. Keeping the symbolic integrity of the rain, Steinbeck then has Billy Buck kill Nellie in order to save the colt and thereby keep his promise to Jody.

When Billy Buck yells to Jody to get “the water” (186) to wash the blood from the foal, the water symbology shifts from the fatal rain to the cleansing waters of redemption, as established by the spring symbol and Jody's hand washing. Because of the rain, Billy Buck has broken his solemn promise and allowed the red pony to die, and with the birth of Nellie's foal he tries to redeem his honor, to keep his “promise.” That he shouts the profane term “God damn you” (186) to Jody suggests both that Billy desires not to be damned for his failed promise and that he harbors some anger at Jody for forcing him into killing the mare in order to obtain forgiveness. Redemption is clearly on Billy Buck's mind. Yet, the fact that the foal is “black”—the color of the deadly cypress tree—indicates that Billy's sacrifice may not have been for the good cause he anticipated. His face remains “bloody” and his eyes “haunted” and “tired”; and though the black colt is alive and apparently well, Jody is not elated. “He tried to be glad,” but Billy's image “hung in the air ahead of him” (186). In a world in which there are no absolutes, no clear-cut divisions between salvation and damnation, and in which life and death merge into an almost indistinguishable process, Jody has moved one step further toward an understanding of the human predicament. It is this step that helps prepare him for the encounter with his grandfather in “The Leader of the People” and for the compassion which he demonstrates in that concluding story.


  1. John Steinbeck, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, eds. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p. 76. All further references to this work will appear in the text.

  2. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 264.

  3. John Steinbeck, The Red Pony, in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 137. All further references to this work will appear in the text.

  4. R. S. Hughes, Beyond “The Red Pony”: A Reader's Companion to Steinbeck's Complete Short Stories (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1987), p. 91.

  5. Howard Levant, “John Steinbeck's The Red Pony: A Study in Narrative Technique,” in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, ed. Jackson J. Benson (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 85.

  6. Brian Barbour, “Steinbeck as a Short Story Writer,” in A Study Guide to Steinbeck's “The Long Valley,” ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Pierian Press, 1976), p. 125.

  7. John H. Timmerman, John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of The Road Taken (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), p. 282.

  8. Ibid., p. 74.

  9. Levant, pp. 85-86.

  10. Hughes, p. 102.

Warren French (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: French, Warren. “The Story Cycles.” In John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, pp. 44-59. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, French delineates the defining characteristics of the short-story cycles The Pastures of Heaven and The Red Pony.]

John Steinbeck hit almost accidentally upon the technique that would lead him gradually away from the structural problems he had had with his earliest attempts to move from short stories to novels. The curious thing about this development is that when he did hit upon the technique, he did not immediately recognize its importance. As we approach the first masterworks of his mature years, we must consider what has been so much ignored, to the detriment of both his and his critics' reputations—that Steinbeck was not an intellectual in the sense of being primarily rational rather than emotional. He recognized that he had a lifelong suspicion of intellectuals, with their a priori systems for the management of human affairs, although he would at times dabble in pseudointellectual theories (like that of the phalanx, which will be discussed later, particularly in conjunction with In Dubious Battle), and in the long run his work was confused rather than clarified by his greater attraction to Ed Ricketts's eccentric philosophizing than to the warm, sympathetic concern with still undiagnosed sufferings afflicting human relationships that was Ricketts's most ennobling quality.

When Steinbeck made his false starts as a novelist, he was aware that he was more at home composing short stories than longer narratives, but short stories were less financially rewarding at a time when he needed to establish himself with a small audience to support his work. He had not perceived—as had Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, for example, and especially the modernist role model James Joyce, with his trailblazing Dubliners—the rich possibilities in linking a sequence of related but autonomous stories into a longer work that could be enjoyed bit by bit or as a whole. Forrest Ingram, among other theorists, has described this type of work as a “short-story cycle,” which he defines as “stories linked to each other in such a way as to maintain a balance between the individuality of each of the stories and the necessities of the larger unit.”1

On his first experiment with this pattern, however, in The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck created one of the classics of the genre, with 10 stories brilliantly embodying the disenchanted modernist vision of the ironic difference between the hopeful expectations of naive people and their often cataclysmic results. The great difference between this story cycle and his other early novels is that he was writing in this work from personal experience and observation, not from models provided by other writers, whether contemporary romances or classical allegorists.

The Pastures of Heaven was inspired early in 1931 by Beth Ingels, Carol Steinbeck's new partner in an advertising agency, who told stories about the people she had lived among as a girl growing up in the small, isolated valley of Corral de Tierra in the hills west of Salinas. Ironically renaming this cove cut off from the rest of the world Las Pasturas del Cielo, Steinbeck explained the concept of the work to his agents:

The valley was known for years as the happy valley because of the unique harmony which existed among its twenty families. About ten years ago a new family moved in on one of the ranches. They were ordinary people, ill-educated but honest and as kindly as any. … But about the Morans there was a flavor of evil. Everyone they came in contact with was injured. Every place they went dissension sprang up. …

I am using the following method. The manuscript is made up of stories, each one complete in itself, having its rise, climax and ending. Each story deals with a family or an individual. They are tied together only by the common locality and by the contact with the Morans.

(Life, 42-43)2

Actually, any sensitive reader should be able to grasp—as the writer hopes—the plan and intentions underlying it from the stories themselves. Yet curiously, Steinbeck, whose plans and intentions are too obscure in Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown, appears to have gone to the other extreme in The Pastures of Heaven and made his plan and intentions too obvious for critics who may see themselves in the Morans and need to try to explain away Steinbeck's designs, just as some of his targets in later novels would rant against his portrayals of them and even foment plots against him.

The prologue of this first story cycle explains that the valley was named for the profound impression its unspoiled beauty made around 1776 on a Spanish corporal who was returning to hard labor in captivity some renegade Indians who had abandoned Christianity and sought to return to their pastoral life. He dreamed of returning to the valley, but he died, locked in a barn, of a venereal disease he received, ironically, from an Indian woman.

The epilogue is even more heavy-handedly ironic. A bus-load of tourists peer down into the valley and also dream about the tranquil life it promises if only they could escape their white ambitions. The bus driver sums up their feelings by remarking, “I always like to look down there and think how quiet and easy a man could live on a little place,”3 before he drives off into the setting sun. By that time, however, the reader knows that distant visions are as deceiving as dreams and that the enticing valley offers, as Matthew Arnold had written in Dover Beach, “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, / nor peace nor help for pain.” Through the intervening 10 stories, one learns the history of the valley dwellers, who had retreated to this valley with expectations much like those of the tourists and for a while realized them, until the world caught up with them.

Linking the stories, as Steinbeck pointed out, is the earlier residents' contacts with the Munroe family after its arrival. The basic pattern of these relationships is foreshadowed in a playful conversation at the end of the second episode between Bert Munroe, father of the clan and T. B. Allen, the valley storekeeper, which relates the misfortunes that in the past have befallen the Munroes and those associated with the farm they have bought. Munroe relates that, because all his business ventures have turned out badly, he feels he is “under a curse” and now he has bought a farm that is also “supposed to be under a curse.” The shopkeeper then theorizes, “Maybe your curse and the farm's curse has mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes. Maybe there'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know” (Heaven [The Pastures of Heaven], 25).

The shopkeeper speaks for Steinbeck. Though the Munroes flourish after buying the farm that has been a “curse” to others, the family's presence causes troubles for the other residents of the valley:

1. The false but harmless image of influence that “Shark” Wicks has fostered is shattered by Bert Munroe's hysterically warning he will have Wicks arrested for threatening to kill Bert's son Jimmy for unwelcome attentions to Wicks' daughter.

2. The retarded Tularecito is sent to an asylum because he attacked Bert Munroe for filling in a hole the boy had been digging; Munroe became involved in something that was none of his business because he thought his retarded son had done the digging.

3. Mrs. Van Deventer has to dispose of her demented daughter after Bert interferes in her affairs by first assuming he must make an uninvited call on each new family in the valley and then making a thoughtless promise to help the daughter escape.

4. Mrs. Munroe drives Junius Maltby and his son Robbie back to the city by publicly forcing new clothes on the boy and making the Maltbys conscious of how impoverished they appear in the eyes of respectable society.

5. Munroe also drives out the Lopez sisters when he thinks it a “good joke” to insinuate to a pathologically possessive woman that her husband plans to run off with one of them.

6. Molly Morgan, a popular schoolteacher, also runs away when she cannot stand to hear Bert Munroe joking about a drunken hired hand who she fears may be the vanished father she idolized.

7. Ray Banks, a generous man of “meager imagination,” is intimidated into giving up his trips to San Quentin to attend executions when Munroe tells him that if he “had any imagination” he “wouldn't go up to see some poor devil get killed” (Heaven, 213).

8. Pat Humbert is inspired with the hope of escaping the blighting burdens of his past when he overhears Munroe's daughter casually expressing an interest in his house, but his dreams are crushed when he learns she is not really interested.

9. John Whiteside's hope of continuing a rural dynasty is blasted when his son marries Munroe's daughter, who insists on their moving to town to be near her friends. Then even his mansion is destroyed by a brush fire started at an inopportune time at Bert Munroe's insistence.

In each episode the Munroes have thoughtlessly—though often accidentally, by saying or doing the wrong thing—destroyed a refuge that another person has carefully and often painfully constructed. They are not consciously responsible for these consequences, and they are not, of course, under any kind of supernatural curse. They are a curse to their neighbors because of their insensitivity, yet they persistently push themselves into positions—like Bert's on the school board—in which they affect the lives of others.

Steinbeck takes special pains to plant a clue to his concept of the curse in his epilogue. A prosperous tourist learns that the stone keel of Carmel Mission was built to resist earthquakes but that the plan won't work. A young priest protests, “But it has worked. There have been earthquakes and the mission still stands” (Heaven, 290). Like the authoritarian visitor, the Munroes have fixed ideas of what will work, and they are wrong, as they are even about their own younger son, Manfred, when they use the threat of an adenoidal operation as a deterrent when he behave badly, with the consequence that his brain development is arrested by the condition. They are a curse to themselves as well as others.

The stories about the curse are not arranged in a haphazard order; nor are they told chronologically, since schoolteacher Mary Morgan, for example, is mentioned in stories narrated after the one about her leaving the valley. The novelistic character of the work is enhanced by the stories being grouped to create a progression that culminates with the burning of the Whiteside home.

The first three stories, about the Wickses, Tularecito, and the Van Deventers, present pathetic attempts to deal with situations that must eventually be corrected. Bert Munroe in each of these stories is simply sticking his nose into something that is none of his business. He has no charge to interfere with his neighbor's privacy and no ability to handle the situations in which he meddles. In the next three stories, of Junius Maltby, the Lopez sisters, and Mary Morgan, Mrs. Munroe, with her officious do-gooding, and Bert, with his supposedly harmless “joking,” drive inoffensive members of the community away altogether by a lack of regard for others' feelings. In the final three stories, the Munroes, in their self-centered insensitivity to others, are not even aware of the possible consequences of ill-considered remarks.

These last stories, particularly, disturb some critics because they do not see how people can be held responsible for the unanticipated consequences of well-intentioned remarks—the stories seem a defense of touchiness. And this is exactly what they are. Steinbeck was a touchy person, and an extreme sensitivity to other people's feelings empowered his most memorable works. This hypersensitivity is often downgraded as sentimentality, but if “civilization” is not based on respect for other people's feelings, one wonders what promise it can provide of a better world.

Further, in The Pastures of Heaven Steinbeck does not foresee any possibilities of a better world; the work is a deeply despairing catalog of modernist ironies. Probably this is why many reviewers have been displeased with it. One thing that cannot be disputed about Steinbeck's vision is the correctness of his prophecy about such pastoral refuges. In the epilogue the know-it-all successful businessman among the tourists envisions the valley turned into a subdivision of big houses and golf links. He remarks, “Rich men will live there—men that are tired of working away in town, men that have made their pile and want a quite place to settle down to rest and enjoy themselves” (Heaven, 292)—men who, like the Munroes, will bring the curse of the discontents that led them to seek a refuge along with them, as they have to the many such communities that have been developed in recent decades.

Joseph Fontenrose quarrels with the teller rather than the tale when he finds the curse “nothing more than the entry of twentieth-century civilization into the valley. The principal characters could not continue behaving as they had done: their dreams, illusions, patterns, were bound to be shattered on exposure to the contemporary world.”4 Steinbeck could have no objection to this analysis except for the “nothing more” introducing it. Fontenrose is here summarizing what for the author seemed the worst kind of curse that could be visited on a community. Fontenrose appears to find the twentieth century some kind of blessing. He must have been fortunate in his neighbors.

Louis Owens takes a tougher line when he concludes that “the central message here is that there are no Edens, for that is the most American and most dangerous illusion of all”5 but he spends too much time refuting the possibility of a supernatural curse that is not taken seriously even in the text, and he seems unable to grasp Steinbeck's feelings about the Munroes when he argues that “they may at times benefit the inhabitants of the valley by forcing certain individuals to discard crippling illusions and face reality, harsh though that reality may be” (Re-vision, 80). Steinbeck's point, emphasized in his own explanation, is that the Munroes are not deliberately evil people but insensitive, incompetent people who do not know what they are doing and cannot deal with the consequences of their actions, even when they occasionally make others face reality.

Fiction needs to be read in the context of the author's work, especially when, as in the unusual case of The Pastures of Heaven, it was sandwiched in between two rewritings of what Steinbeck considered a longer and more important work, one that was almost hysterically committed to the concept of an intimate and mysterious connection between man and nature. The Pastures of Heaven was a product of the same mystical sensibility, though its down-to-earth presentation dropped mystical trappings. Owens appears to be reading backward into this early work the postmodernist bourgeois minimalist viewpoint Steinbeck arrived at in The Winter of Our Discontent: that one can do nothing but put up with the world as one finds it.

The Pastures of Heaven is an enduring vision from another era. It is part of a genre that reached its popular peak in James Hilton's oversimplified fantasy Lost Horizon, with its dream image of a remote Shangri-La, which inspired many in a bleak and hopeless time to push on in pursuit of a probably illusory destination.

The story cycle combines the launching of Steinbeck's bitter and cynical attack on twentieth-century American bourgeois consumerism that would culminate in Cannery Row with an underlying glow of the passionate striving to transcend it that would flame out at the end of The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row. It should stand with William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses and remind us too that the Munroes function in Steinbeck's fiction as the Snopes family does in Faulkner's, despite great differences between the fading residue of frontier dynamism in California and the bottomed-out decadence of the twentieth-century South. Each writer deals with his community's inability to protect traditions against interlopers and raises a lonely protest against the unfeeling.


After completing The Pastures of Heaven early in 1932, Steinbeck returned to To a God Unknown, having decided, he informed his agents on 25 January, to cut it in half and rewrite only the first part, “reserving the last half for some future novel” that was never written (Life, 52). He was engaged in this unrewarding labor for another year, until he shipped the manuscript to New York on 11 February 1933 (Life, 68). For several weeks after he became responsible for the care of his mother, whom a stroke had left almost totally paralyzed (Benson, 261) he did no further writing, but finally, to discipline himself, he began writing a short story based on memories of his childhood. This story became the first part of his second short story-cycle, which proved to be one of his most memorable works when he finally put it together as The Red Pony.

The first two stories, “The Gift” and “The Great Mountains,” were responsible for his first important breakthrough into the literary market, for they were accepted in 1933 as his first contributions to a major national literary journal, the North American Review. Although the second two stories were written almost immediately afterward, early in 1934, “The Promise” was turned down by the Review (probably because of the distressing killing of a mare at the end of the story to save her colt) and did not appear in Harper's until 1937, the year in which Pascal Covici insisted on publishing the cycle in an expensive limited edition before including it in The Long Valley in 1938. The final story, “The Leader of the People,” first appeared in the United States in this collection, but it had already been published in the British journal Argosy in 1936. Steinbeck mentioned in a journal a fifth story about the same characters, but Jackson Benson thinks this may never have been written (Benson, 285).

As the cycle stands, there seems scarcely any place for other stories. In this quarter Steinbeck produced a work in which form and content are nearly perfectly integrated as he depicts a naive, daydreaming child developing through a troubling series of maturing experiences into a young man who gives promise of leading the kind of examined life that his immediate forebears have not because of their complete preoccupation with first winning and then taming America's wild frontier. Although not available until after the publication of some of Steinbeck's most important novels, the cycle as a whole needs to be considered as a product of the time of its composition in order to account adequately for its contribution to his artistic development.

While each of the four parts of The Red Pony can be read separately and enjoyably, together they tell the tightly knit story of one young person's growth from the selfish ignorance that the Munroe family never overcomes in The Pastures of Heaven to a compassionate enlightenment as his experiences teach him to see the world not as he dreams it might be but as it is.

At the beginning of the first story, Jody is a child not only in the sense of being under parental control but also in the sense of being innocent of the knowledge of the disappointments of growing up. He obeys his father unquestioningly, but there are compensations for this dependency, for he believes implicitly in the wisdom of those whom he obeys and lives in a world of certainties.

As the story opens, however, he feels “an uncertainty in the air, a feeling of change and of loss and of the gain of new and unfamiliar things.”6 The first gain is a red pony that his father has bought from a bankrupt traveling show. Owning and caring for the pony enable Jody's first step toward maturity. His schoolmates realize that he is now different, lifted out of equality with them by becoming a horseman in a culture that still clings to the life-style of the vanished frontier.

With maturity comes disillusionment. The story is built around ranchhand Billy Buck's promises to Jody, including a crucial one that he will bring the pony in if it rains on a day that Jody is hesitant to leave it in the corral. If Jody's faith is to be preserved, Billy Buck cannot be wrong, but this time he is, for when it does rain, he has to seek refuge on a neighboring ranch and forgets about the pony. It catches cold, and Billy compounds his fallibility by assuring Jody that it will be all right in the morning. When the pony's condition worsens, Billy does not want to tell Jody the truth but realizes that “he couldn't be wrong three times” (46). Later, when Jody observes that the pony is very sick, Billy thinks a long time about what to say: “He nearly tossed off a careless assurance, but saved himself in time” (43). But he cannot save the pony. It flees into a meadow and dies. When buzzards attack the carcass, Jody manages to grab one of them, which stares at him “impersonal and unafraid and detached” (50) even as he kills it.

Jody's unimaginative father angrily asks his son if he didn't know that the buzzard didn't kill the pony. Jody wearily admits knowing, but Billy, who has started to carry the boy home, turns back furiously on the father, saying, “Course he knows it. … Jesus Christ! man, can't you see how he'd feel about it?” (50). Jody is practicing displacement, as he has earlier when he throws a clod at an unoffending but disgustingly healthy dog when the pony is dying. He has learned that one cannot always hit back directly at the source of suffering; more important, he has learned that nature is impersonal, no respecter of human wishes.

As the second story begins, the once naively trusting Jody has become cruel and callous. He irrationally tortures the long-suffering dog and kills a thrush. Then he hides the songbird's body to avoid telling the truth, because “he didn't care about the bird, or its life, but he knew what the older people would say if they had seen him kill it; he was ashamed of their potential opinion” (55). He has graduated to that intermediate state between childhood and adulthood when he no longer respects his elders but still fears their control—that state in which one's principal guide to conduct is fear of public opinion, one beyond which many perpetually resentful people never advance.

Like these, Jody shuns responsibility. When an old man approaches him, asking for help, Jody turns abruptly and runs to the house. The old man has lived on the land where the ranch now stands, and he has come home to die. Jody's father, who unsympathetically refuses to let this dispossessed figure from the Mexican era stay, compares him to an old horse “who ought to be shot” (65). Jody summons up the courage, however, to speak sympathetically to the old man and learns that his most prized possession is a rapier he has inherited from his father. The next morning both the aged visitor and the superannuated horse Easter have disappeared into the great mountains on the horizon that Jody greatly admires. As the boy thinks of old Gitano, he is filled with “a nameless sorrow” (72). He has learned that adults are not always to be feared, that they have their problems, that they become worn-out, unwanted.

“The Promise” opens with Jody's demonstrating his consciousness of the hurt feelings adults can experience and being treated by them in a more grown-up manner. His father promises him a colt to replace the red pony if the boy will take the mare to be bred, earn the stud fee, tend the mare until she is ready to deliver (nearly a year), and then train the colt. Jody promises and finds himself reduced “to peonage for the whole late spring and summer” (88). Billy Buck will do everything he can to deliver the colt safely but “won't promise anything” (91). Jody endures the kind of ordeal that a medieval squire would have had to go through as a condition of attaining knighthood. In the end tragedy strikes again: something goes wrong with the delivery, and Billy has to kill the mare to save the colt. During these tense moments two traumatic role reversals occur in Jody and Billy Buck's relationship: Jody, who used to obey automatically, refuses to do so until sworn at, and Billy for the first time loses his temper with the boy because of his frustration at the loss of the mare.

Jody has now irreversibly entered the troublesome realm of adult emotions and defeats. He has learned that just as man is fallible, so is nature. The mare has successfully delivered colts before, but this time something beyond remedying has gone wrong. An old life must sometimes be sacrificed, not because it has become useless, as in the previous story, but in order to make a new one possible. Nobody is at fault; the system is just not perfect. Jody has gotten what he wanted but has also learned what one's dreams may cost.

The last story, “The Leader of the People,” climaxes the history of Jody's maturing. It is skillfully linked to the preceding one by Jody's first use of the profanity he has picked up from Billy Buck at the end of “The Promise.” When he says, “I hope it don't rain until after I kill those damn mice,” he looks over his shoulder “to see whether Billy had noticed the mature profanity.” But the ranchhand makes no comment (109).

The story is built around a visit from Jody's maternal grandfather, who had once led migrants across the plains during pioneering days. Jody's father does not look forward to the visit, because of the old man's interminable reminiscing about his great experience. “He just goes on and on, and he never changes a word,” the father complains, but his wife replies quietly, “That was the big thing in my father's life. He led a wagon train clear across the plains to the coast, and when it was finished, his life was done. It was a big thing to do, but it didn't last long enough” (112).

When the old man arrives, he starts repeating his story. Although Jody listens enthusiastically, confrontation occurs when his father, thinking the grandfather out of earshot, asks with irritation, “Why does he have to tell [his stories] over and over?” (124). This time the old man overhears him and says gently, “An old man doesn't see things sometimes. Maybe you're right. The crossing is finished. Maybe it should be forgotten, now it's done” (125). He goes out to sit on the porch, “looking small and thin and black” (126). Jody joins him as he begins to talk: “I tell these old stories, but they're not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them. It wasn't the Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling best. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. … Then we came down to the sea and it was done. … That's what I should be telling instead of stories” (129). The tragedy is not just that “There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them” but that “Westering has died out of the people” (130). Jody learns that just as nature is imperfect, it also—like humans—has its limits, wears out, offers no new frontiers. And he also learns something that the imaginative artist finds even more frustrating in his relations with practical-minded men: that experience may be incommunicable, the urges demanding it impossible to share. One who strives to inspire the young seems just a long-winded survivor of a vanished world.

In the last lines of the cycle, Jody shows that he has learned even more. He offers to make the old man a lemonade. When his mother joshes that he wants one for himself, he replies, “No, Ma'am, I don't want one.” She starts to say, “Jody! You're sick,” but she stops suddenly and helps him (131). Small though his gesture may be, the boy is trying to show compassion through an altruistic action. He has truly matured, achieved his knighthood, since he has learned that the only way to deal with the fallibility and limitations of both men and nature is to try to ease the pain.

Such moralizing is not as obvious in the story-cycle as this explanation makes it appear, because Steinbeck succeeds here in so fusing form and content that the complex message of the narrative is not forced, obtrusive or long-winded. In the depiction of a temperamental child emerging into compassionate maturity by painfully learning through personal experiences about the fallibility of people, the wearing out of people, the unreliability of nature, and the exhaustion of nature, Steinbeck succeeds in doing what Jody's grandfather feels he has failed to do—make people “feel” the way he wishes when he tells his stories.7

That Steinbeck had a sense of the universal significance of these haunting recollections of childhood is evident from an unpublished introduction that he wrote in 1964 for the suite of concert music derived by Aaron Copland from his background music for the film version of The Red Pony (1949). Copland had asked the aging Steinbeck if he would write an introduction that could be read at performances of the suite at children's concerts. Steinbeck replied enthusiastically with a “Narration” about 300 words long, which describes a kind of “everyboy” whose experiences are recalled by the suite and who ends up as the kind of everyman Steinbeck had also tried to create in Burning Bright as a result of passing through the experience. Copland felt that it was not suitable for children, but Steinbeck did not wish to revise it.8 It has apparently never been published, but it should be included with every reprinting of the complete Red Pony cycle.

Copland's misgivings call attention to the essentially modernist viewpoint permeating this cycle about childhood—vastly different from the fatuousness of much “children's literature.” The Red Pony is not a happy work; it is essentially a story about “splitting” by civilization, about confronting a series of defeats and learning to handle defeat with dignity. The defeatism of the outlook is embodied in a key exchange between Jody and his grandfather near the end of the cycle, when Jody speculates, “Maybe I could lead the people some day,” and the grandfather replies with the last word, “No place to go. … But that's not the worst. … Westering has died out of the people. Your father is right. It is finished” (130).

Steinbeck made a significant change in the cycle when he drastically reorganized it into a straightforward narrative moving toward a single climax for the film version after World War II.9 The reorientation provides a striking illustration of a fundamental change in the underlying sensibility informing his works, beginning with The Grapes of Wrath. The episode about the old Mexican Gitano's coming home to die is dropped altogether and replaced with some scenes that sketch in Jody's father's decision not to accept an opportunity to move into town and become a shopkeeper but to remain on the ranch, a refusal to be split by middle-class civilization in accord with the conception of some redemptory quality in maintaining an intimate connection with the land. The result of the change is a charming pastoral in which both mare and colt survive, but while the original story cycle is not just a “children's story” but a universal initiation myth, the rewrite is a “children's movie.”10


Steinbeck had trudged a long trail to a quite different world between his two treatments of The Red Pony. He would complete one more story cycle before turning to his more conventionally novelistic works, a work that raises the intriguing question of what readers' first impression of Steinbeck were when he hit the best-seller lists in 1935. Only a handful would have been aware of him earlier. His first three publishers were bankrupt, and the novels had been remaindered. It is not really likely that the cynical costume piece Cup of Gold or the cryptically metaphysical To a God Unknown would have won many readers, but The Pastures of Heaven, the novel that attracted Pascal Covici to Steinbeck's work, well promoted, might have won readers attracted to the ironic modernist vein of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio cycle or Sinclair Lewis's debunking attacks on middle-class midwesterners or H. L. Mencken's lambasting of the American “booboisie.” Tortilla Flat, however, won Steinbeck a following on other grounds and created expectations that made his major works to follow a series of startling surprises.

Jackson Benson is right in his reflection that “one of the ironies of [Steinbeck's] career was that this book, written rather quickly and casually and published almost by accident, was the book that raised him out of obscurity” (Benson, 276). Steinbeck himself did not think much of it. He wrote his agents in June 1935, “Curious that this second-rate book, written for relaxation, should cause this fuss. People are actually taking it seriously” (Life, 111).

The novel, however, fared well, going into numerous editions and even warranting an elaborate and quite expensive for the time new illustrated edition in 1947. But Steinbeck's judgment proves right in the long run. The story cycle has become embarrassingly dated, and if his reputation depended on it, he would probably be dismissed, as is William Saroyan, as a regional local colorist, though some readers wish he had continued working in this vein. What won him his first substantial audience?

Even though the characters' behavior would scarcely raise an eyebrow a half-century later, Tortilla Flat when it appeared appears was considered not just risqué but shocking, because of the characters' uninhibited libidos and flagrant disregard for property and propriety. The strict Hays code had recently been instituted to limit movies to the most decorous, hands-off boy-meets-girl stories and a procession of pompous, edifying biographies. The radio was similarly watchhawked to inoffensive jokes and tear-jerking tales of family crises, so that audiences had to turn to books for anything that might be considered daring, and even they might be banned somewhere if their language or situations offended delicate sensibilities.

Steinbeck promised to spin tales of the Pacific slopes to rival Erskine Caldwell's wildly popular and widely denounced tales of southern degeneracy along Tobacco Road, although Jack Kirkland, who had turned this scandalous novel into Broadway's longest-running hit, found that he could not turn the same trick with Steinbeck's paisanos. The escapist appeal of Steinbeck's tales during the depression lay rather with that of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's enormously popular 1936 play, You Can't Take It with You, and “zany” films like Gregory LaCava's My Man Godfrey (also 1936), which enchanted crowds with the message that one did not need money after all to live happily on the margins of society. The paisano tales appealed to those fed up with the deprivation of the times.

Steinbeck's subsequent novels came as great shocks to those who read Tortilla Flat in the same vein as James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times (1933), as mocking the defeatist spirit of the time, though readers might have been alerted as to what to expect had they paid more attention to the cycle's downbeat ending; still, this was a work better taken in parts than as a whole. Like The Red Pony,Tortilla Flat, despite comic episodes, is not a happy book. But in this work the characters do not learn to “split,” to accept defeat with resignation but compassionate dignity. Danny, at the end of the tales, cannot make the adjustment to the ownership of property that civilization demands, but neither can he return to the wild life in the woods. He can only destroy himself by challenging the “enemy” who is worthy of him.

Jackson Benson treats Tortilla Flat as even at the time of its publication a tour de force that only Steinbeck could have gotten away with (Benson, 279), but it does not work today, for what once seemed comforting escapism may appear discomforting exploitation. Steinbeck has been praised for his understanding of the Mexican psyche; nevertheless, at the present distance from his writings one feels that while he displayed much greater tolerance and self-indulgent envy for Monterey's paisanos during a trying period in his own life, he understood them little better than most other Californian Anglos. He stressed to Joseph Henry Jackson, a sympathetic reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, that “those people” in the novel were “very dear” to him; however, such affection does not rule out one's yet being patronizing, as one can be to children, especially if the characters' charm derives from a childlike innocence.

Certainly Steinbeck did not share the views that Frank Norris expressed in 1901 in The Octopus: “The Anglo-Saxon spectators round about drew back in disgust, but the hot, degenerated blood of Portuguese, Mexican, and mixed Spanish boiled up in excitement” at the slaughter of jackrabbit that had been rounded up.11 But it was nearly impossible in the atmosphere of agricultural California to avoid the attitude from which the humor in these stories derives—even if one held it with some wistfulness—that “these people” whom the Anglos had dispossessed could not survive in the new society.

In the 1930s the paisanos were viewed at best (many Anglos simply depised them, as they still do) as ingratiating but ineffectual people. The affected style Steinbeck employed in this novel—for the last time until The Pearl (actually set in Mexico)—distanced the paisanos from the well-meaning but repressed Anglos who made their weary ways through Steinbeck's carnivalesque work; it lent if not credibility a kind of otherworldliness to the story of old Pirate and his saintly dogs and the golden candlestick. Even Steinbeck's insistence on trying to call to the reader's attention parallels between the paisanos brotherhood and King Arthur's round table that some critics still have trouble perceiving strikes a condescending note through its implication that the characters are worth attention only because they can be endowed with some mystical significance.

A work whose slender claims the author recognized rested on a whimsical charm has suffered from a now discredited Norteamericano view of Latin Americans. Especially during Prohibition, when Tortilla Flat flourished, Anglos' dream of orgiastic living—beyond such capitals of wickedness as New Orleans and Reno—were inspired by legends imported across the Mexican border and especially up from Havana. In 1960 the carnival was still in progress, and it was possible to inflate the marginal figures of the paisanos to mythical status to bludgeon satirically respectable middle-class Americans—Camelot had not been temporarily relocated in Washington, D.C., the vast midwestern migration into California had increased fundamentalist Anglo ascendancy, and Mexican “wetbacks” had taken the bottom-rung seasonal jobs that former Okies would reject as they did that humiliating brand itself, while Cuba was just learning that the party was over.

The naive fictional treatment of Latin Americans (or other minorities) as childlike rascals has become offensive to sensitive readers of any origin. The question one must ask is, Could one be comfortable reading Tortilla Flat with a mixed classroom of Anglos and Chicanos? In a previous book I argued that early concentration on possible Arthurian parallels in the novel has been the product of “a red herring dragged across the path by the author himself” that obscured the basically satiric intentions of the novel. What I should have said was that this was an indication that there was less to the novel than meets the eye—that it did not probe deeply serious issues of human socialization (as Steinbeck's next novels would) but simply provided carnivalesque escape. Louis Owens has observed quite soundly that it is “perhaps the most pessimistic of Steinbeck's works, rivaled in its darkness only by In Dubious Battle” (Re-Vision, 177). But we need to go a step further and recall that Lent traditionally follows Carnival, and, recalling Henry Morgan's dictum in Cup of Gold that “civilization will split up a man, and he who does not split goes under,” observe that Danny chooses to go under rather than split. There is a difference here, however, from In Dubious Battle and the Jim Casy story in The Grapes of Wrath. Danny does not die for anything; he simply self-destructs out of psychopathic self-indulgence. Jim Nolan goes under, but he does not self-destruct. He dies in an effort to aid a friend (though he acted too carelessly on what might be a false report) and a cause he believes in (though its merits may be dubious). There is a social comment here, though Steinbeck is not taking sides; he is lamenting that a talented young person capable of such dedication is wasted by a thoughtless society. Danny is, furthermore, no Christ figure; there will be no resurrection after his court disperses, no reincarnation in an inspiring figure like Tom Joad. His death simply brings the story to a macabre end, beyond which there is nothing. One can enjoy the fun while it lasts in Tortilla Flat, but there is no reason to go back there. The author proved his own best critic when he described this as a “second rate book, written for relaxation.” One wonders about a society—and its motives—that awards such a work a prize.


  1. Forrest L. Ingram, Representative Short-Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), 15.

  2. The complete text of this important letter to Steinbeck's agent Mavis McIntosh, dated 8 May 1931, from Pacific Grove, California, is in Life, 42-43. Steinbeck also explains that he changed the name of Corral de Tierra (Earthly Garden) and that of the Morans to Munroe “because I am using its people.”

  3. The Pastures of Heaven (New York: Covici, Friede, 1936), 294; hereafter cited in text as Pastures.

  4. Joseph Fontenrose, Steinbeck's Unhappy Valley (Berkeley, Calif., 1981), 46-47.

  5. Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 89; hereafter cited in text as Re-vision.

  6. The Red Pony (New York: Viking, 1945), 13. Subsequent page references are to this edition, illustrated by Wesley Dennis, as it is the first commercial publication of the four stories collected as a cycle.

  7. For further discussion of the mythical quality of the narrative, see Warren French, “John Steinbeck and American Literature,” San Jose Studies 13 (Spring 1987): 41-43, which discusses The Red Pony as depicting “a regional rite of passage” as explained in Northrop Frye's analysis of “the seasonal cycle of the year” in “The Archetypes of Literature,” Kenyon Review 13 (1951): 104-105.

  8. Steinbeck's “Narration” and correspondence relating to it are in the Annie Laurie Williams Collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York. Williams handled permissions for Steinbeck's agents.

  9. For a detailed comparison of the film with the story-cycle, see Warren French, “The Red Pony as Story Cycle and Film,” in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, ed. Jackson J. Benson (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990), 71-94.

  10. Millichap in Steinbeck and Film attributes Steinbeck's transformation of “his realistic initiation tale into a sentimental imitation of initiation” (177) to “the artistic climate of the Hollywood studio system” (109), but director Lewis Milestone and Steinbeck had a freer hand than usual with their independent production; the changes are closely related to Steinbeck's tendency toward upbeat moralizing and writing with his sons in mind after World War II.

  11. Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901; reprint, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), 2:214.

Mark Spilka (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Spilka, Mark. “Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden.” In Eight Lessons in Love: A Domestic Violence Reader, pp. 242-51. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Spilka views “The Murder” as “a splendidly sexist example of social attitudes in fiction that reflect and extend our sanctioned prejudices about domestic violence, and it deserves more attention on those demonstrable grounds.”]

In 1974 I published an essay called “Of George and Lennie and Curley's Wife: Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden,” from which my present title is drawn. About ten years later, when I became a volunteer worker for a Rhode Island agency engaged in the rehabilitation of male batterers, I learned some of the more practical approaches to the puzzling nature of “sweet violence” that I had touched on in the essay. Appropriately enough, I had also touched upon “the perplexities of sexual rage,” especially in Steinbeck's famous novella Of Mice and Men, but also in related fictions including “The Murder,” “The Red Pony,” The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, and East of Eden. That concept had also figured as immediately in the agency's work as in these tales. Beyond that, I had demonstrated in the essay the blatant gender biases that furthered sexual rage, and the paradox of “responsibility” for supposedly “blameless violence” that framed it. In other words, I had unwittingly found confirmation in Steinbeck for those practical approaches I would later encounter in the social service field of domestic violence.

More interesting still, I had begun to deal with Steinbeck's marvelously predictive parable, in linking two migrant farmworkers with a straying ranch-house wife, for the conscious and unconscious aspects of domestic violence in male batterers—a parable, that is to say, for those cultivated rages—those sweet grapes of wrath—that fuel such violence. That rages can be cultivated, then, and that there are professional confirmations of that paradoxical process, will be my present justification for reviewing some relevant aspects of my original essay.


As I then demonstrated at some length, Steinbeck was attracted in many of his tales to the innocent pleasures of childhood and to the low threshold of rage in children whenever those pleasures are threatened or thwarted. He was aware also, among those innocent pleasures, of a penchant in children for “lordful violence” against lesser forms of life—melons, birds, dogs, vultures—of which adults might disapprove. He was further attracted to adult modes of “justifiable homicide,” like Tom Joad's impulsive murder in self-defense of a jealous friend who knifed him at a dance, in The Grapes of Wrath; or like Jim Moore's vengeful killing, in “The Murder,” of his foreign wife's lover when he finds them in bed together, a killing for which no western jury will convict him. Finally, he was keenly aware of the connecting links between these modes of violence in the painful passage from childhood innocence to adult carnal knowledge. Indeed, it is the puzzling nature of that often violent transition that is dramatized—one might even say allegorized—in Of Mice and Men.

It seems evident enough, for instance, that George Milton and Lennie Small bear allegorical names suggestive of their parent-child relations. It is further evident that George himself is inclined to be childish, rather than mature, in his dealings with Lennie, and that their friendship reflects the tensions created by his facile guidance. Thus, George the Miltonic god-player finds pleasure in playing tricks on Lennie, in complaining about the burden of his care, and in punishing him for his many failures to follow instructions and do what he is told. More positively, he cultivates a friendship dream with Lennie on which the novella's sentimental plot is based. But on closer inspection, that dream of the simple pleasures of an all-male friendship farm seems more like a boy's fantasized escape from threatening aspects of adulthood than the universal expression of man's “earth-longings,” his need for land of his own, that Steinbeck tries to emphasize. In any event, these petty satisfactions and simple pleasures serve to characterize the mixed quality of the master-slave, parent-child relation between George and Lennie and its oddly adolescent cast.

Lennie's contribution to this mixture is evident, of course, in his enormous capacity for innocent childhood pleasures—stroking furry animals, dipping his whole head bearlike into the Salinas River, relishing the oft-told tale of the friendship farm in all its small details—and in his enormous capacity also for innocent childhood rages whenever his dreams or pleasures are thwarted, or whenever he feels threatened with discovery and punishment for his mistakes. Steinbeck's attraction to that capacity for innocent rage, that low threshold for its release in a grown man blessed with enormous physical strength, is another instance of his concern with “blameless murder” in adulthood, here portrayed in terms of its childhood origins. But his awareness of George's part in the release of Lennie's rages, and of George's manipulations in bringing about such releases for his own selfish ends, is one of the obvious sources of this popular novella's undeniable power, its forceful transcendence of its own sentimental assumptions.

As I try to show in my original essay, it is George's active sharing in the gender biases of the bunkhouse world that he and Lennie inhabit that determines the tragic events of the tale. It is George who dislikes the boss's son, Curley, and who resents his gloveful of vaseline for the hand that strokes his wife's genitals; it is George who sees Curley's wife as jailbait, bitch, rat-trap, and warns Lennie to avoid her seductive ways; finally, it is George who hates and distrusts the ranch boss for his authority and his favored dependents for their special privileges. Thus, as I originally argued, it is George who lordfully creates the troubles for which Lennie will himself be punished—though he only obeys his master's vengeful voice.

If we consider George and Lennie as in some sense aspects of one person, we can begin to understand how Steinbeck anticipates our present view of the conscious and unconscious aspects of domestic violence in male batterers. Such clients often depict themselves as being overwhelmed by anger, unable to control the powerful rages that sweep over them—they are the victims of their own uncontrollable rages. But as we try to demonstrate through the Anger Iceberg Chart used in educational therapy sessions, there are deep-seated feelings in all of us, old scores to settle, old hurts and resentments that can be brought to the surface only by conscious cultivation; they have to be “talked up,” worked up—literally called up—before an emotional eruption can occur and the iceberg becomes—in a doubly mixed metaphor—a volcano of supposedly uncontrollable feelings. (See Anger Iceberg Chart, below, 358.)

This is what Steinbeck dramatizes when he has George deliberately instruct Lennie to crush Curley's hand, or when he shows George, even before that, vehemently sharing with Lennie his powerful resentment of the ranch boss, the boss's son Curley, and Curley's straying wife. As I note in the original essay, George pins such frightening taboos on these family figures that Lennie is bound to panic in their presence, to clutch with his tremendous strength—like a child caught with some forbidden object—and so punish people whom George openly dislikes. This is Steinbeck's marvelous parable, then, for the conscious cultivation of those unconscious rages to which we are all susceptible; this is how we call them up so they can seemingly seize and overwhelm us. Then we too can blame our emotions, after the fact, on the powerful giant within us who forces us to commit forbidden acts, just as George can initially blame Lennie, the personified bearer of his own cultivated rages. It may be true, as Steinbeck holds, that children and idiots really do have low thresholds for uncultivated and therefore wholly impulsive rages; but normal adults are neither children nor idiots. Our threshold for rage has been raised by familial and social prohibitions—we have to cultivate or call up those once more easily rousable rages of infancy and early childhood.

This is what George does, then, through Lennie: he manipulates his enormous strength for selfish ends, for which the supposedly impulsive Lennie can then be blamed. Indeed, even when George takes responsibility, at the end of the tale, for shooting Lennie, the analogy is with shooting a mad dog or an old one, an irresponsible animal that has to be put out of its misery or prevented from committing further destructive acts of violence. Only when we convert that analogy to our own ends can we say that George is getting rid thereby of his own propensities for violence, and in that sense taking responsibility for them, like an accountable male batterer who finally understands the moral implications of his own acts and attitudes. Steinbeck's story is of course richer than our professional approach allows: he is rightly troubled by the implied loss of animal energy and strength when Lennie is put to death. But our response to that loss must again be professional: we don't put male batterers to death unless they become murderers like “George-through-Lennie”; we, too, would like to convert such destructive energy and strength to responsibly creative ends.


“The Murder” was published in 1934, three years before Of Mice and Men, and was then selected for inclusion in O. Henry Prize Stories. In retrospect, that sign of public approval seems troubling. Although the tale is decidedly well wrought, it now appears more obviously sexist than Of Mice and Men, and less transcendent of its own biases. In my original essay I had only noted that it deals with another instance of “blameless murder.” In keeping with my own partial blindness, I had forgotten to mention that it also deals with blameless wife-whipping, and deals with it in a socially biased way. Indeed, it is a splendidly sexist example of social attitudes in fiction that reflect and extend our sanctioned prejudices about domestic violence, and it deserves more attention on those demonstrable grounds.

There is, of course, much in this story that is simply peculiar to Steinbeck himself. Careful readers of the opening description of a back canyon in Monterey County, California, called the Canon del Castillo for its illusion of “a tremendous stone castle, buttressed and towered like those strongholds the Crusaders put up in the path of their conquests,”1 will note the trace here of Steinbeck's boyhood zest for Arthurian legends, and may therefore legitimately suspect him of forecasting his rival-slaying wife-beating hero as a modern crusader who overcomes the grievous pagan iniquities ahead through bloody conquests. That our hero also chases away troops of boys who tramp through his abandoned house, in the next paragraph, adds unwitting support to such suspicions. But there is nothing suspicious about Steinbeck's blatant depiction of social attitudes at work in this part of California when he writes that the people in town now “turn and look at [the hero's] retreating back with awe and some admiration” whenever he and his “plump and still pretty wife” pass by (172/252). Indeed, they all too plainly admire a man who has killed his wife's lover, bullwhipped his unfaithful wife, and so won her abiding love.

The story offers local qualifications to that admiration. The wife is “a Jugo-Slav girl,” a foreigner, and her father bluntly tells the hero that “he's” not like American girls, that “he” needs to be beaten if “he's” bad, and even if “he's” good, that it's an old and honored custom where they come from: “I beat his mama. Papa beat my mama.” A Slav girl does “not like a man that don't beat hell out of him” (173/253). I have emphasized here the father's foreign inability to master English grammar—his substitutions of “he” for “she” and “him” for “her” in talking about his daughter, as if projecting his own gender views upon her. Whatever the case, his clumsiness with American speech chiefly helps to distance him and his daughter from American readers, and to reassure those readers that American girls need not be beaten when they marry, that the custom itself is a foreign import, not native to this Anglo-Saxon land.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Steinbeck tells us that his Anglo-Saxon hero, Jim Moore, “was not proud of [his wife's] foreign family, of her many brothers and sisters and cousins,” and that he later faults the woman herself for being “a damn foreigner” (172, 175/253, 255). Nor does it surprise us that he nonetheless delights in her animal beauty, finds her eyes “as large and questioning as a doe's eyes,” or pats her head and neck “under the same impulse that made him stroke a horse” (172, 173/253). Indeed, when the marriage quickly cools down and his girlfriends at a local bar ask him where his wife, Jelka, is, he even answers jokingly that she's “Home in the barn” (175/254). Thus he shares not only in his community's sense of superiority over foreigners but also in its double standards, its gender-shared beliefs that married women may be treated like domestic animals, and that men may betray them by frequent fraternizations with jolly prostitutes at the local bars, without being held morally responsible.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Steinbeck complicates his plot by letting us in on these male privileges, or whether he shares in the several prejudices that discount them as a possible explanation of the wife's later infidelity with her cousin. At any rate, it is Steinbeck who lets us know that Moore first goes to prostitutes in town when he fails to reach his foreign wife on the level of intimate sharing. They have been passionate lovers. She has served him faultlessly and apparently humbly as a self-styled subordinate. Indeed, she has carefully studied and met his every physical need. But she cannot or will not talk to him as an intimate companion. Apparently her “foreign ways” prevent it and therefore justify Moore's return to his old American ways, at least on Saturday nights, as a carefree bachelor.

Among those foreign ways are Jelka's conspicuous religious devotions, which reassure Moore as he makes his self-serving Saturday night visits to town. The lamp she puts in the window, on one such occasion, is our first hint of her covert affair with an overattentive and oft-mentioned cousin. Moore discovers the affair only by accident, when a friend alerts him that night to the presence of cattle thieves in the neighborhood, and he returns home unexpectedly to find the lovers asleep together in bed. The “crime of passion” that follows is nicely delineated, of course, as a deliberate and considered murder of the sleeping cousin. Thus Moore goes back outside, after discovering the lovers, as if to pull himself together, cries “a few dry, hard, smothered sobs,” recalls “the way his mother used to hold a bucket to catch the throat blood when his father killed a pig,” then returns inside and shoots the foreign pig asleep beside his now awakened wife (182-83/258-59). Whether Jelka avoids the blood that splashes on the pillow beside her, as Moore's mother had carefully kept her clothes from being spattered by the American pig's blood, we never know. Steinbeck only notes that her nose was running, presumably like a child's, and that she “whined softly, like a cold puppy,” as if pleading for better treatment for herself. Moore turns away in panic, moves quickly outside, dips his whole head in the water trough—like an anguished Lennie Small—and then vomits on the ground. Inside the house his wife moves about, still whimpering “like a puppy” (183/259). He then decides to saddle a horse and report his crime in town.

If the murder has been a deliberate act, the whipping that follows is even more deliberate. Moore returns the next morning with a deputy sheriff and a coroner. These men go inside, at Moore's request, to look around and clean things up “a little.” They return with the body wrapped in a comforter and reassure him that the technical murder charge against him will be dismissed. Then the sheriff asks him to “go kind of light” on his wife. “I won't hurt her,” Moore replies (185/260). But after they leave he goes slowly into the house, finds his bullwhip, and returns to the barn, where his wife waits in the loft, still whimpering like a puppy:

When Jim came out of the barn again, he carried Jelka over his shoulder. By the water-trough he set her tenderly on the ground. Her hair was littered with bits of hay. The back of her shirtwaist was streaked with blood. …

“You hurt me,” she said. “You hurt me bad.”

He nodded gravely. “Bad as I could without killing you.” …

Jelka's thickened lips tried to smile. “Did you have any breakfast at all?”

“No,” he said. “None at all.”

“Well, then, I'll fry you up some eggs.” She struggled painfully to her feet.

“Let me help you,” he said. “I'll help you get your shirtwaist off. It's drying stuck to your back. It'll hurt.”

“No. I'll do it myself.” Her voice had a peculiar resonance in it. Her dark eyes dwelt warmly on him for a moment, and then she turned and limped into the house.


What we are witnessing here is the confirmation of her father's prediction that Slav girls don't “like a man that don't beat hell out of [them].” It is of course one of the standard rationalizations used for wife beating by male batterers: the women like it; they want you to beat them; they admire, respect, even love you for it. So the story shows, at least for foreign women—though as everybody knows, including Steinbeck, all women are foreign to all men: in their inscrutable “otherness,” they all come from another country.

This seems to be Steinbeck's working subtext, in any case, for this otherwise exotic California canyon tale. Thus when Jelka asks, as the story ends, “Will you whip me any more—for this?” Jim firmly replies with the standing threat behind all abusive marriages of whatever venue: “No, not any more, for this.” Then, as she sits down beside him, eyes smiling, he again pats her hair and neck as if stroking a well-trained horse.


Fortunately, we do have one clue to Steinbeck's intentions in writing “The Murder” that helps to confirm the above interpretation. In a letter to his friend George Albee dated February 25, 1934, he comments about his friend's response to that story: “I think you got out of the murder story about what I wanted you to. You got no character. I didn't want any there. You got color and a dream like movement. I was writing it more as a dream than anything else, so if you got this vague and curiously moving feeling out of it that is all I ask.”2

To write a dreamlike story in this deliberately obscure way is, of course, to identify with the action, the local color, and the minimized characters, and to appropriate them for one's own dreamlike, if artistic, purposes. It amounts, I would argue, to giving oneself permission to dream this particular dream of “blameless” violence in public, without acknowledging one's own peculiar stake in its unraveling. In some sense, that may describe Steinbeck's intentions in many of his fictions, early and late.

I began my original essay on Of Mice and Men, for instance, with an epigraph from Steinbeck's postwar novel East of Eden, which nicely indicates a similar attraction to secret motives and subsurface feelings:

Nearly everyone has appetites and impulses, trigger emotions, island of selfishness, lusts just beneath the surface. And most people either hold such things in check or indulge them secretly. Cathy knew not only these impulses in others but how to use them for her own gain. It is quite possible that she did not believe in any other tendencies in humans, for while she was preternaturally alert in some directions she was completely blind in others. Cathy learned when she was very young that sexuality with all its attendant yearnings and pains, jealousies and taboos, is the most disturbing impulse humans have.

This epigraph, I then explained, concerns a woman named Cathy Ames who deserts her husband and newborn twins to become the successful proprietor of a California whorehouse:

In his diaries for the composition of the novel Steinbeck calls this woman a “monster” and says he will prove to his readers that such monsters actually exist. His choice of her as the archetypal mother of a California family, his peculiarly Miltonic view of her as an exploiter of men's lusts, and his awareness of the exploitability of such feelings—this complex of psychological tendencies in the later Steinbeck has much to do, I think, with the force behind his early social fiction.3

I then applied that “complex of psychological tendencies” to Of Mice and Men and turned, at one point, to a story from Tortilla Flat that helps to explain Steinbeck's ongoing need to demonize sexual exploiters like Cathy Ames and to justify subsurface hostilities toward them:

It concerns Petey Ravanno, who tries to commit suicide for love of Gracie Montez, and who wins her in marriage by that desperate strategy. What makes him desperate is her elusiveness: Gracie is always running away, and though men sometimes catch her, they cannot “get close to her”; she always seems to withhold “something nice” from them. This elusiveness has another strange effect on desperate admirers: “It made you want to choke her and pet her at the same time. It made you want to cut her open and get that thing that was inside of her.”


It seems apparent, in this light, that Steinbeck's troubling women characters—Curley's straying wife, the deceptive Jelka, the exploitative Cathy Ames—are all like the elusive Gracie Montez: they are all subject to dreamlike or subsurface expressions of the male need for violent and vengeful possession; they are all defined as characters—not by their own needs and natures—but by their resistance to male control. In his early fiction Steinbeck seems trapped by such extreme forms of frustrated and decidedly dreamlike desires for possession and control: he is unable to take us beyond the adolescent “perplexities of sexual rage.” Yet the rich tensions of this poignant perplex are often, as I said, honestly and powerfully presented.

I concluded that essay, as I will now conclude this one, with the following comments on such perplexities from Tortilla Flat, and with some further comments on Steinbeck's partial resolution of them in East of Eden:

Pilon complained. “It is not a good story. There are too many meanings and too many lessons in it. Some of these lessons are opposite. There is not a story to take into your head. It proves nothing.”

“I like it,” said Pablo. “I like it because it hasn't any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something, I can't tell what.”4

Steinbeck himself liked simple stories well enough to write straight allegories such as The Pearl. But chiefly he liked the puzzling kind. In Tortilla Flat, an otherwise comic novel, he shows, for instance, how Danny tires of the chivalric life and reverts to the “sweet violence” of outlawry. “Sweet violence” means something more here than the joys of boyish rebellion: it means delight in pulling the house down on one's own and other people's heads, which is what Danny does when the friendship dream proves insubstantial, and he pays with his life—and later, with his friends' help, with his house—for the pleasure of destroying it. Lennie too pays with his life for the pleasure of destructive rages; but he serves in this respect as an extension of his friend's desires: he is George Milton's idiot Samson, his blind avenger for the distastefulness of aggressive sexuality. Which may be why their friendship dream seems impossible from the first, why the pathos of their dream, and of its inevitable defeat, seems less important than the turbulence it rouses. Once more, “sweet violence” is the force that moves these characters, and us, to contemplate their puzzling fate.

By East of Eden Steinbeck would learn that rages generally follow from rejected love, that parental coldness or aloofness breeds violence in youthful hearts; and he would come also to accept sexuality as a vulnerable condition, a blind helplessness by which men and women may be “tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured,” but without which they would not be human. Oddly, he would create in Cathy Ames a monstrous projection of his old hostility toward women as exploiters of the sex impulse; and he would impose on her his own preternatural alertness to its selfish uses and his own fear of being absorbed and blinded by it in his youth. But by accepting sex now as a human need, he would redeem his Lennies and Dannies from outlawry and animality, and he would finally repair the ravages of sweet violence.


  1. “The Murder,” 171/252. Further page references will be given in the text, with the first number referring to the edition listed in the bibliography and the second to the reprinting of the story below.

  2. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, 91.

  3. “Of George and Lennie and Curley's Wife: Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden,” 59-60. Further page references will be given in the text.

  4. Tortilla Flat, 122.

Works Cited

Spilka, Mark. “Of George and Lennie and Curley's Wife: Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden.” In The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism, ed. Jackson J. Benson. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Viking, 1952.

———. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.

———. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. New York: Viking, 1969.

———. “The Murder.” 1934. In The Long Valley. New York: Viking, 1948.

———. Of Mice and Men. New York: Covici, Friede, 1937.

———. The Pearl. New York: Viking, 1947.

———. “The Red Pony.” In The Long Valley. New York: Viking, 1948.

———. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wilson. New York: Viking, 1975.

———. Tortilla Flat. New York: Bantam, 1970.

Susan Garland Mann (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Mann, Susan Garland. “The Pastures of Heaven: Agrarianism and The Emergent Middle Class.” In The Betrayal of the Brotherhood in the Work of John Steinbeck: Cain Sign, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 147-61. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Mann perceives the Cain and Abel myth as a notable aspect of the stories of The Pastures of Heaven.]

“Our enemy has indeed the consolation of Satan on removing our first parents from Paradise: from a peaceable and agricultural nation, he makes us a military and manufacturing one.”

(Jefferson during the War of 1812)


The Cain and Abel myth is not nearly as pervasive or as intentionally employed in The Pastures of Heaven as it is in East of Eden, the Steinbeck novel that Ricardo J. Quinones focuses on in The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two centrally important patriarchal figures and the conclusion of the long final story about the Whitesides are elucidated if the historically evolving Cain and Abel story is introduced as a parallel text. While Bert Munroe is often blamed for the disastrous things that occur in the valley, he is merely an agent as well as a representative of change. As a regenerate Cain, he and his family typify a new national type: the growing white middle class emerging from World War I. In contrast, John Whiteside—whose family is linked more closely to Abel than they are to Cain—represents a pastoral ideal that loses mythic power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when America is transformed from an agrarian economy to one that is increasingly urban and industrial and business-minded.


Discovering the creative background behind Steinbeck's ThePastures of Heaven is no easy task. There are relatively few comments about how Pastures of Heaven was written in the letters preserved in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Furthermore, critics of Pastures of Heaven have shown little interest in the evolution of the work. The most insightful comments appear in Jackson J. Benson's biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, and Peter Lisca's The Wide World of John Steinbeck. According to Benson, Steinbeck appropriated the idea for the book from a friend, Beth Ingels. Ingels had grown up in a valley called Corral de Tierra and planned to write stories about events that had special impact on her, “gather[ing] them together in the fashion of Winesburg, Ohio” (208). Benson is one of the few critics who argue that the idea for Pastures of Heaven originated with Ingels, but his case is convincingly presented and endorsed by, among others, Warren French (John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited 45). Still, Benson emphasizes that the book Steinbeck ultimately wrote was considerably different than the one that Ingels talked about one day writing (208).

Unlike many writers of short story cycles, Steinbeck seems to have been aware almost from the beginning that he was writing a series of connected stories, perhaps in response to Ingel's planned sequence or his own experimentation with his unpublished cycle “Dissonant Symphony,” which was written at approximately the same time as Pastures of Heaven. The thematic design of the book, however, changed direction several times as Steinbeck worked on a first draft. Before beginning to write, he apparently did not intend to introduce the Munroe family (or the Morans, as they were originally called) until the end of the book. While working on the first stories, Steinbeck must have changed his mind, recognizing the value of the Munroes as a unifying device (Lisca 58; Benson 210; Life in Letters 43).1 The title page of the first draft also indicates that the stories were initially placed in slightly different order, that some of the stories listed on the title page were not included in the final version, and that stories VII (about the Lopez sisters), X (Pat Humbert), XI (the Whitesides), and XII (the epilogue) were written and added after the first draft (Wide World 56-60).

The stories are most obviously unified by their location in the Corral de Cielo or the Pastures of Heaven. Another explicit unifying device is the use of recurring characters, especially the Munroe family. With the exception of the prologue and epilogue, each story contains a Munroe. In some stories, such as VII (about the Lopez sisters), VIII (Molly Morgan), and X (Pat Humbert), the Munroes are relatively minor figures; but they are centrally important in the book because their actions seem to affect dramatically the lives of other protagonists. However, to this point, very little critical emphasis has been accorded to the Whitesides who are the only other family that assumes major importance throughout Pastures of Heaven. Although appearing in only half of the stories and functioning as protagonists in only one, they provide a continual contrast to the Munroes. The Whitesides are the most civilized family in the valley, widely respected throughout the community, and they are prominently featured, since the long final story (XI; XII functions as epilogue), which describes three generations of their family and summarizes the valley's history, is devoted almost exclusively to them and their place in the community.


While the actions of both the representational families—the Munroes and the Whitesides—are described, it is only the patriarchs who assume major roles in the cycle: Richard Whiteside, John Whiteside, and Bert Munroe. Richard Whiteside came West in the 1850s, convinced that in California he could build a dynasty and remove the curse on his family. Unlike the biblical Cain, who kills because God prefers his brother's gift, the curse of the Whiteside family is that for three generations there have been no brothers at all. Like Abel—who in the New Testament “stands at the head of a long and noble line of the faithful” (Quinones 32)—Richard Whiteside wishes to establish his own American dynasty. After the ancestral home in New England accidentally burns to the ground, Richard reestablishes himself in the far West, building a home that he plans will last at least five hundred years. Devoted to the Greek historians, Herodotus, Xenophon, and Thucydides, Richard cites ancient examples of people who left their homes and founded new “cities” when they were convinced that they “themselves [were] under a curse or even under disfavor of some god” (195). While there is no explicit reference to him in the entire cycle, Cain would be another obvious parallel. Genesis recounts how Cain “went out from the presence of the Lord … and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch” (4: 16-18).

Richard Whiteside's wife Alicia demonstrates the effect that dynastic visions have on the women who are enlisted in their causes. Alicia is soon physically exhausted, becoming an invalid as a result of her determination to have further children against her doctor's advice. Although convinced that his curse has been removed after his house is built in the Pastures of Heaven, Richard and Alicia are able to have only a single child, John, who grows into an adult dreaming of the sounds that his children will make running through the house. Like his father, John too has only one child, Bill, who he hopes will remain in the family house and eventually fill it with children.

Despite his failure to produce more than one child, Richard Whiteside's power and position in the Pastures of Heaven during the second half of the nineteenth-century is unique. Unlike other men who live in shacks until their soil proves fertile, Richard builds a fine house out of redwood in the New England style, after the example of his forefathers. He is said to “rule” the land because he has money, a Harvard education, and a new roof made of eastern slate brought from Boston. People in the valley were frightened by Alicia who “made them feel like peasants calling at the castle” (205). Richard and Alicia's son assumes prominence in the Pastures of Heaven; as a neighbor says of him when he is older, “He's a fine old man. Born in that house he lives in. Been to college, too. Been clerk of the board [of education] for over twenty years” (123). Nevertheless, the role of the Whitesides changes during John's adulthood, just as the myth of Jeffersonian agrarianism has diminishing power over the American imagination by the turn of the century. John Whiteside may continue to enjoy Virgil's The Georgics or Varro on farming,2 but even his wife and son turn a deaf ear to his reading. As summarized by the narrator, “[John] did not occupy the powerful place in the valley his father had. John was less stern, less convinced of everything” (205).

In addition to the curse on the Whitesides and the attempt to create a dynasty, other parallels exist between the family and the Cain and Abel myth. Like Cain, both Richard and his son cultivate the soil3; in fact, Richard considered gold mining when he initially came West, but rejected the enterprise on economic grounds: “‘The earth gives only one crop of gold,’ he said. ‘When that crop is divided among a thousand tenants, it feeds no one for very long’” (188). At the same time, Richard Whiteside demonstrates the kind of thoughtfulness and philosophical nature associated with the biblical Abel, who is said in Hebrews to have made “by faith … a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Quinones 32). Like his father, John Whiteside is interested in Greek and Roman literature and reads to his son from Herodotus—often considered the father of history, and the author of the first attempt at a comprehensive secular narrative history. While he remains committed to the soil, John's passion is for ideas and for an understanding of his own role and that of his family in history, an entirely appropriate pursuit given Steinbeck's use of the family to illustrate American history from 1776 through the first two decades of the twentieth century. Like his father, John at times appears cursed, especially when the family house in the Pastures of Heaven burns down at the end of the book. But John Whiteside is primarily a thoughtful, passive Abel figure, one who accepts the loss of his family home as inevitable even though “the house … was John's personality” (211).

The relationship between the two major patriarchs—and what they represent historically—bears the closest resemblance in Pastures of Heaven to a Cain-Abel brotherhood. The Munroe property adjoins the Whiteside's. Bert is eager to make his neighbor's acquaintance, because he understands the role that John plays in the community. Typical of businessmen in the twenties, Bert realizes that success depends on his level of social respectability4: “As soon as he could, [Bert Munroe] joined the men who gathered on the Whiteside veranda” (211). And he plays an increasingly visible role in the community, serving with John on the school board for example. Despite the ways in which the two families become intertwined, especially after Bert's daughter Mae marries John's son Bill, the two patriarchs remain quite distinct. This is because John represents the idealism associated with pastoral agrarianism, and Bert Munroe and his family represent an increasingly large segment of the American population who could be thought of, in Quinones's terms, as new American Cains:

… the Civil War destroyed the agricultural and Edenic myth of an Adamic innocence, immigration and the emergence of America after World War II helped create the myth of a regenerate Cain. … Ultimately, the Cain-Abel story relies upon a philosophy of change.


I would stress, however, that examples of the New American Cain appear earlier than Quinones indicates, and they are the result of not only a scientific perspective but, more specifically, the practical application of scientific technology to assist mass production and the rise of consumerism.

The American Cain featured in Pastures of Heaven, and a national type common to other literature of the period, is chiefly characterized by aggressiveness and competitiveness and consumption: middle-class Americans as they were shaped by advertising, mass production, and urban culture in the late nineteenth century and especially after WWI in the twentieth. While major cities contained department stores and five-and-tens that awakened the desires of potential consumers after the Civil War, rural Americans lagged behind as consumers until the railroad, mail-order merchants such as Sears, rural free delivery, and parcel post brought these dreams and goods within reach. Although Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered a wide range of merchandise in its two hundred page catalogue by the end of the century, it was not until 1913 that packages over four pounds were delivered to rural addresses (Boorstin 134).

Just as rural Americans left in increasing numbers to work in the city at the turn of the century, and the country became citified at the beginning of the twentieth, the Whiteside/Abel dreams must inevitably fail; after all, the curse in Pastures of Heaven is “… the entry of twentieth-century civilization into the valley. The Munroes represent ‘progress’ and conformity, the outside world coming in” (Fontenrose 46). Not only does the agrarian myth have decreasing power in an industrial age, but, as Kevin Hearle emphasizes, the myth was always at odds with the ideal of a democracy:

The pastoral dream requires the labor of many people to produce the ease of one man. … Through the Whitesides, Steinbeck reveals that the most American, and supposedly most democratic, of ideals—Jeffersonian agrarianism—is in truth based on the most un-American and undemocratic of principles.


Although underscoring the inconsistencies in Jeffersonian agrarianism and accurately describing its ambivalent treatment in Pastures of Heaven, Hearle fails to note Steinbeck's ironic treatment of the intrusion of urban, industrial culture into the valley as well as the development of a new middle class. Yet, the criticism is unmistakable. This is why many readers find the Munroes—who exemplify this new middle class—the villains who are responsible for all of the unhappiness in the valley.

Contrasting the Whitesides' love of philosophy and history, the Munroes seem materialistic and grasping. Bert comes to the Pastures after a series of financial failures, including an attempt at war-profiteering that clearly foreshadows the action of another Steinbeck agricultural entrepreneur, Caleb—an explicit Cain figure—in East of Eden. Much to Bert's own disappointment, the War ends before he can profit from the thousand acres of beans he has contracted. At fifty-five, Bert “wanted to rest; he was convinced [like Richard Whiteside] that a curse rested upon him” (16). Ironically, Bert Munroe chooses a farm in the Pastures of Heaven that, as local legend has it, is cursed. Still, because Bert Munroe (as Cain) has embraced social and economic values that are on the ascendancy, his farm prospers and the only bad luck he brings to the valley is his effect on others.

The “plush comfort” (177) of the Munroe house is noted by Pat Humbert, a Mae Munroe admirer. When the family first arrives, the narrator describes how “stroke after stroke of genius” has been exerted on the old Mustrovic place to make the Munroe's renovated home “look like a hundred thousand other country houses in the West” (12). After the old furniture in the Mustrovic house is burned, entirely new, mass-promoted and produced furnishings arrive:

… overstuffed chairs and a davenport, an enameled stove, steel beds painted to look like wood and guaranteed to provide a mathematical comfort. There were.. pictures by a modern artist who made blue popular.


Descriptions of the Munroe's children's rooms amply demonstrate their eagerness as thriving postwar consumers. Mae's windows are covered in “pale pink theatrical gauze” and a valance of “flowered cretonne”; and her bedspread of gathered satin is covered with five boudoir pillows and “a long-legged French doll with clipped blonde hair and a cloth cigarette dangling from languid lips” (13) leans against them. Contrasting the useless decorations in his sister's room, Jimmy's room is cluttered with small machines: “a radio crystal set with ear phones, a hand-powered magneto which operated a telegraph key, a brass telescope and innumerable machines partly taken to pieces” (14).

Mrs. Munroe, Mae, and Jimmy complete the picture of the progressive middle-class family. They remind us of characters from 1930s movies sentimentalizing small town life and supposedly average men or women. A plump woman, Mrs. Munroe is labelled as “a good house manager.” Mae, the daughter, has a voluptuous figure and eyes that are “not intelligent”; as reassurance, readers are told she will “grow to be her mother's double, a good manager, a mother of healthy children, a good wife with no regrets” 12-13). While “sullen and secretive” with his parents, Jimmy says that he wants to devote his life to “science” but he is really preoccupied with technology: “He dreamed of shutting himself up in a cell-like workshop, and … of emerging with an airplane new in design and devastating in speed” (14).

Given the national Cain-Abel types that the Munroes and Whitesides represent, the tragedy that occurs to John Whiteside is inevitable as is the role that Bert Munroe plays in these events. After “a certain intimacy sprang up between the two families” (212), including the marriage of Bill and Mae, Bert and John assist each other in small ways around their farms. One of Bert's suggestions proves disastrous for the Whitesides and underscores the most significant parallel their relationship has to the Cain and Abel story. Unconscious of biblical implications (Abel as keeper of sheep), Bert suggests that John might consider keeping a flock of sheep, and John responds that the family did so in his father's day. To improve the efficiency of the land, providing a pasture for grazing, Bert recommends that John burn off his brush and he offers to help do so with Jimmy and several of the Whitesides' hired men. When this is done, however, a freak accident causes the entire house to burn down: a sudden whirlwind hurls sparks against the house, and one of those sparks reaches the coal oil in the cellar. While critics are frequently eager to blame Bert Munroe because he initiates the burning off, blame seems inappropriate. John Whiteside readily agrees with Bert that the land should be burned, and the day that Bert chooses seems a logical choice, since it is the morning after a rain that breaks a long dry spell. No one could have predicted—nor controlled—either the sudden whirlwind or the spark that reaches the fuel oil. John himself accepts the series of events as inevitable; he is unresponsive when Bert asks him where the hoses are, and when Bert wishes to salvage some of the furniture, John responds, “I don't think I want to save any of it” (218).

John Whiteside's acquiescence might be difficult to understand—except as emotional numbness—if there were not so many indications within the final story that John's dreams would never be realized regardless of whether or not the house burned. After World War I, farmers lost their foreign markets, and the general economy of the country was affected by the reduction in agricultural income. While this loss of farm income is not mentioned in Pastures of Heaven, the protagonists of several stories migrate from the valley to seek more lucrative employment in the city.

The symbolic conclusion to the Whiteside story emphasizes that early twentieth-century America depends upon industrial growth and not on agrarian dynasties. Even before the Whiteside home burns down, John's only son Bill has told his parents that he does not plan on living with his parents or even remaining in the Pastures of Heaven. The farm is perceived by Bill as little more than a commodity, which he brags he can sell for a good price in a week. Bill's new bride, Mae, grew up in town and “doesn't like it out here where there's nothing doing” (213). Exemplifying the trend, Bill has bought a partnership in a Ford agency, telling his parents “I always wanted to get into business” (213). Bill's values are different from his father's and grandfather's, but they resemble those shared by many others of his generation; they are not merely a reflection of the Munroes'. Even as a child, Bill ignored his father's attempts to engage his interest in history and literature, developing instead a skill with machinery and a shrewdness in barter: “He sold his possessions to other boys, and, when they were tired of them, bought them back at a lower price” (210). As his mother says to his father in Bill's defense, “No, he's not stupid. In some ways he's harder and brighter than you are. He isn't your kind, John …” (210). After his son's wedding, John Whiteside tries to delude himself into believing that Bill and Mae will eventually return to live with them in the Pastures of Heaven; it is the destruction of the house that forces John to accept reality and the future.

In his role, Bert Munroe assumes the position of a double, a regenerate Cain, or a Sacred Executioner. As explained by Quinones, during the romantic and postromantic periods, Cain became a regenerate figure in literature and—with the absence of a father and the resulting envy—he often functions as a double. Although Bert Munroe lacks the kind of awareness or intellectual response that regenerate Cains often possess, he nevertheless exemplifies other qualities that enable regenerate Cains to effect change or bring about “a new order of being, one that differs from the past” (98). Unaware of where his actions are leading, Bert “represents an intervention, one that is unwilled, momentous, and fatalistic.” Furthermore, the resulting fire “provokes [John Whiteside into] a fundamental confrontation with the self, with one's fate and one's destiny” (Quinones 97). Most importantly, however, the victim who is sacrificed—Abel or John Whiteside or pastoral agrarianism—is ultimately replaced by his double. When John Whiteside announces that they will go stay with his son in his new stucco house in Monterey, Bert Munroe remains as the best developed example of middle-class postwar success in the Pastures of Heaven. The patriarchal figure who remains is the new American Cain, who does not approach farming philosophically; instead of Virgil, he reads “exhaustively on farming methods” (17). As Hearle stresses, Munroe moves to the Pastures and creates “the city dweller's reified vision of pastoral comfort” (39).

If Bert Munroe's words and behavior sometimes precipitate unhappiness or disasters for others in the valley, they can produce this result only because others are influenced by the Munroes' middle-class standards. After experiencing an idyllic life in the valley, Junius Maltby flees to San Francisco to become an accountant once again, ashamed because the Munroes have suggested that he does not provide adequately for his son's material needs. The Lopez sisters, too, say they must go to San Francisco and become “bad” women because their sexuality and ethnicity offend the community. Edward “Shark” Wicks pretends that he has become wealthy as a result of shrewd investment and wins the respect of men, but he is publicly revealed as a fraud and his wife encourages him to seek his fortune elsewhere. Tularecito's artistic gifts are ignored because he is thought to be misshapen and mentally retarded; finally, he is taken to an asylum for the criminally insane in Napa. The local teacher, Molly Morgan, runs away from her highly esteemed position and the valley because she cannot confront the fact that her father is a drunkard who deserted his family years ago. Those characters who cannot achieve or sustain middle-class respectability—who do not or cannot conform to middle-class expectations—find it difficult to remain long in the Pastures of Heaven.


Further developments in middle-class materialism are glimpsed in the epilogue to Pastures of Heaven (XII), where a successful businessman looks longingly at the valley and has a vision of its future as an exclusive suburban development:

Some day there'll be big houses in that valley, stone houses and gardens, golf links and big gates and iron work. Rich men will live there—men that are tired of working away in town, men that have made their pile and want a quiet place to settle down to rest themselves. If I had the money, I'd buy the whole thing.”


The irony (and perhaps the naivete) of the businessman's remarks suggest that the Cain and Abel myth will continue to play itself out over and over in the Pastures of Heaven. And in America there will be transmutations of the myth: reversing the pattern of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrialism, people will migrate in larger and larger numbers back to the country from the city, creating new suburban cities out of sprawling pasture land. Coming to find a “quiet place to settle down to rest themselves,” they will blight the green countryside in ways unimaginable to Bert Munroe. Those Cains who have made “their pile” will have to fend off the proletariat with “big gates and iron work” and elaborate security systems, prefiguring the gated communities of the 1980s and 1990s.


  1. I have seen the early, incomplete draft of The Pastures of Heaven at the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and in this version the Munroes are introduced at the beginning of the book.

  2. The Georgics contains a discussion of agriculture, the care of domestic animals, and the keeping of bees. Marcus Terentius Varro's (116 B.C.-21? B.C.) only surviving work is a three-volume treatise on farming, De re rustica libri III, the source for Virgil's Georgics. Although not fluent in Greek or Latin, as was Thomas Jefferson, Steinbeck had a solid background in classical literature from Salinas High School and Stanford; in fact, while there is no evidence that Jefferson's writings influenced Steinbeck, both men were deeply influenced by classical literature that idealized rural life. (See Robert DeMott's Steinbeck's Reading [New York: Garland, 1984]; Charles Sanford's Thomas Jefferson and His Library [Hamden, CT: Archon, 1977]; and Douglas Wilson's Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989].)

  3. “And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time … Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” (Genesis 4: 2-4). Although Richard Whiteside was primarily a farmer, he kept a small flock of sheep (192); later in the story, Bert Munroe points out to John Whiteside that he should keep sheep like his father: “If you burn that brush this fall you'll get fine pasture next spring” (215).

  4. Arthur Schlesinger emphasizes the role of service as essential to the religion of business after the war: “… in the words of Dr. Julius Klein, a leading official of Herbert Hoover's Department of Labor and a minor prophet of the New Era, [there had been] an ‘amazing transformation in the soul of business’ … the factory was the temple, work was worship, and business verged on a new religion. For the true believer, its commandment was Service, its sacrament the weekly lunches of fellowship at Kiwanis or Rotary …” (71).

Works Cited

Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. New York: Viking, 1984.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York: Random House, 1973.

Fontenrose, Joseph. Steinbeck's Unhappy Valley: A Study of ‘The Pastures of Heaven.’ Berkeley, CA: Albany, 1981.

French, Warren. John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Hearle, Kevin. “The Pastures of Contested Discourse.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26.1-2 (1993): 38-45.

Jefferson, Thomas. Jefferson to William Short. 28 Nov. 1814. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Albert Ellery Bergh. Vol. 14. Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Assoc., 1907.

Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1958. 56-71.

Quinones, Ricardo J. The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Crisis of the Old Order: The Age of Roosevelt: 1919-1933. Boston: Houghton, 1988.

Steinbeck, John. The Pastures of Heaven. 1932. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Chuck Etheridge (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Etheridge, Chuck. “Raising Cain: Steinbeck's The Red Pony and the Reversal of Biblical Myth.” In The Betrayal of the Brotherhood in the Work of John Steinbeck: Cain Sign, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 297-326. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Etheridge deems the Cain and Abel myth as central to the stories in The Red Pony.]

John Steinbeck once handed his friend Jules Buck a Bible and said, “I'm giving you the source material for all stories” (Benson 710). Certainly, anyone with even a passing familiarity with his works would know that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is a dominant force firing Steinbeck's creative imagination. Especially integral to his work is the Cain and Abel myth, which is central to his whole literary career. Late in life he articulated his belief that this myth was central to the human condition; he wrote, “this one story is the basis of all human neurosis—and if you take the fall along with it, you have the total of the psychic troubles that can happen to a human” (Journal of a Novel 132). The centrality of this myth can been seen in much of his early fiction, particularly in the short novel, The Red Pony.

Before beginning a discussion of the novel itself, it is necessary to explore how the sixteen verses in Genesis 4 which contain the Cain and Abel story impact Steinbeck's fiction. I would suggest that the myth be examined in three ways: 1) with Cain as the son hurt by the withheld approval of a distant parent; 2) with Cain as the “divided consciousness,” or as an individual with warring impulses within himself—specifically the desire to do what he has been told is good vs. the impulsive desire to rebel against that good; and 3) as the text which establishes God's preference for the raiser of animals over the tiller of the land.

One way to view the Cain and Abel myth is under the motif of the son hurt by the distant father who withholds approval. In Genesis 4, we are told that “Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord,” and that “Abel … also brought of the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” (3-4). God makes a choice; he “had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect” (4-5). The refusal of his gift angers Cain, who “was very wroth” and is scolded by God for his anger: “… and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” (5-6). Cain's anger and the subsequent murder of his brother is directly attributable to the rejection of the gift.

Parent/child tensions are one of the basic conflicts in world literature; when Steinbeck uses them, according to Ricardo Quinones, he writes “from the heart of myth itself” (138). Quinones continues, noting that

“Steinbeck clearly understands the personal importance of the ritual offering, that indeed in the offering, in its eager expectation of approval, an entire sense of self and of worth is involved. To have one's offering rejected is to have one's self denied, rendered worthless, obliterated. … The arbitrariness of parental preference [is] pronounced and … hurtful.”


Biographical evidence also supports the idea that Steinbeck was concerned with parent/child relationships, and that they were very much on his mind as he wrote The Red Pony. Biographer Jay Parini describes the author's relationship to his father this way:

His father … withdrew emotionally from his son at an early age: a quiet act of sabotage that left Steinbeck emotionally stunted, unable to connect in later life to his own sons and shy with all but his closest friends … His complex, unhappy feelings about his father were never properly resolved, nor was his resentment toward his mother totally overcome.


Furthermore, during the composition of the novel, Steinbeck confronted his ambiguous feelings toward his parents. He himself wrote, “The Red Pony was written a long time ago, when there was desolation in my family” (“My Short Novels” 15). The four stories that make up this cycle were composed during 1933-4, a period when his mother was incapacitated by a stroke and his father was nearly incapacitated by heart trouble. Steinbeck was forced to care for his mother and, later, to fill in for his father at work. “The Gift,” the first episode in the novel, was literally written beside his mother's sickbed. Biographer Jackson J. Benson notes that “Certainly, The Red Pony gains an extra measure of poignancy when placed within the circumstances of its composition” (262).1 The issues raised by this story, of gifts offered, of gifts rejected, and the withholding of approval by a parent, are all pivotal in The Red Pony.

We are the descendants of Cain, not of Abel, and the pain felt by the former can lead to a more complex moral awareness than might otherwise have been possible. Ricardo Quinones places Steinbeck's work within the tradition of modernism, and argues that:

The traditional Cain, the original schismatic, has a divided consciousness. In modernism, this sense of division becomes a positive quality, indicative of superior alertness. It means not only complex awareness, but also a correlative respect for the conjunction of the many forces of life … This is part of the larger sensibility that seeks to expand the framework of consideration. The ideal seems to be a more fully integrated being, one bringing together the sexual, the morally sentient, and the conscious life. The Cain character, with his legacy of division and consciousness, seems a more suitable figure to bring about this fusion of qualities …


In Quinones' view, Cain is a positive character, one who understands the moral complexity of the world. Much of the interest in The Red Pony focuses on the protagonist Jody's transformation into this type of Cain, from a thoughtless, unaware boy (a quality Quinones associates with Abel) into a sensitive, morally aware individual on the verge of adulthood.

A third dimension is present in the Cain and Abel myth, one that is less often discussed by Steinbeck scholars than the ideas of the rejected son and the divided self, but one which is of great relevance to The Red Pony. The question of why God chose the offering of “the firstlings of the flock” over “the fruit of the ground” remains. Quinones' comments above note that there is an “arbitrariness” about the situation. Samuel Hamilton, the fictional version of the maternal grandfather Steinbeck created for himself in East of Eden, concurs when he suggests somewhat irreverently, “Let's suppose God liked lamb better than vegetables. I think I do myself” (353). Some Biblical commentators, however, suggest that the Cain and Abel myth is the source of tensions other than simply those between brothers. Metzger and Murphy note that “The story reflects the tension between farmers and semi-nomads, two different ways of life that are symbolized in the two types of offerings” (6OTn). Philip Shuler believes that the myth implies that God “favors the semi-nomads.”3 Metzger and Murphy go on to point out that the Hebrew verb “gotten” (King James version) or “produced” (New Revised Standard Version) in verse 1 “is a play on the name of Cain,” linking his name with the idea of procreation and foreshadowing the lessons Jody will learn about life and death throughout the narrative action of the novel.

Each of these three elements of the Cain and Abel myth inform the four stories that comprise The Red Pony, working in concert, sometimes separately, sometimes inseparable from one another. In examining these stories I will show how Jody grows from a naive, unthinking Abel into a morally aware Cain who, in the process, gains the approval of elders who have withheld it earlier; ultimately I will conclude that the novel reverses Biblical myth.


There is a pastoral, Edenic quality to The Red Pony stories. Jody lives in relative isolation on a ranch whose only other inhabitants are his father, Carl Tiflin, his mother, and Billy Buck, a hired hand. Benson and Parini agree that the Tiflin ranch was modeled in part on the real-life Hamilton ranch and that Steinbeck identified with Jody (John=Jody?).4 Both conclude that the story of “The Gift” is based on a real incident in the author's life. In this garden, Jody lives an apparently idyllic existence, spending a great deal of time alone in nature, his contact with others on the ranch occurring mainly during chores and at mealtimes.

Steinbeck devotes a long paragraph in “The Gift” to establishing Jody's naive and unthinking nature. He is described as “only a little boy” (emphasis mine) who has “a mouth that worked without thought” (137). When the triangle signaling breakfast is rung, he responds much as an animal who is conditioned to react to a particular stimulus would: “it didn't occur to him to disobey the harsh note. He never had: no one he knew ever had.” So Jody is introduced as malleable, pliable, and uncritical.

The opening sections establish tension between Jody and his parents as well. When he is washing up for breakfast, “his mother turned sharply on him” while “Jody looked shyly away” (138). Not a word has been spoken, but the mother is already non-verbally expressing disapproval. In this case, her exasperation is directed at his too-long hair, but her action establishes a pattern that will be repeated. Her disapproval is so constant that later, during the events of “The Promise,” he expects criticism even when he has done nothing wrong, thinking that “it was impossible to know what action might later be construed as a crime” (173). Later in “The Gift,” Mrs. Tiflin addresses Jody “irritably,” even though he has made a special effort to “dress more quickly than usual” (141), bolstering the impression that, in his mother's eyes, Jody can do no right.

Upon his initial appearance, the father, Carl, is described as “tall” and “stern” (138). Jody thinks of him very much in the same way Old Testament Jews thought of God, as a lawgiver: “His father was a stern disciplinarian. Jody obeyed him in everything without questions of any kind.” In Jody's eyes, Carl is an omnipotent and omniscient patriarch who requires unquestioning obedience, and perhaps this is why Jody seems almost incapable of independent thought in the initial passages of The Red Pony. Ironically, even Carl's moments of humor underscore his stern nature; when the author says he “was jovial this morning” the narrative fact implies that such behavior is rare. Later that evening, Carl points “a stern finger at” Jody (141), reinforcing the idea that unprovoked disapproval is a constant in his son's life.5

The emotional landscape Jody resides in seems barren, bounded by discipline on one side and disapproval on the other. The vague character descriptions Steinbeck gives of both parents further emphasize the idea of separateness; while Jody and Billy Buck are described in vivid detail, Carl is described only as “wearing boots,” and the mother is described only as “gray” (137). Carl and Mrs. Tiflin are presences rather than people, which further emphasizes the gap that exists between them and their son. Like Cain, Jody feels the sharp sting of rejection, but whereas the Biblical Cain is rejected at a specific moment, the rejection Jody receives is constant and cumulative.

The only nurturing Jody seems to receive comes from Billy Buck. Carl and Mrs. Tiflin meet Jody's need for food and shelter, as would be expected of any parent. But good parenting is more than meeting the physical needs of the child. All the real advice, teaching, and comfort Jody gets comes from Billy. In his first contact with the boy, Billy tells him that a spot of blood on his egg “won't hurt” because “it's only a sign that the rooster leaves” (138). The instructional nature of the comment illustrates a great deal about Billy's character; teaching and explaining things come naturally to him. The content of what he says, that the rooster leaves its “mark,” foreshadows the events of “The Promise,” in which Jody follows the process of the birth of a colt, from the studding of the mare to its foaling. It is up to Billy to tell Jody about “the birds and the bees,” and this is one illustration of the many ways the hired hand does things for the boy that a father would normally be expected to do.

The very title of the story, “The Gift,” introduces the idea of offerings and their price. The narrative quickly reinforces this concept through the incident of Jody's target practice with his.22 rifle. Carl has given him the gun, which is a traditional rite of passage in rural societies; when a boy is old enough to own a weapon, he is considered a “man.” But Jody is not given any cartridges, so the rifle is useless, except as a toy: “Nearly all of his father's presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat” (140). In addition to rendering the gun useless, the failure to give cartridges also negates the symbolic value of the gift, effectively emasculating Jody's burgeoning manhood—he literally “shoots blanks.” That Carl's gift is a gun indicates he encourages violence; the manner is which the weapon is rendered ineffective is Steinbeck's way of foreshadowing that Jody will learn that such violence is ineffective.

Even the central gift of the story is given in with an air of criticism; when it is time to go collect The Red Pony, Tiflin speaks to Jody “crossly,” causing him to feel “a kind of doom in the air” (141). When the horse is actually given, Carl tells Jody “He needs a good currying … and if I ever hear of you not feeding him or leaving his stall dirty, I'll sell him off in a minute” (142). These are the kinds of “reservations” that Jody had thought of previously, and they do “hamper” what should be both a rite of passage and a touching moment between father and son. Carl leaves “for he was embarrassed,” and it is left to Billy Buck to impart the lessons of horse ownership because “It was easier” to talk to him.

The uneasiness between father and son paralells the difference between God and Cain in the Biblical myth; God's preference seems arbitrary and apparently denies Cain free will. There is an element of “laying down the law” in Carl's stern comments to Jody. His law vaguely echoes God's warning to Adam and Eve: “ye shall not eat of it [the tree in the center of the Garden], neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die” (Genesis 3:3). Both Carl and the Old Testament Yahweh give a commandment which, if broken, will have disastrous consequences. However, God has given Adam and Eve complete freedom save for this one law, while Carl is more like a Puritan, Jonathan Edwards version of God, who fully expects weak, irredeemable humanity to break the law.

Ironically, the ritual offering awakens in Jody a potential for independent action; he begins to mature almost immediately. Before he is given the horse, Jody, like Cain, behaves irresponsibly, acting on impulses to be “bad” that he's barely aware of; at one point he “smashes” the “green muskmelons” even though he knew “it was a bad thing to do” (139). Like Cain, he instinctively hides his sin, kicking “dirt over the ruined melon to conceal it.” However, when given the opportunity to prove himself, his more noble impulses, thoughts that in his over-controlled, over-corrected existence he has never had the opportunity to exercise, begin to make themselves known. His mother even notices that “his mouth was working a good deal this morning,” indicating conscious thought, a major change from his “automatic” behavior at the story's beginning. Subtly, Jody is asserting his individuality.

Jody takes his father's instructions seriously, brushing the pony until its coat has “a deep red shine,” (144), he is always out of bed before the breakfast triangle, caring for the pony, and he patiently trains the animal, which he names Gabilan, on “the long halter” (146), successfully handling the “ticklish job” of “saddling the pony for the first time” (147). The young boy is so diligent that “The long halter work rapidly approached perfection” (147).

Carl Tiflin's response is, sadly predictable when the story is viewed in the Cain and Abel context. He sees the pony “stop and start and gallop,” and says, derisively, “He's almost getting to be a trick pony … I don't like trick horses” (147). If the gift of the horse has been an initiation into the rites of manhood, despite the fact that it came with a strict laws, Jody's faithful adherence to the tenets set down by his father constitutes an offering of thanks to the father—one that is, like Cain's, resoundingly rejected. Emphasizing the “arbitrary” nature of parental preference that Quinones writes of is Carl's reason for the rejection. It seems he is bothered by the fact that the horse obeys commands too well; the only possible explanation, such as it is, for the response is that Jody has been too faithful in following his father's orders, but in doing so has been too assertive and too independent in the manner in which he has applied Carl's dictums. Like Cain, Jody is literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Steinbeck adds a level of irony to the story when he reverses Carl's situation. Much later, Jody's father exhibits a rare moment of sensitivity and nurturing. Jody is concerned that Gabilan has taken ill, and Carl tries to distract him by telling stories about a “wild man” with a “tail and ears like a horse” (154), and other tall tales. These stories are an offering to his son, but the offering is not accepted; Carl soon becomes aware that Jody “wasn't listening carefully.” Carl is “angry and hurt” at the rejection, and his reaction is almost absurdly childlike; he seems to be saying, “All right, if you don't like me, I won't like you, either.” However, he fails to notice any connection between his offering to please his son and his son's failed attempts to please him. Timmerman concurs, writing that “Carl fails to see … the association between Gabilan's training and his own training of Jody” (126). This attempt to please Jody foreshadows the dramatic tension in “Leader of the People,” the last section of the novel, when Carl not only rejects his father-in-law's gift of storytelling, but ridicules the older man for recounting the past.

More damaging is the failure of Jody's surrogate father, Billy Buck. Jody's hero worship for the farm hand amounts to a kind of religious faith. As soon as the young boy is given the pony, Billy becomes “professional in tone” (142) assuming a kind voice of authority which will help Jody manage the responsibilities of his newfound manhood the gift represents. It is Billy who suggests naming the horse “Gabilan,” or “hawk”; to name something is a powerful act, and this act evokes the Edenic tone of the story.6 Proof of Billy's membership in the Equine Elect is provided by the horseman's own prowess, for Billy “nearly always won the first prizes at the stock trials” (146). For the most part, Billy's advice is infallible; Jody dutifully follow's Billy's teachings and is rewarded with success with the horse, if not with Carl. However, the arbitrary nature of God's preference for Abel opens the door to the possibility of fallibility—perhaps God can make mistakes.

In this case, Billy does prove fallible, and the consequences are disastrous for both Gabilan and for Jody's emotional world. One day, the boy is debating the wisdom of leaving Gabilan out for the day, afraid that, if he does, it might rain and the horse might be harmed. Billy assures him that it's “Not likely to rain today” (150), that, if it does, “rain couldn't hurt a horse,” and that, if it should happen to rain, he will put the pony inside the barn. It does rain, but Billy is elsewhere working when it happens and is unable to fulfil his promise and stable the horse. The pony takes ill, and Billy inadvertently compounds the mistake by reassuring Jody that the animal will recover, even as Gabilan's condition worsens.

Toward the end, Billy admits to Jody that “he's [Gabilan] is pretty sick” (155), showing by his honesty that he respects Jody too much to lie to make him feel better. This act acknowledges Jody's burgeoning maturity; one might fabricate untruths to protect the feelings of children, but, to those one respects, one tells the truth. This respect is emphasized when Billy allows Jody to assist when a tracheotomy is performed in a desperate attempt to keep Gabilan alive, and when Billy overrules Carl's attempts to take Jody away from the grisly scene, sharply telling his employer that “It's his pony, isn't it?” (157).

Although Billy fails Jody only one time, omniscients aren't allowed even one mistake, especially since Billy has been, to this point, the only person Jody can believe in. The young man's world is shattered—he cannot win approval from his father, and his mentor has unwittingly betrayed him. The world does not seem fair; nothing makes sense to him. In response, he lashes out in anger.

The final dramatic scene strongly echoes Genesis 4. After Jody discovers that Gabilan has escaped, has died, and is being consumed by buzzards, he flies into a murderous rage, attacking one of the scavengers:

… Jody caught its wing tip and pulled it down. It was nearly as big as he was. The free wing crashed into his face with the force of a club, but he hung on. The claws fastened on his leg and the wing elbows battered his head on either side. Jody groped blindly with his free hand. His fingers found the neck of the struggling bird. The red eyes looked into his face, calm and fearless and fierce, the naked head turned from side to side. Then the beak opened and vomited a stream of putrefied fluid. Jody brought up his knee and fell on the great bird. He held the neck to the ground with one hand while his other found a piece of sharp white quartz. The first blow broke the beak sideward and black blood spurted from the twisted, leathery mouth corners … He struck again and again, until the buzzard lay dead, until its head was a red pulp. He was still beating when Billy Buck pulled him off and held him tightly to calm his shaking.


The general interpretation of “The Gift” and its conclusion is that at its end, as Warren French suggests, Jody “has learned that nature is impersonal, no respecter of human wishes” (52).7 Levant writes that the stories that comprise The Red Pony “provide concrete evidence that the meaning of growing up is chiefly a development of the sense that life and death are involved in each other” (85).

However, all of these interpretations fail to account for the sheer violence of Jody's attack. Jody does not simply try to scare the buzzards away; he runs in and attacks with a berserker's fury. Such an action might be explained away as a desire to protect the remains of Gabilan, but this explanation does not explain why the attack continues long after the bird is dead; Jody continues beating it “until its head was a bloody pulp” (159), but still doesn't stop; Billy Buck has to physically restrain Jody before the boy's killing frenzy passes.

The significance of this act cannot be overlooked: Jody is angry and uses killing as a means to vent that anger. Like Cain, who “rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” (Gen. 4:8), Jody has learned that rejection and loss call for a venting of anger that may result in violence and even murder. Hughes says “Jody's attack on the buzzard seems to be his attempt to strike back at death for taking Gabilan” (Study 60), while French more rightly suggests “Jody is practicing displacement” because “He has learned that one cannot always hit back directly at the source of suffering” (52). What French's analysis implies here is that Jody's anger is directed partially at his father, who charges in and says, irrelevantly “the buzzard didn't kill the pony” (159). Certainly, Billy Buck is angry at Carl; it is Billy, and not the boy's father, who lifts “Jody in his arms” and carries “him home” (160). But since Billy's magic has been broken and Gabilan is dead, the only thing Jody brings away from the experience is the lesson of Cain, the first murderer—that violence and rage are one response to being hurt.


From a Biblical perspective, the most significant thing about the cycle to this point is that “The Promise” ends with a murder and that “The Great Mountains” begins with one. Jody throws “rocks at swallows' nests under the eaves until every one of the little mud houses broke open,” and then, for good measure, he baits a trap so that “Doubletree Mutt, that good big dog, would get his nose snapped” (160). Jody is “not moved by an impulse of cruelty” but of boredom.

He has learned the lessons of Cain well. In the first story, he was smashing muskmelons, now he is killing birds and torturing his faithful pet. He has become mostly desensitized to violence, although when his mother scolds him for “torturing that dog” he feels “mean” and throws “a rock at Mutt” (160). Jody's merging of the two warring impulses, of feeling ashamed and reacting with more violence, is Cain-like. He sneaks off and shoots a little bird with a slingshot, then mutilates it with a pocketknife, hiding the evidence because “He didn't care about the bird, or its life, but he knew what older people would say if they had seen him kill it; he was ashamed because or their potential opinion” (161). The echoes of Genesis 4 are clear; like Cain, he tries to hide the fact of the murder.8

In this story, Carl assumes a greater prominence than he has previously, but his role has changed; he is less like God and more like the Biblical Cain. Given the care Steinbeck usually took choosing names for his characters, it hardly seems coincidental that the first two letters of his name, Carl, mirror the first two letters of Cain. Furthermore, Carl's behavior in this section tacitly validates Jody's Cain-like behavior. One small event in “The Gift” suggests the boy associates his father with death; when Carl says, “I'm going to need you in the morning,” Jody's automatic response is “What are we going to do … kill a pig?” (141)

The narrative action of “The Great Mountains” deals with Gitano, an old paisano who was born on land that now belongs to the Tiflins, who has “come back” to “die” (164). The story also introduces another echo of the father/son theme, because, as Gitano notes “I and my father” (165) came into the world on that land—father and son are one, and the young protagonist gets a glimpse of the ideal father/son relationship—Jody's main function in “The Great Mountains” is that of observer rather than participant; he learns from what he sees rather than from what he does. Gitano's deep link to own father's memory must seem almost alien to Jody, whose own patrimonial bonds are in disarray.

However, Carl is slightly different in this story; the narrator lessens the emphasis on his violent temper. He also seems to be exhibiting glimmers of conscience when he refuses to grant Gitano's request. He “didn't like to be cruel” to the old man (165), so Carl gives him permission to stay the night with strict orders to be gone by morning. This is the first hint the reader gets that Carl is even aware that his actions can be cruel, that his own behavior is occasionally distasteful to himself. However, even this moment of moral awareness is cheapened with self-justification—he convinces himself that “he must” be cruel.

Carl continues in this quandary, hating “his brutality” yet, in a seeming paradox, becoming “brutal again” (167)—and the reader sees an idea of a more complex Cain developing. His behavior virtually duplicates Jody's at the beginning of the second episode, when, out of shame at his cruel behavior toward Mutt, the boy becomes even more cruel. Jody watches carefully, noting the way his father has elevated unkindness to a technique: “Jody knew how his father was probing for a place to hurt in Gitano. He had been probed often. His father knew every place in the boy where a word would fester.” (167) Carl's cruelness manifests itself in a not-so-subtle comments ostensibly about his old horse, Easter, which are really directed at Gitano. Carl says “It's a shame not to shoot Easter” (167) and then looks at the old man “to see whether he noticed the parallel.”9

Once again, Carl fails to realize the impact of his own words. First, the comment has painfully obvious Biblical connotations: killing Easter, which represents the resurrection of the Son of God, once again places killing, sons, and God together in a Cain/Abel/God triumvirate. Second, when read in light of “The Gift,” Carl's comments seem insensitive in the extreme; he speaks of killing the horse when Jody's pony has recently died, indicating he barely values a “gift” similar to the one whose life Jody struggled mightily to save. Carl's barbs are aimed at Gitano, but it is Jody that they wound, an idea which is reinforced when the boy tries to reassure Gitano that “He's [Carl] is only talking.” Third, Carl's casual talk of shooting an animal sends a subtle message that Jody's senseless killing of the bird at the beginning of the story might not have been as bad an act as he initially supposed—if the father can speak so casually of killing, why can't a son kill just as casually? We learn from our fathers what is and is not acceptable behavior, and Carl's behavior does nothing to suggest to Jody that his actions should be reconsidered. Finally, Carl's treatment of Gitano foreshadows the conflict in “Leader of the People,” setting the stage for the event which ultimately causes Jody to completely reject his father's value system.

The Biblical parallels reach a crescendo during Carl's speech of self justification after dinner. He tells himself and his family that “the country is full of these old paisanos” (168), that he, Carl, had all he could do to keep the ranch going, and that “it isn't like he didn't have relatives to go to … Why should I worry about him?” (169). Cain's most famous words resound throughout this section: “Am I my brother's keeper” (Gen. 4:9). Carl/Cain has already implicitly validated the use of killing to express anger, and now he is telling his son that he does not have responsibility for the well being of his fellow humans.

Meanwhile, Jody has been exhibiting some of the “identification” behavior French noted; he has been “secretly” watching his father because “he knew how mean his father felt” (168). And although he has some sympathy for his father because both he and Carl have been acting “mean” that day, Jody, determined not to repeat the traditional Cain role, identifies more closely with his father's victim; evidence of this is given by Jody's reassurance to Gitano after Carl has threatened Easter.

Further evidence is provided by the response Jody seems to hear to Cain/Carl's “Am I my brother's keeper?” question. Jody imagines the old paisano saying “But I was born here” and finds that the old man's reply is “unanswerable” (169). He soon feels himself “drawn” to the bunkhouse, where the old man is sitting. That Jody is “drawn” toward Gitano is of great symbolic significance, for by doing so, he is literally turning his back on his father and is figuratively being drawn away from the cruelty Cain/Carl is personifying.

Gitano provides a powerful portrait of what Jody and his father never can have together when he produces a “lovely rapier with a golden basket hilt” (168) that was given to the old man by his father. The contrast to the gifts Carl gives is obvious; whereas Carl gives a second hand gun and no cartridges, useless as either a weapon or a symbol of manhood, Gitano's father has given him a beautiful, valuable weapon. Jody's father has done everything he can to take away his son's manhood, while Gitano's father has given his son his symbolic manhood and has let him keep it.

“The Great Mountains” ends with Gitano taking Easter and going into the mountains to die. Their passing reminds Jody of Gabilan's death in “The Gift,” but the death that Gitano and Easter will die will be one that happens in the fullness of time; it will be the death of two old beings who have lived to the end of their days—not the death of a young animal by disease caused by carelessness, or death caused by random killing. He has also begun to learn that “death” does not occur “purely” in the “animal sphere” but also in “the human sphere” (Simmonds 22). For the first time, a person he knows meets death.

At this point, Jody has not yet consciously rejected his father's values, and he does not reform overnight; the lessons of Cain have been inculcated over a period of time and it will take time to unlearn them. But the seeds of doubt have been sewn. By identifying with Gitano and favoring him over Cain/Carl, Jody shows the beginnings of the divided consciousness which will make him the complex moral being he is capable of becoming. He is leaving behind Cain the murderer and is moving toward the Modern Cain, who, as Schopenhauer puts it, “acquired a knowledge of guilt, and through guilt acquired a knowledge of virtue by repentance, and so came to understand the meaning of life” (qtd. in Quinones 116).

As the story ends, Jody must cover “his eyes” because he is “full of a nameless sorrow” (171). Perhaps much of that sorrow is because he knows the old man and the horse will die, and perhaps the events remind him of his own loss when Gabilan died. But in the concluding paragraph Jody does not think of horses, either Easter or Gabilan, even once. Rather, he thinks specifically “of the rapier and of Gitano,” and is filled with “A longing … so sharp he wanted to cry to get it out of his breast.” Perhaps that longing is for what the rapier represents, for the gift that a loving beneficent father gives freely to his son; it is a thing Jody feels he can never have—Carl can never give gifts freely.


Many have noted that “The Promise” is a story of “transition” for Jody; Hughes suggests the story is “a chronicle of Jody's uncertain strides toward maturity in light of his exposure to the relationship between death and procreation” (Study 65). Within the Cain and Abel context, however, the transition toward Jody's allegiance to the tiller of the land and away from allegiance to the tender of animals becomes more evident.

The Tiflins are ranchers, not farmers, and as such follow the path of Abel, who tended animals and on whom God “had favor.” Significantly, “The Gift” begins with Carl and Billy going to town “to sell old cows to the butcher” (138), reminiscent of Abel's offering to God—and some of the money from the sale of cattle apparently goes to pay for Gabilan. Jody wants to follow in his father's and Billy's footsteps; his desire to have his own horse is evidence of his intent. One's own mount is a virtual entry card to the world of Abel/rancher/animal tender. The loss of Gabilan has been a real setback, effectively postponing his entry into the world, and is another way in which he has inadvertently had his entry into manhood blocked.

At the beginning of The Red Pony, Jody's acceptance of the rancher/farmer hierarch reflected by the Cain and Abel myth is unquestioned; he wants to be a rancher because he has been taught that farmers are inferior. His slaughter of the muskmelons takes on great importance; his action indicates a rejection of the way of Cain, the way of the farmer.

However, Jody remains Cain-like at heart, and throughout the action of the novel Steinbeck repeatedly demonstrates Jody's connection to the land. He is continuously drawn back to “the large vegetable patch,” with its “green corn” and “cow-pumpkins” (139), a place where he always finds his two faithful dogs, Smasher and Doubletree Mutt. Canines usually have great symbolic significance in Steinbeck's work, and The Red Pony is no exception; Smasher provides an object lesson for Jody, which, in his youth and innocence, he is unable to comprehend. The dog “chased the chickens a little to keep in practice in case there should ever be sheep to herd” (139). But there are no sheep to be herded; the road of the sheepdog is not open to Smasher, just as the road of the shepherd, or Abel, is closed to Jody, although he does not yet know it.

When Jody goes to bed the night before receiving Gabilan, he hears a “hoot owl,” which is a traditional harbinger of death, but he also hears “a fruit tree limb tap-tapping against the house” (141), another hint that the way of the rancher is closed to Jody. He cannot be an Abel, but instead must reform himself as a different type of Cain. This fruit tree foreshadows not only the Nelly's death but the entire resolution of the plot of the novel, which, as will be discussed in “The Leader of the People” section, revolves around a lemon.

Whenever Jody is in trouble, or needs to think, or simply needs something to do, his affinity for the land surfaces. On the before day Gabilan dies, he notices “how the young grass was up and how the stubble was melting day by day into the new green crop of volunteer” (155). Similarly, the torture of Doubletree Mutt and the killing of the bird occurs in the vegetable patch (160-1), once again invoking the Cain and Abel myth by superimposing killing upon the tending of the ground. When he lies feeling his “nameless sorrow” when Gitano goes off into the hills to die, he does so in the vegetable patch (171).

However, despite the events of “The Great Mountains,” Jody has not yet admitted to himself that he doesn't want to be like his father, who has combined the occupation of Abel with Cain-like violence. “The Promise” begins with Jody walking home from school and playing at war, walking “martially” (171), pretending he has “a long gray rifle” (172). He is still playing at killing, exhibiting his adherence to Carl's values. But as he hunts, he sees “lambs, and even old sheep,” signaling the possibility of entry into the world of Abel.

The subsequent events do nothing to disabuse him of his desire to follow the way of the tender of animals. His father even gives him the opportunity to take Nellie, the ranch's mare, over to the Taylor ranch for stud. The mare is successfully impregnated, and Jody must wait for “nearly a year” to get another chance at owning a pony.

“The Promise” contains strong echoes of “The Gift.” Carl alludes to events in the first story directly when he notes that Jody “took good care of the pony before it died” (174). Other similarities to the first story abound. Carl's omnipresent, God-like disapproval seems not to have diminished much—when he does something as seemingly innocuous as simply address his son, he makes the youth feel guilty (174). His mother's disapproval continues as well; she is “in despair with boys who filled their lunch pails with slimy, suffocated reptiles,” though her constant exasperation with Jody has abated very slightly. Billy's nurturing presence is there also; it is he who tells Jody what will happen as the colt grows within the mare, cautioning the youth that “You'll get awful tired waiting” (175). This event is almost an exact duplicate of the first thing he says to Jody in the novel; once again, Billy is explaining “the facts of life” to the boy. This information signals a new, Cain-like maturity in the young man. As in the first story, Jody “goes to work with unprecedented seriousness” (174), acting much more responsible when given the opportunity to prove himself; he even gathers “eggs that had remained hidden for weeks” (175).

As Nelly's pregnancy advances, Jody notices that “The wild oats were ripening” (177), although he is so intent on caring for the horse that he is once again unaware that his way is going to be that of Cain, the tiller of the fields. The boy has to literally walk through a field of oats to get to Nellie, another point of symbolic importance, but he still wishes to gain Abel-like approval from a patriarchal authority figure.

Jody finally wins what he has been struggling for his whole life: the approval of his father. One day, Carl comes to review Jody's care for Nellie and says, “You've done a good job” (183). Finally, his offering of hard work and obedience has been accepted, and he “swells with pride for hours afterward” because his father has given “the greatest praise he know how to give.” Cain has been seemingly vindicated, his offering accepted by his stern Puritanical God. If Steinbeck wanted an idealized happy ending, the novel could end right there. But such a happy ending or resolution of the warring brothers is far too simplistic.

There are harbingers of disaster everywhere. It's the middle of winter, the time of death. It rains “steadily.” The night Nelly goes into labor is “black and thick” (183). If these aren't signs enough, Jody has decided to call the horse Black Demon, dabbing the color of death onto a denizen of the devil.

Compounding Jody's difficulty is the fact that he has lost faith in Billy. The ranch hand is no longer godlike and infallible in the young boy's eyes; instead, Jody hovers about the barn, keeping a watchful eye on both the mare and on Billy. When the ranch hand tells the boy to go to bed, Jody asks “You won't let anything happen, Billy, you're sure you won't?” (184). When Carl tries to reassure Jody that the horse could not receive better care anywhere than he can from Billy, Jody blurts out “But the pony died,” indicating that the events of “The Gift” are still very much on his mind. Most significant is when he is by himself, walking out of the barn, wishing “he believed everything Billy had said before the pony died” (184). This thought alone shows the burgeoning, Cain-like moral awareness in Jody; he is aware of his lost innocence and is insightful enough to realize he cannot go back to it; Paradise cannot be regained.

When it is time for the colt to be born, it is in breech position, and the mare is in trouble. Billy must choose between the life of the colt and the life of the mare he loves. He has promised Jody that the colt will be born safely and keeps his promise, cutting the foal out of its mother's side; he ironically must play the role of “both midwife and executioner” (Hughes “Black Cypress” 15). The use of the knife harkens back to the now dead Gitano, forming a talismanic link which reminds him of the “nameless sorrow” he felt at the end of “The Great Mountains.” The lesson that birth and death are closely connected is reemphasized; the old Cain must die so that a new, more positive one can be reborn.

This is the third Red Pony story to end in a death, and the deaths of Gabilan, Gitano and Easter, and now Nelly form a trinity which brings Jody to the brink of recognition, paving the way for the events of “The Leader of the People.” Gabilan introduces Jody to death, Gitano makes him aware that people can die, and Nelly shows Jody the violence associated with the way of Abel, the way of his father, the tender of the flock.

The final image of the story is “the bloody face” of Billy, who literally has blood on his hands. This image brings Jody to the verge of awareness of an important lesson—that it is the way of Abel that is violent, not that of Cain. The tender of animals must draw blood from, or kill, that which he raises in order to harvest what he has produced.

As mentioned previously, the story is one of transition, the last stop before the final journey that will bring Jody to a full state of moral awareness and to the birth of a new Cain. The hurt son has finally received the blessing of the father who has withheld approval, but Jody's revulsion at the manner in which his steed, his entry into the world of Abel, is born indicates an awareness that the price of Carl's continuing approval is too steep a one to pay. Poor Billy, who has done the unthinkable in order to keep his promise to Jody, senses the possibility of Jody's rejection not only of Billy's gift of the colt but of the entire way of life associated with it when he tells Jody, “God damn you” (186). Billy's curse has Biblical connotations; he has blood on his hands and now bears the mark of Cain—perhaps he feels damned for what he has done. He has shown the young man how truly violent the way of Abel is, and perhaps it is this which ultimately drives Jody toward the path of Cain.

Significantly, the horse born at the end of “The Promise” is never mentioned again in The Red Pony; we simply don't know what happened to it. Its absence indicates that the idea of owning a horse, of working cattle, and of tending the flock is no longer important to Jody. He does not yet consciously choose the way of Cain, the tiller of the land, but his loss of interest in the colt perhaps indicates a subconscious rejection of the way of Abel.


The final sequence weaves together the three strands of the Cain and Abel myth—of rejection by parents, of the divided consciousness, and of the arbitrary Biblical preference for the tender of the flocks. In doing so, Steinbeck establishes Jody as a positive Cain figure while at the same time inverting the Biblical myth.

Jody's behavior at the beginning of the story does not indicate any great growth has taken place; he appears as casually violent about killing as he was at the beginning of “The Promise,” apparently unaffected by the death of Nelly. He picks up a stone to throw at a cat, but significantly doesn't throw it because “it was too late” (187). He plots to kill mice: “Those plump, sleek, arrogant mice were doomed … Now the time of disaster had come; they would not survive another day.” However, when Jody relays the story of the death of Riley, the pig, who “ate a hole in a haystack, and it fell down on him and smothered him” (192), he expresses regret, saying “Riley was a nice pig.” His expression of sorrow at the death of an animal indicates he is not nearly as blasé about death and violence as he has been previously.

The mice also have Biblical implications. Steinbeck was well versed in the poetry of Robert Burns, especially the poem “To a Mouse”; in fact, the lines “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley” (39-40) provided the title for Steinbeck's best known, and perhaps best, short novel—Of Mice and Men. The inherent theological concept of “There but for the grace of God go I” is reiterated when Jody says of the mice “I'll bet they don't know what's going to happen to them today” (197). Billy's philosophical reply is, “No, nor you either … nor me, nor anyone.”10

Jody is “staggered by this thought.” His ability to grasp the impact of such a complex concept is a marked contrast from the unthinking, conditioned stimulus/response behavior he showed at the beginning of “The Gift.” Furthermore, the complex idea is specifically moral, and he grapples with it because “he knew it was true” (197). The motif of the mice gets Jody thinking about fate and destiny, his own included, and sets the stage for the choice he makes in “The Leader of the People.”

In this final story both parents are still present, in all their disapproving splendor. We are told that Carl “insisted upon giving permission for anything that was done on the ranch, whether it was important or not” (187-8). That he is still trying to completely control Jody suggests that the “blessing” or approval he gave in “The Promise” had little lasting effect on his attitude toward of his son; the approval was either not lasting or not heart felt. Mrs. Tiflin, too, continues her oppressive disapproval, calling Jody “Big-Britches” simply because he has told his mother there was a letter in the mail box. Carl compounds the insult by saying “contemptuously” that “He is getting to be a Big-Britches” (188). Not much has changed in the relationship between Jody and his parents; his fate is seemingly to be damned whatever action he takes.

The nature of their insults is significant, for it indicates the Tiflins' desire to stifle their son's maturity. If Jody is getting “too big for his britches,” it means he is literally, physically growing up—not something for which he should be resented. All good parents should want their children to grow up. The Tiflins, especially Carl, are continuing the particularly destructive behavior shown first in “The Gift”: they are condemning their son for doing what they have told him to do—act responsibly, and are arbitrarily rejecting his attempts at independence. The united front they present against their son becomes divided when they begin to quarrel between themselves when they read the letter and discover that Mrs. Tiflin's father, Jody's maternal grandfather, is coming to visit.

Grandfather appears on the horizon like a Biblical patriarch and treats Jody the way God should treat his subjects. He has “dignity” but is “sternly merry”; he is “slow and certain,” indicating great assurance. He speaks to Jody, but in a manner markedly different from the way his other blood relations do, with “no will to injure, no punishing or putting-in-your-place in the keen blue eyes” (192).11 In East of Eden, Steinbeck jokes that, in her latter years, his mother “confused” the “Old Testament Jehovah” with “her father,” (196), but in The Red Pony, written while Steinbeck's own mother was on her deathbed, he describes Jody's grandfather in terms of God. However, in The Red Pony, the paradoxical description of maternal grandfather in terms of a deity is serious and positive—this time, it's not a joke.

Like Gitano, Grandfather reminds Jody of everything his father isn't—patient, kind, and willing to listen to what the boy has to say. Since “Gitano” means “Gypsy,” the parallel between the two old men is an apt one. Grandfather, in his semi-nomadic leadership of the people west, could also be labeled a wanderer. Gitano, then, has served as a forerunner for “The Leader of the People,” preparing the way in Jody's mind for a new, Cain-like, mature version of life. Mimi Reisel Gladstein notes that both men carry “the past” with them—Gitano has his rapier and Grandfather his stories—and that both men are endowed “with qualities that capture our respect” (33).

Tensions escalate on the evening of Grandfather's arrival, when the old man begins to tell stories about life on the wagon train westward, stories he's told “a thousand times” (189). Carl continues to exhibit evil Cain tendencies by first capturing and killing a moth, casually dispensing death, and then speaking “cruelly,” telling Grandfather that he'd heard a story before but “avoiding his wife's eyes,” exhibiting behavior he knows is bad but which he cannot—or will not—try to refrain from. For the third time, Carl is completely unaware of the irony of the situation, not recognizing that his reaction is shaped by Jody's failure to listen closely to his stories during “The Gift.”

Up until this point, Jody has accepted the verbal abuse heaped on him by Carl without comment or question, but he will not tolerate it when it is aimed at his grandfather. Steinbeck tells us that Jody “arose to heroism” and opens “himself to the term Big-Britches” again when he asks “Tell us about Indians,” thus indicating to Grandfather that someone still cares about the stories he has to tell. This event replicates Jody's previous defense of Gitano when Carl is threatening to shoot Easter, but in this later story Jody's actions are much more forceful. In “The Great Mountains,” Jody's reassuring comments to Gitano are an aside, said out of Carl's hearing, but in “The Leader of the People,” Jody is in open rebellion and is willing to risk attack. Jody's britches have grown very big indeed, but not in the derogatory way implied by his parents—morally Jody has grown so big that neither parent could ever hope to fill them.

The next day, Carl continues his attack, dismissing his father-in-law's accomplishments by saying, “He came across the plains. All right! Now it's finished. Nobody wants to hear about it, over and over” (197). He doesn't realize until too late that the old man has heard every word he said. He tries to back track, lying to the God-like figure, as Cain did, trying to pass his comments off as “being funny” (198).

Jody observes his father and feels “shame.” He matures before the reader's eyes, becoming the nurturing “parent” to the now-childlike Grandfather, assuring the family patriarch that he wants him to “tell more stories.” He refuses to go hunt mice in order to make a lemonade for his grandfather, and by doing so, finally repudiates Carl's continual habit of senseless killing, therefore symbolically washing himself free of the blood of murder; he rejects “the hunt” and then “chooses instead a nurturing act” (Gladstein 36), opting to serve. Surprisingly, Jody's action wins the unexpected approval of his mother, who reaches “the squeezer down” to her son, implicitly acknowledging his newfound maturity.

Perhaps most significantly, his offering to his Grandfather is a piece of fruit, a lemon, and the ritual offering is this time accepted. The way of the father, the tender of the flock, is rejected, the course of Cain, the tiller of the ground, is embraced, God accepts Cain's gift of the fruit of the ground, the murder is absolved, and Biblical myth is hopelessly (or hopefully) inverted. Jody/Cain is raised to the status of hero, and has matured into a person with the complex, moral vision of an adult. Steinbeck's nearly Biblical repetition of the number three reaches its climax here. The death of the three horses, plus the death of the vaquero or cowboy who rides them, provide a strong symbolic suggestion that the way of Abel, the tender of animals, is passing. Grandfather knows that his days as a semi-nomad are over; Carl is as yet unaware that his way, too, is a part of the past. Paul McCarthy suggests that “The Closing scenes of The Red Pony … indicate that eventually he [Jody] will outgrow his teachers” (32).

In fact, the evidence of The Red Pony shows he already has.


  1. Chapters XV and XVI of Benson's The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer provide a thorough account of the period of composition of The Red Pony and of the illness of both parents. Oddly enough, even though Steinbeck felt emotionally distant from his parents, both were supportive of his efforts to become a writer; they literally supported him with money for long periods during the early years of his career. Still, Steinbeck's rage toward his father seems undeniable; despite the fact that East of Eden, a novel of fathers and sons, was written so Steinbeck's sons would “know what they came from through me” (JN 14), his father is almost never mentioned in the book, an absence that amounts to a virtual exorcism. The omission seems deliberate, though, for Steinbeck's letters written during the composition of East of Eden contain comments about his father; in an epistle dated April 16, 1951 he writes “My father was not an inventive man and he always said the Hamiltons were crazy” (JN 78). His response—to elevate his grandfather to hero status and omit his father—seems an act of revenge.

  2. Whether or not Steinbeck should be placed within the tradition of literary Modernism is debatable; a number of critics, most notably Louis Owens in his “The Story of a Writing: Narrative Structure in East of Eden,” argue that some of his work, especially East of Eden, should be read within the traditions of postmodernism. I have made this argument myself about Steinbeck's post-World War II fiction. However, since The Red Pony is an early work and since most critics still favor Steinbeck as a Modern author, it seems safe in this context to accept Quinones' assertion that Steinbeck is a Modern.

  3. Other Biblical stories support the assertion that the myth favors the tender of animals over the farmer. II Kings contains the story of the Revolution of Jehu, in which his advisor, Jehonadab, took a “vow … [and] refused to drink wine, cultivate vineyards, build houses, or till the soil” and, by doing so, “perpetuated their ancestors' puritanical devotion to the ancient ways of the wilderness” (Anderson 282). In Chapter 22 of East of Eden, Lee goes so far as to suggest “that this story was written by and for a shepherd people. They were not farmers. Wouldn't the god of shepherds find a fat lamb more valuable than a sheaf of barley?” (353). Given that Lee's function is that of truth teller and that it is he who provides the Biblical analysis crucial to the novel's plot development, it is not too great a logical leap to conclude that his view that God “favors” the shepherd over the tiller of the land would coincide with Steinbeck's.

  4. See Benson 9 and Parini 4-5. Parini's book contains a 1907 photo of John and his sister on Jill, the “red pony” (illustration 4).

  5. Carl behaves in a manner similar to the way God was presented to Steinbeck as a youth. He noted the theology of his mother was “a curious mixture of Irish fairies and an Old Testament Jehovah” (EE 196). In Carl's case, the emphasis should be on the Old Testament Jehovah. Parini notes that the code of morality Olive Hamilton Steinbeck gave to John was “puritanical” (12).

  6. I won't recap the whole book of Genesis, but the first two chapters are full of acts of naming, the most significant of which occurs in verse 19, when the animals are brought before Adam, and “whatsoever [he] called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” A few verses later, Adam “names” woman.

  7. French's interpretation typifies a whole school of critics who see the story as an initiation into the verities of naturalism. R. S. Hughes writes that the lesson Jody learns is that “Death … preys on its victims with blank indifference” (61). Timmerman says the lesson is thus: “A little boy is finding his place in the larger rhythmical patterns of life and death, of passing time, of dreams and responsibilities” (125).

  8. One might argue that the death of an animal cannot be considered murder. However, evidence suggests that, although Steinbeck was not sentimental about animals, he abhorred senseless or pointless killing of them. In “About Ed Ricketts,” he writes approvingly of his friend, who “hated pain inflicted without good reason” (xviii). In “The Snake,” Dr. Phillips, who some argue is modeled after Steinbeck himself and who others argue is based on Ricketts, is approvingly described as a man who “could kill a thousand animals for knowledge, but not an insect for pleasure” (80).

  9. The scene is reminiscent of the bunk-house scene in Of Mice and Men, in which the men try to convince Candy that the kindest thing to do would be to shoot his old dog. The event and the echo of the bunk-house scene also foreshadow “The Leader of the People.”

  10. The phrase has been, at various times, attributed to John Bradford, John Bunyan, and John Wesley, so it's not surprising that it informs the thinking of John Steinbeck.

  11. The Grandfather in “Leader of the People” bears a strong resemblance to Samuel Hamilton, both the real person and the character in East of Eden. The opening section of Chapter 2 of that novel describes Sam in terms very similar to those used in the description of Grandfather in “The Leader of the People.”

Works Cited

Anderson, Berhnhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1987.

Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.

Burns, Robert. “To A Mouse.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. I, 4th ed. Ed. Abrams et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

French, Warren. John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited. Twayne's United States Authors Series 638. Boston: Twayne, 1994.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. “‘The Leader of the People’”: A Boy Becomes a ‘Mench.’” In Hayashi and Moore. 27-37.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro and Thomas J. Moore, Eds. Steinbeck's “The Red Pony”: Essays in Criticism. Steinbeck Monograph Series 13. Muncie: The Steinbeck Research Institute, 1988.

Holy Bible. King James Version.

Hughes, R. S. “The Black Cypress and the Green Tub: Death and Procreation in Steinbeck's ‘The Promise.’” In Hayashi and Moore. 9-16.

———. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Levant, Howard. “John Steinbeck's The Red Pony: A Study in Narrative Technique.” The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Ed. Jackson B. Benson. Durham: Duke UP, 1990. 84-94.

McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Frederich Ungar Publishing, 1980.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford UP, 1989, 1991.

Owens, Louis. “The Story of a Writing: Narrative Structure in East of Eden.” Ed. Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch. Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics, and Intellect. Studies in American Literature 3. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Quinones, Ricardo J. The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991.

Shuler, Phillip, Chair, Religion Department, McMurry University. Personal Interview. 10 June 1995.

Simmonds, Roy S. “The Place and Importance of “The Great Mountains” in The Red Pony Cycle.” In Hayashi and Moore. 17-26.

Steinbeck, John. “About Ed Ricketts.” in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. 1951. New York: Viking Compass, 1967. vii-lxvii.

———. East of Eden. 1952. New York: Penguin, 1986.

———. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. 1969. London: Pan Books, 1970.

———. The Long Valley. 1938. New York: Viking Compass, 1968.

———. “My Short Novels.” in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Ed. Jackson B. Benson. Durham: Duke UP, 1990. 15-16.

———. The Red Pony. in The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. New York: Viking, 1953.

Timmerman, John. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1990.

Roy Simmonds (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Simmonds, Roy. “The Troubled Thirties.” In A Biographical and Critical Introduction of John Steinbeck, pp. 65-78. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Simmonds elucidates the main thematic concerns of the stories in The Long Valley.]

The Long Valley contains fifteen stories, most of which were written during the years 1931 through 1934. All of the stories but one are set in the Salinas Valley, the “long valley” of the title. Several of the stories are concerned with the theme of sexual conflict between men and women, and one can speculate that they may reflect aspects of Steinbeck's often uneasy and sometimes tempestuous relationship with Carol.

The one story not set in the long valley, “St. Katy the Virgin,” is an early work and may possibly date back to 1925, when Steinbeck was still attending Stanford University. In style and spirit, it is reminiscent of the sort of work he was producing during his Cabell/Bryne phase, and stands out starkly against the geographical and temporal unity of the other stories in the book. Amusing satirical in tone and set in the 14th. century in what appears to be a rather odd, possibly European, medieval monastic community, it tells the story of a rogue female pig who, upon finally being shown the error of her ways and subsequently embracing Christianity, is endowed with human qualities and miraculous healing powers. After her death, a grateful Church adds her to the Calendar of the Elect. Why it was ever decided to include this unrepresentative, lightweight tale in The Long Valley remains a puzzle, although it is said that the story, previously available only in the form of the Christmas greeting distributed by Covici-Friede in December 1936, was one of Steinbeck's favorites, and that it was he who wanted it reprinted to reach a wider audience.

The opening story in the volume, “The Chrysanthemums,” is undoubtedly Steinbeck's finest work in the genre, and has been (with the possible exception of “Flight” and the series of four Red Pony stories) the subject of more scholarly analysis and interpretation than any other of his short stories. Its particular fascination lies in the ambiguity of its central character, Elisa Allen, who lives with her husband on their foothill ranch somewhat off the beaten track in the Salinas Valley. A note he wrote in his journal even before he started work on the story confirms that Steinbeck himself had difficulty in conveying the essence of Elisa's character on paper:

I wish I could get the lady and the chrysanthemums out of my mind. If she goes much further, I'll have to write her and I haven't the least idea what she's about. I'm afraid she's going to get me and she isn't much of a story anyway. But she is interesting and if she did see them alongside the road—what the hell. She'd feel pretty terrible if she had built up a structure. And if her structure were built on an inch of joy, all the more.1

Most critics have judged Elisa to be one of Steinbeck's most endearing and enduring female characters, a woman poignantly unsatisfied with the sexual side of her marriage, but nevertheless content to sublimate her longings by tending her garden and propagating her flowers. In recent years, however, other critics have begun to question this comfortable, long-accepted interpretation, seeking to portray Elisa as a somewhat less sympathetic character who is, in fact, denying her husband her sexual favors by centering all her love on her flowers, a woman who more nearly reflects Steinbeck's misogynist attitudes of that period. Indeed, he paints a somewhat androgynous picture of Elisa, blurring the ambiguity of the story even further:

She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.


The uneasy relationship between husband and wife is subtly established at the beginning of the story by the vaguely formal tone of the conversations between them. Henry, who has just sold thirty head of stock for a good price, congratulates her rather patronizingly on her gift for growing flowers. He suggests, in celebration of the deal he has just concluded, that, after he returns in a couple of hours from bringing down some steer from the hill, they go out that evening, have dinner in the Cominos Hotel in Salinas, and then perhaps go to the fights. She tells him that she wouldn't like the fights, so he offers to take her instead to see a movie.

After he rides off, she concentrates on the chrysanthemums, delicately picking out the little green shoots from between the dead stalks of the winter's flowering and rooting them in a little special bed she has prepared for them and where she can tend them until planting in a month or so's time. While she is still engaged in this, a tinker's rickety wagon, drawn by an old horse and a little burro, comes along the road and stops outside. The tinker, a very large man with a stubble beard, tries to persuade her to give him work, but she informs him she has nothing that needs repairing or sharpening. It is not until he expresses interest in her plants, explaining that he has a customer who would appreciate a few of her chrysanthemum shoots, that he at last succeeds in seducing her into finding two old discarded saucepans he can repair. She transfers some shoots into a large pot, instructing him carefully and at length how to look after them until he can hand them over to his customer. She explains how she feels about her flowers, and her words and his seemingly heartfelt intimation of the loneliness of his itinerant life generates a sort of quasi-sexual attraction between them, to which she finds herself almost submitting.

She feels a strange empty sadness after he has gone, disturbed and envious as she imagines his roving and uninhibited masculine way of life. She bathes before her husband returns home, applies make-up to her face, and puts on her pretty dress. Henry comments in wonder on her appearance, “You look so nice … strong and happy” (21). As they drive toward Salinas in their roadster, they pass the little mound of earth and chrysanthemum shoots the tinker has thrown into the road, their purpose accomplished once he has parted her from the fifty cents she paid him for the unwanted repairs. Elisa whispers to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn't have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot. He had to keep the pot. That's why he couldn't get them off the road” (22). As they go further along, Elisa suddenly sees ahead the tinker's wagon with its mismatched team. She does not look at it as they pass, but asks Henry if they could have wine at dinner. She is silent for a while, and then, as if she has changed her mind, asks if women ever go to the fights and if the men hurt each other very much. But when he suggests again that she might like to go, she says,

“Oh, no. No. I don't want to go. I'm sure I don't.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.” She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.


There is no such ambiguity in “The White Quail,” the second story in the collection. We are left in no doubt concerning the state of Harry and Mary Teller's marriage. In this relationship, the wife is the dominant partner, her whole existence unequivocally centered on her garden. Her obsession does literally exclude everything else in her life, including her husband. It is made abundantly clear that the sexual side of their marriage is virtually, if not completely, non-existent. She identifies with the lone white quail that comes with the other quail to drink at the pond, and is inconsolably agitated when a marauding cat begins appearing from time to time in the garden. Her self-identification with the white quail becomes so absolute that she becomes hysterically convinced that the cat is indeed stalking her, intent on doing her harm. She pleads with her husband to poison the animal, but he agrees only to frighten it off by wounding it with his air gun. Early one morning, he takes his gun and lies in wait for the cat, but when the quail appear he imagines the white bird deliberately looks toward him. He pulls the trigger and all the quail take flight, except the white one lying dead on the lawn. He hides the tiny body under a pile of leaves and merely reports to his wife that the cat will never return. But nothing can eradicate the overwhelming sense of loss he experiences. “I'm so lonely,” he tells himself. “Oh, Lord, I'm so lonely” (42).

The underlying theme of the sexual war between man and woman is further explored in the fourth, seventh, and tenth stories in the book. “The Snake” is another of Steinbeck's most famous and anthologized works. Based, as has already been noted, on a true incident, the story relates how a mysterious woman calls at the laboratory of young Dr. Phillips and pays him six dollars for a male rattlesnake. She makes it clear that she does not want to take the snake away, merely asking that it be kept in its cage so that she can come and visit it whenever she wishes. She then buys a live rat, which she requests Dr. Phillips to feed to the snake. Despite his protests that the snake does not need to be fed, she insists he goes ahead. After he has placed the live rat in the cage, the woman mimes the snake's every movement as it weaves this way and that, until finally striking the petrified rat. As the snake begins to swallow the rat whole, Dr. Phillips cannot bring himself to look at the woman, fearful that her mouth might be wide open. When she leaves, she confirms that she will return every so often to watch the snake being fed. But she never does come back, and Dr. Phillips never sees her again, not even around town. Steinbeck has himself admitted that he can offer no plausible explanation for the woman's strange behavior, nor did he feel any call to do so. Indeed, it does seem sufficient that he should have created so masterly and compelling a narrative from the bizarre real-life happening.

“The Harness” tells the story of farmer Peter Randall. To the community at large, he presents a picture of a hardworking and respectable neighbor, rigidly upright in bearing and moral integrity, and one whose farming skills are closely followed by others in the valley. Once a year, he leaves his farm for a week's “business trip” to the city, leaving his sickly wife, Emma, behind to look after things during his absence. In truth, his upright bearing is the result of the shoulder harness that he wears at his wife's behest and that is, in a very potent sense, a symbol of her influence over him. Although not a domineering woman, Emma has a quiet and irresistible ability to make him do what she wants. His business trips are, in truth, nothing more than a safety valve, an excuse to escape from her for a while. He spends the annual week in San Francisco on an extended binge, taking his daily pleasure in the city's brothels. Following one of these trips, Emma suffers a prolonged illness and dies. Immediately, Peter casts off his shoulder harness and determines that in future he will do only what he wants to do. He soon discovers, however, that the psychological harness still binding him to his wife cannot be so readily discarded. Even though he continues to sense her presence in the house, urging him to carry out her wishes, he does go ahead with a plan he knows she would have opposed. He plows up the whole forty-five acres of his land, utilizing the area to raise a vast crop of sweet peas that eventually, against all the odds, makes him a very handsome profit. After selling the crop and paying his usual yearly visit to San Francisco, he feels the necessity to atone for what he has done. On his return to the farm, he makes plans for the installation of the electric light system Emma had always wanted for their home.

In “The Murder,” it is the husband who ostensibly becomes the dominant partner. Jim Moore, also a farmer, marries the beautiful Jugoslav girl, Jelka. Her father advises Jim that he should beat her if she does wrong or displeases him in any way, just as he himself had beaten her mother and her grandfather had beaten her grandmother. It is, he stresses, the kind of treatment Jelka would understand and respect, and it will ensure that she is a good wife to him. Jim, for all that he comes to look upon her as a cherished pet, is repelled by the idea of treating his wife as a sort of animal. They are happy together, but their marriage is somehow troubled by an underlying sense of uneasiness on Jim's part. Her dutiful manner toward him, her continual subservient desire to please, becomes wearisome to him, and he escapes, just as Peter Randall escapes, by occasionally riding into town and staying overnight to drink and enjoy the pleasures of the local brothel. One evening, on his way to town, he meets a neighbor, who informs him that he has seen evidence of marauders on the Moore farmland. After discovering the deserted camp of the strangers and the remains of one of his calves they had killed, Jim decides to abandon his trip into town and returns home. He surprises Jelka in bed with one of her male cousins. Jim shoots the man in cold blood as he lies on the bed. The deputy sheriff and coroner arrive the next morning to remove the body. The deputy tells Jim that any charge of murder will surely be dismissed, for the killing will be seen as justified homicide. When the two men have left, Jim takes a nine-foot, loaded bullwhip to Jelka and flogs her without mercy. After the beating, she prepares his breakfast, regarding him, as her father had promised, with new respect and with truly genuine love. The inference is that from then on Jim and Jelka will live in happy harmony and mutual understanding.

“Flight,” the third story in the volume, was originally titled “Man Hunt,” and appears here in print for the first time, having been rejected by Scribner's magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. The story concerns the foolish nineteen-year-old Pepé, who lives with his widowed mother and his two younger siblings on a farm fifteen miles from Monterey. His mother teases him for not being the man he likes to believe he is. On a trip into town, he becomes involved in an argument and knifes a man, killing him. He returns home and tells his mother what has happened. “I am a man now, Mama,” he declares (52). His mother, realizing the danger he is in, gives him one of the two horses the family possesses, his father's black coat, and his father's gun with its few remaining rounds of ammunition. She also provides him with a half-sack of jerky and a water bag, urging him to leave without delay and hide in the mountains. Pepé's subsequent further journey into “manhood” proves disastrous. He loses his hat. His pursuers shoot his horse from under him. He loses his provisions, discards his father's coat, and then loses the gun. Wounded in the hand, his whole right arm becomes swollen and painful with poison. Rather than building on the manhood he so thoughtlessly had proclaimed he had achieved, he is reduced to crawling through the undergrowth on his belly, forced down to the level of the snakes and lizards he encounters. The landscape through which he passes dramatizes his worsening predicament, becoming more and more desolate as the trappings of civilization and human dignity are gradually stripped away from him. Only in the manner of his death, deliberately exposing himself to the rifle fire of his pursuers, does Pepé attain the mantle of manhood he has craved.

The theme of physical violence so evident in “The Murder” and “Flight” again predominates in the eighth and sixth stories, “The Vigilante” and “The Raid.” In the former, Mike is troubled by a strange sensation of anti-climax in the aftermath of the brutal lynching of a Negro from a tree in the town park. Until a few minutes before, he had been part of the group-man entity that was a hysterical mob thirsting for blood. Now, as he walks away from the now silent crowd encircling the naked body of the hanged man, he regains his individuality and wanders uneasily around town, trying to dispel the sense of unreality about all that has happened. Feeling a need to talk about it, he goes into a bar, and tells the bartender how he had helped to bust into the jail and haul the Negro out, stripping him before they strung him up. The Negro had offered no resistance, having been knocked practically unconscious before they even got him out of the cell. Mike shows the bartender a torn piece of denim that came from the pants the Negro had been wearing, and the bartender asks Mike to sell it to him. Mike is reluctant to do so, but in the end he cuts the piece of cloth in two and hands half over for a couple of dollars. When he eventually returns home, his wife upbraids him, accusing him of having been with another woman. She says she can see it in his face. He goes into the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror. “My God, she was right,” he tells himself. “That's just exactly how I do feel” (141)

“The Raid,” which can be seen as an initial excursion into some of the themes that were to be examined more fully not only in In Dubious Battle but also later in The Grapes of Wrath, dwells on the fate of a pair of Communist agitators who arrive at an old building on the outskirts of town. They are here to organize a secret meeting and to speak and distribute Party literature. Like Mac and Jim Nolan in In Dubious Battle, one of the men, Dick, is an experienced field-worker, and his companion, Root, is very much the novice on his first assignment, willing and eager, but, unlike Jim, little more than a kid and as nervous as hell. When no one turns up by the time the meeting is due to commence, their suspicions grow that they might have been betrayed. Indeed, a lone supporter warns them that a raiding party is on its way. Dick refuses to leave. He has been ordered to stay at the meeting place until a specified time and does not intend to disobey orders. When the raiding party bursts in upon them, Root pleads with the men, “Can't you see? It's all for you. We're doing it for you. All of it. You don't know what you're doing” (107). The two men are beaten into unconsciousness. When they come to, they find themselves in a hospital cell. Dick tells Root that they will inevitably be jailed on a trumped-up, “inciting to riot” charge. Like Pepé, Root is intent on demonstrating that he has passed his initiation into manhood with flying colors. He exhorts Dick not to reveal to the police that he is under age, and reminds the older man of Christ's dying words on the Cross, “Forgive them because they don't know what they're doing.” Dick admonishes him, “You lay off that religious stuff, kid,” and quotes back at him, “‘Religion is the opium of the people.’” “Sure, I know,” Root replies. “But there wasn't no religion to it. It was just—I felt like saying that. It was just kind of the way I felt” (108).

“Breakfast,” the fifth story, the account of Steinbeck's meeting with the migrant family, is a mere four pages in length and was eventually, slightly changed, incorporated into The Grapes of Wrath (395-398). The piece as printed here is simply the description of how an unnamed narrator (Steinbeck himself, of course) happens upon a family camped by the roadside and is invited to join them and share their breakfast. Afterward, thinking back on it, he reflects, “That's all. I know, of course, some of the reasons why it was pleasant. But there was some element of great beauty there that makes the rush of warmth when I think of it” (92).

The ninth story, “Johnny Bear,” is ostensibly based on a character Steinbeck encountered during his travels in the 1920s, when he was working for a time on a dredging barge in the Castroville area. Johnny Bear is a subnormal, bear like man, who possesses the gift of perfect mimicry. In the local bar, he provides harmless diversion when, for a drink of whisky, he will reproduce with extraordinary accuracy conversations he has overheard. He initially embarrasses the narrator himself, who is astonished to hear his own voice coming from Johnny Bear's lips, repeating word for word his intimate exchanges with the pretty half-Mexican girl he had met and propositioned a few days earlier. Johnny Bear's subsequent performances assume more sinister import, when, he begins repeating conversations he has overheard between the two Hawkins sisters, Emalin and Amy, the town aristocrats: middle-aged, maiden ladies who are regarded by the whole community as representing all that is good and kind. Johnny Bear's innocent mimicry reveals that Miss Amy is with child and, furthermore, has attempted suicide, information that Miss Emalin and the town doctor have, until now, been successful in hushing up. But there is an even more shocking revelation to be made when Johnny Bear later begins repeating a conversation between Miss Amy and her lover. The narrator's friend, Alex, realizing that the matter has this time gone beyond the bounds of acceptability, hits Johnny Bear in the mouth to silence him. The final piece of the jigsaw, the reason behind Alex's brutal attack, is not revealed until the last sentence of the story.

The collection concludes with the three elements of The Red Pony cycle that was published in one volume in 1937, and a fourth element, “The Leader of the People,” which is printed on its own, almost like a coda, following the other three stories.2 The cycle traces the progress of the young boy, Jody Tiflin, toward the promise of manhood. Although we have now come to regard The Red Pony as a four-story cycle (and in 1945 it was published as such by the Viking Press in an illustrated edition) it seems that Steinbeck may have originally set out to write a fully integrated series of stories with Jody's growing awareness of the world and the nature of human behavior as its unifying theme. His failure to carry out his plan may account for the lack of continuity between the four stories we know. There does exist, in fact, an unfinished manuscript fragment about Jody, titled “Grandfather,” which contains incidents not in the published stories, and at least one other story, now lost entirely, may have been written (Benson 284-285).

“The Gift” begins in late September when the ten-year-old Jody is given a little red pony by his father and is taught by the farmhand, Billy Buck, who Jody idolizes, how to care for and train the animal. Jody feels childishly superior to the other kids at school now that he is the owner of a pony and he becomes the focus of great envy. One wet and cold day toward Thanksgiving, while Jody is at school, the pony gets soaked by heavy rain and falls sick. Jody blames Billy Buck for what has happened, for Billy had predicted that morning before Jody had left for school that there would be no rain that day. Consequently, believing in Billy's infallibility in such matters, Jody had left the pony out in the corral instead of sheltering it in the barn. In spite of all Billy's attempts to save it, the pony dies. Jody is the first one to find the pony's body just in time to do hysterical battle with the buzzards that have descended on the corpse and are already beginning to tear at it with their savage beaks.

“The Promise” presumably begins in the spring following the events in “The Gift,” and ends in the following February, when Jody is eleven or perhaps twelve. This story tells how Billy Buck, anxious to make amends to Jody for the loss of his pony, promises that he will take his mare, Nellie, to stud and give Jody the colt that is bred. Jody takes over much of the responsibility for looking after Nellie during the gestation period, but when the time for the birth arrives Billy finds that the colt is turned wrong, and, in order to save it and keep his promise to Jody, he sacrifices his mare.

“The Leader of the People” is apparently set in the summer following the events in “The Promise,” although there are no narrative clues to confirm this. No mention is made of the dead pony, of Nellie, or of the new colt. The story does suggest, however, that thematically, in the logical process of Jody's maturation, it has its proper place as the final story in the cycle in stressing the sympathetic relationship between Jody and his grandfather, one still struggling toward maturity and the other living on the memories of past glories.

“The Great Mountains,” the story of the old paisano, Gitano, who rides off into the mountains to die, is also set in the summer and also offers no clues as to its proper chronological place in the sequence of events, although its place as the second story in the cycle suggests that its happenings occur sometime after the events related in “The Gift” and prior to those related both in “The Promise” and “The Leader of the People.” It is even possible that the events described in “The Great Mountains” overlap with those of “The Promise,” and so occur during the summer of Nellie's gestation. It can then be seen that while, in the narrative sense, “The Gift” and “The Promise” are closely linked, the other two stories, placed second and last in the cycle, provide the necessary thematic and philosophic depth that does after all succeed, in spite of the chronological ambiguity, in welding the four separate entities into a single and aesthetically satisfying work of art. Each story ends in a death: the death of the little red pony; the death of Gitano; the death of Nellie; and the spiritual death of the old pioneer, Grandfather, who in distant years had helped to open up the West by leading the wagon trains across country, fighting off Indians and the spectre of starvation as they cross the vast plains. He lives now almost completely in the past, continually repeating the same stories about the wagon trains and his part in their survival, calling up yet another image of the Phalanx in Steinbeck's fiction::

It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering.


Grandfather is forced at last to admit to Jody the reality that now there is for him, “no place to go,” and that he has become just one in the “line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them” (302). In each story, Jody sheds a little more of his innocence and childish self-centeredness, and step by step becomes increasingly aware of his burgeoning responsibilities.

Before leaving The Long Valley, mention should be made here of the short story “How Edith McGillcuddy Met R. L. Stevenson,” which belongs more appropriately to the collection than the unrepresentative “St. Katy the Virgin.” Unlike “St. Katy,” the Edith McGillcuddy story was written at the same time as the other stories in the volume. It is set in Salinas and Monterey, although it does differ from the other stories in that it is not set in the 1920s or 1930s. The tale is a true one, based on the memories of a Mrs. Edith Wagner, the mother of one of Steinbeck's childhood friends. In 1934, Steinbeck instructed his agents to withdraw the story from possible magazine publication when he discovered that Mrs. Wagner had written her own account of her experiences as a little girl. She was not, however, successful in getting her story published, but it was not until 1941, when Steinbeck heard that Mrs. Wagner was in poor health that he released his version of the tale for publication, passing the money he received for the story to her.

The events described take place in 1879. While on her way to Sunday school, the twelve-year-old Edith, born to the respectable part of Salinas, is waylaid by Susy Nugger, a girl of her own age but definitely not of her class. Susy encourages Edith to cut Sunday school and accompany her on a funeral train ride to Monterey. After she attends the funeral, Edith, who has been abandoned by Susy, wanders along the Monterey seashore, where she meets another little girl, Lizzie, who is, if anything, lower down the social scale than Susy. Lizzie takes her huckleberry picking and then to a large white adobe house, where a man and woman are sitting on the ground in the courtyard, taking afternoon tea. Lizzie sells to the thin-faced man the bucket of huckleberries she and Edith have gathered. She snatches the money the man proffers and runs off, leaving Edith alone with the strange couple. The man gently observes that it looks as if Edith has been cheated out of her share of the proceeds, and Edith confesses that he, too, has been cheated, that under the huckleberries the bucket is half-filled with leaves. She has only time to exchange a few more words with them before she hears the train whistle, warning her of its imminent departure to Salinas. She runs back to the station and clambers aboard at the very last moment as the train begins to move. That the man was the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and the woman his lover Fanny Osborne is not revealed until the last paragraph of the story.

The attractiveness of the tale lies in its telling, its evocation of life in those far-off days, its portraits of Edith and her two treacherous erstwhile companions, its comments on the pretensions of class, and its descriptions of the countryside the trains chugs through and of the Monterey seashore. Slight though it is, the story is a delightful and amusing addition to the Steinbeck canon.


  1. An undated and unpublished note on page 29 of Steinbeck's ledger held by the Mary Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, San Jose State University, San Jose. For details of Steinbeck's first draft of “The Chrysanthemums,” see Roy S. Simmonds. “The Original Manuscripts of Steinbeck's ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Steinbeck Quarterly 7 (Summer-Fall 1974): 102-111.

  2. “The Leader of the People” made its first US appearance in The Long Valley, although it had its first publication in the British magazine Argosy two years previously.


John Steinbeck Long Fiction Analysis


Steinbeck, John (Vol. 1)