These stories present a young boy’s entrance into maturity through his encounters with life’s harsh realities. Death, disappointment, and the world’s stubborn refusal to conform to human ideals break down Jody’s childlike certitudes. Yet, though Jody at times is callous or bitter because of these experiences, he ultimately realizes that life holds both disappointment and promise and that acceptance of life with endurance and sympathy is the way of maturity.
In the first story, “The Gift,” Mr. Tiflin presents Jody with a red pony which Jody names after the Gabilan Mountains near his home. The pony quickly becomes his chief joy and responsibility, and under Billy Buck’s guidance, he prepares Gabilan to be ridden. As the horse is nearing the completion of his training, however, he is caught out in the rain on a day Billy had promised Jody it would not rain. Gabilan catches cold and, despite Billy Buck’s constant attention, dies. As Jody watches buzzards descend on Gabilan’s body, he kills one of them out of frustration.
Jody’s next encounter with the harsh realities of nature occurs in “The Great Mountains,” when an old Chicano named Gitano walks onto the Tiflin ranch on his way to the western mountains where he was born and asks to stay at the Tiflins’ until it is time for him to die. Mr. Tiflin refuses to grant his request, and Gitano rides off the next morning on an old horse called Easter, but not before Jody sees that Gitano is carrying an old and beautiful rapier, passed down in his family for generations.
“The Promise” and “The Leader of the People” repeat the patterns of the first and second stories, respectively. In “The Promise,” Jody receives another colt but only after the colt’s mother, Nellie, is killed by Billy when she is having trouble delivering him. Jody’s pleasure in his horse is soured by Billy’s killing of Nellie. Another old man, Jody’s grandfather, visits the Tiflin ranch in “The Leader of the People.” Though Jody is eager to hear his grandfather’s repetitive stories of his experiences as a wagon-train leader, the old man tells Jody that the value of his work lay not in being leader but in being a part of “westering” the general movement of people into new lands and experiences. He also confides to the boy his belief that the new generation represented by Mr. Tiflin has lost the westering spirit. As The Red Pony closes, Jody makes a lemonade for his grandfather to console him, indicating that he has matured enough to care for others.
The Red Pony’s plot belongs to the Bildungsroman tradition, in which a young person, in this case Jody Tiflin, is initiated into the mysteries of life. Each of the individual stories is part of his education. The loss of Gabilan in “The Gift” reveals to Jody nature’s cruelty and man’s inability to predict nature accurately. In “The Great Mountains,” Jody sees in Gitano both a symbol of human decay and the enduring power of human ideals, since he carries the ancient sword passed down through the generations. In “The Promise,” Jody observes the wonder and pain of the reproductive cycle when he sees Nellie and a stud horse copulate violently and assists at the birth of Nellie’s colt. Finally, Jody’s grandfather teaches him man’s special destiny of westering, and Jody’s act of kindness shows that he has some perception of this spirit.
Steinbeck, in Baja California in 1937, let it be known that...
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he was writing a children’s book, referring to what was to grow intoThe Red Pony. The first three of the four interconnected stories that make up The Red Pony were published in The Long Valley (1938). In 1945, Steinbeck added the final story, “The Leader of the People,” to make the collection long enough to be published as a separate entity. The novella is not a children’s book in the conventional sense; it is more accurately described as a Bildungsroman, a book that chronicles the education of a boy growing to manhood.
Jody Tiflin is about eleven years old. Although living on his parents’ farm in the warm Salinas Valley provides him with an idyllic childhood, he learns some harsh lessons in life. Jody’s first disillusionment comes in “The Gift,” when the horse he has been given—the fulfillment of any boy’s dream—is drenched in a rainstorm that Billy Buck, the family’s farmhand, has assured the boy will not come. The horse, Gabilan, catches cold and, despite all efforts to save it, dies. Billy Buck, who had been Jody’s hero, is now diminished in his eyes, first because he promised fair weather when Jody took the horse out and then because Billy could not save the stricken animal.
Jody comes face-to-face with a second harsh reality relating to death in “The Great Mountains,” the second story in the cycle. Gitano, an ailing old Chicano who was born on the Tiflin ranch before they owned it, walks onto the property and asks to be permitted to stay there until he dies. Carl Tiflin, ever practical and not a sympathetic character, will not permit this. The next morning Gitano rides off dejectedly—but not before he has stolen an old rapier that has been in the Tiflin family for generations.
In the third story, “The Promise,” Jody is given his second horse, a newborn colt that needs care because its mother died in delivering it. Billy Buck had no choice but to kill her in order to save the colt, so, although Jody is pleased that this new life belongs to him, he grieves at the trade-off that accompanied the gift.
The last story, “The Leader of the People,” is about the visit that Jody’s maternal grandfather pays to the ranch. Jody adores the old man and dotes on his stories about the days when he was leader of a wagon train. Carl Tiflin hates those stories as much as Jody loves them, and he deplores the old man’s visits because he knows they will be filled with reminiscences about an age in which he has little interest. The old man had a “westering” spirit, but that spirit, which helped Americans to conquer its last geographical frontier, is no longer necessary. The frontier has been conquered. Carl Tiflin must get on with his work, and he turns his back on the past that helped him to reach the point at which he finds himself.
This story ends with Jody listening to his grandfather, who confides in him that he fears the new generation no longer has the spirit of which he speaks. Jody, quite tellingly, listens and then asks his grandfather if he would like some lemonade, indicating that, for the first time, the boy is showing a sensitivity to someone else’s feelings. Jody is moving toward manhood.
The Red Pony builds on Steinbeck’s notion that nature is unrelenting and mysterious. Mere humans cannot thwart it any more than they can control it. When Jody’s Gabilan becomes food for the vultures, Steinbeck does not suggest that commiseration is the proper emotion. It is part of the natural cycle. Living things feed on living things as inevitably as humans die.