The main character of “The Red Pony” is Jody Tiflin, a ten year old boy with “hair like dusty yellow grass and shy polite gray eyes.” From the very start of “The Red Pony” John Steinbeck makes it clear that Jody Tiflin is no junior angel. In the first chapter, “The Gift,” Jody crushes a muskmelon in the garden. “It was a bad thing to do, he knew it perfectly well. He kicked dirt over the ruined melon to conceal it.” Then Jody’s mother has to warn him to fill the wood-box completely rather than crossing the sticks to cheat on his chores.
However, when Jody’s father reveals to him that he has some surprise waiting the next day Jody shapes up fast, combing his hair and obeying his mother. Jody’s father reveals that he has bought a red pony colt for Jody. The pony means more responsibility for Jody, but he leaps to the challenge, eager to please his father and keep the pony for himself. Jody names the pony Galiban, after the nearby Galiban mountain range.
Soon Jody is getting up early to do his chores and making sure that Galiban is kept curried and in good condition. John Steinbeck describes the way Jody and Galiban become closer over time. Gradually Jody trains the red pony, first to the bridle, then to the saddle. Then the day approaches when Jody will be able to mount Galiban for the first time.
But while Jody is at school Galiban is left out in the pasture in the middle of a rain storm. Jody covers his pony with a blanket, but he fears for Galiban’s health. Sure enough when Jody comes out to the stable the next morning he finds the red pony sick.
“He just took a little cold. We’ll have him out of it in a couple of days,” says the stable hand Billy Buck. Jody trusts Billy, but as the days past it becomes clear that Galiban is not getting better, in fact he is getting much worse. In a series of traumatic scenes Billy must operate on Galiban, first to remove a “strangle” then to cut a hole in the pony’s windpipe so it can breathe.
Eventually Jody realizes that his pony Galiban is going to die before he gets a chance to ride him. Jody sleeps all night in the stable with his sick pony, but when he awakes he finds the stable door open and tracks leading out through the grass.
Jody follows Galiban’s trail as fast as he can but by the time he arrives it is too late and a buzzard has already violated the red pony’s corpse: “its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid.” Jody catches one of the buzzards and pummels it to death with a rock. Eventually his father and Billy Buck arrive on the scene and pull him off the dead bird.
“Jody, the buzzard didn’t kill the pony. Don’t you know that?” his father says. Billy Buck then stands up for Jody saying “’Course he knows it. Jesus Christ! Man, can’t you see how he’d feel about it?”
This first chapter of “The Red Pony” sets the tone for the next chapters. Jody’s trust in Billy Buck as a horseman and his love for his father are compromised by the death of Galiban. On the one hand, Jody no longer trusts Billy Buck, despite the fact that the old hand taught Jody everything he knows about horses. Billy told Jody that Galiban would be fine out in the pasture during the rain, and he told Jody that the horse would be fine despite his cold. When Galiban dies Jody no longer trusts Billy as “infallible” as he did before.
At the same time, though, Billy Buck is perhaps more of a father figure for Jody than Jody’s real father is. Jody’s father Carl Tiflin doesn’t seem to know how to behave around the boy and is easily embarrassed by him. Jody seems to be much more comfortable with Billy. We can see this in such passages as right after Carl gives Jody the red pony colt:
“Carl Tiflin went out of the barn and walked up a side-hill to be by himself, for he was embarrassed, but Billy Buck stayed. It was easier to talk to Billy Buck.”
Jody cares so much about his father’s opinion that is difficult for him to talk to his father, because he is afraid of not being able to live up to Carl Tiflin’s standards. Instead it is Billy who teaches Jody about caring for horses and it is Billy who in the end stands up for Jody and carries him home after the pony is found dead.
The Great Mountains
With the red pony dead and no longer keeping him busy and obedient, the second chapter finds Jody throwing rocks to break open sparrow nests, torturing the dog Doubletree with a rat trap, and killing a small songbird. In this passage Jody’s murder of the songbird is especially interesting because of the way John Steinbeck relates Jody’s feelings with regard to his actions.
“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 of their potential opinion.”
Immature Jody feels frustrated about the death of his pony and rather than dealing with these emotions as an adult would he takes out his frustration on other small creatures.
At this point in the story John Steinbeck introduces a mountain range to the west. Unlike the friendly Galiban Mountains that Jody named his colt after, these mountains seem sinister. Jody wonders about what these mountains contain and even his father and Billy Buck tell Jody that the mountains are unexplored. To Jody these mountains are at the same time both frightening and wonderful. He imagines a lost city somewhere among them.
Then an old paisano man named Gitano arrives at the Tiflin farm. Gitano says that he was born on the Tiflin farm and raised there as a young child. He says that he has come back to the farm to live out the rest of his days.
Carl Tiflin does not want Gitano on the farm. He says that he is already having enough problems trying to keep the farm from being foreclosed on without taking another another hand, especially an old one who can’t work very hard. Jody’s mother and even Billy Buck stand up for Gitano but Jody’s father is unmoved.
John Steinbeck draws an interesting parallel between Gitano and Easter, an old horse that Carl Tiflin maintains on his farm despite the fact that it is too old to work. Easter was the first horse that Carl Tiflin ever had and he doesn’t want to shoot it. Carl defends himself with respect to his not wanting to take on Gitano, but at the same time keeping an old horse that can’t work. “If ham and eggs grew on a side-hill I’d turn you out to pasture too, but I can’t afford to pasture you in my kitchen.”
To Jody, Gitano is a mystery even like the strange mountains to the west of the Tiflin farm. Gitano says that he has been in the mountains when he was a boy. “What did you see in there?” Jody asks Gitano. The old man answers “I don’t remember… I think it was quiet—I think it was nice.”
The next morning Gitano leaves the farm early in the morning. He steals the old horse Easter and takes off into the mysterious mountains to the West. By the time Jody and his family wake up he is long gone. John Steinbeck portrays Jody’s reaction to the experience.
“A longing caressed him, and it was so sharp that he wanted to cry to get it out of his breast. He lay down in the green grass near the round tub at the brush line. He covered his eyes with his crossed arms and lay there a long time, and he was full of a nameless sorrow.”
In “The Red Pony” Jody is an immature child who does not understand all the things around him. Often he is filled with powerful rage or sorrow but it seems that he does not truly know what to think or how to react.
This powerful third chapter of “The Red Pony” extends the narrative line that ended earlier with the death of Jody’s red pony colt Galiban. Carl Tiflin decides that Jody needs another horse, but his plan is different this time. He gives Jody five dollars as a stud fee. Jody will take Nellie, one of their mares, to a nearby neighbor who has a stallion. After they mate Nellie Jody will raise the colt from birth. Once again it will be years before Jody will be able to ride the colt, but according to Billy Buck “the best way for [Jody] to be a good hand with horses is to raise a colt.”
As was the case when he received Galiban, so the news and potential of another horse colt makes a new boy of Jody. Suddenly he is filled with “maturity and importance,” doing his chores carefully and not playing tricks on his mother. Jody envisions a strong young stallion that he will name Black Demon. In his mind Black Demon will be a powerful horse that will make Jody famous in roping contests and will even allow him to help the President catch bandits.
The mare’s year long pregnancy gives Jody plenty of time to develop his youthful fantasy, but as the delivery date nears Jody begins to worry. Billy Buck tries to tell him that everything will be just fine, but Jody can’t really trust him now. The last time that Billy Buck said things would be fine Galiban died.
When the time finally comes for Nellie to deliver the baby colt both Billy Buck and Jody realize that there is something wrong. The colt is twisted inside and can’t come out. Billy makes a quick examination.
“He glanced wildly toward Jody. And then his fingers made a careful, careful diagnosis. His cheeks were growing tight and gray. He looked for a long questioning minute at Jody standing back of the stall. Then Billy stepped to the rack under the manure window and picked up a horseshoe hammer with his wet right hand…
He heard Billy whispering hoarsely in the stall. And then he heard the hollow crunch of bone. Nellie chuckled shrilly. Jody looked back in time to see the hammer rise and fall again on the flat forehead. Then Nellie fell heavily to her side and quivered for a moment.
Billy jumped to the swollen stomach; his big pocketknife was in his hand… He sawed and ripped at the tough belly. The air was filled with the sick odor of warm living entrails.”
Billy removes the colt from the dead mare Nellie and lays it in the straw at Jody’s feet.
“There’s your colt. I promised. And there it is. I had to do it—had to…
Jody tried to be glad because of the colt, but the bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him.”
Once again, the colt that Jody looked forward to so much turns out much different from what he expected. On the surface all of Jody’s dreams are fulfilled for the colt is a black stallion. However, the black colt lives up to his name of Black Demon in that his traumatic and deadly entrance to the world forever makes him a demon in Jody’s eyes. Jody will always be slightly afraid of him, much as he is afraid of the mysterious mountains to the West of the Tiflin farm.
Billy Buck seems, to some extent, to blame the death of Nellie on Jody. “I had to do it,” he says. Billy couldn’t let his promise fail again. He feels bound to give Jody the colt he wanted so badly, even if it means the death of Nellie. Rather than breaking the colt to take it out of its mother, he chooses to kill the mare to save the colt. But in either case there can be no satisfaction for either Billy or Jody.
The Leader of the People
When the fourth chapter opens Jody has once again returned to being a disobedient young boy, purposely scuffing up his shoes and throwing rocks at the cat. Black Demon gives him no satisfaction and in fact the young colt is not even mentioned again in this last chapter. Like the death of Galiban, the birth of Black Demon is something that Jody wants to forget. Black Demon no longer makes Jody feel “mature and important.”
An interesting side theme of the fourth chapter is Jody’s plan to destroy the mice living in the haystack. Jody’s plans to bring destruction upon them are weaved in and out of the main theme of the chapter. Apparently the mice are “plump, sleek, arrogant.” Jody feels that they are too “smug” in their immunity to cats and traps. He wants to bring disaster on them, by exposing them to the dogs and beating them with a flail. This side aspect bolsters John Steinbeck’s obvious indications that Jody is not the type of angelic, mature young hero that one might expect. Instead Jody is immature, resentful, perhaps even conniving. These feelings are at the same time tempered by sorrow and affection for the things he loves or is awed by.
The main storyline of the fourth chapter begins when Jody’s grandfather, his mother’s father, arrives at the Tiflin farm for a visit. Carl Tiflin doesn’t like his wife’s father. The characteristic inability to get along with the in-laws is not something that John Steinbeck is focusing on, however.
Carl doesn’t like his father-in-law because the old man tells the same stories over and over again. According to Carl “he just goes on an on, and he never changes a word in the things he tells.” Grandfather was part of the early wagon trains that led the way for settlers to conquer the Western lands. The experiences and adventures that he had along the way marked him for life, and the “Westering,” as he calls it, is the focus of all his thoughts and attentions. For Grandfather the Westering was the greatest thing that humankind ever did, and the fact that he was able to be a part of it, in fact at the head of it, fills his waking thoughts and night dreams.
In a particularly painful and insensitive scene Carl complains about Grandfather when he thinks that he cannot hear.
“That time’s done. Why can’t he forget it, now it’s done?… Why does he have to tell [the stories] over and over? He came across the plains. All right! Now it’s finished. Nobody wants to hear about it over and over.
The door into the kitchen closed softly… Then the kitchen door opened and Grandfather walked in.”
After hearing Carl Tiflin complain about the stories Grandfather is crushed, and it seems as if he has lost a part of himself. Jody still wants to hear the exciting tales about the Westering, but Grandfather tells him, “Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn’t a hunger any more. It’s all done. Your father was right. It is finished.”
Jody sees that his Grandfather is sad, and he feels sad as well. He offers to make Grandfather a lemonade.
Grandfather was about to refuse, and then he saw Jody’s face. “That would be nice,” he said. “Yes, it would be nice to drink a lemonade.”
Once again a dream in Jody’s life is crushed and he is left with the broken pieces of what is left. Perhaps Jody’s act of getting his Grandfather a lemonade could be thought of as an ending response better than what came before. When Jody faced the death of Galiban he responded by torturing the family dog, but now he is doing something for someone else. At the same time, though, Jody gets the lemonade for Grandfather as much to spite his father as to comfort his Grandfather.
Interestingly, “The Red Pony” is throughout a study of contrasts and pairs. The wonderful red pony colt Galiban reflects Black Demon, the marred colt whose birth was the death of its mother. The Galiban mountains themselves reflect the fearful, unexplored mountains to the West. The old man Gitano reflects Jody’s Grandfather, in that both old men are rejected by Carl Tiflin, and both of the men were explorers, Gitano of the mountain ranges to the West and Grandfather of the Westering himself. Carl Tiflin and Billy Buck contrast each other, with Carl Tiflin being hard and shy at the same time, while Billy Buck seems to show more interest and care for Jody.
“The Red Pony” is perhaps the height of John Steinbeck’s use of incompletion. The stories that it contains have no happy ending. Jody does not end up matured by his experience as so many other similar books, “The Yearling,” for example, would have it appear. John Steinbeck refuses to sentimentalize. Though the passages may seem sad or emotional this is purely reader response. Steinbeck takes care to portray the scenes with a sterile, detached distance, a matter of fact attitude.
It is this tone and mood in particular that make “The Red Pony” a great work of art. John Steinbeck’s writing style is perhaps even more thought-provoking, even more evocative than if he had purposely directed the passages in a sentimental direction or used them to promote some external purpose or fairy tale ending. For this reason I highly enjoyed “The Red Pony” as a piece of classic literature and a work of art. I recommend it to all readers.