The Red Pony
by John Steinbeck
Carl Tiflin is the rough, gruff papa to our young Jody. He's not exactly the most loving dad in the world, but he's not a total jerk either.
A Manly Man's Man in a Man's World
If you're looking for an example of a typical rancher, well, you've found him in Carl Tiflin. He works hard, keeps his emotions in check, carries a rifle, and probably wants Jody to grow up to do the same.
How does he go about making that happen? By following the Carl Tiflin guide to fatherhood, that's how.
Give your kid a pony, so he can learn responsibility.
When his son lights up at the sight of Gabilan, Carl does not express any emotion, though. He launches right into the rules that Jody is going to have to obey: "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" (1.37).
For Carl, this is not a gift-giving moment, filled with proud fatherly affection. It's a life lesson for his young son, and it's one he's leaving someone else to teach—Billy. Yep, Mr. Buck's the one who ends up teaching Jody how to care for and train the red pony, which tells us a lot about how Carl raises Jody: he doesn't much.
Show your kid the meaning of toughness.
When the red pony is left out in the rain and catches a sickness, Carl acts as if the whole scene is a disgusting, pathetic mess. The narrator tells us, "[He] hated weakness and sickness, and he held a violent contempt for helplessness" (1.113). Wow. Way to have compassion, Mr. Tiflin.
Have you ever known anyone who had a violent contempt for helplessness? Here's hoping you never do. It sounds dreadful.
Protect your kid when things are really bad.
Every once in a while, Carl does try. When the red pony's condition worsens to the point where it almost seems hopeless, Carl tries his hand at cheering up his boy: "He told about the wild man who ran naked through the country and had a tail and ears like a horse […]'Isn't that funny?'" (1.141, 1.142).
Okay, as sad as that attempt is, at least he's trying to cheer his kid up. The real pathetic part comes when Jody's response is, shall we say, lackluster. Carl slinks off to pout because his kid didn't laugh hard enough. Hello, dude? Your kiddo's horse is dying. In this moment, it seems more like Carl's trying to make himself feel important, rather than making Jody feel better.
Still, he makes another attempt to help his kid out. When Carl makes an appearance in the barn and realizes that Gabilan is probably knocking on heaven's door, he tells Jody, "You better come on, out of this" (1.172). He knows that, as much as he values being tough and strong, this whole scene just might be too much for the kid.
But it's clear by now that Carl doesn't know much about Jody at all. The kid wants to stay with the pony, no matter how bad it gets. And when Billy defends Jody's right to watch it all go down, "Carl Tiflin walked away without saying another word. His feelings were badly hurt" (1.174). He's not so worried for his kid anymore. He's more worried about how he fits into his kid's life.
For a guy that gets his own feelings hurt over a small disagreement, you'd think Carl would understand why Jody's so upset at Gabilan's death that he wales on an innocent buzzard. But he's baffled by the scene, saying, "'Jody, […] the buzzard didn't kill the pony. Don't you know that?'"
Um, yeah, dad, he totally knows. And you've totally missed the point. It seems Carl's so manly that he's forgotten what loss feels like. He's probably wondering why Jody doesn't just toughen up and move on.
Sure, okay, Pop. Man lesson learned. Can Jody cry now?
When Gitano visits the ranch in "The Great Mountains," Carl's reaction is less than hospitable. Gitano claims he is returning home, that he was born on this land, and he is now here to live again until he dies. So does Carl smile and ask to hear stories of the old days?
Nope. He just says, "I don't need an old man. This isn't a big ranch, I can't afford food and doctor bills for an old man" (2.67). In all fairness, he does have a point. But still, can't he show a little hospitality? With some more prodding from the old man, Carl eventually folds enough to allow him to stay for dinner and the night. But that's it. He's putting his foot down.
Later that evening, Carl, Billy, and Gitano are discussing Carl's very old horse, Easter. His opinion is that "It's a shame not to shoot Easter […] It'd save him a lot of pains and rheumatism. […] Old things ought to be put out of their misery" (2.103).
It's clear by this point that they're talking about Gitano as well, seeing as how he's also old and can't work anymore. That means that what Carl's saying here is cruel in the extreme. He's basically implying that the old man should be shot to save everyone the trouble. Jeez.
Still, to give the guy some credit, Carl totally understands his own faults. The narrator tells us, "He hated his brutality toward old Gitano, and so he became brutal again" (2.102).
Wait just a hot minute. He feels bad for being brutal, so then he's more brutal? That doesn't make much sense, right? But it sums up Carl Tiflin pretty well. He's aware that he's kind of a jerk, but there's not much he can do about it.
And being a jerk serves a purpose, too. At least, on the outside. Later that night, as they're feeding Gitano, "Carl was afraid he might relent and let the old man stay, and so he continued to remind himself that this couldn't be" (2.119). Carl knows that being nice to the guy might put their family in a tough spot, so he steels himself to come off like an unwelcome jerk. He's got good intentions at heart, but at the end of the day, practical concerns are more important.
Show your kid you don't have it all figured out.
Carl ends the novella on quite the low note. In the last part, "The Leader of the People," he's downright rude about his father-in-law, and in front of his wife and kid no less. That's a tacky thing to do no matter which way you slice it, but the whole thing gets even worse when he realizes that the old man was listening the whole time:
"Did—did you hear what I said?"
Grandfather jerked a little nod.
"I don't know what got into me, sir. I didn't mean it. I was just being funny."
Jody glanced in shame at his mother, and he saw that she was looking at Carl, and that she wasn't breathing. It was an awful thing that he was doing. He was tearing himself to pieces to talk like that. It was a terrible thing to him to retract a word, but to retract it in shame was infinitely worse. (4.133-136)
Awkward. The key here is that the terrible thing for Carl is not badmouthing his father-in-law. It's apologizing for it and trying to take him back that really has him reeling. In a way, this could be a crowning moment for the guy. He's owning up to a mistake, and that's a good lesson for Jody to learn.
But he's so stinkin' bad at it that Jody can do nothing but cringe. Jody feels bad for the old guy, and horrified that his father has suddenly completely changed personalities. It's yet another example of poor Jody figuring out that adults don't have all the answers. They mess up, just like the kiddos.