The Red Pony
by John Steinbeck
You'd be forgiven if, on reading the first couple pages of The Red Pony, you assumed it's a stock and standard coming-of-age story. You know what we're talking about: a boy gets a pet, learns responsibility when the pet's in danger (but is saved in the nick of time!), and becomes a man in the process.
But you'd be wrong. Sure, Jody does do some serious Growing Up over the course of this novella, but it's not so cut and dried. It's messy, dark, and really, really depressing.
You Know What They Say About Gift Horses?
Don't leave them out in the rain. Okay, so that's not what they say. But that's the lesson Jody Tiflin learns in the first part of The Red Pony.
He's just a ten-year-old kid, and having a pony seems like a ton of work for a tiny tyke. But Jody is totally up for it. When he first takes on Gabilan as his charge, he showers that horse with attention.
Once he's done showing the pony off, the real work begins: training the thing. Jody soon realizes that this is going to be a 'round-the-clock job. Whenever the skies look like it might rain, Jody has to be on alert and make sure that Gabilan is inside the barn. And for the most part, Jody's pretty faithful to his duties:
During the week of rain, Jody kept the pony in the box stall out of the dampness, except for a little time after school when he took him out for exercise and to drink at the water-trough in the upper corral. Not once did Gabilan get wet. (1.93)
Good job, kid. The problem is, the weather just won't cooperate. It rains. And rains. And rains. In fact, it pours for a full week. So it's no wonder that when there is at last a spot of sunshine, Jody decides to let Gabilan outside while he goes to school.
Here's where the real Growing Up begins.
The rain does come again that day. In fact, it begins to pour. Poor Jody has to sit there at his desk all day, worried sick for Gabilan. When school finally lets out, Jody runs home and finds his pony outside, getting soaked. D'oh! Despite Jody's best efforts, Gabilan gets sick and dies. It's the biggest bummer in the history of bummers.
And then it gets worse.
How does Jody respond? Does he mope and weep and cry and sulk? No. He goes a little nutso and hulks out on a buzzard who was just minding his own business, doing what he do (read: eating Gabilan's eye ball).
The key here is that Jody has just experienced something Very Important. He's lost someone. He's grieving. This is some serious grown-up stuff, and Jody's anger is an alarming (if somewhat understandable) reaction. It tells us he's having some trouble processing what's going on, and that he's not the best at handling his emotions. But hey, he's a kid. So maybe we should cut him some slack.
From Gabilan to the Gabilans
Here's the thing: we would totally cut the kid some slack, if it weren't for the fact that he keeps right on abusing animals. In fact, it seems to be his hobby of choice.
Gabilan's death has clearly given the kid a bit of a mean streak. In the beginning of "The Great Mountains," we find Jody putting some major hurt on some innocent animals. He even goes so far as to kill a bird with his slingshot and then desecrate its corpse. Dude, why birds?
If this were a Stephen King novel, or an episode of Criminal Minds, we'd call him a budding serial killer, call CPS, and call it a day. But this is Steinbeck, where violence is usually much more complicated. So we'll give it some time.
Sure enough, when the old Mexican Gitano comes to the ranch, Jody reverts back to getting his kicks the normal-kid way—by asking questions. He seems particularly interested in the mountains—the Gabilans—which tells us that in a lot of ways, he's just like any other kid. He wants to know about exotic places. He wants to explore.
Gitano provides enough distraction from his grief so that Jody can focus on this other, less painful, more exciting part of growing up. And that curious, imaginative streak is still in full swing at the opening of "The Promise," where we reunite with Jody smack dab in the middle of a daydream in which he marches with an army into battle. It seems that for now at least, the horror of losing Gabilan has faded…
… Ah, but not for long.
In "The Promise" we find ourselves right back where we started—with Jody getting a horse as a gift from his old man. Except this time, he'll have to care for the horse even when it hasn't been born, by caring for the pregnant mama mare. And once again, Jody totally proves his salt, doting on the mare like nobody's business.
Don't get us wrong—he's still got that fanciful imagination thing going. In fact, he already has a name for his colt (Black Demon), and he has big plans of how they're gonna help out the Sherriff, and even the president, like good old-fashioned heroes of the Old West (3.98). Sure, he's ready for the responsibility of a horse, but he hasn't forgotten that he's still a kid, with kid dreams.
Then comes the birth. Happy occasion, right? Not so much in a Steinbeck book. In a Steinbeck book, there's trouble. And this time around, trouble comes from the colt itself. It's all twisted up inside the mare, and Billy has only one option: he has to kill the mare in order to save the colt.
It's quite the conundrum, and Billy's solution is not exactly what we were hoping for. But he gets the job done with a few well-placed hammer blows. Needless to say, this scene leaves Jody… um… horrified.
We mean, what do you do when the one thing you're so excited about (the colt), can only come about from the brutal suffering of another? It's not exactly an easy situation to swallow. (And we'd like to take this opportunity to warn all the birds and small mammals in the area to steer clear of Jody for the next few days if they value their lives.)
Jody was promised a colt and he got one. But the happy birth winds up being all about violent death. It's no wonder, then, that this newborn colt is not mentioned at all in the final part of the novella. Jody's probably feeling a wee bit awkward and confused about the whole thing. And hey, Jody doesn't exactly have the best track record with horses, so maybe it's best he stays away.
Still a Boy? Already a Man?
Finally, we arrive at "The Leader of the People." Jody's been bouncing back and forth between moments of childlike imagination ("Hey mister, what's up in them hills?") and moments of very adult pain and suffering ("Gee, I didn't know a hammer hitting a skull made such a noise."). He's a boy, but he's had some pretty grown up experiences. So it only makes sense that in this last part of The Red Pony, we'll meet Jody at his most grown-up, right? Maybe he'll put it all together and learn what it means to be a man.
At first, he's all kid, all the time. When he finds out his mom's old man is coming for a visit, he practically sprints up the hill to meet the man. And although everyone else in the family seems tired and bored with Gramps's stories of the Old West, Jody just can't wait to hear more.
But why? Shouldn't Jody be just as sick of the stories as everyone else and counting the seconds until he can go outside and kill some mice with a big stick? Probably. But he finds himself drawn to the old codger's history:
Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. […] A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of staunchness unknown in this day.
So G-pa's stories appeal to Jody's sense of imagination and adventure (which means we'll put another tick in the "He's Still a Kid" column). But there might be something else at work, too. We can't forget that when Jody forgoes a day of rodent bludgeoning in favor of shooting the breeze with Gramps on the porch, Gramps has just been totally insulted by Jody's dad, Carl.
Nice Guy Jody
It's possible, then, that Jody's just throwing his Grandpa a bone. After all, at the very end of the story, Jody tries to make the old guy more comfortable, saying, "If you'd like a glass of lemonade I could make it for you" (4.164). He's literally choosing to cater to a washed up old man's needs, rather than engaging in his favorite pastime of torturing tiny creatures.
So what's going on here? Has Jody grown up and suddenly become a mature, compassionate young man? Has he learned from his experiences of exploration and loss, and now understands what his Grandfather is going through?
It's definitely possible. After all, the kid has gone through a lot. He's learned that adults can be oh so wrong, with dire consequences. Plus he's learned that his dad ain't all he's cracked up to be either (in fact, he can be a real jerk). And Jody's learned that no matter how hard you try, sometimes animals—and people—die. As Sinatra would say, that's life.
Welcome to the adult world, buddy. Hope you brought Kleenex.
Still, we'd be stretching it a bit to say that Jody has matured into a man. We think the point here is that he's well on his way. But we can't ignore the fact that at the end of the novella, he's still a little kid, who can't reach the lemon squeezer. The poor guy still needs mama.