Jody's a youngster, so he's got all kinds of things to look forward to. It's no wonder, then, that he's full of imaginative moments that look toward the future, like this one:
Jody saw a black long-legged colt, butting against Nellie's flanks, demanding milk. And then he saw himself breaking a large colt to halter. All in a few moments the colt grew to be a magnificent animal, deep of chest, with a neck as high and arched as a sea-horse's neck, with a tail that tongued and rippled like black flame. This horse was terrible to everyone but Jody.
Of course, this is all in Jody's head. We never know if the colt actually grows up to be this awesome creature that helps out the sheriff and saves the president. But Jody sure hopes it might be so.
Jody may have a lot to look forward to, but that doesn't mean he doesn't get mopey every now and then:
He covered his eyes with his crossed arms and lay there a long time, and he was full of a nameless sorrow. (2.173)
Sure, Jody's a young kid. But he has plenty of adult emotions, and the tone of The Red Pony doesn't shy away from those moments.
Full disclosure? The Red Pony is not what you might call a happily-ever-after story. It throws Jody into a relentless pit of woe (can you find that on Google Maps?) and makes no apologies for trying to toughen up the boy.
This is, after all, the Wild West. On the ranch, men should be men, you can learn from everything life hands you, and there is no use complaining when things don't go your way. Because tomorrow is another day and there are always chores to be done.
Jody's on the brink of adolescence. He's taking on some adult responsibilities (like keeping a pony), but he's also just a kid who wants to hit rodents with a stick. Needless to say, it's an awkward time for the kid.
Life throws him more than his fair share of curveballs, and each one nudges him just a bit closer to adulthood. It doesn't necessarily mean he's wiser, or better. Just older, and a bit more seasoned.
We know you're wondering where all the gunslingers and stagecoaches went, but alas, Shmoop can't help you. This ain't that type-a western, pardner.
It's the new kind—the kind that was written after the west was won, when the frontier was settled, but the land was still just as rough. What does this mean for our characters? They've got all the hard work that comes with living in the west, and none of the fun of exploring it. Jody's got nowhere to go—there's no frontier to pioneer—but he and his family are still eking out a life from a land. And hey, isn't that why everyone moved west in the first place?
Ah, The Red Pony. A simple story of a boy and his pet and how they live happily ever after.
Oh wait. That can't be right.
With a title like The Red Pony you might expect to read a typical story of a boy learning to love a horse. When kiddos dream of having ponies, they dream of fun rides off into the sunset. They don't dream of all the hard work having a pony requires. And they certainly don't imagine an untimely death.
But that's what we get in The Red Pony. As soon as we dive headfirst into the story, we realize that this isn't your run-of-the-mill story. This is no nostalgic puff piece. There will be blood. And hey, maybe that's why the pony's red.
The weird thing is, that red pony only appears in the first part. For the rest of the three sections, the pony's nothing but a distant memory. It's barely even mentioned. So what gives?
Well, we think that red pony is still fresh in this kid's mind. His experience with Gabilan colors all of Jody's experiences afterwards. He's a changed kid, and there's only more tough stuff coming down the pike. So after we read the first part, and think about the fact that the whole book is called The Red Pony, we realize that this book is about the sense of loss that comes with growing older, and not the innocent joys of kid-dom.
What's up with the ending? Nothing, actually. There's nothing up about this ending at all. It's a big ol' bummer, and we'll tell you why.
But first, let's revisit. Jody's Grandfather has just told his grandkid that "Westering has died out of the people […] It is finished" (4.163).
Now, this is bad news for Jody, who dreams of adventures like the ones his Grandfather had when he was the leader of a wagon train headed for California. Basically, old Gramps is telling the kid, you know your dreams? Yeah, ain't gonna happen.
So what does Jody go and do? He makes Grandfather a drink:
Jody ran into the kitchen where his mother was wiping the last of the breakfast dishes. "Can I have a lemon to make a lemonade for Grandfather?"
His mother mimicked—"And another lemon to make a lemonade for you."
"No ma'am. I don't want one."
"Jody! You're sick!" Then she stopped suddenly. "Take a lemon out of the cooler," she said softly. "Here, I'll reach the squeezer down to you." (4.166-169)
The poor kid is just trying to do a nice thing for his Granddad, and his mom thinks he's sick? Yeah, that struck us as odd, too. But it's clear that Ruth Tiflin knows her son well, or at least she thinks she does. And it's out of character for her son to be making lemonade for another person, and not one for himself.
That's why she stops. She realizes something—her Jody isn't the same Jody anymore. Something has changed in him. He's growing older, and maybe even kinder. But she knows he's not quite that old—yet. He's still too much of a kid to reach the squeezer all by himself.
Let's back up a minute, for one last thing.
Remember Grandfather's words to Jody? We'll refresh you: "It is finished" (4.163).
Sound familiar? It should. These are the words Jesus said just before he died in The Gospel of John, 19:30. Now, we're not saying that we're meant to think of Grandfather as a Christ figure, but it's worth noting that when Jesus says this in the Bible, it's when he's receiving a refreshing drink of wine. And here, Jody gets Grandfather a lemonade. Hmmm. Seems similar, don't you think? We'll let you decide what to make of it.
Almost the entirety of The Red Pony takes place on the Tiflin ranch, which lies between the Gabilan Mountains and the Great Ones. The Tiflins have a house, a few barns, a corral, a bunkhouse, and acres and acres of fields.
Let's get a glimpse of the scene:
[Jody] went on to the sagebrush line where the cold spring ran out of its pipe and fell into a wooden tub. He leaned over and drank close to the green mossy wood where the water tasted best. Then he turned and looked back on the ranch, on the low, whitewashed house girded with red geraniums, and on the long bunkhouse by the cypress tree where Billy Buck lived alone. […] The sun was coming over the ridge now, glaring on the whitewash of the houses and barns, making the wet grass blaze softly. Behind him, in the tall sagebrush, the birds were scampering on the ground, making a great noise among the dry leaves; the squirrels piped shrilly on the side-hills. (1.14)
Talk about a country paradise. There's always something to look at and some creature scuttling around. Clearly, this is an idyllic place for a young boy to grow up in. Jody's got all the space he needs to let his imagination run free.
And remember, Steinbeck was a local hero. He grew up in a place a lot like the Tiflin's ranch, so he's on familiar ground in The Red Pony. He knows what it means to be a little boy, growing up in this rough and tumble, rural world. So we can sympathize with Jody, who has all the freedom of a farm boy, but none of the worldly experience he wants, because he's stuck between two mountain ranges, dreaming of elsewhere.
The Red Pony's not exactly a bucking bronco. It's got simple language, clear sentences, and not a whole lot of confusion. It's Jody's emotional and mental world that might trip you up, because it can be hard to pinpoint just what he's feeling. But trust your gut and trust Shmoop. We promise: you'll be fine.
Steinbeck doesn't like to beat around the bush. He tells it like it is—no frills, and no nonsense.
The dialogue between the characters is oftentimes direct and to the point. There's no time for long, breathtaking soliloquies when there is work to be done:
"Now he'll feel better," Billy assured him. "That yellow poison is what made him sick."
Jody looked unbelievingly at Billy Buck. "He's awful sick."
[…] "Yes, he's pretty sick." (1.154-1.156)
Sure, these are simple folks living simple lives, but that doesn't mean they're not complicated on the inside. They may use few words, and Steinbeck may use few words to describe them, but he packs a whole lot of meaning into those few words.
Take, for example, when Jody's mom seems shocked that Jody only wants a lemon for his Grandfather, and not one for himself, too. She just says, "Jody! You're sick!" (4.169).
But we know he's not sick. We know he's feeling a little bit sad that westering is over. We know he feels bad for his Grandfather, whose best days are behind him. And we know that he's trying to do something nice, something selfless for the old guy, and that's why he doesn't want a lemon for himself. And we know his mother knows not a lick of this.
Does Steinbeck bother telling us any of this? Nope. He just uses a sparse style, and leaves the sussing out up to us.
The Tiflin ranch sits snug as a bug in a rug between two mountain ranges—the Gabilan Mountains to the east, and the "Great Ones" to the west.
We know Jody's a budding mountaineer because he names his red pony after the eastern mountains—Gabilan—because those mountains are "the grandest and prettiest things he knew" (1.45). The Gabilan Mountains "were jolly mountains, with hill ranches in their creases, and with pine trees growing on the crests. People lived there, and battles had been fought against the Mexicans on the slopes" (2.32). In other words, these mountains are settled and safe. Sure, they'd been fun to explore, and as far as we can tell, Jody's never set foot on them, but he knows what he'll find there in any case.
Then there are the Great Ones. Those aren't so pleasant. In fact, they're pretty scary:
[Jody] sat up the better to look at the great mountains where they went piling back, growing darker and more savage until they finished with one jagged ridge, high up against the west. Curious secret mountains […] (2.6)
And when Jody questions Carl about them, his old man only adds to the mystery. He tells Jody that there's nothing in those mountains, but Jody begs to differ:
Jody knew something was there, something very wonderful because it wasn't known, something secret and mysterious. He could feel within himself that this was so. (2.25)
Unlike the Gabilans, these mountains aren't settled, and his father even admits that only a few people have probably ever explored them. And even those folks can't have seen it all. Jody's curious and wants some answers.
So when Gitano shows up, he peppers the old guy with questions. But no dice. Gitano doesn't remember much, and describes them only as "nice." Still, he must know a little something about those mountains, because that's just where he goes when he steals Easter. And if we may say so, Jody's a bit jealous of the man's adventure:
He looked searchingly at the towering mountains—ridge after ridge after ridge until at last there was the ocean. For a moment he thought he could see a black speck crawling up the farthest ridge. Jody thought of the rapier and of Gitano. And he thought of the great mountains. A longing caressed him and it was so sharp that he wanted to cry to get it out of his breast. (2.173)
What's this all about?
As it turns out, we don't get the answer to this question until the final part of the novella, "The Leader of the People." Jody's grandpa tells him about his journey westward with a wagon train, and then describes how the whole trip came to an abrupt end:
"There's no place to go. There's the ocean to stop you. There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.
No place to go, Jody. Every place is taken. But that's not the worst—no, not the worst. Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn't a hunger any more. It's all done." (4.161,163)
What does westering have to do with the Great Ones, you ask? Good question. Grandfather believes that westering has died out of the people, but it certainly hasn't died out of Jody. He keeps looking west at those peaks, and wanting desperately to go explore them. So what's stopping him?
It's not the ocean. That's what stopped his Grandfather's generation. But it might as well be. What's stopping Jody is that those mountains aren't much of a mystery after all. People moved west, settled everywhere they could, and now, as Gramps puts it, "every place is taken" (1.163). Jody seems to be longing for some great old era when there were new frontiers to explore and worlds to be conquered. That's what those mountains represent. And maybe that's what's got him so bummed. Folks are done exploring. They're settled, and that means Jody will have to settle, too.
This is the goriest novella we've come upon in a long, long time. For the most part, the oodles of blood we see in The Red Pony symbolizes pain and suffering and death. Blood tends to do that.
But it's not that way at first. The first time we see blood, it's harmless, painless, and kind of delicious:
Jody took three eggs on his plate and followed with three thick slices of crisp bacon. He carefully scraped a spot of blood from one of the egg yolks.
Billy Buck clumped in. "That won't hurt you," Billy explained. "That's only a sign the rooster leaves." (1.4-1.5)
Hold it right there, misters and misses. If you've learned anything in your English classes to date, we're sure you've heard of the term foreshadowing. Well, this tiny spot of blood that Jody sees in his eggs is a textbook example of the literary term.
Yep, let's face facts. There's more blood coming down the pike. Otherwise, why draw attention to the fact that Jody seems a little bugged by this blood in his eggs? And notice how Billy just brushes it off? Well, he would, wouldn't he? After all, he's seen his fair share of blood in his work, and he's about to see a lot more:
Jody sobbed once as the bright knife point disappeared in [Gabilan's] throat. […] The blood ran thickly out and up the knife across Billy's hand and into his shirtsleeve. The square hand sawed a round hole in the flesh, and the breath came bursting out of the hole, throwing a spray of blood. (1.168)
First, let's just get this out of the way: yuck. This scene must have been majorly traumatizing for poor Jody. And the worst part is, this makeshift surgery of sorts totally doesn't achieve its goal. Gabilan doesn't get better, so all this gruesome gore was for, well, nothing.
You'd think that, after a scene like this, Jody might have a fear of blood. But nope. He draws it himself, just a few pages later, when he attacks the buzzard that's chowing down on poor, dead Gabilan:
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 up and vomited a putrefied fluid. 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 sideways and black blood spurted from the twisted, leathery mouth corners. (1.184)
Shmoopers, it doesn't get much bloodier than that. That's the stuff of nightmares right there. A few lines later, we find out that Jody's got blood all over his face, which his father has to wipe off. Apparently, this kid is so hurt by Gabilan's death that he wants to hurt the world back. The buzzard just happens to be the first thing that comes along.
You thought we were done, didn't you? Ah, but this just wouldn't be a section on blood if we didn't tackle what just might be the most horrifying, bloody scene of all: Nellie's death, and the birth of the colt.
After he smashes Nellie's head in with a hammer and cuts the colt out of her (yep, you read that right), "Billy's face and arms and chest were dripping red" (3.172). Say it with Shmoop: gross.
Jody's colt is delivered in what could very well be the most violent and bloody way possible. Does this affect the boy? Well, he never says as much, but we take the fact that he never mentions the colt again to mean that he wasn't exactly thrilled with the way the animal came into the world.
Still, Jody's learned an important lesson. Life is messy—things are born and die very quickly, and often it's more than a little unpleasant. It's something Billy knows well, working on a ranch, and it's something poor Jody's just gonna have to get used to.
Rain goes both ways. Some folks would give their left arm for just a drop (like the Joads in that other Steinbeck book). Some folks would give their right for the rain to cut it out. So which camp do the Tiflins fall in?
The first one. In The Red Pony, rain is nothing but bad news. When Jody gets Gabilan as a gift, he's pumped. That is, until it starts pouring for days on end, and he can't do anything but keep the poor pony inside. In this case, rain = big bummer.
And it only gets worse. When the rain lets up for a bit, and they decide to let Gabilan out for a spell, and Billy promises Jody, "If it comes on to rain—why a little rain don't hurt a horse" (1.97). Oh Billy. Why must you say things?
Of course just a few lines later, he says it again: "A little rain never hurt anything" (1.112). Um, Billy? It totally does. When the rain comes, it changes everything, and it definitely hurts the Tiflins. Okay maybe just Jody. Because when his pony dies from exposure to the elements, the kid is clearly crushed.
Sure, our friendly neighborhood narrator likes to keep his distance, but every once in a while, he'll cozy on up to a character and give us a glimpse into his or her thoughts.
Take this moment, when we get to see what Jody's thinking: "He felt an uncertainty in the air, a feeling of change and of loss and of the gain of new and unfamiliar things" (1.14).
Or this one, where we get to know Billy's mind: "He had no right to be fallible, and he knew it" (1.106).
Even the red pony gets his day in the sun: "The pony talked with his ears. You could tell exactly how he felt by the way his ears pointed. Sometimes they were stiff and upright and sometimes lax and sagging. They went back when he was angry or fearful, and forward when he was anxious and curious and pleased; and the exact position indicated which emotion he had" (1.70).
This narrator really knows his stuff. He can jump around from character to character when the occasion calls for it. Still, he mostly sticks with Jody. This is Jody's story after all—he's the youngster with all the growing up to do, and it's him we're closest to as we read.
The Gift that (Doesn't) Keep on Giving
Young, impressionable Jody Tiflin receives a present from his father that, for all intents and purposes, blows the boy's mind. The gift is a beautiful red pony and Jody goes totally Lady Gaga over it. Jody will hug him and squeeze him and call him Gabilan.
How To Train Your Pony
With the help of the ranch hand, Billy Buck, Jody trains his beloved pony and learns how to best care for him. After a bunch of rainy days, the sun finally comes out, and Jody can let Gabilan out to romp around. Jody decides to leave his pony out in the corral while he goes to school, with assurances from Billy that it won't rain.
The Rain Cometh and the Rain Taketh Away
Billy is, it turns out, one terrible meteorologist. It rains. And it pours. And old men everywhere snore. Beside himself with worry, Jody can only sit helpless behind his desk at school, waiting for the end of the day to come. When it finally does, Jody runs straight home in the torrential downpour and carefully walks his soaking wet and shivering pony back into the stable.
The Saddest Words You'll Ever Read
The pony gets very sick and, despite Billy Buck's best efforts, dies.
Jody Gets Revenge… Sort Of
In a brilliant, fiery rage, Jody takes out all his grief on a buzzard whose beak is literally dripping with the pony's eyeball mucus. Jody destroys the bird and never looks back. It's gruesome and horrifying, and not recommended for the little tykes.
An old Mexican named Gitano appears from the Gabilan Mountains. He comes to the Tiflin ranch and makes himself at home. He says he was born on this land, long ago.
Gitano says he's gonna stay there… on the Tiflin ranch… 'til he dies. Everyone is kinda like, "Whaaaa?" But Gitano insists. He's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Jody takes Gitano down to the stables and introduces him to Easter, a very old horse. Gitano's old, too, so he hits it off with the horse right off the bat. Things get awkward when Carl says that when a horse gets really old, he should be put out of his misery. Billy Buck defends Easter, Gitano, and old souls everywhere.
That's Not a Knife… This Is a Knife
At dinner, Carl relents and allows Gitano to sleep the night in the bunkhouse. Curious about Gitano, Jody goes to visit the old Mexican, and bombards him with questions about the mountains. But the old guy's not exactly brimming with answers. Still, he does have one thing up his sleeve: a cool old rapier that Jody admires.
In the morning, Gitano is gone and so is Easter. The old Mexican has stolen Carl's old horse and the ranch owner doesn't seem to care. Good riddance to both of 'em.
Gift Horse 2.0
Carl tells his boy it's time he had himself a new colt. So Jody takes a mare to a neighboring ranch to be bred. After months of waiting, Billy Buck announces to Jody that the mare is in fact preggers. Mazel tov, mare.
Billy's Bedside Manner
Billy Buck explains to Jody that his own mother died in childbirth and he (Billy) was raised on mare's milk. Just another reason why Billy is so good with horses. But being great with horses doesn't stop tragedy from happening sometimes (as Jody knows full well from the red pony disaster).
Billy tells Jody that sometimes a baby colt gets all twisted up inside the mare and it has to be cut to pieces and cut out to save the mare's life. This of course is gut-wrenching stuff to hear and Jody becomes worried this may happen with his own colt. It's also a major dose of foreshadowing.
Tragedy, Part Deux
One awful night, Jody wakes up suddenly, worried about the pregnant mare. Billy reassures Jody that everything is fine and that the boy should go back to bed. But soon enough, Billy comes running in and grabs Jody to come back to the stable. To make a long story short, the colt is coming, and the mare might not make it through.
You Win Some…
After a few nail-biting moments, Billy decides the mare's gotta go, and he'll cut the colt out of her dead body. Yeah, it's as awful as it sounds, and Jody seems pretty traumatized.
Billy pulls the colt from the dead mother's body and rips open the sac covering with his teeth. The colt emerges and breathes. With blood and entrails lying about everywhere in the hay, Billy Buck screams at Jody to go get some water. Yep. Water. He can do that.
Old School Snail Mail
The Tiflins receive a letter. Mrs. Tiflin's daddy-o is headed their way. Hooray for visitors! Jody's so pumped, he runs up the hill to be the first to greet Gramps when he arrives. The stage is set for a little family reunion.
Must We Hear It Again?
Carl begins to badmouth Mrs. Tiflin's father for all his repetitive stories. Basically, he thinks the old guy's a blowhard and a nuisance, because all he can talk about is that one time he took a wagon train out west. Big whoop. Shmoop did that every day in computer class in third grade.
Hold Your Tongue!
Sure enough, no sooner has Gramps arrived on the ranch then he launches into story after story about his trip. Guys? Did you know that a long time ago, I was a leader of a great people who traveled west to California to settle down? Yes, Gramps, we knew. Carl holds his tongue and quietly rolls his eyes for as long as he can stand it. Then, when he thinks the old man is not around, Carl complains to his wife while Jody eavesdrops. And, of course, Grandfather happens to pop his head in and overhears as well. Awkward.
Taking Back the Bad Talk
Eesh. Gramps is really bummed, and Carl feels terrible. He apologizes in a way that Jody has never witnessed before. Then Grandfather starts to see that maybe Carl is right. Maybe he is just a washed up old man reliving his glory days (Springsteen would approve). Maybe he kind of isn't a big deal.
When Life Gives You Lemons…
Well Jody for one is all for hearing more stories about the days of the Old West. Plus he feels kind of bad about the awkward exchange between his pop and g-pop. So he decides to forgo killing rodents for the day (good on you, dude), and sits on the porch with Gramps, encouraging the old man to continue telling tales. Then, he goes to make his Grandfather some refreshing lemonade.
Note: Here's the thing. If we think of The Red Pony as one giant coming-of-age story in four parts, we can think of each of those parts as a stage, or act in Jody's long journey to (almost) adulthood. So in many ways, it makes sense to divide up this Steinbeck classic into four acts, not three. Here we go…
A young boy named Jody Tiflin lives on his family's ranch in California. Jody receives a red pony as a gift from his father. The pony is accidentally left out in the rain, comes down with strangles, and dies, teaching Jody a little somethin' about love and loss. Oh and responsibility, too.
An old Mexican named Gitano comes to the Tiflin ranch. He says that he was born on this land and he has returned after many years to live out his remaining days where he grew up. After staying at the ranch for one night, Gitano steals Carl Tiflin's oldest horse and rides away, into the mountains. Jody's curiosity is clearly blooming, but he's also learning that growing up ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Jody is promised a new colt. Yeah, because that last one worked out so well. The boy takes one of his father's mares, Nellie, to a nearby farm and another horse impregnates her. When the time comes for Nellie to give birth, Billy Buck realizes that the colt is turned wrong and the only way to save it is to kill the mother and cut the colt out of her. He does this, and hands the newborn colt to Jody. Can you say bittersweet?
Jody's maternal Grandfather comes to the ranch. The guy is old, and maybe his memory's going, because he keeps repeating the same old tired stories about his glory days. Stories they have all heard before, over and over… and over. Carl Tiflin's so fed up with it that he sticks his foot in his mouth, causing Gramps to become more than a little mopey. Luckily, Jody's around to help cheer his g-pa up, even if it means he can't have his planned fun. So he decides to make Gramps some lemonade. It's a small gesture, sure, but it's a gesture nonetheless. Looks like this kiddo has learned a serious lesson about compassion.
The Great Crossing a.k.a. The Great Westering refers to the time when a brave lot of people moved west into uncharted territories. Many bands of explorers set out to see what America had to offer and when they finally reached California, they settled down. Grandfather was the leader of one of these groups (fictional, of course) and he has been reliving the adventuresome experience ever since.