The Red Pony shares with us a few episodes from a young boy's life. Now you might think that this means we're reading a cut and dried coming of age story, but it's not quite so simple. Jody bounces back and forth between childlike innocence and adult feelings of loss and sadness, so it's hard to keep track of his progress toward manhood. Does he learn the true meaning of responsibility? Does he learn from his mistakes? Does he learn anything? It's tough to call, and that may be precisely the point. Growing up isn't easy, clear, or even growing up in the first place. In Steinbeck's world, maybe growing up just means growing older.
Jody is the most mature character in the novel. Everyone else should learn a lesson or two about growing up from him.
Life on a farm gives Jody a much faster growth rate than any other boy living in suburbia or in a city. If Jody grew up in a different setting, he'd most likely take a little longer to grow up.
Sure, no humans bite the dust in The Red Pony, but death's a-knocking nonetheless. From the death of the red pony to Jody's brutal killing of the buzzard to Billy's sacrifice of the mare, we've got animals croaking in spades. And just because they're animals doesn't mean their deaths don't pack a punch. Each encounter Jody has with the Grim Reaper changes him, ages him, and wizens him up to the fact that a bit part of life is loss. Bummer, dude.
Jody's experience with the death of the red pony is so horrifying that he becomes a cruel, animal-killing kid afterward, just to cope with the grief.
Jody's reactions to death in The Red Pony are totally normal. Tons of kids go through the same things all the time.
Growing up Tiflin is not easy. But just like everyone else on this rock, Jody can't choose his parents. In The Red Pony, he's got a hardworking dad, a dutiful mom, and a skilled ranch hand to look up to. But they're all far from perfect. Carl can be tough-minded and cruel; Ruth wavers between strong homemaker and weak daughter. And Billy makes a mistake that alters the course of Jody's life forever. Family, Jody learns, is fallible.
If Carl had been a better dad to the boy, Jody would have taken Gabilan's death a lot better than he did.
The only person who comes remotely close to giving Jody a comfortable sense of family is Billy Buck.
The Red Pony takes place on a ranch, so it's no wonder that men and masculinity reign supreme. Carl Tiflin's the alpha male, with a gruff exterior and intense work ethic. Billy Buck's his right-hand man. And little Jody's at the bottom of the totem pole, still a boy, but dealing with some very manly responsibilities here. From Carl and Billy's example, Jody learns that being a man means coping with difficult situations and keeping your feelings to yourself. It may not be the ideal we're familiar with today, but back on a western ranch in the early 20th century, that was the norm.
Carl's manly man demeanor doesn't do much to help Jody come of age. If the two of them had more heart-to-hearts, Jody might learn more valuable lessons from his experiences.
Let's cut Carl some slack. Sure, his gruffness might seem like he's just a mean guy, but by keeping his distance from his kid, he actually helps Jody learn to fend for himself, which is an important lesson.
For all the promise and hope that Jody experiences in The Red Pony, there are a whole lot of bummers coming down the pike, too. For Jody, the happiest moments often come with their fair share of disappointments. And handling both of those two extremes is one of the most important tricks to learn when it comes to growing up.
Sure, Jody's sad that Gabilan's dead, but he's more disappointed in Billy Buck's failure than anything else.
When Billy kills Nellie to save her baby colt, Jody is more than disappointed in the ranch hand, the boy actually hates him.
As young Jody Tiflin grows up on his father's horse and cattle ranch, he learns that life is not for slacking. Every day there are chores to do, animals to care for, and all kinds of responsibilities to attend to. Though he is only a boy, his duties are many and, to his credit, he seldom complains. But sometimes, a person's duty can overwhelm him, as it does Billy Buck. In The Red Pony, the key is not to give up. You've got to keep on trucking, no matter how hard, painful, or rainy it gets.
All this talk of a person's duties is nonsense. The Tiflins have no other choice than to carry out their many responsibilities. If they didn't, the ranch would fall to shambles. It's not their duty to take care of things. It's just life.
Billy Buck is flawless in performing his many responsibilities. Just because he told Jody it wouldn't rain doesn't mean he shirked his duty to care for the animals. It was bad luck. That's all.
What young boy doesn't grow up admiring his father? Um. Jody maybe? Although the kid certainly respects Carl's authority, you would be hard pressed to say that he admires him. Instead, Jody tends to seek out admiration in the other men in his life—namely, Billy Buck and his Grandfather. Jody wants to grow up to be just like them because they embody that old western spirit of manliness and exploration. And in The Red Pony, that spirit is long gone. No wonder Jody tries to cling to it.
Having never had an emotionally present Dad, Jody would have admired anyone who gave him the time of day. Billy Buck is around all the time so that makes him a perfect candidate for Jody's admiration. But the ranch hand never really does anything to deserve it.
Jody's admiration for Billy never changes, even when the red pony dies.