Study Guide

The Red Pony Themes

  • Coming of Age

    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.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Who is the better father figure to Jody? Carl or Billy? What makes you say so?
    2. What does Mrs. Tiflin do (if anything) in the way of helping Jody to grow up into a responsible and mature young man?
    3. Does the gift of the pony teach Jody any important lessons about what it means to be a responsible adult? If so, what are they?
    4. When the novel ends, do you believe that Jody has fully matured emotionally? Or does he still have a long way to go? Why?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Death

    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.

    Questions About Death

    1. How different might the story have been if the red pony had not died? Do you think that would have made for a better story?
    2. Jody intentionally kills a few different animals in the novel. Does this make him a bad kid? Why do you think he kills them?
    3. What do you think happens to Gitano after he rides off into the Mountains? Why do you think he decided not to stay at the Tiflin ranch after all? And why steal their oldest, sickest horse?
    4. Do you think Grandfather has returned to the Tiflin ranch to die? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why do you think Carl Tiflin is the way he is? Is he too gruff for your taste, or do you think he's a good dad?
    2. Where's Gitano's family? Why might he want to come back to the ranch to die with strangers, so to speak?
    3. Is Billy part of the family? Or just an employee through and through?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Men and Masculinity

    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.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. How do Carl's stern, disciplinarian ideas of fatherhood and manliness affect Jody?
    2. Who is the better man, Carl or Billy? Why? Would Jody be better off with having only one man in his life?
    3. What kind of man is Gitano? What kind of man is Grandfather? How do these characters' manly characteristics compare to Carl's?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Disappointment

    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.

    Questions About Disappointment

    1. Is Jody a disappointment to his father? Or is Carl a disappointment to Jody? Or both? Or neither?
    2. Why does Carl seem as if he is not disappointed when Gitano steals his horse?
    3. When Grandfather comes to the Tiflin ranch, all he talks about is his life's greatest achievement that happened a very long time ago. Do you think he is disappointed with the rest of his life?
    4. What's the most disappointing moment for Jody in the book?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Duty

    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.

    Questions About Duty

    1. What do you think would happen if Jody didn't do his daily chores? In other words, why does he always obey his father (and mother) without question, do you think?
    2. Did Grandfather think it was his duty to lead his people west all those years ago? Or do you think he did it for the adventure? Or both?
    3. Does Gitano consider it his duty to come back to where he was born and live out his remaining years? What's that about? And if it was his duty, why would he leave?
    4. Does Mrs. Tiflin live up to her motherly duties? What are those?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Admiration

    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.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Does Jody admire Gabilan for reasons besides the pony's outer beauty?
    2. How does Jody's admiration for Billy Buck change throughout the course of the novel?
    3. What, if anything, does Carl admire?
    4. When the old Mexican Gitano comes to the Tiflin ranch, Jody takes an instant liking to him. Why? What does the boy admire in Gitano?

    Chew on This

    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.