Study Guide

The Yearling Themes

  • Strength and Skill

    In the world of The Yearling, having skills and being strong aren't just cool bonuses to make you look extra good in your selfies—they're pretty much essential to survival. If you can't hunt effectively, or aren't strong enough to spend weeks chopping and hauling firewood, then you're pretty much out of luck, unless you have someone else (preferably a big strong man) to do it for you. And even if you do have someone else (lucky you!), you'd better have some sort of skills to make a fair exchange for their labor, like cooking or cleaning.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Does a character's appearance tell us something about his skills and strength? Think of Buck Forrester. What about Penny Baxter?
    2. Which skills did Jody already have in the beginning of the book? Which did he develop throughout the book? What does he still lack?
    3. Which is more important in the scrub—mental skills and strength or physical skills and strength? Why?

    Chew on This

    Penny's body was never strong—it was his will and his drive to work hard, that made him able to do strenuous farm chores.

    Penny did his son a disservice by not teaching him more about how to work on the farm when he was younger. He shouldn't have let him play around so much.

  • Family

    Imagine you were stuck with your family in a little cabin, all by yourselves, with no TV, Internet, or phones. Now imagine you had to depend on them for your survival. Yeah—families are super important in The Yearling. In the rural 1870s, families had to be able to work well together to keep the household running. Think of the household like a small startup: you're all working long hours crammed into a small office, only there's no all-night pizza delivery and you can't choose your coworkers. In other words, you've all got to learn to get along.

    Questions About Family

    1. What is the defining characteristic of each family in The Yearling? How does each family relate to the others?
    2. Did Jody really consider Flag to be part of their family? If so, what would that say about Jody's relationship to his family? To the natural world?
    3. How does the way Penny and Ory raised Jody affect who he is at the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    The "us against them" mentality of families struggling to survive creates unusual closeness in the families of The Yearling. If they lived in a city and didn't have to fight the forces of nature, they wouldn't be as close.

    Family is so important to shaping personality that, if Fodder-wing had grown up in Jody's place in the Baxter household, he would have turned out like Jody.

  • Courage

    Bravery is kind of a given if you're trying to make it in the harsh scrub forest. You've got your wild animals, your crazy weather, your complete lack of emergency services… And it's not like you can just cower in your house all day—you've got to go out and face it, hunting and driving away predators. And most of all, you've got to have enough courage to face the hardships that will crop up in your life instead of just lying down to die.

    Questions About Courage

    1. What does courage mean to Penny? What about Ory? Is courage different for men and women?
    2. Who shows more courage: the loud and boasting Forresters, or the quiet and hard-working Penny?
    3. What is the bravest thing Jody does? Why is it so brave?
    4. Can animals have courage? Think about Penny's dogs, or Slewfoot.

    Chew on This

    Out in the wild, courage is more important than brains or brawn.

    In The Yearling, endurance is the same thing as courage. Just surviving from day-to-day takes guts.

  • Coming of Age

    Growing up is hard to do, especially when it means having to take over your family's corn-planting and wildlife-killing duties rather than just moving into a dorm room and getting a meal plan. In The Yearling, Jody has to learn to stop making flutter-mills and start digging wells, with a lot of unpleasant experiences along the way. Sure, it's sad that he had to be exposed to the harsh aspects of life in order to take that next step, but at least he gets the chance to grow up—at least one Baxter child does.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Penny teaches Jody a lot about animals, hunting and fishing, and nature in general. Does any of that contribute towards Jody's journey towards adulthood? Would Jody's coming of age have been different without all of his early experiences in nature?
    2. If you had to choose only one of Jody's traumatic experiences, and only put him through that, but it had to make him take on his duty as an adult in the end, which would it be? Why?
    3. Would Jody ever have run away alone if his dad had been meaner from the start, and gotten him used to hard work and responsibilities at an early age? Should Penny have been harsher with him?

    Chew on This

    If Jody had not returned home, but had become a sailor like he intended to, he would never truly have been an adult.

    Without the experience with Flag, Jody wouldn't have been ready to step in when Penny needed him to.

  • Appearances

    Don't judge a book by its cover, it's what's inside that counts, yadda, yadda, yadda. We've heard it all before and it's all good advice and let's face it: we all consistently ignore it and then spend a lot of time beating ourselves up for being shallow. And then, just when you thought you'd learned your lesson, along comes The Yearling, where appearances actually do tell you something about the characters and you're totally justified in disliking someone because you don't like the cut of their jib. In other words, we're pretty sure Rawlings isn't going to be joining the fat acceptance movement anytime soon.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Who are the odd ones out, physically, in the Forrester and Baxter families? How does their "oddity" affect how they are treated by the others?
    2. What does it say about Jody that he thinks all girls but Ma and Grandma are ugly?
    3. Is Ma Baxter's size crucial to the novel? Why do you think Rawlings spends so much time emphasizing it?

    Chew on This

    Jody's appearance doesn't seem to correspond to any specific character traits, as most other characters' do. That's because Jody is the only character who is fully realized as a person.

    The appearances of animals are just as telling as the appearances of people: ugly, mean-looking bears are actually mean, while cute and mischievous-looking deer are actually cute and mischievous.

  • Man and the Natural World

    When you live out in the middle of the scrub forest, things are going to get ugly. But then sometimes they're also going to be heart-stoppingly beautiful. The characters in The Yearling have a love-hate relationship with nature. It's beautiful, inviting, exciting, fun, and soothing—but it's also a constant threat to their lives, whether through storms or predators or even frolicking deer.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Jody and Penny only go fishing once. What does that trip show us about their relationship with nature?
    2. Penny was truly out for revenge when he went after Slewfoot the last time. But is there really such a thing as taking revenge on nature, when nature is an abstract force operating through instinct?
    3. What does Flag tell us about Jody's relationship with nature? How about Ory's?

    Chew on This

    Jody's changing view of Slewfoot represents his growing awareness of his family's struggle against nature.

    Fodder-wing did not see nature as something to be feared, which is why he had to die. A healthy fear of nature is necessary to survive in the wilderness.

  • Life

    Like most good books, The Yearling saves its big punches for the end. In this case, we get hammered like Jody in a brawl with the Forresters: life is hard. Sure, we experience all the harsh-itude throughout the book, what with the storm and the flood and the mean animals and people. But in the end, Penny spells it out for Jody: life is cruel and hard, but you have to keep on living anyway.

    Questions About Life

    1. What is the big-picture meaning-of-life for Penny? Why does he think we're all here?
    2. Do you think the Forresters see life as harsh and unforgiving, too? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think Jody really understands what his father is telling him, after just a few days on his own? Does he agree?
    4. Do Ma and Pa Baxter have different views on life, or would Ma basically agree with Penny?

    Chew on This

    If Penny had his heart-to-heart with Jody earlier, Jody would never have run away.

    Life may have been hard for the Baxters, but Penny's experiences aren't universal. For wealthier people living in town, life could be pretty great.

  • Duty

    Duty to your country, duty to your family, duty to yourself—take your pick. There are plenty of duties to go around, even if it's not a word that we hear much of these days. In The Yearling, though, duty makes the world go 'round. Life is so difficult and so precarious that you have to be able to count on your family, and your peers, 100%. If Penny or Ma stopped doing their duties, the entire family would die. It's a hard lesson for Jody to learn, but eventually he realizes that he's got to stop building flutter-mills and start plowing the fields. Think about that next time your dad asks you to set the table.

    Questions About Duty

    1. What does Penny see as his duty in life? How about Ory? And how are these duties related to their gender?
    2. Penny takes Flag in because he feels he has a duty to care for him, since he killed his mom. Why is that duty suddenly not important, when Flag grows up?
    3. Are some duties more important than others in The Yearling? Which ones?

    Chew on This

    Jody comes to see caring for his family as his duty because he wants to. If Penny had forced him to take on the farm, he would eventually have failed.

    Rawlings suggests that children should be allowed to have a childhood free of duty.

  • Mortality

    Maybe you learned when your beloved pet died, or when a grandparent died, or maybe you've only read about it in books, but either way the fact remains: we're all going to die. Yes, even you. Luckily, most of us in the 21st century don't learn this lesson too harshly, but for Jody it's a near-daily experience: Fodder-wing, farm animals, wild animals, and finally, Flag all die. He may not think much about his own mortality—he is only twelve, after all—but, by the end of The Yearling, he's realized that even his father will die someday. Way harsh. At least he'll be ready to take his dad's place trying to scrape a few more years out of the wilderness, right?

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why doesn't Jody ever think about his own mortality, even when he's surrounded by death? Is he just too young?
    2. What would change about Jody's life if his mother died? What if his father died?
    3. How does Fodder-wing's death affect Jody? Does it change him in specific ways?

    Chew on This

    Jody is more upset about Flag's death than he is about Fodder-wing's death because he subconsciously recognizes that Flag belongs to his childhood.

    By the end of The Yearling, Jody is ready to accept Penny's death—even though he's glad his dad is still around.