The Red Pony: Essay Q&A
1. How does Steinbeck use nature and the seasons to complement the action of the stories?
Each of the stories that comprise The Red Pony begins during a specific season that complements the mood and emotional arc of the story. Jody receives Gabilan in the late summer, just two weeks after the start of school, and the pony becomes the defining element in Jody's life. Though he is still a boy, the pony gives Jody greater standing with his peers whom he brings to jealously observe the pony. It's not until the following summer when Jody is in the midst of training the horse that the unique, personal relationship between boy and horse begins to take root. The normally carefree days of summer that were once marked by boredom are now structured by the desire to train the horse. The cold early-winter rain that soaks the horse causes an illness which eventually kills it. Nature, though not directly responsible, plays a key role in undermining Jody's hopes. In "The Great Mountains" the long summer season of relative inactivity provides the perfect setting for Jody's daydreams and speculations. Gitano enters Jody's life on the dusty road and departs into the dry mountains and though Jody seeks solace at the spring tub he cannot escape the great truth that he has glimpsed. "The Promise" begins appropriately in the spring when all of nature is exploding with life. Steinbeck uses heavily sexual-tinged metaphors to describe the time period during which Nellie mates. He talks of the "wild oat heads just clearing their scabbards" and the stallion's "stiff erected nostrils" that are "red as flame." When the colt is delivered the following February at the cost of Nellie's life the lesson that death and life are joined is augmented by the dying winter season and the promise of another spring.
2. In what ways does Jody mature over the course of the four stories?
In the first story Jody kills a small bird simply to assuage his boredom. He methodically dissects the animal and discards its carcass. He is not ashamed to have killed the bird but he is ashamed of what adults would say. He has little reason respect for life for its own sake until Gabilan dies. The Jody of "The Great Mountains" is introspective and curious as he begins to understand how the fact of death shapes a person's life. He is able to relate the mystery of the unexplored mountains to his experience with Old Easter, Gitano and the rapier and in doing so evokes a "nameless sorrow" that, like death, he must learn to live with. In "The Promise" he entirely devotes himself to the task of bringing his unborn colt safely to term and in the process discovers hope. When the mare Nellie must be killed to save the colt, Jody's wish is fulfilled but he cannot celebrate the new life without mourning Nellie's death. Thus he learns that life and death are entwined. Having assimilated this lesson, Jody no longer enjoys his father's fantastic stories and is embarrassed when he criticizes Grandfather. Jody will listen to his grandfather's true stories, however, and wants to bring hope to an old man who cannot escape his past. This demonstrates Jody's empathy and true maturity.
3. What details make the novel valuable for learning more about the people who lived in Southern California in the 1930's?
From the first ring of the triangle that signals breakfast at the beginning of "The Gift," Steinbeck's story cycle offers a myriad of details about life on the Tifflin ranch. Steinbeck claimed that the inspiration for the stories came from his own childhood experiences and the author faithfully preserves many of the day-to-day details from the era. Some of the most interesting details come in passing moments such as when Jody enters the kitchen and finds his mother clabbering milk in a cotton sack hung above the kitchen sink. Elsewhere, Steinbeck presents a series of methodical details that enrich the story and maintain its detached tone. For instance, the mixture that Billy prepares for the ailing Gabilan occurs during a period of mounting anxiety in the plot: "It was a long canvas nose bag with straps to go over a horse's ears. Billy filled it one third-full of bran and then added a couple of handfuls of dried hops. On top of the dry substance he poured a little carbolic acid and a little turpentine." This careful attention to detail not only gives the reader some insight into the practices of horse care from the period but complements the mounting tension in the story. The sections of "The Gift" that deal with Gabilan's training are particularly detailed and offer a vivid account the gentle but firm technique that Billy Buck practices and which is drawn from Steinbeck's own experiences as a boy. "Of course we could force-break him to everything but he wouldn't be as good a horse if we did," Billy remarks.
4. The first three stories deal with horses - Gabilan, Old Easter and Nellie respectively. Why might Steinbeck have chosen to omit a horse from "The Leader of the People" and in what other ways does the final story differ from the previous three?
Whereas the lessons that Jody learns in the first three stories involve the relationship between life and death - themes perfectly suited to the natural world of the ranch - the lesson he learns in the final story teaches him about the fundamental similarity between human beings and the importance of respecting another's experiences. Gabilan teaches him that death is a natural fact that cannot be repudiated and Old Easter teaches him that death is a mystery each person must explore on his own and Nellie teaches him that life and death are inseparable. Jody's grandfather, however, teaches the boy that individual greatness is an illusion and only in the shared will of a group can people realize greatness. Jody's grasp of this truth leads him to empathize with his grandfather in a way that he cannot with the horses and brings to fruition his burgeoning manhood.
5. Discuss the narrative voice and why the stories have proven to appeal to both adults and children.
Although the stories are presented from the perspective of a ten-year old boy the detached, detail driven narration allows readers to connect emotionally with the story yet remain apart from it as well. This narrative distance makes the story a satisfying read for adults who can appreciate the lessons which Jody learns over the course of the stories and equally makes it enjoyable for children who can enjoy the rich details about the ranch and the horses.