The Red Pony: Metaphor Analysis
Note - the stories which comprise The Red Pony are full of people, places and things with symbolic value. Like Steinbeck's other major work of short fiction The Pearl, this story is driven by theme and as such invites strong metaphorical analysis. A few examples are discussed here but other obvious examples of items with symbolic value include Gitano's golden rapier, the seasons and the mountains.
The Mossy Spring Tub and the Black Cypress Tree
Two of the most obvious symbols in the story are the mossy spring tub and the black cypress tree which represent life and death respectively. Steinbeck relates that the spring tub and its surrounding patch of dark green grass is the place where the boy went to ease himself of his worries and to contemplate life. The spring is a place of safety and renewal and a place where he retreats to recover from the harsh realities of the world. The opposite of the spring tub is the black cypress tree where the pigs are scalded. Jody clearly identifies its black trunk and branches with death. So concrete is the connection in Jody's mind that when he catches himself thinking of his unborn colt while standing beneath its branches he immediately goes to the spring tub to recover and hopefully escape the bad luck such thoughts engender.
Of all the horses in the stories, Old Easter has the most obvious symbolic value as a representative of the old and infirm in a world that rewards youth and vigor. As such, Old Easter is a parallel for the character of Gitano whose advanced age has made him little more than a beggar looking for a proper place to die. Carl Tifflin's assertion that it would probably be best just to shoot Old Easter since she can't work any longer is a tacit attack upon the old man whose request to live on the ranch Carl refuses on the basis that he cannot afford the cost of another mouth to feed. Significantly, Gitano and Easter leave the ranch together and carry with them the dignity of life that chooses to seek death on its own terms.
One of the work's central themes is nature's indifference to man's wishes. The buzzard which Jody catches feasting on the pony's remains symbolizes this theme and teaches the boy that death is a natural condition which bears no personal bias or malice. Not only does the buzzard not care that Jody has striven to save the pony's life, the carnivorous bird observes the boy with almost passive regard as he strangles and then beats it to death. Even after breaking off the bird's beak with a rock we are told that: "The red fearless eyes still looked at him, impersonal and unafraid and detached." Jody's father, who appreciates the natural order and has adapted it to suit his cynical world view, reminds his son that the buzzard did not kill the pony but Billy Buck, who appreciates Jody's emotional involvement with the horse, defends the boy's actions though they are pointless and unreasonable.