The Red Pony: Theme Analysis
Death and Manhood
Jody Tifflin begins this novel as a thoughtful but somewhat malicious boy who daydreams by the mossy spring tub yet destroys a small bird then dissects and discards it with the same regard he crushes a melon and hides the evidence. By then end of the story cycle, however, he has learned what it means to be a grown man through his experiences with death. His first great lesson comes when Gabilan the pony dies under his care. Next, his fascination with the mountains and the old man Gitano lead him to consider his own mortality. The turning point comes in "The Promise" when he learns that life and death are "inseparably bound together." Finally, his appreciation for his grandfather teaches him empathy and the value of respect. Jody's offer to comfort his grandfather with a glass of lemonade, and the gesture of mature respect for another's feelings that the gesture contains, demonstrates that the boy is beginning to view the world as a man. In order to reach that point, however, he first had to understand that man is powerless against death and acceptance of this condition is the essence of manhood.
Nature's Indifference to Man
The stories that comprise The Red Pony are suffused with examples of man's powerlessness against the laws of nature. Billy Buck's failed attempt to save the pony's life teaches Jody that even the ministrations of the man whose abilities he admires coupled with his own vigil and care cannot circumvent death. Even the buzzard that he kills in senseless anger fails to acknowledge the boy's desire for revenge. His experience with Gitano - who unfalteringly claims that he will stay on the ranch because he was born there but departs on the old horse Easter - causes the boy to consider that much of a man's life is immutable and unknown like the mountains into which the old man and the horse retire. When Billy Buck must kill Nellie to save her colt Jody comprehends that his friend has been forced to sacrifice a life in order to keep his promise to deliver another safely. And finally Jody learns that the passage of time eclipses an individual man's work when he empathizes with his grandfather's obsession with the past.
Steinbeck's narrative is full of rich details that impart a vivid picture of life on a 1930's-era California ranch. From Jody's mother setting up cottage cheese in a cotton bag hung above the sink to Billy Buck's method of testing his knife point by pricking the inside of his lip, The Red Pony serves as a valuable resource for understanding the time and place from one of it's best chroniclers.