John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony: Literary Review
A Boy and his Horse
Steinbeck, John. The Red Pony. 1965: NewYork, NewYork, Penguin Books USA, Inc. 100p.
“C’mon mom…. Can I keep it?? PLEEEAAASEE…. I promise I’ll take good care of it. I’ll feed it and train it and it’ll teach me to be responsible!” It’s possible that all children have used this line on their poor defenseless parents atleast once. Owning your first pet is like a right of passage. For the first time, children, who are always under the care of another, now have something under their care. The life of an animal now depends on their actions. Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” is full of rites of passage such as this. It portrays the coming of age of a young boy on a ranch through his experiences, observations, and relationships with the world around him. Steinbeck’s writing style is enjoyable, but the book preaches life lessons that are much deeper than what on the surface seems like leisure reading.
The book is broken down into four sections, each revolving around a new sobering experience which Jody, a farm boy encounters, and the lessons he carries away from it. Jody is young and na. He doesn’t yet understand that the world is an imperfect place, where things fall apart and come to an end. Over the course of the book, he deals with consequences of his actions, and the concept of loss.
In the first section, Billy Buck, the young farmhand and strong influence on Jody, convinces Jody’s father to give him a horse, to teach him responsibility. Jody is ecstatic and filled with fascination at this beautiful new creature. However, when the horse is left in the corral during a rain shower, he never fully recovers from a chill. Jody is crushed when his beloved pony dies. He takes out his anger on the world around him, blaming Billy for leaving the pony out in the cold, and lashing out at a buzzard that lands on the dead horse. Bitter and hurt, he doesn’t yet understand that things happen for a reason, and everything has its place in life.
In “The Great Mountains”, a mysterious stranger named Gitano comes to the ranch to live out his last days in his birthplace. Through many conversations, Jody forms a bond with and admiration for the man. When Gitano rides off alone to die in the wilderness, Jody is crushed once again. This second loss in his life helps him slowly understand how things come and go throughout the path of our lives.
In “The Gift”, Billy and Jody’s dad decide once again that Jody needs a horse to raise. Learning good work ethic and dreaming of his future colt, he works hard taking care of the pregnant mare. However, he comes crashing back to earth when the colt is born late and the mare is killed to save it. This third death affirms to Jody that life and death coexist. From this he learns that all things have a cost, and nothing in life is free.
In the last book, “The Leader of the People”, Jody’s grandfather comes to stay with them for a while. Immediately, there is a clash of generations. His grandfather stands for the gusto and zeal of the old west, and loves to share his stories. Carl, however, resents his father and the old ways. He is much more stern and unemotional. Jody is the by-stander who simply takes in the whole conflict. From this section, Jody learns old and new ways can go hand in hand. Though he is of the new generation, he still appreciates and respects the old.
Without analysis and a search for the deeper meanings of each section, this book may seem mundane. Unless you search for the symbolism and themes, all you retain is the surface, a story of a boy’s life on a ranch. Steinbeck meant to accomplish something different. Aside from displaying the harshness of ranch life, he wanted to symbolize the realities one must face in growing up, and the innocence lost when naivety disappears. He describes the gruesome scenes of the book in great detail as a reality check for the reader. Ranch life isn’t just square dances and horses as movies try to persuade us to believe. Steinbeck includes details about the medical procedures Billy performs, such as draining of puss from the pony’s lip, or the euthanasia and caesarian delivery of the colt. When Billy performs an emergency tracheotomy on the pony, Steinbeck does not spare the gore. “…the bright knife point disappeared into the throat. The pony plunged weakly away and then stood still, trembling violently. The blood ran thickly out and up the knife and across Billy’s hand and into his shirtsleeve. The sure square hand sawed out a round hole in the flesh, and the breath came bursting out of the hole, throwing a fine spray of blood”(32). This detail serves to shatter the idea of ranch work being no more than riding ponies and roping cattle.
Steinbeck shows Jody’s rage and frustration when he kills the buzzard that has landed on the corpse of his lifeless pony. “His fingers found the neck of the struggling bird…He held the neck to the ground with one hand while his other found the a piece of sharp white quartz…the first blow broke the beak sideways…black blood spurted…he was still beating the dead bird when Billy Buck pulled him off…”(36-37). This quote serves to illustrate the dark side of humanity and the carnage that is possible if we let our emotions run wild. Steinbeck is showing the trouble Jody has dealing with his anger. Through the illicit descriptive language Steinbeck employs, the reader understands the intensity of events and gains a sense of the rougher side of ranch life.
Steinbeck’s writing style helps the themes become evident to the reader. Where some authors use flowery cryptic language, he uses short concise statements that get to the point. In many books, so much effort is spent deciphering the verse that the theme is lost. However with Steinbeck’s method, understanding is reached quickly so that the reader may focus on the underlying messages.
He also uses images to portray the mood. The description of the buzzards circling invokes the idea of death in the readers mind. On page 76, Steinbeck takes detail in describing the Cyprus tree. “At the Cyprus tree, the roosting turkeys chattered a little in alarm, and the two good dogs responded to their duty and came charging out, barking to frighten away the coyotes they thought were prowling under the tree”(76).Without symbolism, the gnarled dead Cyprus tree would be just that: a tree. Since Jody associates the dead Cyprus tree with death and the slaughter of the pigs, the mention of this foreshadows throughout the book when a dark scene is approaching. By the end of the scene including the above quote, the mare must be sacrificed to birth the colt.
This book holds the special quality that a young and mature readers alike can enjoy; though they may draw different messages from it. It was simple enough for a middle school student to understand, but had deep universal themes for a high school student to analyze. Through strong themes and concise language, Steinbeck has created a timeless book of one boy’s coming of age that any generation can value.
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