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The novel The Red Pony by John Steinbeck is set near Salinas, California. It deals with the life of the ten-year-old Jody Tiflin and his growing into manhood. The other main persons are his parents, Carl and Ruth Tiflin, and the cow-hand Billy Buck. The Red Pony deals with the theme of life and death and how to cope with them. The novel consists of four short stories (The Gift, The Great Mountains, The Promise and The Leader of the People), each of them tells an adventure of Jody.
The first story deals with a red pony, which is given to Jody by his father Carl. Early in the morning Billy Buck, the cow-hand, gets up and makes himself ready for the day. He goes to the dining-room to have breakfast and here we notice the strong discipline in the family for the first time. Billy isn’t allowed to go first into the dining-room, he has to wait to wait until one member of the family sits down at the table. After the breakfast Carl and Billy Buck ride to the butcher to sell him some cows. When his father and Billy Buck disappear over the hill, Jody goes back into the house to get his books and then he leaves to school. On the way to school he fills his pockets with little white rocks so that he can shoot a bird or a rabbit with them. In the afternoon Jody returns home from school and when he meets his mother in the kitchen, she reminds him to do his chores correctly. She tells him again how to pile the wood in the wood-box and how to find out where the chickens are hiding their eggs. After he has done his chores correctly he takes his twenty-two rifle up to the brush line. He enjoys to aim at all sorts of things, but he knows that he isn’t able to really shoot with the gun, because his father refuses to give him cartridges until he is twelve years old. When Carl and Billy return home Jody is told to go to bed, because his father will need him in the morning. After breakfast Carl takes his son to the barn to show him a surprise. It is a red pony colt, that Jody’s father and Billy Buck bought the day before. Jody is astonished and happy about the present and Carl advises him with a stern voice to take care of the colt. Jody decides to name his red pony “Gabilan”. Billy Buck tells Jody, that he will teach him how to treat, to look after and to ride the pony. Then he shows Jody a nice red saddle, which is just a show saddle, but not practical for farming. Because of this gift Jody is now admired among his school friends. Proudly he tells his friends, what Billy Buck has told him about training the horse and the usefulness of the show-saddle. Jody loves his red pony colt and he likes to curry it again and again. So he neglects his chores on the farm, but his mother isn’t angry with him, because she understands her son and she is even proud of him, because of his red pony. In the following time Billy Buck teaches Jody a lot about horses, because he is well known as an expert on them. And in the early fall they start the real training. First the train the halter-breaking and then they start the training on the long-halter. After that Billy teaches Jody, how to saddle a horse and finally he gives him a lot of riding instructions. But the weather changes, before Jody is able to ride Gabilan. There is a week full of rain and during this time the horse is kept in the barn. One day it doesn’t rain in the morning and Jody lets Gabilan outdoors and goes to school. But before he leaves he asks Billy Buck to put the horse if it starts to rain. Billy Bucks assures Jody that he will do it, but he has to ride away. Suddenly it starts to rain, but neither Jody nor Billy Buck is on the ranch to put Gabilan in. So he stands in the rain for a long time and consequently the horse gets cold and ill. Billy Buck tries to save the life of Gabilan with the help of all his knowledge, but he doesn’t succeed and Gabilan dies. Jody is very sad, because of this lost and he has also lost his blind confidence in Billy Buck.
The Great Mountains:
The story takes place several month after Jody’s horse, Gabilan, has died. It’s now midsummer and Jody is listless and bored as the story begins. Because of his boredom, Jody gets violent and he destroys several small swallows nests and later he builds up a rat trap to hurt his dog Doubletree Mutt. After this he takes his slingshot and wants to kill a bird. He has never hit a bird before, but at this time he manages to kill one. He cuts the dead bird into pieces and throws it away, but he doesn’t feel better than before. When he lies in the grass afterwards he looks at the great mountains to the west of the ranch. These mountains have always been curious and secret to Jody. He has talked to his father about them, but to Carl they are just mountain and nothing more. Also his mother and Billy Buck don’t show great interest in the great mountains. Although the others don’t share his interest, the mountains remain something special for Jody. He has some fantasies about ancient cities, which should be hidden there and he wants to know very badly what’s really inside the mountains. Suddenly an old man arrives. He introduces himself as Gitano and he says, that will stay on the ranch to die. He explains, that he was born here and he wants to die on the same place. At first Carl is very stubborn and wants the old man to leave, because he isn’t able to support another man. But the old man is “pig-headed”, too, and so Carl allows him to stay for one night. One the next day he should leave for Monterey, where his relatives live. Jody is advised to show Gitano the room in the old bunkhouse, where he can stay overnight. When they are in the room, Jody start to question the old man about the great mountains. Gitano doesn’t like to talk much and so he tells Jody shortly, that he was there once when he was a child. Jody wants to know more, but Gitano means, that he can’t remember very well, but it is nice and quite there. After supper, Jody visits the old man again. He surprises Gitano before he can hide the lean, thin, gold handled rapier lying in his lap. Jody has never seen something like this before and is very curious about this rapier and Gitano is very resentful and angry, because Jody has interferes him. The old man is silent and very reluctant to speak about the rapier, but then he decides to show it to Jody. Gitano tells the young man briefly about the rapier and afterwards he wants Jody to leave. On the next morning Gitano has disappeared. Jess Taylor, the owner of the adjacent farm, tells, that he saw an old man riding on an old horse to the great mountains. Gitano has left all his things on the Tiflin’s ranch except his rapier and he rides to the mountains to die there.
The third story starts on a mid-afternoon in spring. Jody is on his way home from school and collects various insects, which he puts in his tin lunch pail. When he comes into the kitchen, his mother informs him, that Carl wants to see him. At first he thinks that he has done something bad and so he awaits punishment when he meets his father and Billy Buck at the pasture fence. But his father has a happy surprise for him. Because Billy Buck told Carl, that his son took good care of Gabilan, he decided that Jody can have another one, if he cares for it. But now he has to raise a colt to get practise. Jody agrees to this suggestion and his father orders him, to take Nellie, a mare, to the ranch of Jess Taylor, because he has a stallion for breeding. Moreover Jody is taught by his father, that he has to take care of the mare until she throws the colt. So Jody takes Nellie to the ranch of Jess Taylor and After a quick ceremony, the mating is over. Now Jody has to wait for a long time. Billy Buck tells him, that it will take about eight month until Nellie throws the colt. Billy remembers the mistake he made with Gabilan, when Jody asks him again and again that he won’t let anything happen to the colt and therefore he promises him, that he’ll get a healthy and good colt. In the following month Nellie’s abdomen gets very big, but there has been no birth. Jody starts to feel uneasy and to look for Nellie now even in the night. One night Billy Buck wakes him up and tells him, that Nellie begins to give birth to a colt. They rush into the barn, but after a short time Billy notices that the colt comes way wrong and he isn’t able to turn it. Suddenly he tells Jody to turn his head and then he takes a hammer and smashes Nellie’s head. Then he opens the swollen stomach with his big pocket-knife and then he takes out the unborn colt. Totally full of blood Billy Buck gives the colt to Jody and says: “There’s your colt. I promised”. So Jody makes Billy Buck killing the colt to keep his promise.
The Leader of the People:
Like in the opening of “The Great Mountains” Jody Tiflin is again bored at the beginning. At this time he declares some mice to his victims. To satisfy his urge for violence he makes plans how to kill the “sleek and arrogant” mice. But Jody has to postpone his mice hunt, because Billy Buck advises him to ask his father for the permission. Later Carl comes home and Jody notice a letter in his hand. Afterwards he gets to know that his grandfather, the father of his mother, will arrive soon. Jody is happy about the visit of his grandfather, in contrast to his father, who knows that grandfather tells the same stories again and again. All the stories have the same topic: The “westering”. And Jody’s grandfather led a vast group of pioneers across the prairie through Indian country. Grandfather is proud of this westering, it has been the sense of his life. But Carl doesn’t understand grandfather’s view of life and he is bored and angered with hearing the same stories again and again. But Carl isn’t deliberately offensive, for him the west is conquered and the great crossing completed. He isn’t interested in the past and therefore not interested in the stories of grandfather. Because Carl is so stubborn, it’s Jody who goes to meet his grandfather. When they return to the ranch, Carl, his wife and Billy Buck stand in front of the house to welcome grandfather. During and after the supper Jody’s grandfather tell his stories to the others. Jody listens carefully, also Carl’s wife and Billy Buck are polite and pretend to listen, but Carl is offensive again. In the next morning at breakfast Carl complains again about grandfather’s stories, because he thinks, that grandfather doesn’t hear what he says. But he stands outside of the kitchen and therefore he hears every word. When he enters the kitchen Carl is really petrified, because he know that grandfather has heard everything. At first Carl tries to make excuses, but when he sees that it is useless, because he hurt grandfather’s feelings he goes out. Confronted with Carl’s complains, grandfather begins to think about his life and he tries to sort out the place that westering had in his life. He realises, that this time is over and that the crossing is finished. Furthermore he decides to tell his stories only, if people wants to hear them. Jody means, that he is interested in grandfather’s stories and when the sit on the porch, Jody listens carefully to grandfather’s adventures.
Jody is presented as a typical ten-year-old boy. His hair is like “dusty yellow grass” and he has shy polite grey eyes. Like most of the other farm boys he obeys to his parents in general, but sometimes he forgets to do his chores. Jody can also be very violent, especially when he is bored. So kills birds, hurts his dog and smashes swallow nests. But on the other hand he grows up with great discipline. Jody wants to be man, he wants to be responsible for something that is his. His parents test his responsibility by fulfilling his dream of an own horse. And Jody does justice to this responsibility, because it isn’t his fault that Gabilan died and Carl is satisfied with his son, because he gives him the opportunity to raise a colt in the third story. We can also notice, that Jody is sometimes selfish. So Jody makes Billy Buck killing the mare Nellie, because he urged Billy before to promise that he (Jody) will get a good colt. This given promise forced Billy Buck to kill Nellie. He also blames Billy, that because of his fault Gabilan died. He made of course a mistake, but the pony died, because it was too weak. Normally some rain isn’t bad for a pony’s health. But in the last chapter Jody has developed to an understanding and sympathetic character, because he has a nice attitude towards his grandfather. He gives up his mice hunt to listen to grandfather’s stories and therefore he makes the old man happy.
Carl is head of the family and of the ranch he is described as a tall and stern man. John Steinbeck describes twice in his story how Carl turns the oil lamp off, that means that he regulate the light and therefore the life of the family. We can conclude from this descriptions, that Carl has nearly a god-like status on his ranch. Everything around him must be disciplined, but he behaves not disciplined. For everything, which happens on the ranch he has to give his permission and even Billy Buck, who isn’t only the cow-hand on the ranch but also a friend of the family, has to obey to some very strict rules. So he has to wait until Carl comes into the dining room before he enters. But Carl himself is very undisciplined, because he offends grandfather, an old man, who should be treated with great respect. Of course Carl didn’t know, that grandfather can hear his words, but a disciplined man doesn’t express himself on an older man, who is even a family member, in such a way. Although Carl is Jody’s natural father there isn’t this father-son relationship between them. He only sets up the rules for his son and gives Gabilan to him. But it is Billy Buck, who learns Jody how to take care of Gabilan. Jody talk with Billie about various things and discuss them, but Carl talks seldom with his son, mostly when he reprimands and disciplines him.
He is the cow-hand, who helps Carl Tiflin to take care of the farm and to tend the animals. He is an experienced middle-aged man, who has been with the Tiflins for a long time. He is an expert on farming and it is well known, that he has a good way with horses. Especially in “The Gift” he takes the role of Jody’s father. He learns Jody how to take care of horses and he gives him a lot of riding instructions. Normally this would be the business of Carl Tiflin. Billy Buck has a special relationship to Jody. Although he hasn’t Carl’s authority he can comment and criticise Jody’s action. Jody believes him and follows his advises. He also understands Jody’s feelings, when Gabilan dies, on the contrary to Carl. But Billy Buck isn’t only Jody’s “teacher”, he can also joke and laugh with him. Thus it seems, that Billy fulfils the duty’s of a father, which are neglected by Carl.