John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony”

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John Steinbeck‘s “The Red Pony” is far from being a heartwarming book for children. It is, rather, a chilling book partly about an only child on a meso-California farm early in the 20th century and almost as much about old people whom middle-aged people are impatient to be rid of.

It is an indicator of American values that the death of a pet rather than the despair of human elders is what is remembered of this pseudo-novel. It is actually four stories that Steinbeck did not bother to edit for continuity (reintroducing the characters in each). The first three stories originally appeared together in what must have been a very short book, a 1937 limited edition. The sequence of four stories end the one collection of short stories Steinbeck published, The Long Valley(1938). The first one, “The Gift” was filmed as “The Red Pony” in 1948 (with a young Beau Bridges).

The boy Jody Tiflin gets ponies in the first and third stories (The Gift, The Promise). The red pony of the title does not survive the first story. And Jody takes out some of his anguish at the loss on a “buzzard” (a turkey vulture). The hatred of carrion-eaters is foreshadowed, but the scene is very powerful. Jody’s stern father, Carl, chides Jody: “The buzzard didn’t kill the pony. Don’t you know that?” The wise ranch-hand and horse expert, Billy Buck, sticks up for him. “Can’t you see how he’d feel about it?” is the last line of the story. The answer to the question is no. The father gives no indication in any of the stories of having any inkling of what his son is feeling. The father recurrently belittles the boy and is none too considerate of the feelings of others, either.

The relatively inconsequential third story, “The Promise” concerns waiting for a replacement colt to be born. It also ends in pools of blood, the old (mare) being sacrificed for the young (colt).

“The Great Mountains,” the second story centers on an old Mexican who was born on what is now the Tiflin farm who comes back to die where he began. This is not an idea that meets with Carl Tiflin’s approval. Jody has been very curious about the back-country and wants to know from Gitano what it is like. Gitano decides to go up into the mountains to die and rides off on the old horse (Easter) Carl has been using as an example of the useless old who should be shot.

The final story, “The Leader of the People,” provides a variation on the theme of the second story. Again, Jody is interested in hearing about the wild(er) past and listens to an old man to whom no one else pays any attention. This time it is not a stranger with heretofore unknown connections to the Tiflin ranch, but Jody’s maternal grandfather.

Carl is unhappy to learn that his father-in-law is coming for a stay. Carl knows that the old man will tell the same stories in exactly the same words for the umpteenth time. Jody can see that his mother is not listening to her father’s stories of leading a wagon train, fighting Indians, and whatnot. Jody is balanced between his childish interest in the adventure stories and compassion for the old man. Jody knows what it is like to be crushed by harsh words from Carl.

Carl is brusque, trying to block the old stories after dinner, but failing. In the morning, before Grandfather has emerged, Carl is complaining to his wife, “Why can’t he forget it, not it’s done. Why does he have to tell them over and over? He came across the plains. All right! Now it’s finished. Nobody wants to hear about it over and over.” He has the grace to be ashamed of the pain he has inflicted.

Grandfather tries to explain to Jody, “I tell those old stories, but they’re not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.” Whether or not Jody understands that, he has advanced from self-absorption to recognizing and want to provide balm for wounds inflicted by his father on others. This is more of a happy ending than the other stories, either the others in The Red Pony, or those in The Long Valley.

Jody grows up a bit between the first story and the last, at least in terms of thinking and caring about others. I don’t think the totality is a “coming of age.” Nor do I think that the four stories form a novel. More variations on two themes.

The Red Pony strikes me as being more suitable for young readers than Of Mice and Men is. I think that young readers can understand and identify with the longings of the very young and the very old as portrayed in The Red Pony and also the idealization of Billy Buck, the noble cowboy who understands Jody better than his father does. The deaths of horses and of one unlucky vulture are gruesome.

For adults there is the conflict of the generations and, especially in “The Leader of the People” a representation of conjugal tension. There is less of a sense than in many other Steinbeck writings that the males would be happier if there was no woman around. The character of the mother is little developed—less so than the elders who appear in only one story each. Other than defending her father’s prattling she does very little other than nag Jody about stocking the kitchen woodpile. She does not appear to have any trouble managing three or four males of three generations.

In Steinbeck, there are loving mothers and there are dangerously sexual women. The only sex in Red Pony is equine—and violent. Elsewhere in The Long Valley are slightly veiled panics about female sexual desire (“The Snake,” “The Chrysanthemums”) and portrayal of women all but killing men’s spirits (“The Harness”; also the novella Of Mice and Men).

©2001, 2016

I spent the last week in “Steinbeck country” (Monterey County, California) and interrupted my voyage into the most harrowing Kobayashi films. I’ll get to the “Human Condition” trilogy soon. Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, is celebrating its annual Steinbeck festival and I visited the house in which he was born and the National Steinbeck Center on Thursday (see photo atop my reflections on films adapted from his fiction here).

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