How does the theme of death recur in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony?
Steinbeck’s The Red Pony was as critically acclaimed when it was first published in 1937 as it is now, especially for the theme of rite of passage (The Red Pony – Critical Reception, 2016). However, another important theme is recurrent in the short stories: death.
Little boy Jody, the protagonist, as Steinbeck refers to him throughout the stories, begins facing death when he is no more than ten years old. His father finally shows love and trust by giving him a beautiful red pony colt, whom Jody names Gabilano; he cherishes the animal but leaves him outside once, trusting Billy, the ranch hand, that it won’t rain. Unfortunately, the rain and the cold eventually kill Gabilano, leaving Jody devastated and untrusting of Billy Buck, who never took the pony inside, having misjudged the weather (Steinbeck, 1994). Jody even kills the buzzard that swooped on Gabilano’s head in rage and anguish over the lost friend, as if he wanted to avenge him (ibid, p. 51).
Another gruesome death occurs when Nellie, the mare Jody has taken care of during her pregnancy, dies in labor – Billy decides to cut the colt out so he would keep the promise he made, since he feels guilty for Gabilano’s death. Jody is terrified at the sight: “He tried to be glad because of the colt, but the bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him” (ibid, p. 81).
Death is the dominant theme in The Red Pony, but Jody cannot read the signals: he is a symbol of boyish innocence against which cycles of birth and death are played (Seeley, 1994, p. 24). All the deaths Jody has faced force him to grow up and realize that life is the moments of happiness interrupted by losses.
Seeley, J. (1994). Introduction. In J. Steinbeck, The Red Pony (p. 97). New York: Penguin Books.
Steinbeck, J. (1994). The Red Pony. New York: Penguin Books.
The Red Pony – Critical Reception. (2016, July 22). Retrieved from San Jose State University: http://sits.sjsu.edu/curriculum-resources/the-red-pony/critical-reception/
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