A gift like this should be a time of joy, but with Jody's hard-edged dad, it was more tension than joy. "God's preference seems arbitrary and apparently denies Cain free will," Etheridge writes, alluding again to Cain and Able. And there is also an element of "laying down the law" in what Carl Tiflin said to his son. And Tiflin leaves the job of showing Jody how to care for his pony to the hired hand, Billy.
Jody may be obedient when it comes to doing what his parents want him to do, but he is also rebellious on another level, as essayist Joyce Hart writes in the book Novels for Students. Steinbeck, "slowly but surely," hints that Jody is becoming more independent of his parents and is doing things that rebellious little boys will do. For example, out of anger Jody kicks a muskmelon with his heel. "He doesn't feel good about his action," Hart explains. He knows very well that it was wrong to destroy perfectly good food and he "tries to hide the evidence by burying the cracked melon," Hart continues. And shortly after that scene, Steinbeck writes that Jody is feeling "a spirit of revolt" with his buddies at school; later, after school, Jody points his unloaded gun at the house, knowing that if his father happened to see him doing that, his father would tack on another two years prior to allowing Jody to have ammunition in the weapons. These are all signs of rebellion in a fairly typical young boy who outwardly is totally obedient to his parents. Also, those are signs that he is testing the waters and moving closer towards maturity.
Yet another example of Jody becoming a young boy rather than a "little boy" is when he attacks the buzzard - a bird "nearly as big as he was," Steinbeck writes. The fight is ugly, and Jody risks being hurt by the buzzard, but the rage he feels over the loss of his pony is expressed in this case like a boy growing up and not fearing a big raptor. Jody's dad seems unaware of how his fast son is growing; he tells Jody the buzzards weren't at fault, seemingly out of touch with a boy Jody's age. But Billy Buck butts in and says, "Jesus Christ! Man," to Carl Tiflin, "can't you see how he'd feel about it?" This is an only child being raised out in the boondocks, and of course getting a pony as a gift was a big deal to him. He is heartbroken.
In the next chapter, "The Great Mountains," Hart points out that Jody shows his emerging maturity by keeping a secret; it's hard for very little boys to keep secrets, but as they get a bit older, they are better at it. Jody doesn't tell anyone about the sword that Gitano has in his possession. "It would be a dreadful thing to tell anyone about it, for it would destroy some fragile structure of truth," Steinbeck writes. Jody understands that the sword represents something that, according to Hart, "must be kept in the realm of the unknown." Also, Jody understands why the old man Gitano leaves on the horse named "Easter" (Jody's dad was talking about putting the horse down, i.e., killing it).
Hart mentions that in the third chapter, "The Promise," Jody gets his second chance to raise a pony, and again the young boy learns that life is often interrupted with death, as the mare dies during the birthing of Jody's new colt. Before the colt is born, Jody is given yet another chance through Steinbeck's narrative to learn what adults already know - how babies are made. He witnesses the mare being bred - "thus initiating him to sexuality, another important stage in the rite of passage." Not only does Jody see the breeding process, he closely monitors the entire process of pregnancy right up to delivery; and then he is heartbroken to realize the mare will die. He gains "compassion," Hart explains, by seeing the pain Billy experiences as the hired hand (who is more like a big brother to Jody than just a farm hand) "...must choose between the life of the mare and the survival of the colt." The final chapter, "The Leader of the People," gives readers a chance to see what a sensitive person Jody is growing up to be, juxtaposed with how insensitive his father can be towards the grandfather. Jody seems to know that his grandfather needs to feel wanted in the same way that Jody has always had a need to be wanted, too.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the 4th chapter Jody has matured enough to "pass the ritual, or rite of passage, from childhood to adulthood," Hart continues. The reason Hart believes this is because Jody now thinks of others besides himself; Jody even makes a glass of lemonade for his grandpa, and his mom first thinks Jody just did that to get one himself, but soon she realizes that it was unselfish on Jody's part and, Hart concludes, "she is dumbfounded by the realization that her little boy has grown up."
Patrick W. Shaw has published an essay in a New Study Guide to Steinbeck's Major Works, with Critical Explications; Shaw puts the Red Pony into further perspective by explaining that Steinbeck himself had a sick pony as a little boy. And while he was writing the Red Pony on the dining room table just outside his mom's sick bedroom door, he was interrupted constantly by his mother's incontinence. He "personally had to change her bedclothes," Shaw explains. He washed between nine and twelve sheets a day, and while "contemplating his mother's death and the experiences surrounding it, he tried to 'sneak in a little work' (Steinbeck) and to put events 'into the symbolism of fiction'" Shaw continued. So readers know that the author was under quite a bit of personal family stress when he wrote the Red Pony, which may (or may not) explain the tension between Jody and his parents in the story.
It is clear that young Jody had to experience the good with the bad, and the beautiful with the ugly, in order to grow up. Shaw paraphrases and quotes from the story, to fully paint the picture of how frightening the birth of his new colt turned out to be. This kind of situation means a kid has to grow up in a hurry. Nellie, the mare, was "standing rigid and stiff" (Steinbeck) so Billy Buck did not hesitate to take a "horseshoe hammer" and crush Nellie's skull. How horrifying for a young boy, to watch the mother of his new colt be killed so the colt could be saved.
Billy cut into Nellie's stomach, and "plunges his hands into the hole, and drags out 'a big, white, dripping bundle'" (Steinbeck) - and "with his teeth he tears open the birth sac and lays a black colt at Jody's feet" (Shaw). "There's your colt," Billy tells Jody. "I promised. And there it is," Billy continues. As Jody leaves to get some water, as Billy has demanded, the young boy tries to be happy, but "the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him" (Steinbeck). Shaw also mentions the importance of the "male value system" in this book; that is, the colt is male, and "Billy does not hesitate to kill the mare" to "symbolize the dominance of the male in the value system...in which Jody must mature." Moreover, nearly all the males have names, but Jody's mother is just "Mrs. Tiflin" or "his mother." Points well made by Shaw.
Another symbolic event that takes place in the story - bringing readers to the realization that Jody was growing up emotionally - is when Jody changes his mind about killing the mice in the barn. He had asked his father, and received permission, to club a bunch of mice; but the next he instead sits on the porch with his grandfather, a gesture of identity and support for the old man (whose stories Carl hates hearing over and over). "Like Grandfather and Gitano, Jody will grow old and die. Nature can be violent, bloody, and unforgiving," Shaw continues. "But against those qualities stands the potential of human compassion, the one human trait which separates humans from the buzzards that symbolize survival by dependence on death and carnage" (Shaw).
Essayist Wilton Eckley (Reference Guide to Short Fiction) points out that while Jody is fascinated with his grandfather's stories, he can't accept his grandfather's philosophy about those days way back when. Jody says to his grandfather that perhaps he too could lead people one day; but his grandfather squelches that idea saying, "There's no place to go. There's the ocean to stop you." While Jody surely respects his grandfather, he doesn't believe him that the "westerning" has died…