36 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Red Pony

Fiction | Novella | YA | Published in 1933

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Summary and Study Guide


The Red Pony by John Steinbeck was published in installments from 1933 to 1936, as a novella in 1937, and in a short story collection, The Long Valley, in 1945. Steinbeck drew upon his experience living in the Salinas Valley. The four stories that make up The Red Pony are considered works of classic literature and bildungsroman, or coming-of-age stories. Steinbeck also wrote the screenplay for the 1949 film adaptation of The Red Pony, and there was a made-for-television adaptation in 1973. The novella explores the themes of the Relationships Between Men and Boys and The Connection Between People and their Environment, as well as Jody’s Coming of Age.

This guide cites the 1970 Bantam Books edition of The Long Valley.

Content Warning: The Red Pony contains depictions of animal abuse and death.

Plot Summary

In the first story of The Red Pony, “The Gift,” Steinbeck introduces the characters living at Tiflin Ranch in the Salinas Valley of California: Carl Tiflin, Ruth Tiflin, Jody Tiflin, and Billy Buck. Jody, Carl and Ruth’s son, is 10 years old when his father gives him a red pony, which Jody names Gabilan after the nearby mountains. He shows it to his school friends. At first, Jody cares for the pony well, brushing it and feeding it. Billy, the family’s farmhand, teaches Jody how to halter and saddle the pony, as well as use a bridle.

In the autumn, the weather turns cold and rainy. When a sunny day finally comes, Jody and Billy agree to leave Gabilan outside during the school day. However, the rains unexpectedly return, and Gabilan is soaked. Jody dries him off when he gets home from school. Billy and Carl return that evening, and Billy helps run down Gabilan.

In the morning, Jody discovers that the pony is coughing, and Billy explains Gabilan caught a cold. He nurses the pony, which develops strangles. Billy shows Jody how to steam the pony’s nose; eventually, Billy cuts out a lump under the pony’s jaw. Jody angrily throws dirt at the family dog, Doubletree Mutt, injuring its paw. He demands to stay with Gabilan overnight. During the night, Jody falls asleep, and the wind knocks open the barn door. Gabilan gets out, and Jody wakes and leads him back into the barn. Jody doesn’t tell anyone that Gabilan escaped.

The next day, Billy shows Jody how to swab the cut he made to help Gabilan breathe. Jody helps remove a tick from the dog and sleeps with the pony again. The pony escapes after Jody falls asleep. The following morning, Jody finds Gabilan outside, dying and surrounded by buzzards. Jody kills one of the buzzards but cannot save Gabilan.

In the second story, “The Great Mountains,” Jody continues to abuse the dog, and he kills a bird with his slingshot. He asks about the mountain range to the west of the valley, which is uninhabited and inhospitable. An old man, Gitano, arrives at the ranch, claiming he was born in the adobe house on the property and wants to retire there. The adobe house has fallen apart, so Carl refuses. However, he offers Gitano dinner and a place to sleep for the night.

Jody asks Gitano about the mountains, and Gitano vaguely remembers visiting them. Carl makes cruel comments about how he should kill his old horse, Easter, comparing it to Gitano. Billy defends the horse and Gitano. At dinner, Gitano says he has family in Monterey, and Carl tells Gitano he should be with them. After dinner, Jody visits Gitano in the guest room and sees his rapier. In the morning, Gitano steals Easter and rides off into the mountains with his rapier.

In the third story, “The Promise,” Jody collects amphibians and insects in his lunch pail, which he leaves in the kitchen. Carl offers to have the mare, Nellie, impregnated to give Jody a new horse. Jody takes Nellie to a nearby ranch, where she is impregnated by a stallion named Sundog. Jody becomes impatient while waiting for Nellie to show. He wants a black stallion, like the father of the colt. Billy feels guilty about the death of Gabilan, so he promises to deliver the colt for Jody.

Jody grows more impatient for Nellie to give birth. One winter’s night, Jody wakes up from a nightmare and visits Nellie. Billy is in the barn and tells Jody to go back to bed. When he goes back into the house, Carl tells Jody that he shouldn’t blame Billy for Gabilan’s death. Early that morning, Nellie goes into labor, and Billy gets Jody out of bed. There are complications with the birth, and Billy kills Nellie to save the colt and keep his promise to Jody.

In the fourth story, “The Leader of the People,” Jody’s maternal grandfather comes to visit. Carl dislikes Ruth’s father because he retells stories about traveling west, but Ruth asks Carl to indulge him. When Grandfather arrives, Jody invites him to help kill mice in an old haystack. Billy is happy to talk about his own father, Mule-tail Buck, who was friends with Grandfather. At dinner, Grandfather begins to tell a story about leading people west, but Carl cuts him off. After dinner, Carl tries to stop Grandfather from retelling a story by the fire. However, Ruth gives Carl an angry look, and he relents. Jody enjoys the story.

The next day, Jody prepares to kill the mice. Grandfather is late to breakfast, walking in while Carl is complaining about his stories. Grandfather feels ashamed. Jody abandons his plan to kill the mice, deciding to talk to Grandfather instead. The old man tells Jody about how the Pacific Ocean ended his journey west; Grandfather feels that he shouldn’t dwell on the past. Jody offers to make some lemonade for Grandfather. 

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