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The Red Pony is a coming of age story, and the plot is developed around the growth of Jody Tiflin. As a result, the main theme of the story is that life and experience are great teachers. During the course of the four chapters in the short novel, Jody learns to accept responsibility and to face the harsher truths of life, including death. By the end of the novel, Jody has successfully matured into a compassionate, independent, and responsible young man.
The minor theme centers on the contrast between youth and age. Grandfather claims that the second generation in the West has lost its zest and courage; he also says that people are too self-centered and fail to unite to help others. In truth, what has been lost is a respect for old age. Carl Tiflin, impatient with his father's stories about the old West, tells him to forget about the past, as if it was unimportant and had no meaning. Grandfather is very hurt by this callous attitude.
Carl also has no respect for Gitano, the old paisano who has come to the ranch in order to be close to his place of birth when he dies; Carl thinks he is a bit crazy and judges him to be a bother. Fortunately, Jody is more sensitive than his father. He spends time with Gitano and is sad when he goes away by himself to die. He also has great compassion for his grandfather and is always willing to spend time with him and listen to his stories. Steinbeck, therefore, suggests that the young are more understanding than their parents.
Through this simple novel, comprised of four chapters or short stories, Steinbeck deals with several important aspects of life, including the maturing of a youth into manhood and the pain of loss and death. Although the mood is serious, it is never somber or depressing. Steinbeck describes the life and lessons of Jody in a simple, straightforward manner that is interesting to the reader. The beautiful description of the natural surroundings also charms the reader.