The Red Pony - Setting
Young John Steinbeck holding onto a pony in his home town of Salinas, California, in 1907.
Each of the four stories in The Red Pony takes place on the Tiflin Ranch in California shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. The ranch is situated in the picturesque Salinas Valley between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan Mountains. Steinbeck writes of the Santa Lucias: "the great mountains went piling back, growing darker and more savage until they finished with one jagged ridge, high up against the west" (176). Jody finds the mountains both fearsome and mysterious. When asked about those mountains, Carl Tiflin replies, "[They're] dangerous, with cliffs and things. Why, I've read theres more unexplored country in the mountains of Monterey County than any place in the United States" (176-177). To the east of the ranch stand the Gabilan Mountains after which Jody names his beloved pony in "The Gift." Jody observes "they were jolly mountains, with hill ranches in their creases, and with pine trees growing on the crests" (177-178). Between the two ranges on the ranch sat the low, whitewashed house girded with red geraniums, and the long bunkhouse by the cypress tree where Billy Buck lived alone (147). There was the barn too, which was always warm from the hay and from the beasts, and the corral in which Jody trains and fantasizes about riding his pony Gabilan in "The Gift" (151).
Two places on the ranch take on particular significance in Jodys life and, like the contrasting mountain ranges, represent the contending forces of birth and joy and death and sadness that comprise human experience. The first of these places is the brushline running behind the house. There, "[a] rusty iron pipe ran a thin stream of spring water into an old green tub. Where the water spilled over and sank into the ground there was a patch of perpetually green grass" (199). This is Jody's special place to which he retreats to find comfort, peace, and solitude. Steinbeck writes, "When he had been punished the cool green grass and the singing water soothed him. When he had been mean the biting acid of meanness left him at the brushline" (199). There Jody fantasizes about riding his pony in "The Promise" and realizes for the first time the significance of his own mortality after Gitano has ridden off into the Santa Lucias on the old horse Easter in "The Great Mountains."
In contrast, there is the black cypress tree under which the Tiflins slaughter animals on the ranch. It is a foreboding place and comes to represent death and loss for Jody. He feels unlucky after thinking about his pony while passing under the tree in "The Promise" and must retreat to the watering place to counteract any evil that may be the result of his thoughts (200). For Jody, the water-tub and the black cypress were opposites and enemies, and they represent very different facets of his experiences (200).