From Innocence to Experience
For any human being, an essential part of his growth and development occurs through the loss of innocence. The age at this loss of innocence occurs varies among different cultures, as well as individuals. In American culture, an individual may typically experiences a loss of innocence sometime during childhood or as an adolescent. In The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, the author conveys the loss of innocence through the main character, Jody, a ten-year-old boy living in northern California in the early 1900s. Steinbeck describes Jodys experiences in the novel through four distinct books, independent of each other. Jody goes through life-changing experiences throughout the novel that lead to his loss of innocence, and in turn, he gains knowledge and matures over time.
In the first book The Gift, Jody experiences human imperfection and death. The novel begins with Jody receiving a red pony given to him from his father, Carl Tiflin, and he takes good care of it with the aid of Billy Buck. Jody enjoys having Billy because he teaches Jody how to care for and train the pony, and most importantly, listens to and does whatever Jody says. In addition, Billy tells Jody many things about horses. For example, he explains that they were terribly afraid for their feet, so that one must make a practice of lifting the legs and patting the hoofs and ankles to remove their terror (15). This example shows that Billy knows a lot about horses, and Jody starts to gain a lot of trust in Billy, even with his ponys life. One day, Jody worries about possible rain and tells his feelings to Billy, who guarantees him that it wont rain. Because of this assurance, Jody leaves the red pony standing out in the
corral, leaving the pony with Billys care feeling comfortable. However, Jody later realizes that Billy made a mistake when the rain comes down while he is at school. The narrator says, Billy Buck wasnt wrong about many things. He couldnt be. But he was wrong about the weather for that day, for a little after noon the clouds pushed over the hills and the rain began to pour down (22). Because of the downpour, the red pony becomes sick and despite all of Billys treatment and effort, it dies. Jody comes to the unfortunate realization of Billys imperfection and unreliability. Before, Jody viewed Billy as a perfect human being, but he now knows that Billy makes mistakes, which resulted in the death of the pony. Jody becomes angry at Billy for this reason because he never expected this to happen. Jody accuses Billy and says, You said it wouldnt rain (23). Billy looks away and replies, Its hard to tell, this time of year (23). The understanding of Billy making mistakes shows Jody Billys imperfection. This results in a loss of innocence for Jody because he did not know that a wise, grown-up man could make such a huge and fatal mistake.
Jody experiences another loss of innocence in the third book The Promise when he learns about the necessity of death in life. Carl and Billy feel sorry for Jodys loss of the red pony and thus come up with the idea to let Jody care for a colt. To get the colt, their mare, Nellie, has to mate with a stallion and Jody has to take care of her until she throws the colt. Much like in the first book, Billy shows him how to care for the mare and tells him all sorts of things about what will happen in Nellies stages of pregnancies. However, when they start discussing what tragedies may occur, Jody asks the inevitable question, Billy, you wont let anything happen to the colt, will you? (67) but this time Billy feels far less sure of himself because he knows he is capable of failure (67). Thus he answers in a very unsure manner foreshadowing disaster, I cant tell. . . all sorts of things might happen, and they wouldnt be
my fault. . . I cant do everything. . . I wont promise anything (67-68). He continues to take care of Nellie until the day comes when she goes into labor. In spite of everything, the birth
turns out all wrong and Billy detects it from the beginning. He understands that in order to save the colt, he must kill Nellie and promptly does so. The narrator says, Billys face and arms and chest were dripping red. His body shivered and his teeth chattered. His voice was gone; he spoke in a throaty whisper (79). Jody realizes in horror what just happened and although he tries to feel happy because he has a colt, all he can think about is Billys anguish and sadness. The bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him (79). Before when the red pony died, all Jody could think of was Billys mistake. He was very angry at Billy for the ponys death. This time, Jody thinks very differently. He realizes the effort Billy went through to get him this colt and instead of blaming Billy for the death, Jody sympathizes with him. He doesnt think of his own feelings or his colt but feels Billys pain and feels sorry for him. This shows his growth and maturity as a person since book one. He acts less like a child that wants a pony for himself, but rather thinks of the labor that others are going through for him. In this instance the colt remains alive, but only through the death of Nellie. Jody can see that life comes from death and that both coexist through their connection to each other. He realizes now that Nellies death is not Billys fault, but merely a fact of life. This growth and maturity comes as a result of the loss of innocence experienced by Jody.
In the fourth section titled The Leader of The People, Jody experiences a final loss of innocence through the realization that he must live in the present as he continues to grow up. In the story, Jodys grandfather comes to visit the Tiflin ranch, although Carl dislikes the company of Grandfather. Though Carl refuses to come out and tell him this, he dislikes Grandfather because he lives in the past and only tells stories about his glorious adventures
and the good old days. Jody, however, becomes fascinated by these stories and no matter how many times he hears them, he likes to hear them again, just like an excited young child. He has not yet matured enough to really understand the stories; he just likes to hear stories because they have action. The spirit of adventure sparks an interest in Jody and he ponders about it and how glorious it must have been in that heroic age. The narrator says, A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes (94). The next day, Grandfather overhears Carl talking negatively about his stories and living in the past. He agrees with Carl and decides to stop keeping and telling his old stories about the distant past. When Jody wants to hear more stories, Grandfather sighs and says to him, I tell those old stories, but theyre not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them (99). Grandfather tells him that it wasnt the glorious Indian battles or the adventure that mattered, but the actual feeling of westering. He says that he needs to let those ideas go. At the beginning of the novel, Jodys character reflects that of an inexperienced child who only wants personal gain and knows very little about the world. Right away, Jody feels a sadness come over him and realizes that Grandfathers past is really finished. Jody sympathizes with his grandfather, similar to how he acts toward Billy in book three after the colt dies. Jody understands that old age and old ideas are a part of life and that everything must come to an end. Because of this new knowledge, Jody felt very sad (100). Even so, Jody offers to make lemonade for Grandfather and when asked by his mother if he would like one too, he responds with a no. This demonstrates his level of maturity because normally, a child would jump at the opportunity for personal gain, but Jody knows that he is not the one who needs the lemonade and declines the offer. All of this shows that his experiences in the previous three books have made him grow significantly as he handles this final loss of
innocence like a mature adult. This final loss of innocence shows that Jody has matured a great deal since the beginning and that he now starts to become a man.
Throughout the book Jody falls from innocence several times and gains new knowledge about the truths of life and living in reality. He in turn matures as a human being and exhibits his development into an adult. The story of Jody is one that many people can relate to in one way of another. Jodys experiences throughout the novel demonstrate to its readers the loss of innocence through growth and maturation. In addition, any reader may identify with the basic patterns of development that Jody undergoes and may relate his growing pains with their own. It teaches the reader lessons about the fragility of a childs innocence and how quickly lifes experiences can shatter it. John Steinbeck shows the necessity of the loss of innocence in order to reach adulthood. It is a cycle of life that is beyond human control. Jodys life reflects this because his experiences transform him into a more mature human being, completing his transition from innocence lost to experience gained.