The Red Pony by John Steinbeck is an unusual novel that lacks a typical storyline and doesn’t flow from chapter to chapter like someone would expect. The protagonist of the story, Jody, learns about death, birth, illness, old age, and other important facts of life, which are most of the time not the most enjoyable lessons to learn. The two men who are role models in Jody’s life are his father, Carl Tiflin, and the stable hand, Billy Buck; however, Carl Tiflin is a very harsh father who struggles to show emotions such as love, praise, or even disappointment.
Billy Buck is more capable of showing emotion, as well as being able to spend time with Jody and help him get the most out of the things he goes through and learn from them. Throughout the novel, Jody struggles to earn the praise and approval of each, but unlike Billy Buck, his father continuously fails to fulfill the need of acceptance. Billy Buck is a very important figure to Jody, and almost fits the father role better than Carl Tiflin does.
Billy Buck and Jody seem to have a deeper relationship than the biological father and son because of the way Billy Buck treats Jody like an adult instead of a child. In the first chapter, The Gift, Billy shows he’s sorry for his failures and respects and acknowledges Jody’s feelings. In this chapter, Billy must humble himself in the eyes of Jody because he is no longer the unstoppable “superhero” Jody once believed him to be. In the final chapter, Jody must learn how to forgive and trust Billy Buck again.
Billy tries as hard as he can to keep his promise this time, no matter what the cost, because he doesn’t want to let Jody down again. This desire of Billy Buck’s to prove to Jody he can keep is promises shows that Billy Buck values Jody and his friendship means something to him. By the end of the novel, Billy Buck helps Jody to learn forgiveness, compassion, love, and trust. Carl Tiflin struggles in trying to raise Jody properly because of his inability to show emotions, particularly love and praise.
He is able to give Jody the gifts of the two ponies, but isn’t patient enough to assist Jody in raising them, which is the most rewarding part of the process. Carl Tiflin is by no means the “villain” of the novel; he just finds it very difficult to be open with his emotions. He attempts to build his and Jody’s relationship by giving him the presents, but he misses out on everything that came along with raising the horses.
Carl Tiflin and Jody’s relationship is rocky also because Carl believes he should treat Jody as a child, which makes Jody feel inferior to him. In the novel, Carl and Jody are never able to develop a father/son relationship. Although Carl Tiflin is Jody’s biological father, in reality, Billy Buck fits the father role better. Billy is able to teach Jody important lessons that Carl isn’t. Even though Carl wants to be able to raise his son up right, he doesn’t know exactly what to teach him and lacks the love and compassion necessary to do so.