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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
CHAPTER 1: The Red Pony
Unfortunately, Billy has no control over the weather, and it rains heavily, soaking Gabilan. When Jody arrives home and finds the red pony drenched, he dries him and puts a blanket over him, showing his level of responsibility. Jody also feels disappointed in Billy, for it seems like he has failed him; after all, he did promise it would not rain. When Gabilan catches cold, however, Billy redeems himself to some degree. He tells Jody how to care for the sick animal and makes a mixture to help the pony breathe more freely. When the horse grows worse, Billy even "operates" on Gabilan, cutting a hole in his windpipe to help him breathe and prevent him from strangling. To make certain that the pony is all right during the night, Jody beds down in the barn in the hay. One night when Gabilan is still bad, there is a terrible wind. When Jody wakes, the pony has escaped through a door that has blown open. He follows the hoofprints of the horse and finds him dead, with a buzzard sitting on his head. Jody is overwhelmed with grief and disappointment. In a childish way, he takes his feelings out on the buzzard, which he kills. When Billy and Mr. Tiflin arrive, Jody is still beating the head of the dead bird. It is significant that it is Billy, rather than the father, who tries to calm the boy and carries him back to the house.
After introducing the setting and the major characters, this first chapter quickly begins to develop the plot. Jody receives the red pony as a gift from his father; he treasures and overprotects the animal. He also takes full responsibility for Gabilan's care, a step in his maturing process. When Gabilan grows sick, Jody, with Billy's help, constantly nurses the pony; he even sleeps in the barn so he can rub the horse's legs if needed. When Gabilan escapes from the barn to go off and die alone, Jody follows the pony's tracks with fear in his heart. When he sees his pony on the ground dead with a buzzard on his head, Jody cannot stand it and takes his grief out on the buzzard.
Several ironies surround the death of Gabilan. Jody blames the death on Billy Buck and has trouble forgiving him or trusting him again. Ironically, it is probably Jody himself who has really caused the death. Because he had been too overprotective with Gabilan, never letting him stay outside for long or get wet, the pony was very susceptible. Had he been a stronger horse, he would have survived being drenched. Billy and Mr. Tiflin understand the importance of creatures being strong and independent. That is why Billy wanted to leave Gabilan outside in the corral to begin with. It is also the reason that Mr. Tiflin wants Jody to understand responsibility. Ironically, the horse instinctively understands as well, for he chooses to go away to die alone, away from human interference.
The imagery of death is quite abundant in this first chapter and will continue through the next three chapters; the emphasis on death and dying is one of the things that helps to unify the four stories into a whole. Early in the first chapter during breakfast, Jody wipes a blood spot from one of the eggs. Billy sees the motion and explains to Jody, who seems a bit hesitant, that eggs are meant to be eaten, either as an egg or as a full grown chicken. The cycle of life and death has already begun. The next image of death comes when Mr. Tiflin and Billy go in to town to sell some old cows to the butcher. Jody, even as a young boy, understands that cows can be killed for meat; what he does not yet understand is the inevitability of death for all things. Unfortunately, the death of Gabilan will shock him into this realization and teach him the pain of loss.
The circling black buzzards are also death symbols. Scavengers by nature, they sense and eagerly await the death of an animal. When Gabilan dies, the birds waste no time to feast on death. When Jody arrives, one of the nasty birds is already perched on the pony's head and its beak is dripping with fluids.
It is important to notice how Steinbeck uses time and weather to enhance the plot of the novel. The story opens at daybreak, indicating the start of a new day; it is symbolic of Jody's start towards manhood. The season is early summer, a time of growth and development, both for Nature and for the protagonist. When tragedy approaches with the oncoming death of Gabilan, the weather turns fowl; a wind storm blows through the night, allowing the barn door to blow open and letting Gabilan escape. The next chapter will open in the heat of summer, with everything dry and struggling; the season is again reflective of Jody, for he struggles with grief and loneliness after the death of the red pony.