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Free Study Guide-The Red Pony by John Steinbeck-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER 3: The Promise


This chapter opens in mid-afternoon of a pleasant spring day; the sagebrushes are shining with silver leaves, and there is a tinge of green and gold everywhere. In response to the new season, all the horses seem to gallop and all the old sheep seem to jump in the air.

Jody is walking home from school alone, pretending he is a great hunter. He leads an imaginary army that is silent and deadly as they carry their swords. He interrupts his play-acting to catch toads, lizards, grasshoppers, a newt, and a blue snake. When he reaches home, he retrieves the mail, including a catalog that he takes to his mother. When Jody comes into the kitchen, where she is busy cooking, she tells him that his father wants see him. This new frightens Jody, for he thinks he must be in trouble; Mrs. Tiflin scolds him for always having a guilt conscience.

Jody heads to the barn to find his father. He first spies Nellie, the mare, standing against the pasture gate. He also sees his dad and Billy Buck standing by the lower pasture fence. When Jody comes up to them, Mr. Tiflin praises him for taking good care of the red pony; he also says that according to Billy the only good way for the boy to be a good hand with horses is to raise a colt himself. As a result, if Jody promises to work hard all summer, his dad will see that he gets a new colt. The first chore is that Jody must take Nellie to Jess Taylor, who works at the ridge ranch. Mr. Tiflin has arranged to have her mated there with the stallion named Sun Dog. Jody is delighted at the thought of another pony. He is appreciative of the fact that it is Billy who has convinced his father to give him another chance at horse raising. He is filled with emotion at the thought of the ranch hand's kindness and wishes he were not too old to give Billy a hug. The thought of a new pony has a very positive affect on Jody. He attacks his chores with seriousness and promises to do no more foolish things. He helps with the baling of the hay and learns to milk the cow. He also becomes more patient.

Jody prepares to take Nellie to the ridge ranch to have her bred. Mr. Tiflin folds a five-dollar bill in a piece of paper and pins it in the bib pocket of Jody's overalls; it is to pay for the stud fee. On the way, Jody is so happy thinking about a new colt that he hops along. As they near the ranch, Nellie jerks free, and the stallion comes charging towards her. Suddenly, Nellie's mood changes and she acts very seductive. The stallion responds. Jess Taylor has followed the stallion and spying Jody, he suggests that he go up to the house. Jody chooses to stay and see everything. After the horses have mated, Jody gives Jess the five-dollars and rides Nellie back home.

Jody is doubtful about Nellie bearing a colt. He asks Billy's assurance again and again; the ranch hand tells him that Nellie should throw the colt in January. He also reminds Jody that the colt cannot be ridden for two years. The boy moans that he will be all grown up by then. But he constantly dreams of the colt, hoping that it will be a black stallion. Billy says the boy should wish for a mare since stallions can never be trusted.

Jody asks Billy many questions. He has seen calves born, but he is eager to learn about the birth of a colt. Billy explains the process, telling him that mares are more sensitive than cows. If the position of the colt is not correct, the mother or her baby can be torn to pieces. Jody begs to be present when Nellie delivers her colt. He also worries about the safety of his colt; Billy tries to assure him but will not promise anything, for he has learned his lesson with Jody. When Billy goes back to work, Jody sits under the black cypress tree, thinking about Nellie and fearing something may go wrong. He then makes himself think positively and imagines Nellie giving birth to a strong stallion, named Black Demon. He pretends that he and Black Demon help the sheriff; he also imagines becoming the winner of the roping and tying contest at the Salinas Rodeo.

As the year passes, Jody continues to worry about Nellie, especially since he does not see any physical change in her. Then one day in September he notices that her abdomen is swollen; he suddenly feels like the colt will be born safe and strong. As winter begins and Christmas passes, Jody continues to carefully take care of Nellie; he also grows anxious for the arrival of January and the birth of the colt. January, however, passes without Nellie giving birth.

One night in February Jody is finds himself filled with terror for the colt; he goes to the barn in the thick, black night and asks Billy to promise that he will not let anything happen to the colt. Billy tells Jody to stop worrying and again assures him that he will get a good colt. Back at the house, Mr. Tiflin tells his son not to be concerned, Billy knows everything about colts. Jody, however, reminds his father that Gabilan died. Mr. Tiflin replies that if Billy cannot save a horse, it cannot be saved.

Jody goes to bed, but he is soon awakened by Billy, who tells him that Nellie is ready to deliver the colt. Jody goes to watch the birthing process. He sees Nellie crouch and writhe in spasms, trying to force the colt out. Billy then tells Jody that the colt is in the wrong position. He asks Jody to leave, for he is going to rip open Nellie's belly to save the colt. Jody refuses to leave and watches as Billy pulls the colt out. Billy gives the baby horse to Jody and tells him to wash and dry him; Nellie cannot attend to her colt, for she is dead. Jody tries to be happy about the birth of his colt, but the mare's bloody death disturbs him.


The third chapter starts with the spring season, indicating a period of new growth and zeal for living on Jody's part. Steinbeck catches the images of spring beautifully, as he describes the horses and sheep jumping in the air and the growing plants casting a fresh odor and color everywhere. As Jody walks towards home, he pretends he is the leader of an army and takes captive in his lunch pail several lizards, grasshoppers, snakes, and other creatures.

When Jody reaches home, his mother tells him that his father wants to talk to him. Jody reacts fearfully, asking if he has done anything wrong. When Mrs. Tiflin scolds him for having guilty conscience, he remains silent, for he is well aware of his father strict and stern ways. Jody goes to meet his father half-heartedly. Amazingly, Mr. Tiflin praises him and tells him of his plans for Jody to have another colt. The boy immediately realizes that Billy has been instrumental in his father's decision, and Jody feels a new warmth and appreciation for the ranch hand. Jody wishes he could hug the man or reach out and touch him in some way. Unfortunately, his father has taught Jody that a display of emotion shows weakness and softness. For his part, Billy is trying hard to regain Jody's faith, which was lost when Gabilan died. He also wants to make certain that Jody grows up with a full understanding of horses and a confidence about ranching.

Mr. Tiflin, being the practical disciplinarian, explains to Jody that he must work all summer to earn the pony. Jody eagerly agrees, for he is delighted over the thought of owning a new pony. He quickly assumes responsibility, forcing himself to stop doing foolish things. He no more just dumps the can of grains to the chickens, but spreads it out. He tries hard not to annoy his mother anymore and forces himself to wait patiently for all things, including the arrival of the colt. He gladly learns to milk the cow and bale the hay. The theme of the story is gradually developing, for Jody is growing up into a matured young man. In fact, Steinbeck states that "his shoulders swayed a little with maturity and importance."

Billy and Mr. Tiflin want to make certain that Jody becomes a fully responsible, knowledgeable, and independent gentleman. As a result, they send Jody alone to the ridge ranch with Nellie to have her bred; her colt will become his new pony. At the ranch he gets a lesson in life as he watches Nellie and the stallion mate.

He then begins to beg Billy about the colt's safety; after the death of Gabilan, Jody has become skeptical about life. He begs Billy not to let anything happen to the colt. Billy understands Jody's feelings and assures him that Nellie should throw him a good colt in January. However, Billy carefully avoids promising anything this time.

It is intentional that Jody is made to wait for and long for the colt throughout the fall and early winter. The men want to teach him patience. Billy even reminds the boy that he will have to wait for another two years before he can ride the colt. When Jody says that he will be grown up by then, he is expressing the impatience of youth. Billy jokingly answers that he will be an old man then.

The wait is not easy for Jody. He worries about the fact that Nellie does not look pregnant. Then when he sees her swollen abdomen in September, he begins to have faith and ask Billy many questions about the birthing process. When Billy explains that horses are more fragile creatures than cows and that a pony must be in the right position to be born, it foreshadows the ending of the chapter; it also frightens Jody, who is gins to worry about the colt's safety. When January passes without the appearance of the colt, Jody is almost beside himself. He makes Billy promise that when Nellie begins to deliver he will come for him, no matter the time. Finally in early February, Billy summons Jody to come to the barn.

Jody watches patiently as Nellie writhes with the pain of delivery. When the colt will not emerge, Billy tells Jody that the colt is obviously in a wrong position in the womb. The thought of Jody losing the colt is more than Billy can stand. He quickly makes the decision to sacrifice the mare to save the colt (and Jody's trust).

The boy watches as Billy cuts the mare open and pulls the newborn out alive. He hands it to the Jody and tells him to clean the tiny stallion since the dead Nellie cannot; Steinbeck has shown how death is the inevitable outcome of birth, for all creatures and plants must be born and must eventually die.

Jody is glad to have the colt, but he now realizes his own selfishness and feels a genuine guilt. Nellie has been sacrificed for his happiness. As he looks at the bloody face and the haunted tired eyes of Billy Buck, Jody feels a closeness to and love for Billy; he also learns a new lesson in life and death. He feels he has forced Billy to kill the mare against his better judgement in order to give life to the colt. Yet he has shared the murder and the birth with the ranch hand, so there is a new bond of understanding and respect between them.

Although this chapter appears to be largely about the birth of the colt, it is really the story of the developing relationship between Billy Buck and Jody and the further maturing of Jody into a responsible, caring, and knowledgeable young man.

It is important to notice how Steinbeck uses image in this chapter to develop and support his Themes; he carefully contrasts the spring water tub near the brush line with the black cypress tree by the bunkhouse. Jody goes to wash in the tub when he feels ashamed or mean; the water soothes him, giving him renewed life. In contrast, when he sits under the cypress tree, it is usually upsetting. From there he witnessed the killing of the pigs and the strangeness of the mysterious mountains. The tub and cypress tree, therefore, manifest the dual imagery of life and death; not surprisingly, Jody loves the tub and fears the dark tree. One time when he sits under the dark cypress, he has visions of his colt dying and being strung up like the dead pigs; to help erase the image from his mind, he quickly hurries to the tub and washes away the image. He soon has a vision of a strong and healthy colt, a stallion that he names Black Demon. The juxtaposition of the two images points out that everything in life is destined to death, and everyone should prepare for this fact. This is also been reflected in the death of Nellie and the birth of the colt.

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