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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
A central theme of the novel is the cycle of life and death. All four stories center around this natural phenomenon. Gabilan the colt is born, and despite the many efforts of Billy and Jody, he does not get better; as a result, he leaves the barn and goes out into nature to die by herself. Black Demon is born, and in the process, Nellie, the mare, dies. Gitano comes to the ranch to die near his place of birth; he takes the old horse, Easter, who is also ready for death, and goes away into Nature so that they can both die naturally and peacefully. It is also suggested that Grandfather has returned to the ranch to await death.
During the last chapter of the book, he goes through a symbolic death when he realizes the new generation has killed the pioneering spirit. The cycle of life and death is further enhanced in the book by the emphasis on the seasons. Spring is described in terms of green and growth; summer is dry and still; autumn is the time of harvest; and winter is the time of cold and death.
Additionally, Steinbeck uses several death images. The black buzzards circling overhead foreshadow to Jody that Gabilan has died; when he sees the body of the colt, a buzzard is sitting on her head. Unable yet to understand or acccept death, Jody kills the buzzard and beats its head for a long time. In a similar manner, he kills a thrush with his slingshot and rips the bird to pieces. Later, when he sees the bodies of the dead pigs, they give him a sense of fear.
Closely related to the cycle of life and death is the maturing process that Jody goes through. Every time he faces a birth or a death, he learns a new lesson about life. The arrival of Gabilan teaches him responsibility, while his death teaches him the pain of loss. The death of Gitano teaches him the loneliness and mystery of life. The birth of Black Demon teaches him patience. The death of Nellie teaches him the pain of selfishness and guilt. Finally, in the last chapter, the lessons he has learned have taught him to be a responsible, caring, selfless, and compassionate young man.
The novel also deals with the conflict between the old and the new. This theme is crafted well by Steinbeck in the second and the fourth sections of the novel. In 'The Promise,' Carl Tiflin does not accept Gitano, the old paisano. To Carl, he is old and useless--just another mouth to feed. Carl compares the paisano to his horse Easter who he thinks is so old she should be shot. In a similar manner, he has no use for Grandfather and his stories of the past. He even states the past should just be forgotten. At the same time, grandfather judges the new generation is unworthy -- soft and weak with no courage and no zeal for living.
Steinbeck also has a special intention in introducing the red pony and black stallion. The red pony is not exposed to nature so when it gets wet, it has no stamina and dies. In contrast, Black Demon faces the death of its mother at birth and learns determination and independence; as a result, he grows up strong and spirited. Through the horses, Steinbeck implies that if man is overprotected, he will become weak and soft, as grandfather has suggested. These are the traits that Mr. Tiflin finds unacceptable; as a result, he is trying to make certain that Jody grows up responsible and independent.