‘The Promise’ by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, John 1936

The Promise by John Steinbeck, 1937

The magic trick:

Balancing realism with touches of artistry

All four of the stories in The Red Pony feature the same four characters – the young boy Jody, his mother and father, and the family’s ranch hand Billy Buck. Only two of the narratives specifically play off the other plot wise, though – “The Promise” and “The Gift.” “The Promise” appears to be set only a short while after events in “The Gift,” and as such the relationship between Jody and Billy Buck is slightly but profoundly altered.

I wrote last November on this site about the excellent use of foreshadowing in “The Gift,” and I’ll repeat some of the same things here. The balance of absolutely gritty realism along with self-conscious nods to artistic technique is amazing. I’d say it recalls Faulkner except that I think it’s probably only fair to claim that Steinbeck is working on his own level here.

There is a scene midway through the story in which Jody attempts to balance his luck, good and bad, by thinking of his future colt both in the sweet, green patch near the tree line and the black cypress tree where pigs go to get slaughtered. On its own, the scene is a thing of beauty, a strange bit of magic and superstition mixed in with the realistic, almost-technical text elsewhere in the story. But as the story develops, to see the way this scene foretells the ending? Well, it truly is spectacular writing. And that’s quite a trick on Steinbeck’s part.

The selection:

When Billy left him and walked angrily away, Jody turned up toward the house. He thought of Nellie as he walked, and of the little colt. Then suddenly he saw that he was under the black cypress, under the very singletree where the pigs were hung. He brushed his dry-grass hair off his forehead and hurried on. It seemed to him an unlucky thing to be thinking of his colt in the very slaughter place, especially after what Billy had said. To counteract any evil result of that bad conjunction he walked quickly past the ranch house, through the chicken yard, through the vegetable patch, until he came at last to the brush line.

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