Literary Terms

Reading Comprehension
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Performing Arts
Small Group, Individual, Entire Class, Oral Presentation, Writing


  • Students will understand basic literary terms from The Red Pony and be able to provide specific definitions and examples.
  • Students will be able to use/show literary terms in their own writing.
  • Students will be able to successfully pass quizzes based on definitions/examples of literary terms.


It is important for students to be able to understand, define, and apply literary terms for any piece of literature they encounter. In their notebooks, students should keep a growing bank of literary terms associated with the novel.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of The Red Pony
  • Dictionaries (online or print)
  • Students’ notebooks
  • Copies of Literary Terms Organizer (scaffolded versions: Partially Complete, Mostly Complete). Optional.

Estimated Time

Learning and applying literary terms is an ongoing activity. The amount of time spent is at the discretion of individual teachers.


  • After the teacher has introduced initial terms, as appropriate (see below), students should be able to not only define the terms but point out specific examples of each from the novel itself. They should place these initial terms/examples in their notebooks. Teachers should be careful not to give away plot elements when providing examples. There are two examples for each of the initial literary terms: 1) actual examples from The Red Pony (to be provided as that point in the story is reached) and 2) a more general example (to be used for initial discussions).
  • Beyond the initial examples provided from The Red Pony, students are expected to provide their own specific examples.
  • Pointing out such examples can be done in pairs or threes in front of the class. For more creative students, such examples can be acted out. For example, for “magic realism,” the students would define the term, and then briefly act out the scenes at the beginning of “The Promise” (56-58) where Jody is leading an imaginary band and is on an imaginary safari.
  • The students in the audience will take notes and later be tested on the terms. This is an initial list of terms that should be learned early on during the course of the novel.

Preliminary Literary Terms for The Red Pony

All page number references are from the 1992 Penguin Books edition.


Giving human traits (qualities, feelings, actions, or characteristics) to non-living objects (things, colors, qualities, or ideas).

  • General Example: The wind danced into the room.
  • The Red Pony Example: “The sun shone over the hill and threw long, dark shadows of the trees and buildings” (8-9).


The act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side.

  • General Example: Judy went to the mall with her friends who loved to frequent the clothing shops. Judy much preferred the bookstores.
  • The Red Pony Example: Steinbeck describes the fresh spring water by the green mossy wood and then contrasts it with the ominous black kettle under the cypress tree: “He [Jody] leaned over and drank close to the green mossy wood where the water tasted best…Jody could see the great black kettle under the cypress tree. That was where the pigs were scalded” (4).


Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something else.

  • General Example: The American flag. (See Symbolism for details.)
  • The Red Pony Example: The triangle that Mrs. Tiflin rings summons everyone to breakfast. This represents the beginning of a new and long day on the ranch: “The triangle picked him [Jody] up out of sleep. It didn’t occur to him to disobey the harsh note. He never had; no one he knew ever had” (2).  


When the author provides hints of what may happen later in the story.

  • General Example: In a play, the main character in the first act might show the audience he has a pistol by placing it in his pocket. Later, in the third act, he is attacked and is able to defend himself with the pistol.
  • The Red Pony Example: “Jody looked along the farm buildings. He felt an uncertainty in the air, a feeling of change and of loss and of the gain of new and unfamiliar things” (4). This foreshadows the death of Gabilan and later (in “The Promise”) the birth of a new colt.


A comparison of generally unlike objects using “like” or “as.”

  • General Example: His fingers were like tree branches.
  • The Red Pony Example: “He [Jody] was only a little boy, ten years old, with hair like dusty yellow grass…” (2).


A direct comparison of generally unlike objects NOT using “like” or as.”

  • General Example: His fingers are the tree branches that scraped the side of the house.
  • The Red Pony Example: “A red pony colt was looking at him [Jody] out of the stall. Its tense ears were forward and a light of disobedience was in its eyes” (9).


A problem or unresolved issue in a story.

  • General Example: Judy wants to finish her homework, but her friend wants her to go to the mall. Judy is confused about what to do.
  • The Red Pony Example: Carl Tiflin is generally uncomfortable with his son Jody, and Jody realizes it is much easier to talk to Billy Buck. Carl Tiflin says to Jody about the pony, “‘He needs a good currying…and if I ever hear of you not feeding him or leaving his stall dirty, I’ll sell him off in a minute.’… Carl Tiflin went out of the barn and walked up a side-hill to be by himself, for he was embarrassed, but Billy Buck stayed. It was easier to talk with Billy Buck” (9).


A turning point in the story.

  • General Example: Judy goes to the mall, without doing her homework, and runs into her English teacher who asks about her work.
  • The Red Pony Example: One of the first major turning points is in “The Gift” when Gabilan gets sick and Jody realizes that Billy Buck is not perfect and can be fallible. “Billy Buck wasn’t wrong about many things. He couldn’t be. But he was wrong about the weather for that day… Billy looked away… He had no right to be fallible, and he knew it” (22-23).


The solution to conflicts presented in a story.

  • General Example: Judy, being smart and time efficient, is able to do both her homework and go to the mall.
  • The Red Pony Example: Even though Jody partially blamed Billy Buck for the death of Gabilan, Billy puts in a good word to Carl Tiflin in “The Promise,” alluding to Jody’s good job of taking care of Gabilan in “The Gift.”
‘Billy, here, says you took good care of the pony before it died… Billy says you have a good patient hand with horses.’
Jody felt a sudden warm friendliness for the ranch-hand.
Billy put in, ‘He trained that pony as good as anybody I ever seen.’ (60)


A string of words beginning with the same consonant.

  • General Example: Susie sold seashells by the seashore.
  • The Red Pony Example: “Over the hillside, two big black buzzards sailed low to the ground and their shadows slipped smoothly and quickly ahead of them” (4-5).


The use of vivid or figurative language to describe objects, actions, or ideas.

  • General Example: Judy, dressed in blue jeans, a blue tee-shirt with the logo “Love rules,” and orange Converse high top tennis shoes with mismatched red and blue shoelaces, entered the mall. She felt as if she was the Queen of the Mall.
  • The Red Pony Example: “In the gray quiet mornings when the land and the brush and the houses and the trees were silver-gray and black like a photograph negative, he [Jody] stole toward the barn, past the sleeping stones and the sleeping cypress tree” (13).


A manner of expression: how a character or writer says what he/she says.

  • General Example: Judy, when confronted by mall police for suspected theft, said, “You don’t know me. I ain’t no thief!”
  • The Red Pony Example: “The fields glowed with a gray frost-like light and in the dew the tracks of rabbits and of field mice stood out sharply” (13).


The writer's attitude toward the material and/or readers. Tone may be playful, formal, intimate, angry, serious, ironic, outraged, baffled, tender, serene, depressed, etc.

  • General Example: Judy, nervous and sweating bullets, felt the world closing in on her as the cop questioned her.
  • The Red Pony Example:
Carl Tiflin wiped the blood from the boy’s face with a red bandana. Jody was limp and quiet now. His father moved the buzzard with his toe. ‘Jody,’ he explained, ‘the buzzard didn’t kill the pony. Don’t you know that?’
‘I know it,’ Jody said wearily.
It was Billy Buck who was angry. He had lifted Jody in his arms, and had turned to carry him home. But he turned back on Carl Tiflin. ‘Course he knows it,’ Billy said furiously. ‘Jesus Christ! man, can’t you see how he’d feel about it?’ (37)


A repeating theme or event.

  • General Example: Judy tells the story (to anyone who will listen) about her encounter with the mall police almost daily.
  • The Red Pony Example: Throughout “The Gift,” the image of the cypress tree repeatedly appears when death or other tragedy appears imminent. Just before Gabilan’s death, the image of the cypress tree is especially ominous: “He [Jody] looked down at the house and at the old bunkhouse and at the dark cypress tree. The place was familiar, but curiously changed. It wasn’t itself anymore, but a frame for things that were happening” (34).


The atmosphere that pervades a literary work with the intention of evoking a certain emotion or feeling from the readers.

  • General Example: Judy felt nervous as the mall police continued to question her. Around her, everything suddenly became fuzzy and dream-like. She felt helpless, alone, and experienced a disturbing sense of floating.
  • The Red Pony Example: As Jody’s pony begins to die, Steinbeck evokes a mood of despair and resignation: “When Jody saw how dry and dead the hair looked, he knew at last that there was no hope for the pony. He had seen the dead hair before on dogs and on cows, and it was a sure sign. He sat heavily on the box and let down the barrier of the box stall” (34-35).


The moral or message of a story. (See Plot and Theme.)

  • General Example: Judy now realizes that false accusations occur, and she decides to forgive the mall police.
  • The Red Pony Example: A major theme in the novel is “The Cruelty of Nature—both human and in the natural world” (especially on a rural ranch). Throughout the four stories, Jody has to deal with the death of his beloved pony Gabilan, the juxtaposed good health of his dog Doubletree Mutt, the disappearance of Gitano and Old Easter, the death of Nellie at the expense of a new colt, and the vicarious stories of violence as told by Grandfather about the crossing of The Great Plains.


A main character or “hero” of a story.

  • General Example: Judy realized after her “false arrest” that not everyone is bad; she remained an honest and law-abiding person.
  • The Red Pony Example: Jody (along with Carl Tiflin, Mrs. Tiflin, and Billy Buck) is a constant presence in each story and moves the plot forward. Jody matures during the course of the four stories and becomes a selfless character by the end.


Usually the character (maybe even considered a “villain”) who opposes the protagonist.

  • General Example: The mall police officer who questioned Judy was unfair and assumptive.
  • The Red Pony Example: Although there is no clear antagonist as there is in Of Mice and Men (Curley), Jody has his occasional conflicts with Carl Tiflin, Billy Buck, and Nature itself. Jody takes out his frustration over the death of Gabilan on one of the buzzards: “The first buzzard sat on the pony’s head and its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid” (36).

Magic realism

A narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality.

  • General Example: After being freed, Judy saw herself rising into the air and landing upon a cloud of relief.
  • The Red Pony Example: At the beginning of “The Promise,” Jody imagines himself leading a musical band and also on an imaginary safari: Now Jody marched seemingly alone, with high-lifted knees and pounding feet; but behind him there was a phantom army with great flags and swords, silent but deadly” (56).


A novel about the moral and psychological growth of a main character (usually a child).

  • General Example: Through her experiences at the mall, Judy matured greatly and learned many lessons.
  • The Red Pony Example: Over the two years during the course of the four stories, Jody matures greatly, eventually becoming a selfless person as exemplified by offering his Grandfather lemonade (to cheer him) at the end of the book.

Episodic Novel

A novel with related incidents and characters, parts of which that are self-contained and can be read alone.

  • General Example: Judy’s experiences, taken alone, or all together, provide related incidents.
  • The Red Pony Example: Jody appears in each story and learns lessons during the course of each (for example, the cruelty of nature, the romance of adventure, attitude towards the aging, promises made and broken, the fallibility of adults, sacrifice, and the value of thinking of others).

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Teachers are encouraged to have students “act out” ongoing scenes from The Red Pony to show their understanding of literary terms.


  • This activity helps students to learn and understand literary terms in an interactive, fun way. This can supplement or replace using a traditional literature textbook approach.


  • A final test of all literary terms, with students’ examples, is encouraged.


Teachers should regularly check students’ notebooks to ensure they are including examples of ongoing literary terms. They will also be regularly tested on literary terms.

California State Content Standards Met

  • Performing Arts: Theatre Content Standards 6-12
  • ~Artistic Perception: 1
  • ~Creative Expression: 2
  • ~Historical and Cultural Context: 3
  • ~Connections, Relationships, Applications: 5

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7

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