Analyzing the Text
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Performing Arts
Small Group, Individual, Entire Class, Performing Arts, Writing, Discussion, Critical Analysis


  • Students will understand what a symbol is.
  • Students will understand, identify, and apply symbolic (through discussion/writing) elements in The Red Pony.
  • Students will identify symbolic elements in the world around them.
  • Students will be able to distinguish between literal and figurative concepts (through writing and on quizzes).


Steinbeck’s novels are rich with symbolism, and The Red Pony is no exception. It is important that students are able to distinguish between literal and figurative concepts.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of The Red Pony
  • An American flag
  • Students’ notebooks
  • Copies of the Symbols Organizer handout and/or Symbols with Sentence Starters handout (optional).

Estimated Time

This is an ongoing activity, but the initial introduction/activity (pre-reading) should take one class period.


Depending on the sophistication level of the class, introduce symbolism (as this is an important part of all of Steinbeck’s novels, including The Red Pony).

  • Ask students what a “symbol” is. Have a student write responses on the board.
  • A great way to introduce the concept of symbolism is to show students the American flag. On its literal surface, it is nothing but red, white, and blue cloth, with stars.
  • Ask students what this flag represents (for example, they may come up with freedom, liberty, the fifty states, democracy, revolution, individual rights, peace, and so on.) Again, have a student write these concepts on the board.
  • Ask students to provide other examples of symbols that occur in daily life. If the class is having trouble, suggest that automobiles may be symbols, and ask the class what a person’s automobile may represent (perceived status, wealth, taste, and so on). This should also be assigned as writing homework. (See Writing Prompts for more details.) Encourage students to include daily-life symbols (in addition to those in The Red Pony) as part of each literature discussion.
  • As this will also be an ongoing activity, students need to track symbols found in The Red Pony in their notebooks. Discussion of symbols should be part of each class discussion, and students should initiate the discussion. During the course of the novel, the following symbols should be discussed (students will be encouraged to come up with many others). Consider providing this list (see materials needed/preparation, above) as an advance organizer:
  • ~Carl Tiflin—Jody’s father may represent the stern disciplinarian who is distant from his son. Carl may also represent hard work, self-reliance, and the payoff from hard work. For advanced classes, teachers may also assign Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance”.
  • ~Billy Buck—The ranch hand may represent an ideal father figure for Jody. Conversely, Billy can also represent fallibility and the human condition that all people make mistakes.
  • ~Iron Triangle—This may represent the start and end of a long day on the ranch.
  • ~Jody’s Cruelty to Small Animals—This could represent Jody’s boredom.
  • ~Wood Box—Filling the wood box properly is one of Jody’s chores; this could represent Jody’s level of responsibility.
  • ~Jody’s Rifle—Carl gives Jody a twenty-two rifle but without any cartridges until he is twelve. This could represent Carl trying to teach Jody responsibility and discipline.
  • ~Cypress Tree—Under the tree is a black kettle where pigs are scalded. This tree could represent ominous happenings including death.
  • ~Mossy Spring Tub—Jody retreats here to the surrounding green grass and generally has positive feelings. This could represent a respite from the harsh realities of the world.
  • ~Gabilan—Jody takes great pride in his horse and takes good care of him, especially when the pony becomes sick. This could represent Jody’s level of responsibility.
  • ~The Buzzard—A scavenger, the vulture attacks the already-dead Gabilan. Jody violently kills the buzzard, which could represent his frustration, anger, and questions about Gabilan’s death.
  • ~The Great Mountains—Jody is endlessly curious about this range, and it could represent his sense of adventure and curiosity.
  • ~Gitano—When Gitano arrives at the ranch, Jody is endlessly curious and asks him about the Great Mountains. Gitano, a paisano, could represent adventure and a time when Mexicans occupied the California lands. Also, Gitano could represent a man who is old and can no longer work.
  • ~Gitano’s Rapier—A mysterious object about which Gitano will reveal very little to Jody. This could represent adventure, excitement, and family connections.
  • ~Old Easter—The aging horse on the Tiflin ranch who is put out to pasture. As for symbolic value, like Gitano, the horse is at the end of its days, unable to contribute to the ranch.
  • ~Nellie—Jody had to help Billy take care of Nellie from her breeding until her ultimate demise. She could represent Jody’s level of responsibility and also the cruelty of the natural world.
  • ~The Colt—Jody’s colt is finally born but at a heavy price. The colt could represent sacrifice and also the cruelty of the natural world.
  • ~Grandfather—Jody’s maternal grandfather constantly tells stories of Indians and crossing The Great Plains in the 19th century. He could represent a tired past and the end of “Westering.”
  • ~Hunting the Mice—Jody wants Grandfather to help him hunt the mice in the haystack. Grandfather eventually tires of the idea. This could represent both the end of “Westering” and the conquering of the West.
  • ~Lemonade—At the end of the novel, Jody selflessly offers his Grandfather some lemonade to cheer him. This could represent Jody’s growing responsibility and maturation.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • After finishing The Red Pony, students (in small groups) can perform a skit based on symbolism in the novel. For example, Jody and Gitano talk about the mystery of both The Great Mountains and the rapier.


  • Students will have a competent grasp of symbolism and be able to apply their knowledge of such.


  • Teachers can monitor students’ skits for adherence to objectives.


Regularly test students (open book) on symbolism. For example, provide the symbols identified during class discussions and ask students to provide what those symbols represent. Students will also be expected to provide specific examples from the novel.

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
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12 (optional for advanced classes)
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~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
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Range of Writing: 10

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