The literary qualities in The Red Pony typify the style that won Steinbeck immense popularity. Rising to prominence at the height of the Depression, Steinbeck seemed to reflect the mood of the era with his bare lines of simple prose.
Steinbeck derives his literary power from his use of symbolism for ironic effect. The symbolic images in the plot allow the reader to perceive the significance of an event on a much deeper level than do the characters. The pony in The Red Pony, for example, functions as a symbol of Jody’s boyhood and innocence as well as a symbol of his future. When the pony dies, the reader experiences a sense of loss, because the pony’s death represents Jody’s loss of innocence. But while the reader understands that Jody’s life has been dramatically altered by the death of the pony, Jody, ironically, grieves for his pony without the ability to fully see the death in a larger context.
During World War II, when people began to realize how complicated the world had become, Steinbeck’s development as a novelist faltered, and he never recovered his artistic momentum. Even East of Eden, the work he thought his masterpiece, proved a critical failure although a popular success. Since his death, Steinbeck has remained widely read, both in America and abroad. His critical reputation has enjoyed a modest revival, and will most likely continue to develop, for few writers have better celebrated the American dream or traced the dark shape of the American nightmare.