I really, really hate The Red Pony. It rubbed me the wrong way from the moment I first laid my teenaged eyes on the very first words on the very first page. It was the only novel we were compelled to read in high school that I had any trouble finishing, despite its brevity — and I was normally the read-ahead student who had to remember not to spoil my classmates. I didn’t loathe Of Mice and Men but it did traumatize me; I read it too young because I saw it on my college-aged cousin’s shelf and mistook its slimness for age-appropriateness.
Needless to say, I am not a Steinbeck fan for various reasons.
@heinousdealings isn't he just accurately portraying how women were treated then?
— Martin Dowdall (@DowdallM87) January 27, 2015
Steinbeck doesn’t give an awful lot of his female characters names, let alone personalities. The pony gets a name (Gabilan). We know the name of Steinbeck’s dog who ate an early manuscript of Of Mice and Men (Max). Did women not have names before second-wave feminism?
The novel [Of Mice And Men] received a warm reception when it was published, but the character called Curley’s wife (who is never given a name) remains somewhat abstract and undefined. Except for her low breeding, reflected in her speech patterns, she is largely unrealized. Elaine Steinbeck, the writer’s widow, recalls: “I asked John once, ‘Why didn’t you name Curley’s wife?’ And he said, ‘For one good reason. She’s not a person, she’s a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil — and a danger to Lennie.”
I guess it’s too much to asked for a named, human female character. Instead we get a half-realized pseudo-femme fatale who gets a man with mental disabilities killed. The other women in his books don’t fare much better. The pony kid’s unnamed mom doesn’t have much to her. Heck, even the non-human female characters don’t do so well; the red pony is only exists because his unnamed mare mother died to bring him into the world.
I’m fairly sure that not only did women have personalities in Steinbeck’s time, but also that there were authors, female and male, who wrote compelling and interesting male and female characters.
Though I’m using this particular conversation about a particular author, this is hardly the worst conversation I’ve had about such matters (far from it, actually) and Steinbeck is hardly the most sexist author out there in the Western canon. My point is that “accuracy” is not a legitimate defense of every sexist and misogynistic issues in literature. History is not linear and neither is the trajectory of literature. As long as there have been people, there have always been women with names and personalities. There have long been been female characters with names and personalities, some of whom were written by female authors. Steinbeck was a 20th-century author, not from some imaginary distant time where women didn’t exist as people despite the best gate-keeping efforts of society.