The first question to ask is why is it Steinbeck made this a separate short story in his book, “The Pastures of Heaven” and also in, “The Red Pony”? If you know this up front it makes it even more surprising to find out the main character, Janius Maltby, loves to read fiction, and this fact seems to be connected to the fact that he is a lazy bounder. He especially likes to read Robert Louis Stevenson, but is that something that were told and is redemptive?
All this leads to another question: why is Steinbeck connecting reading fiction to this guys failed life?
Maltby works as an accountant in San Francisco, but his doctor tells him drier weather may help his respiratory illness. He moves South and lives with a widow on her ranch, eventually marrying her and having a son. The widow lets her hired help go but gets no help from Maltby, who just reads and enjoys his life of ease. The ranch goes to pot and the family is broke, with not enough food or even clothes. The widow and her children get sick from their poor diet and die of disease.
Maltby and his only son, Robbie, survive living with little food and ragged clothes. His poor son goes to school barefoot and in rags while he lays around, reads and has fancy discussions with whomever will listen. Robbie is exposed to all this discussion and develops his own vivid imagination. In spite of appearance, being dressed in rags, Robbie becomes a natural leader at school with the other children and they even start dressing like he does, even tearing holes in their clothes.
The boy’s teacher seems to like Maltby romantically and doesn’t press the boy to change but the school board steps in and gives the boy some new shoes, clothes and their insight into what he should be doing. This only leads to the boy seeing himself, for the first time as someone who is poor and who should be ashamed.
Eventually from the influence of the teacher, Maltby and his son start to dress better and get cleaned up but the influence leads them to decide to go back to San Francisco. Maltby will in the future spend his life in boring work with poor health but he will to do the best he can for Robbie.
So why did they go back to San Francisco? Maltby and Robbie are very different characters. Maltby ignored what society wanted and Robbie was a leader despite his poverty. Both lives were impacted by poverty, one innocent of what it meant and the other blind to the effects. Robbie will likely do well in the future.