What is true grit? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” While the Merriam-Webster dictionary does provide an appreciable explanation of grit, no such definition exists for “true grit.” True grit is far more challenging to place words upon; such a prowess is almost unheard of on this Earth. However, true grit takes human form in two pivotal characters in the book of the same name: Mattie Ross, our protagonist and Tom Chaney, our antagonist.
To begin, Mattie Ross perfectly embodies this quality. As the story commences, Mattie narrates her life story in first person and takes an extremely commanding tone on the audience. Mattie narrates, “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say that it did not happen every day” (Portis 11). As readers, we instantly recognize a fire that burns within Mattie, who as a 14-year-old girl travels alone to an unknown land merely for the idea of fighting for justice and to avenge the death of her late father. This fire that exists within Mattie burns even brighter and continues to ignite as the book progresses. Many times in her journey she is halted, or her efforts are thwarted. However, Mattie’s incessant persistence ascends her far above these obstacles.
Mattie hires a Marshall by the name of Rooster Cogburn to aid her on her journey, and offers him a sumptuous amount in reward as a token for his aid. However, a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf offers Rooster a greater amount and persuades him into leaving Mattie behind. Rooster and LaBoeuf attempt to forsake Mattie multiple times, but she is not dissuaded. This is evident when Rooster and LaBoeuf take a ferry across the river and kick Mattie off the boat. Most people, let alone a 14-year-old girl, would have abandoned such a hopeless quest after being vanquished so many times, but the novel is called “true grit” for a reason. Instantly, Mattie jumps right on her horse and rides him right across the river. “We hit the river running and Blackie snorted and arched his back against the icy water, but once he was in he swam as though he was raised to it” (107). As the protagonist of such a story, it is expected that Mattie Ross displays such persistence.
However, it is unexpected that the very person Mattie is hunting demonstrates such determination as well. Tom Chaney demonstrates true grit throughout the book as a thief and criminal on the run. We first learn the name of Frank Ross’s assassin at the start of the story. “Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot him [Frank Ross] in the forehead, killing him instantly” (16). As readers, we know that this Chaney must be a formidable foe to fake his identity and then kill a man, but we haven’t learned just yet how far this guy is really going to go. Later on, LaBoeuf states that Chaney’s actual name is Chelmsford, and that he is a known criminal up with a history up for high ransom. LaBoeuf has hunted him three times and still never has been able to catch him. Chaney instantly transforms from a foe in our mind to a mastermind criminal displaying a fascinating case of true grit. However, Chaney’s real struggle for survival and passion comes towards the end of the story. When Mattie finds Chaney while fetching a bucket of water, she shoots him to prove that she is not to be messed with. Later, she is captured by a band of robbers and Chaney is instructed to look after her and see to her safety or he will not be paid. When alone with him, Mattie throws a pot of boiling water on his face and shoots him a second time, this time in the head. Yet Chaney still refuses to submit. He is still alive and perseverant, and it is truly marvelous to witness the true grit he displays while fighting for his life.
After Mattie falls into a pit of snakes and calls for help, she is shocked to hear the voice of the last person she expects: “It was the voice of Tom Chaney! I had not yet made a good job of killing him” (210). Chaney eventually dies, but seeing him fight so relentlessly until the end of his life truly does answer the question: What is true grit?