All the Pretty Horses
The Choice Between Love and Duty in The God of Small Things and All the Pretty Horses
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy are two works that give their respective characters a choice between love and duty. Although these works differ drastically in historical setting, how love and duty develop throughout each novel are similar. In The God of Small Things, Roy creates the story of twins Estha and Rahel and alternates between the years of 1969 and 1993 in a southwestern Indian village called Ayemenem. In All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy writes the story of John Grady Cole, a teenage cowboy who leaves his home in Texas to go to Mexico in the late 1940s. The works take place on opposite sides of the world, but the characters are bound by the historical makeup of each area, seemingly affecting how they respond to the choice of love and duty and how other characters are affected by their choice between the two.
The God of Small Things is a work driven by the power of love. A common theme in the novel is the idea of the Love Laws, which are “the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much” (Roy 33). Still, the main conflict of the work is the clash between love and duty, or in this case social obligation. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Roy mentions regarding a set of her characters that “They all tampered” (Roy 31) with these Love Laws, and how their tampering affected themselves and others are proved throughout the entire work. Overall, Roy’s characters decide to choose love over duty, which is the reason for most of their distress. The most significant case of this choice is between Ammu, Estha, and Rahel’s mother, and Velutha, Ammu’s Untouchable lover. In this case, Ammu’s social obligation is to avoid the Untouchables, since the caste system was still an important part of Indian society. Yet Ammu chooses her love for Velutha in the last chapter during a sexual encounter, as they both ignore the consequences that their affair could have, especially when Velutha contemplates, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? I could lose everything. My job. My family. My livelihood. Everything” (Roy 316). This is mostly true because in Indian society at the time, the Untouchables’ duties were to remain invisible to the more distinguished people. In other words, they had to be extremely cautious of their actions because they were supposed to remain Untouchable to the other citizens.
However, by the time that Velutha and Ammu actually have sex, Roy highlights that “The cost of living climbed to unaffordable heights” (Roy 318) in that moment because, due to Roy’s unique structure of the novel, the consequences of Velutha and Ammu’s encounter are shown to the reader before the encounter itself. The reader becomes aware of the fact that Velutha is brutally beaten by the police, and Roy openly describes that situation as “History walking the dog” (Roy 271). In other words, Roy makes it clear to the reader that despite Velutha’s love for Ammu, his social obligations, or his duty, as an Untouchable are still valid in an Indian society, which eventually is the cause of the beatings he gets from the police. Ammu experiences the idea of social obligation invalidating love too, since at Sophie Mol’s funeral after her family had become aware of her relationship with Velutha, “they [Ammu, Estha, and Rahel] were made to stand separately, not with the rest of the family. Nobody would look at them” (Roy 7). Although Velutha and Ammu deliberately chose love over duty, their social obligations still overpowered their love as a whole, creating everlasting or even fatal consequences for the both of them.
On the other hand, most of the characters in McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses choose duty over love. As mentioned before, a large portion of this novel is set in Mexico and follows the story of John Grady Cole, a teenager who finds work at a ranch and eventually falls in love with the ranch head’s daughter, Alejandra Rocha y Villarreal. Since John Grady Cole is an American, he is unaware of the traditional Mexican society that he immerses himself into, which is first seen when Alfonsa, Alejandra’s great aunt, warns him about his and Alejandra’s relationship by saying that she “wants you [him] to be considerate of a young girl’s reputation” (McCarthy 136); John Grady Cole replies, “I never meant not to be” (McCarthy 136). In this same conversation, Alfonsa claims that “This is another country. Here, a woman’s reputation is all she has” (McCarthy 136), presenting to the reader how severe this relationship could be if it shown in public. Since Alejandra is of a higher class, she has to be more mindful of who she is in a relationship with since her reputation as woman is all that she possesses in Mexican society during that time, in a departure from The God of Small Things, in which people of lower class are supposed to be mindful of their place in society.
Later in the work, when John Grady Cole and Alejandra meet again, the reader becomes aware of her choice of duty over her love for John. Alejandra admits to him that Alfonsa told her that she “must stop seeing you [him] or she would tell my father” (McCarthy 250) and eventually her father became aware of the relationship. However, Alejandra decides not to talk to John Grady Cole again after their final encounter, mostly because “I [Alejandra] broke my father’s heart. I broke his heart” (McCarthy 251). Also, in the end, Alejandra tells John Grady Cole that she, “cannot do what you ask. I love you. But I cannot” (McCarthy 255). Even though Alejandra truly loves John Grady Cole, she cannot run away with him because of the social traditions she has always been accustomed to. Even though her own father “was going to kill” (McCarthy 251) the man she loved, the love from her father, which is seen as the most important in this society, invalidates the love from anyone else. In other words, once again, a character’s social obligations outweigh the romantic love they are allowed to experience. The consequences of Alejandra’s choice are temporarily seen in John Grady Cole’s actions and thoughts after their final interaction. John Grady “felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave” (McCarthy 254). John Grady was absolutely heartbroken over her choice, but due to the society they inhabited, Alejandra’s loyalty to her family was what was necessary.
The controversial themes of love and duty persist throughout Roy’s The God of Small Things and McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, but they hold different effects. In both works, what the characters were obligated to do due to the societies in which they lived invalidated romances that went against their social obligations. For example, in The God of Small Things, it was Ammu having a relationship with an Untouchable, and in All the Pretty Horses it was Alejandra having a relationship with an undistinguished American. Both works go into depth about how the social traditions of their respective histories refuse to change despite the strength of individual loves. History was a common theme in Roy’s work, while Alfonsa told John that, “In history there are no control groups” (McCarthy 239). However, the consequences of each set of choices contrast; since Ammu and Velutha chose love over duty, Ammu’s family ended up being ignored by everyone else and Velutha ended up dying. Yet Alejandra’s decision to remain loyal to her family only resulted in John Grady Cole’s heartbreak. Even though in both novels the duties and social obligations of the characters invalidate the romantic loves that they harbor, the consequences of the choice between love and duty differ in severity. Overall, the decision between love and duty depends almost entirely upon the society each work is placed in, thus creating starkly different outcomes.
The Manipulation of Western Tropes in All the Pretty Horses
Without a doubt, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses stays true to many common tropes within the Western genre. However; what makes this novel so unique is how McCarthy manipulates some of these important tropes. They are still present throughout the book, in fact, some of them are magnified through each part but as a whole, McCarthy openly manipulates some of the most popular ones in an attempt to highlight the development of the protagonist: John Grady Cole. Most importantly, McCarthy works the image of the cowboy, the importance of horses, a sense of lawlessness, and the gunslinger trope into All the Pretty Horses and alters the impact of them throughout the novel. As a whole, McCarthy implements these tropes to ensure that the novel stays true to the western genre but he manipulates them to highlight the psychological and physical journey of John Grady Cole.
In typical Western novels, the image of a cowboy is what drives the entire plot; a lawless, tough, gunslinger protagonist with a penchant for horses is the common archetype and it never changes throughout western novels. The common cowboy archetype is first exhibited by John Grady Cole when Rawlins asks him why he is leaving St. Angelo, Texas as he replied that he was “already gone.” (27) signifying the reason for John’s quest, which is also a common western trope as well. At that moment, the reader then assumes that John Grady’s journey by himself will occur since the idea of a lone traveler is often associated with westerns. However; that is not what occurs, which only makes John Grady’s growth much more significant. Instead of being a lone traveler, John Grady starts off his quest by being accompanied with two other people in the first part of the book: Rawlins and Blevins.
What makes this important is the fact that McCarthy manipulated the image of a cowboy by splitting one’s common traits between the three of them. For example, John’s role in the trio’s collective image of a cowboy is his love for horses since he is claimed to be “the best” (59) riders according to Rawlins. Rawlins’ role in their image of a cowboy is predominantly his lawlessness, or his ability to openly express his beliefs. Through dialogue, especially between John Grady Cole, Blevins, and Rawlins, the reader is aware of the fact that Rawlins is opinionated. For example, whenever Rawlins shares his opinion, it is relatively harsh like when he told Blevins that he’d, “Get shut dead for horse stealing” and that, “It don’t mean a damn thing to him. He expects it.” (80) Finally, Blevins’ role in McCarthy’s collective image of a cowboy is one of the most obvious: the gunslinger trope.
In fact, Blevins’ skills with guns is what helps John Grady Cole and Rawlins make the decision to accept him, especially since he was confident with them by telling John and Rawlins that if they, “wanted to throw something up, I’ll [he’ll] hit it.” (48). In the first part, they all collectively build this image of a cowboy and they all share common traits associated with them, which is very uncommon for western novels. In regards to John Grady’s development, this collective image lets the audience get insight on the fact that due to his upbringing and background, John Grady is unable to fit the image of the cowboy at first. The collective image that McCarthy created in the first part of All the Pretty Horses does not last as long as some readers would assume. In fact, the image between the three of them slowly dissipates throughout the next three parts of the novel. This is first seen in the second quarter, when the three of them are separated for the first time and John Grady is seen as more of a charismatic front man than the others. For example, John Grady built up so much notoriety at La Purísma after he’d broken in sixteen horses that when “John Grady pointed and asked that tortillas be passed there came hands from both sides of the table to take up the dish and hand it down in this manner like a ceremonial bowl.” (110) John Grady’s growth in regards to him separating from the previous collective image of a cowboy can also been seen when he and Rawlins were talking the night of when Don Hector gave John that special task as Rawlins mentioned that, “It’s an opportunity for you. [John Grady] Ain’t no reason for you to turn it down that I can see.” (116) From that point on, John Grady is seen as a separate entity from his companion, which only grows throughout the book.
Also in the second part, John Grady slowly becomes more lawless, which was previously Rawlins’ assigned trait in the collective cowboy image, as he faces criticisms from people within the ranch because of his newfound relationship with Alejandra. Specifically, Alfonsa is the first to advise John Grady that, “it is not proper for you [John] to be seen riding in the campo with Alejandra without supervision.” (136) and that John Grady should be, “considerate of a young girls’ reputation” (136) since that is “all she has.” (136). Although seeing Alejandra may seem harmless to John Grady, this is the first time he receives disapproval from a majority, and that point expands at the end of the part, when John Grady and Rawlins are arrested. From the perspective of John Grady’s development, McCarthy still manipulates the image of a cowboy trope so that it is gradual rather than instantaneous, and the second part in particular highlights that.
The final two portions of All the Pretty Horses can be identified as very significant in regards to the manipulation of western tropes to amplify John Grady’s development as a character. Previously, the image of a cowboy was manipulated by McCarthy by being split between three different characters and when that dissolved, John Grady gradually fit some of the traits associated with a cowboy’s typical image. What occurs in the last two parts is all buildup of John Grady morphing slowly into that image; in the third part, he becomes much more lawless and in the final part, his lawlessness only amplifies as he becomes a lone traveler. For example, in an act of self-defense, John Grady ended up murdering a man in the prison he and Rawlins were in by, “sinking a knife blade into a cuchillero’s heart.” (201). This can also be seen when John is separated from Rawlins in the final part and holds the captain hostage in order to get his horses back by threatening, “When I die you die.” (270). This creates a stark contrast with the John Grady presented to the reader in the first part of the novel, and the contrast is drastically accentuated in the last portion of the novel as John Grady “Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.” (302) as he continued to travel by himself, searching for something because he cannot find anything for him in his old town.
In regards to western tropes throughout the novel, they are still manipulated; John Grady just fills some of the characteristics because it is necessary due to the setting. He is generally a humble character who holds an unwavering honor code, but due to his circumstances, John had to fit the image of a cowboy. For example, the reader is aware that John Grady “Never thought I’d [he’d] do that.” (215) after he had killed the assassin in the prison. But Rawlins comes to his defense by claiming that he “didn’t have no choice” (215) due to the violent atmosphere within the prison. Also, John never intended to travel alone; Rawlins wanted to leave since the emotional toll of witnessing Blevins’ death and being within the prison began to consume him. Therefore, with the idea of western tropes in mind, McCarthy constantly manipulated them because in common westerns, death does not take a negative emotional toll on cowboys nor does the cowboy want to travel with a companion. McCarthy most likely did this to show how John’s personal philosophies persist throughout each part and specifically how they had to waver due to the circumstances he was in, which gives the reader an understanding of his physical journey in comparison to his psychological journey.
A big part of the significance of All the Pretty Horses comes from McCarthy’s ability to manipulate the common tropes within the western genre. In comparison to other westerns, McCarthy’s novel is very uncommon in regards to character development and its relationship with other western tropes, which could be intentional. Overall, the western tropes within McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, are implemented to stay true to the western genre, but are later manipulated in order to show the relationship between the psychological and physical journey of John Grady Cole.
Maturity and Independence in All The Pretty Horses
The journey from childhood to maturity is guided primarily by the search for meaning. In All the Pretty Horses, protagonist John Grady Cole leaves home to find the place where he belongs in the world. Throughout the novel, John Grady chased the ideal vision of the ranch lifestyle instilled in him by his late grandfather, but was forced to reconcile his romantic dreams of the old west with a reality of violence and injustice that was less than kind to him. The sixteen-year-old set off from home in search of the answers he was always looking for but never managed to find at home, in his relationships with his estranged mother and his inadequate father.
After Grady’s grandfather died and his mother sold the ranch, he was forced to re-examine his future. He even goes as far as to visit his mother to see her performing in a play but finds no answers: “He’d the notion that there would be something in the story itself to tell him about the way the world was or was becoming but there was not” (21). He might not get answers, but he knows that the kind of life his mother leads in San Antonio is not for him. He leaves home and finds comfort in the familiar desert, in embracing the rugged cowboy lifestyle that directly contrasts with the modern industrialism he is running from. Eventually, Rawlins runs away from home with Grady for the sake of adventure, and because there is not much of a life for him in San Angelo. It becomes clear early in the trip that instead of leaving out of a longing for the freedom of the cowboy lifestyle, Rawlins views his new lifestyle as a positive consequence of his decision to leave. It is a way of life that he “could get used to this life…It wouldn’t take [him] no time at all” (35). He parts ways with Grady after he finds the answers he wasn’t looking for. Through his time on the road, at the ranch, in prison, he came realize that the path he was on wasn’t leading him to the future he really wanted. He spent a large measure of the journey following Grady’s lead even when they disagreed, but by the end he had matured through his trials and was able to define what he wanted. This shift left Grady alone to search for all the answers to his questions, such as why Alejandra had let him go, how to live with his own guilt for the death of another man, an explanation for the injustice of Blevins’ death, and the true owner of Blevins’ horse. In finding these answers, Grady is faced with an unsheltered view of the world that forces him to grow up.
Consequences are driven by one’s choices and free will rather than by fate guiding the actions of man. Throughout the novel, John Grady, Rawlins and Alfonsa offer their own perspectives on the nature of free will and fate. Doubt and regret for his own choices lead Rawlins to struggle with the idea of whether it is fate or free will that rules his future. He questions his motivations for running away from home with his friend almost immediately: “well suppose you were ill at ease and didn’t know why. Would that mean that you might be someplace you wasn’t supposed to be and didn’t know it?” His words appeal to some higher destiny, one that isn’t being fulfilled, as the source of his discomfort (37). He finds no support in Grady, who solidly believes that people make their own destinies. In contemplation of the afterlife, Rawlins asks Grady if a person can believe in heaven if that person doesn’t believe in hell and Grady replies, “I guess you can believe what you want to” (91). While Rawlins is trying to find the right answer, Grady tells him that there is no right answer.
For his part, John Grady is the embodiment of the American Dream. He believes that anything is possible if you just put your mind to it. This belief is what drives him to leave home in search of a future that is dying out, in the hope that he has the power to shape his future. This belief also causes him to get into trouble in Mexico when his steadfast individualist attitude clashes with the mentality of Alfonsa, a character who believes that people’s lives are controlled by unseen forces, such as a societal structure and tradition, that they must play into. Through her past experiences, her injury that affected her prospects, and losing her love in a rebellion against the greater strength of the Mexican government, she came to believe that people are just puppets at the mercy of fate: “For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on” (231). Grady’s disagreement only urges him to pursue a romantic relationship that is doomed to fail from the start and leads him right into prison. The time in prison seems to be all the confirmation that Rawlins needs that fate has laid out a course for him: “It was in the hospital that I got to thinking: I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t supposed to be here” (214). Rather than accepting that his decisions led him into this trouble, he attempts to vindicate himself by saying that he was always meant to have these experiences: “All my life I had the feelin’ that trouble was close at hand. Not that I was about to get into it. Just that it was always there” (208). Rawlins interprets his experiences as proof of fate, but Grady holds to his belief, even though it is his strong faith in free will that causes him the most emotional turmoil in the second half of the novel. He is plagued with shame at not doing more to stop Blevins from being executed, regret over losing Alejandra, and guilt over killing an inmate who threatened his life. Rawlins tries to comfort Grady by reassuring him that he didn’t have a choice but to kill, yet this idea goes against one of Grady’s basic beliefs (215).
Although John Grady believes that man has ultimate power over his own destiny, he was faced with so much hardship and loss that was seemingly out of his control. He doesn’t let go of this idea, though. By the end of the novel, rather than accepting the world as it is and surrendering to a life in San Angelo, Grady sets off in search of the life he really wants, confident in the fact that he can shape his life in any way he chooses.
Light in August and All the Pretty Horses Essay
In both novels, All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and Light in August by William Faulkner, a central theme of heroism and the expectations placed on the two main characters and other’s surrounding them is presented as a pivotal point for the advancement of the plot and embellishment of the meaning of the book. While this theme is reflected unseemlier ways while comparing the two works, it is not presented in the same fashion in regards to the author’s choices and characterizations of the figures that populate their fictional worlds. While McCarthy’s work reflects a more optimistic view toward heroic acts and attempts made at greatness than Faulkner, the latter’s novel is a darker rendition of this concept with heroic acts and charity being repaid with corruption and pain. Both novels address this central concept with plot lines that follow the characters through elaborate journeys and focus on set ups for heroism and, at times, failure in achieving it.
The most powerful and understandable medium through which this idea can be translated in the two novels are the characters. Both main characters are used as examples of heroism through means of non-heroic acts or failure at heroism itself through the eyes of the audience or other characters in the novel. In McCarthy’s novel, the main character presented is John Grady who has a set goal of attaining the rustic lifestyle of a cowboy, a naturally heroic role simply by its associative meaning in the eyes of the sixteen year old boy. As both a parallel and contrast the this, Faulkner’s Joe Christmas is a character who is relentlessly set on failure in his opportunities for any kind of redeeming action and yet ascends to the place of a Christ like figure by the end of the novel simply through the payment he is made to make in the closing of the book. These are the two characters received as heroes in their own respective worlds if not by the other characters that inhabit them. The attainment of this perceived greatness is drastically different for each character, how ever, and this difference calls into question the very basis which the audience uses to classify a hero. john Grady’s continuous struggles through the various trials of his journey, such as the fight with the cuchillero in prison, are what give him the respect of the audience whereas Christmas’ heroism is present only because of a certain sympathy felt for him due to the hand he is dealt being an unfair one both in life through his mixed heritage and the discrimination he receives for it and in his death through its circumstances and the hatred which he must suffer. The holistic comparison of these two characters and their failures in their heroic attempts or lack thereof reveal a similar result from two very different approaches, effectively establishing a blurred line for an audience as the the validity and meaning of a heroic figure.
In an extension of the exemplification of character driven heroism, the supporting characters in each of the novels provides more insight into the view the two authors hold of the attainment of greatness. In All The Pretty Horses, McCarthy presents two other key figures that, in addition to John Grady, create a group whose flaws are characterized in each of its members. As the two’s presumed leader, John Grady’s most revered quality by the audience is hope. This trait, how ever, is a downfall for him as he can be overly ambitious. Rawlings is a representation of cowardice, a trait that removes his chance at a heroic status and eventually confines him to the option of retreat back to Texas. Finally, Blevins is the character who represents youth, the main shortcoming of the group as a whole. This combination is the set back that gives John Grady his heroic feature after he overcomes its confinement. This forthcoming of extreme effort from John Grady contrasts Christmas’ lack of persistence in any charitable endeavor. This is where the characters of Lena Grove and Byron Bunch become key in understanding why we view Christmas the way we do at the end of the novel despite his less than honorable actions.Christmas is the ultimate concentration of sin in the novel but is not its sole ambassador. He is simply a result and manifestation of the sins of others. Lena is a testament to his impurity for which he suffers. Her lack of virginity is a parallel to the lack of belonging Christmas feels because of his racial background. Byron is more a figure of corruption as he is distracted from his routine activities and even God by the sinfulness of lust. This reflects the corruption suffered by Christmas through the abuse of others and the festering of sores created through minor acts of untreated sins eventually snowballing into murder. Between the two works, it can been seen an interesting contrast in that one character become dedicates to a goal of heroic notion and achieves the same effect as someone who simply happened to be the product of misfortune and poor circumstances.
While the realization of heroic stature is something attained by both characters, the means to achieving this goal and the effectiveness of their supposed heroism can be debated. It can be argued that John Grady’s actions such as killing a man or hiding sexual relationship with his employer’s daughter are a testament enough to remove his title of the hero of the novel while Joe Christmas’ entire life is enough to revoke his. The reason that these two are able to be presented as heroes is because they are the best that each novel has to offer. Both works present characters who are searching for a world that cannot exist for either of them whether it be one of acceptance or of an era that has already passed. It is the pursuance of a dream that is the most heroism quality the audience sees in these characters and their failures in such an endeavor only create a sense of sympathy in the reader. The novels exemplify the realism of heroic imperfection and present an idea that disproves the warped notions of certain characters while also correcting the mislead assumptions of the reader.
Coming of Age in Red Sky at Morning and All the Pretty Horses
Red Sky at Morning and All the Pretty Horses by Richard Bradford and Cormac McCarthy are two novels that encompass a young man’s coming of age experience. Through the use of the unhealable wound, the hunting group of companions, the parent/child conflict, and the use of a magical weapon archetypes, both young men become increasingly more heroic, whether in overcoming obstacles or rising to the occasion of greatness.
Both Josh Arnold from Red Sky at Morning and John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses must endure or overcome a wound that is unhealable for them. In Josh’s case, this is the loss of his father, “The telegram, that goddamn telegram that turns up in all the war movies, was lying on the coffee table.” (pg. 245) This is when Josh and his family are notified of his father’s death, he then has to put his grief aside and deal with his mother’s problems, “When she awakened, late the next afternoon, my mother put her hands over her ears agains and didn’t move. I discovered she hadn’t bothered to get up to go to the bathroom, so I called Dr. Temple again. I signed something he gave to me…” (pg. 245) Although Josh hasn’t recovered from the loss of his father, and truly doesn’t recover, he becomes more heroic since he must persevere and fight through his loss to care for his mother and tend to her pressing needs. John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses encounters a similar experience with losing someone, and overcoming it, “He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.” (pg. 254) This is when Alejandra tells him that she cannot marry him; he is heartbroken and thinks his life can’t be complete without her, although he triumphs and overcomes the pain and through this onward movement of life he becomes more heroic.
In both novels, Josh and John Grady have a hunting group of companions that they defend sometime in the book, their defense of them makes them more heroic. John Grady defends Blevins to Rawlins, “Meanin just leave him (Blevins)?” said John Grady. “Yessir,” said Rawlins. “What if it was you?” …. “I can’t do it, John Grady said (pg. 79). Although Blevins has brought them trouble in the past, and is certainly about to get them into trouble right now by stealing back his horse, John Grady defends him to Rawlins. This defense of Blevins to his best friend takes some gumption, and John Grady becomes increasingly more heroic because of it. Rawlins could have laughed in John’s face, a fact John knew, and he still defended the underdog in order to do what was honorable. Josh also has to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone to defend a friend, “Chango said: ‘Viola? Amigo, you’re crazy (in reference to Josh spotting her in La Cimajkpg (198). Although Chango was a changed person and intent on doing good, Josh didn’t know how he would react to the news, but he told him any way in order to protect Viola. Josh grows into a hero because of this, and he learns through this that the honorable thing isn’t always the easy thing.
Another similarity that Josh and John Grady share is a parent/child conflict which makes them grow stronger as an individual. Josh’s mother is very drunk one night and Josh must overcome her treatment of him in order to care for her mental health, “After five or six blows, I realized, in a detached and clear-headed way, that I wasn’t angry any more, just bored. So I finally brought my hands around in front of me and grabbed her wrists and held them… I said, as slowly and clearly as I could, ‘I’m sorry, Mother.’” (pgs. 116-117) Josh behaves as an adult in a trying time and shows maturity beyond his years, this use of restraint makes him grow as a hero in the novel. John Grady also has to deal with disappointment and a parent/child conflict in novel, one dealing with his mother selling his beloved ranch, “Why couldnt you lease me the ranch… I’d give you all the money. You could do whatever you wanted.” His mother replies, “You’re sixteen years old, you cant run a ranch.” (pg. 15) John is not only turned out from the house he loves, but is also forced to leave the last connection he has with his deceased grandfather; his trek is proof that he can rise from disappointment and grows into a young man, proving his worth as a hero.
Throughout both novels, Josh and John Grady use a magical weapon in order to cope with situations or wields them as a special gift. John Grady’s special gift is his ability to handle horses: “He’d ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law.” (pg. 128) John Grady can handle a horse and almost can feel the horses thoughts, he uses this gift to bond to the horse and many times his gift saves him from eminent danger, the use of the gift makes him the hero. Josh also has a magical weapon that he wields; it is his sarcasm and sense of humor. In this quote Josh find humor in his suave-ness, “ ‘May I kiss you good-by, Josh?’ said Amalie. Josh replies, ‘Okay. Sure.’ Always the continental lover. I knock the ladies over with my epigrams.” (pg. 19) He finds humor in his own lame response to Amalie’s request; this sense of humor allows him to be more relatable in his relationships (his father) and allows him to cope with future situations, his sarcasm also makes him a distinguished and relatable character to the reader, furthering his role in the novel as the hero.
Through the use of the unhealable wound, the hunting group of companions, the parent/ child conflict, and the use of a magical weapon archetypes, both Josh Arnold and John Grady Cole grow and develop into the heroes in their respective novels.
Myths Revealed: Smoking Kills and the Western Myth is No More!
Although smoking of the past was viewed as glamorous and romantic, its cancerous, harmful effects are now a common fact. Similarly, in Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses, the consistent smoking throughout the novel juxtaposes the negative effect of smoking with a naïve faith in the American western myth. The recurring motif of smoking in the novel serves to portray both the romanticism behind blind faith in the Western myth and the stark realities of its modern failure. In the relentless motifs of smoking, it’s hard to deny that smoking has a deeper, symbolic meaning in All the Pretty Horses. The friendly dialogues and cliché beginnings that take place while smoking express the poignant communion between characters before the disappointment of the western myth is discovered. John Grady and his father meet in a café where they hardly talk; during this awkward dinner, his father feels as though he has failed his son. Throughout this first scene where the characters smoke, John Grady’s father “got another cigarette and tapped it against the lighter,” and as Grady contemplates about his future “his father smoked.” This father/son conversation conveys the intimate rapport of characters before the demise of the myth. Furthermore, before Rawlins and Grady run off to Mexico, the two share a man to man communion (while smoking): Rawlins “took a cigarette out” and “sat smoking.” As he “tipped the ash from the end of the cigarette,” Rawlins claims that women “aint worth it. None of em are.” The empathy between John Grady and a close friend or relative while smoking emphasizes the idealized vision of the west. Just as smoking is fascinating to youthful users, the clichéd idea of the west is also. In this cliché beginning of the novel, John Grady and Rawlins experience no danger or violence on their journey to Mexico; their harmless trip to Mexico follows the boys’ naïve perception of the western myth. This perception of the myth similarly follows smoking—the intriguing experience of smoking seems harmless at first. As Rawlins absorb his newfound life in the west, he “rolled a cigarette and lit it.” Here, in another communion with John Grady, he claims that he “could get used to this life.” He delicately tapped the ash, saying it “wouldn’t take [him] no time at all.” This furthermore emphasizes the childish view of Rawlins and Grady—just as they believe smoking is a harmless habit, they believe this idealized view of the West will be as they expected. As John Grady and Rawlins face the gory reality of the American west, the fate of smoking is also recognized. The death of John Grady’s father and the violent, threatening scenes convey the degradation of the myth of the west. Although smoking began as an enthralling communion between characters, it soon becomes a brutally silent killer…or a near killer. Just as “the boy stubbed out the cigarette,” the violent fight scene erupts in the jail where John Grady is almost killed. The relationships with cigarettes have drastically changed from the beginning of the quest—no longer are characters in deep conversations while smoking; they now are facing the violent reality of the western myth. Perhaps the most painful reality of smoking was portrayed by the death of his father. This death symbolizes not only the reality of smoking, but also a death of childish view of the west. Although it is not made explicit, it can be inferred that John Grady’s father dies from lung cancer, as he was heavy smoker. His father and grandfather were an embodiment of the former, idealized vision of the west. John Grady clearly has some spiritual connection with these relatives, as he “knew his father was dead” when he awoke one morning. Although John Grady may realize that the romanticized myth is coming to an end, he still maintains his faith. As the myth of the American West deteriorates in the eyes of some of the characters throughout the novel, smoking likewise becomes a hopeless habit, emphasizing the slow weakening of the faith in the American West. Yet, John Grady remains steadfast to his belief of the American west—he refuses to accept modernization. At the beginning of their quest, both John Grady and Rawlins have an ultimate belief in their future as cowboys. As their plans turn another direction, however, Rawlins becomes extremely cynical about this idealized dream. His doubt in the American west correlates with cigarettes. As the boys return to Encantada, a recent memory, as prisoners: “John Grady called to ask [the children] if they could get them cigarettes.” The skeptical Rawlins, however, spits and claims “they aint goin to bring you no damn cigarette,” expressing his loss of faith in the western dream. The shy children do in fact bring the cigarettes for John Grady, giving him some hope that the dream of the American cowboy may survive. Another important dialogue that concretely grounds John Grady’s faith is when he discusses the breeding of the Andalusian horses. Even more, John Grady is smoking while discussing this future. As he “tips the ash from his cigarette,” the hacendado asks John Grady if he knows what “a criollo is.” The criollo happens to be an Andalusian horse, which John Grady later breeds with the western mares. The breeding of these specific horses corresponds to the “picturebook horses” that his grandfather dismissed as a child. John Grady noticed that these animals were like none he had ever seen; they had good, heavy hindquarters, “enough to make a cuttinghorse,” which is another emphasis on the fantasy of these “picturebook horses.” These horses, which perhaps symbolize the idyllic, yet unreal, west in the eyes of the grandfather, represent an attainable reality to young John Grady. The smoking during this important scene, which paints his envision of the west, portrays John Grady’s faith in his dream—he will do anything to fulfill it. Furthermore, when John Grady is in the last prison, Pérez tells him of connections to get him out of prison. When Pérez offers John Grady a cigarette, he “stubbed it out in the tin ashtray …Cigarettes in that world were money themselves and the one he left broken and smoldering in front of his host had hardly been smoked at all.” This denial of Pérez’s money portrays John Grady’s similar denial of the modernization of the West—he still believes in the idealized West. The common smoking scenes of All the Pretty Horses, whether they are of man to man communion or display the violence of the West, convey the dying dream of the American west. This idealized trope, although intriguing at first, eventually has a fatal, negative effect, just as smoking. So, beware, fascinating dreams can lead to death!
Wildness and Civilization in All the Pretty Horses
The post-World War II boom that informs today’s world has no place in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. The post-war optimism and suburban complacency common to other American works of this period does not figure into McCarthy’s novel, peopled as it is by characters like Blevins whose “daddy never come back from the war” (64) and John Grady’s father who looked “over the country with those sunken eyes as if the world out there had been altered or made suspect by what he’d seen of it elsewhere” (23), presumably in the war. Instead of the modern urban environment, these characters seek comfort in a less complicated world that is informed by an older cowboy ethos. This ethos relies upon wildness instead of artifice and the natural landscape instead of civilization. McCarthy’s relentless contrast between the call of wildness and the dangers of civilization merits a closer look at wildness and its associated values. The novel opens immediately after the death of John Grady’s grandfather. Grady’s grandfather’s authenticity and authority stemmed from his management of the wild world of the ranch. The reader’s initial impression of the original 1866 ranch was that the grandfather carved it out of the land, “a oneroom hovel of sticks and wattle” (6). In exercising dominion over the ranch land, the grandfather achieved a unity with the wild world. The grandfather’s death denotes the loss of that wild world and impels the novel forward. Grady’s brief forays into the civilized world prove unsatisfactory. Here, contemporary society is exemplified by the lawyer’s office and his mother’s theater world. The lawyer’s tools prove futile in regaining the ranch. His mother’s world is so artificial that Grady cannot even find her registered in hotels under her own name. Grady’s inability to connect with his mother is brought home when “the clerk turned away and checked the registrations. He shook his head. No, he said. No Cole” (22). Disappointed, Grady is compelled to seek the wild world in Mexico. Immediately after these unsatisfactory encounters the most idyllic portion of the novel begins. Grady, accompanied by Rawlins, becomes immersed in the world of the trail to Mexico. Rawlins and Grady leave the complex world behind them, and “by sunset they could hear trucks on a highway in the distance” (32). After this separation, the dialogue between the two becomes laconic and relies upon humorous understatement. Stunning descriptions of the natural world take the place of complicated dialogue. In one of the few moments not wracked by the sense of imminent doom, McCarthy tells us that Grady and Rawlins “left the river and followed the dry valley to the west. The country was rolling and grassy and the day was cool under the sun” (34). Such momentary optimism is possible only in the natural world, away from civilization. When Blevins enters the story, this dream-like interlude abruptly ends. Blevins has been damaged by the world, emotionally scared by his stepfather. He too seeks release in the wild world. However, despite his numerous talents – horseman, marksman, survivalist – Blevins’ failure and ultimate death are caused by his inability to deal with the natural world. His separation from the natural world is underscored during the storm when Grady asks him “Why cant you be out in it?” and Blevins responds “On account of the lightnin'” (67). One could never imagine Grady’s grandfather allowing such fears to get the better of him. This fear of the natural world has severe short and long terms consequences for Blevins. In addition to the loss of his horse, he loses all ability to take care of himself when the floods wash away his clothes and gun. McCarthy highlights his inability to deal with the natural world as he “sat with his bare legs stretched before him, but they looked so white and exposed lying on the ground that he seemed ashamed and he tried to tuck them up underneath him” (74). Despite his bluster and superficial ease in dealing with the natural world, Blevins’s lack of authenticity immediately catches up with him. Were it not for Grady’s kindness, he could have been sold to the Mexicans or traded for wax. Once relieved of Blevins, Grady and Rawlins enter the world of the Hacienda de Nuestra SeÃ±ora de la PurÃsma ConcepciÃ³n, “a ranch of eleven thousand hectares situated along the edge of the BolsÃ³n de Cuatro CiÃ©nagas in the state of Coahuila” (97). Their arrival at the Hacienda signals a return to both the natural world and the world of artifice. Comparisons between Grady’s grandfather and Don Hector Rocha y Villareal are inevitable. The power of both men stems from their authority over their land. Both are rooted in the history of their land. Grady rapidly wins Don Hector’s respect when he and Rawlins break a small herd of three year old colts in as many days. This exercise of dominion underscores that a man’s worth is derived from his conquest of the wild. The tension of the battle between Grady and the horses is palpable and urgent. McCarthy tells us that,…before the colt could struggle up John Grady had squatted on its neck and pulled its head up and to one side and was holding the horse by the muzzle with the long boney head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world. They did not smell like horses. They smelled like what they were, wild animals. He held the horses face against his chest and he could feel along his inter thighs the blood pumping through the arteries and he could smell the fear and he cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out (103-104).This exercise of dominion over the wild world wins him an impressive promotion to breeder. Through his ability to master the wildness, Grady momentarily appears to be a master of his world. This moment of mastery is short-lived because it brings Grady closer to the world of artifice in the form of Alejandra and Alfonsa. The foreignness of Alejandra is apparent because she is riding English, wearing “jodhpurs and a blue twill hacking jacket” (94). This stylized convention is foreign to Grady; although his love for her is beyond question, this foreign artifice puts the reader on notice that trouble is sure to follow. The complex machinations of Alfonsa trigger the subsequent incarceration of Rawlins and Grady. Once in jail, the boys are out of their depth. Their cowboy ethos and mastery of the natural world have little use in jail and they are saved only by getting “paid out” (209) by Alfonsa. Released from jail, both Rawlins and Grady eventually return to Texas. McCarthy’s description of the natural world seems disjointed: “the dead moon hung in the west and the long flat shapes of the night clouds passed before it like a phantom fleet” (298). The wild world of the ranch is gone. The death of Abuela severs Grady’s last connection to that world. Rawlins asks, “Where is your country?” and Grady responds “I dont know where it is. I dont know what happens to country” (299). This response calls into question Grady’s purpose in the world and the value of his cowboy ethos. The novel closes with a description of the natural world. McCarthy tells us that Grady …rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come (302).McCarthy’s description is foreboding because this natural world is foreign and Grady’s place in it uncertain. In All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy contrasts the natural world with the civilized world. Whereas the natural world is associated with emotional release and freedom, the civilized world is associated with theatrical artifice at best, and jail at worst. One’s authenticity and authority are derived from mastery of this natural world. As shown supra, both Grady’s grandfather and Don Hector were exemplars of those whose authority was derived from such mastery. Blevins is an example of one who has failed to master the natural world. At the end of the novel, it remains unclear whether McCarthy’s protagonist will ever achieve such mastery or even if his cowboy ethos are still meaningful.
Significance of the Title All the Pretty Horses
The title of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses, reflects the significance and variance of roles that horses play in this coming-of-age story, as they relate to John Grady. The horse, which was the social foundation of Western American culture until the mid-20th century, is described as an economical and practical asset to the boys. However, McCarthy also describes horses’ abstract qualities using idyllic and impassioned diction, depicting them as animals of a highly advanced spiritual nature, similar to humans in some ways. John Grady has an intimate relationship with all horses and understands the world of horses extraordinarily well. On his journey, he learns that the world of men is very different from that of horses and is forced to rethink the relationship between humans and horses. John discovers that his preconceived notions about men and human society are false; he finds that they do not live in a romantic world as he had supposed. Therefore, the title McCarthy has chosen is ironic and epitomizes the change that John experiences. McCarthy uses the title to represent John’s initial perspective on the world, which is refuted through John’s later experiences.John’s life, like all of Western American society during the timeframe of the story, revolved around horses, and until he runs away, he knows more about horses than he does about men. These creatures represent strength, untamed fervor, and most importantly, freedom of spirit. The veneration that the vaqueros have for horses is apparent in the tales Luis tells the boys. “The old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing” (111). This quote demonstrates the sentiments of the vaquerosthey value horses so highly that they think of them as nearly divine. It also reinforces John’s romantic notion that horses are highly spiritual beings. Like the vaqueros, the boys revere horses, and these animals play large roles in their lives. The boys use horses in many ways throughout the novel: as companions, as means of transportation or escape, and as a judge of a stranger’s character, to name a few. John even dreams about horses, as “his thoughts were of horses…still wild on the mesa who’d never seen a man afoot and who knew nothing of him or his life yet in whose souls he would come to reside forever” (118). The diction referring to horses here”wild,” “souls”is idealistic and almost poetic. Furthermore, the fact that John dreams about horses in this way and that he wants to “reside forever” in their souls shows that he thinks of them very highly, almost as mystical mentors.Throughout the novel, McCarthy uses romantic, emotional language to describe horses and their connections to humans. He portrays these animals as noble beings with wild spirits using venerating diction to describe them. With vivid imagery, McCarthy paints a poignant picture of horses. “The painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life…When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide” (5). This passage exhibits the passion and fervor that McCarthy attributes to horses. The mood created by words such as “painted ponies” and “the breath of the horses” is passionate and emotionally charged. The author also describes the raw energy and life that flows through the horses: “John Grady…was holding the horse…with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world” (103). These metaphors such as “the dark wells of its nostrils” and “news from another world” create a forceful likeness of mysterious animals with a nature foreign to humans. The horse’s “hot sweet breath…flooding up” displays the life and energy that fill horses. This mysterious energy is also apparent later, when McCarthy writes, “He rode the last five horses…the horses dancing, turning in the light, their red eyes flashing…they moved with an air of great elegance and seemliness” (107). This imagery of “red eyes flashing” and dancing horses is very mysterious yet still striking. The descriptive detail is very cinematic, and any of these scenes could easily be made into a movie. These extremely detailed portrayals are so extravagant they are almost unrealistic, but they create the desired effect in making horses seem mystical and fanciful. These are the romantic creatures that John sees, the “pretty horses” of the title.John Grady’s connection with horses is as mystical as the horses themselves, as he is somehow able to communicate with all horses on a deeper level than any other character in the story. This is apparent on the hacienda in the scene in which John and Rawlins are breaking the new horses. John “cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out” (103). John’s ability to “stroke the terror out” of the horses is reminiscent of a parent calming a frightened child; obviously, he must have some innate tie with these animals if he is able to do this. Indeed, McCarthy explicitly states that such a bond exists between John Grady and the horses. He writes, “The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he had been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway” (23). This passage shows that John’s relationship with horses extends into the metaphysical range, a view that is reinforced throughout the novel as more is revealed about John Grady and about horses. As Luis says, “the horse shares a common soul…if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were” (111). It seems like McCarthy is implying that John Grady has this ability to understand the soul of the horse, and that is why his relationship with horses is so unique.John’s reliance on his knowledge of horses as a guide in the world of men eventually reveals to him that the two species are very different. When John starts out on his journey, he knows relatively little about the inner workings of human society, but he has superficially found men and horses to be similar. As McCarthy writes, “What he loved in horses he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise” (5). John knows that horses are “ardenthearted” and believes that men must be the same. He thinks that his journey will be romantic and passionate, like the horses he loves, and will reinforce his view of the world, but he soon learns otherwise. Before anything unfortunate happens to him, John hears from Luis that “among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all is probably an illusion” (111). The first doubts have begun to creep into John’s mind, and eventually, he discovers this firsthand. Instead of “pretty horses,” his journey is filled with murder and stealing, prison and broken hearts. His ill-fated journey validates Luis’ point, and totally destroys John’s notion that the world of men is at all an understandable thing. Finally, when it is all over, he returns home disillusioned, only to find that both his father and his abuela have died. John’s fanciful concept of the world of men now has been completely replaced by a “world that…seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. Nothing for the living or the dead” (301). The world of “all the pretty horses” is nothing to him now but a distant memory. This reveals the title’s irony: a story titled All the Pretty Horses would seemingly never involve the death and violence that is encompassed in John’s travels. Indeed, John has come “full circle” and realized that his original assumptions about men were false.The title of McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses is not meant to be taken literally. Before he runs away, John Grady believes in the world of “all the pretty horses,” because he has never known anything else. However his time in Mexico disillusions him and forces him to believe otherwise, that the real world is not so simple, carefree, or innocent. John learns that the romanticism that he ascribes to horses cannot be applied to men. John reveres horses and experiences the praise of these animals in the folklore of the day. His relationship with horses exists on many levelsthey are his transportation, his friends, and his spiritual companions. Furthermore, McCarthy describes horses with emotional diction creating almost a motif of passion whenever horses are described. John’s unusual understanding of the fervent spirit of horses leads him to believe that men are the same. However, on his bleak and disappointing journey he learns that men do not have the same passion of spirit as horses. Instead, they are unpredictable, violent creatures, and their world is certainly not always pretty.
How a New Perspective Can Change a Person: Lost Identity and New Identity in All the Pretty Horses
In All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy reveals what happens when one learns the truths about the world through John Grady Cole’s journey as he leaves home and experiences the realities of the world in a country foreign to him. Unsatisfied with their lives at home, John and Rawlins leave to Mexico, believing that they have the opportunity to create their own new lives by venturing to and exploring the unknown. With idealistic views of the world, they can not imagine the difficulties they will be put through on their journey through Mexico, a world completely foreign to them. Through their difficult experiences and gradual loss of identity on John and Rawlins’ journey, McCarthy suggests that in order to discover the reality of the world, one must lose their naiveté, and, in many ways, become an entirely new person.
At the beginning of their venture into Mexico, Rawlins’ wallet is destroyed and Blevins loses his clothes, both signifying loss of their identities and becoming a new person, distinct from the people they were at home. Throughout the novel, they are continually physically changed in ways that symbolize the changes they must go through in becoming completely new people as they enter a new world and new life to them. At the beginning of their travels, when John and Rawlins meet Blevins, Rawlins pokes fun at Blevins, and out of a competitive, performative behavior, Blevins tells him to “throw your pocketbook up in the air” and says that he’ll “put a hole in it” (48). Rawlins throws his wallet in the air, and Blevins shoots a hole right through it, destroying the wallet and everything in it. Rawlins’ wallet, holding his money and his ID, is a symbol of his identity. The wallet being destroyed right after they cross the border into Mexico shows the first act of the characters losing their identities as they abandon their homes and go to this new land. Also early in their travels, Blevins hides from a thunderstorm and when John and Rawlins find him after, he has lost his clothes and his horse. John asks Blevins “Where’s your clothes at?” and Blevins replies “washed away.” John replies “your horse is gone,” and Blevins says “I know it” (71). This also symbolizes the boys losing their old identities. Blevins is literally stripped of his identity as he loses his clothes, forcing him to start off his new life in a new world symbolically naked like a baby being born, starting its life in the world. These are the first signs of the characters becoming new people. Losing Rawlins’ wallet, his only form of identification, and Blevins’ clothes as he is literally stripped of his identity, they are physically changed and forced to become new people.
As the characters continue moving through Mexico, they have many unsettling experiences that McCarthy includes to display the brutality of the world that John does not see at first. John begins the novel a very idealistic, naive character, little anticipating the harsh realities in the real world. He is optimistic, and sees the good in everything, but neglects the bad. For example, when he and Rawlins first meet Blevins, Rawlins is suspicious of Blevins’ horse and calls him out for stealing it. As Blevins continuously tells people that it is his horse, John defends him and truly believes that he is telling the truth, like when the captain interrogates him asking “Why he [Blevins] come here to steal horses?” and John replies “It was his horse” (168). John experiences and witnesses a lot of pain and brutality during his journey, revealing to him the truth about the world that he did not see before. McCarthy includes many subtle, offsetting details in describing their story. For example, when John speaks to a group of men they cross paths with and they asked him if “they wished to sell the boy,” referring to Blevins, John declines (76). Though a small occurrence, and described with little detail, this encounter reveals some darkness to John. The motive the men had for buying Blevins was unclear, it is likely that it would have been for slavery or some sort of abuse. Events like these gradually reveal to the naive John that the world is not as perfect and safe as he thought it was. And as they discover these darker truths of the world, they are forced to change themselves.
Though the characters may not mean to or even want to change, the things they go through and experience force them to grow, change, and become new people, living in this world so new to them. McCarthy shows the changes in the characters to symbolize them becoming new people as their entire lives are changed when they see the world as a completely new and unfamiliar place. In the beginning of their journey, they are stripped of their identities. As they go through more dark experiences, they change both physically and emotionally. After Rawlins is wounded on their first day in prison, he tells John that the doctors “put Mexican blood in me,” and he is worried it changes him, making him “part Mexican” (210). Now that Rawlins has this foreign blood in him, he is literally physically changed. The blood symbolizes the wound he got, and the violence he endured. McCarthy includes this to remind readers of the new aspects of life they are experiencing like violence and danger, and make clear that these are permanently changing them: physically and emotionally. Similarly, when John is attacked in prison, he took his knife and “sank it into the cuchillero’s heart,” killing him (201). John, naive at the beginning of his adventure, never thought he would have to kill someone, and the fact that he did haunts him throughout the rest of the book. A gentle and kind man, having killed someone completely changes him and symbolizes him being forced to become a new person. He has to be tough in order to survive in this new world.
When John left his home for Mexico, he knew that he was leaving to start fresh and begin a new life, free of his preexisting troubles. However, he looked at the new world before him naively, and never anticipated all of the struggles he would endure and how they would change him or affect the kind of a person the world would build him to be. Throughout his journey in Mexico, he and those traveling with him are stripped of their previous identities, see the dark things that go on in the world, and are permanently changed by it. McCarthy describes this journey and their changes to symbolize and reveal how people are deeply changed when they finally see realities of the world that they never saw before.
The Constant Progression of Society and the Futility of Dreams
Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ exposes the futility of clinging to “phantom” dreams which are ultimately “falling away” as a result of the inevitable progression of society. McCarthy emphasises that protagonist John Grady Cole is unable to achieve the idealistic life of an American cowboy of the ‘Old West’ and is instead left adrift and disillusioned, wondering “what happens to country” and mourning a bygone era. ‘All the Pretty Horses’ further illustrates his powerlessness in the ‘adult’ world.
McCarthy’s depiction of John Grady’s reflections in his grandfather’s office demonstrates the unrelenting modernisation of society and the hopelessness of longing for a past American era, embodied to John Grady Cole in the life of his grandfather. The use of polysyndeton in McCarthy’s description of how John Grady “entered his grandfather’s office and went to the desk and turned on the lamp and sat down” builds momentum in the beginning of the passage. “September 13th”, the date of his grandfather’s death, forms an abrupt end to this momentum, underscoring its significance for John Grady as the demise of his chance of running the family ranch like the quintessential American cowboy. John Grady Cole’s yearning for the past is revealed through McCarthy’s pithy descriptions of his present surroundings, such as “a glass paperweight” and “an ashtray”, which are ultimately of no consequence to him in comparison to his dream of the ‘Old West’. The repetition of “old” demonstrates the office’s appeal for John Grady, as it is in itself a vestige of the past and allows him to imagine himself living out his dream and literally “[cross] his boots on the desktop” in imitation of his grandfather. Using lyrical sentences only in the depiction of the natural landscape, McCarthy underscores John Grady’s almost spiritual connection to the “starlit prairie” which he sees “falling away to the north”, as inevitably out of reach as the attainment of his dream. The impossibility of John Grady achieving the life he longs for is further conveyed through the “telegraph poles” that “yoked across the constellations passing east to west”, illustrating the cruel intrusion of civilisation upon the landscape. Now marked by these “black crosses” of modern society, the landscape is unable to form the uncharted western frontier of John Grady’s dream. McCarthy’s use of symbolism in “crosses” further suggests that the dream itself has died. The “clock [striking] eleven” and the “small brass calendar”, representing the passage of time, serve to emphasise the pointless nature of John Grady’s dream of the ‘Old West’. Interrupting John Grady’s contemplations in the dark room, his mother “turned on the wall switch light”, a simple action exemplifying the inevitability of modernity impinging upon his dream of the past. Illustrating his desire not to confront this harsh reality, John Grady “looked at her and looked out the window again” and then symbolically “turned off the light” as soon as she departed, an action parallel to his previous futile requests that his mother allow him to “run the ranch”, despite the reality that it had “barely paid expenses for twenty years”. When asked by his mother what he is doing, John Grady merely replies “settin”, the brevity and stillness of the word emphasising his physical immobility and desire to remain transfixed by the past rather than move forward.
While McCarthy emphasises the constant progression of society, Johyn Grady’s experiences in Mexico exemplify his ultimate vulnerability in the harsh adult world, which renders him further incapable of achieving his dream. Conversing with Don Hector, whose dominance over John Grady is emphasised by the boy’s position “downtable”, John Grady is told they “can speak English”, as Don Hector further asserts his power by determining the language of their conversation. The hacendado’s superiority to the penniless John Grady is underscored by McCarthy’s description of the “silver tray” and “cups and creampitcher” and “sugar bowl” carried out by the servant, as well as the hacendado’s “chocolatecoloured veal” boots, drawing attention to his incredible wealth. Attempting to embody the idealised American cowboy, John Grady declares he “just [takes his coffee] black”, a trait characteristic of those from “Texas.” However McCarthy illustrates that while John Grady can endeavour to emulate this persona on a superficial level, until he endures a loss of innocence through the killing of the cuchillero in the Saltillo prison, he is unable to assume the identity of the American cowboy entirely. Underscoring John Grady’s naivety, Don Hector is surprised at the boy’s candid revelation he is only “sixteen”, claiming “when [he] was sixteen [he] told people [he] was eighteen.” Through this admission, McCarthy illustrates that John Grady fundamentally lacks the survivalist mentality that ensures the success of individuals such as Don Hector.
Through John Grady’s disillusionment following his return from Mexico, McCarthy illustrates the negative consequences of resolutely following one’s dreams without consideration of reality. The desolation felt by John Grady as he tells Rawlins “all that had happened” is underscored by the “phantom fleet” of nightclouds that pass overhead and Rawlins’ revelation that “your daddy died” and Abuela is “real sick.” Through such explicit references to death, McCarthy suggests John Grady’s experiences of the actual brutality of society in Mexico have left him utterly disenchanted with his dream of the ‘Old West’, as is further insinuated by the “dead moon” that “hung in the west”. When questioned by Rawlins what he is “goin to do”, John Grady replies “I don’t know” four separate times, exemplifying the loss of purpose and direction that has resulted from his efforts to live in the past. The uncertainty of John Grady’s future in a rapidly modernising America is also conveyed through his bewilderment and failure to understand “what happens to country”. Although Rawlins is unable to answer this question, through the symbolism of the “lights of the city” which “hung over the desert”, McCarthy insinuates that the constant progression of society has resulted in the demise of the ‘Old West’. Just as Rawlins “[squats] on his heels so as to watch [John Grady] a little while longer”, John Grady attempts to keep hold of the “rare” and disappearing era he represents. However like John Grady’s figure passing “down the skyline”, “after a while” the ‘Old West’ is “gone”, exemplifying the ultimate futility of his idealistic dream.
‘All the Pretty Horses’ provides a personal exploration of the consequences of pursuing dreams which conflict with the continuous progression of society. Emphasising the naivety of John Grady Cole in his encounters of the harshness of reality, McCarthy suggests his innocence and inability to accept the modernisation of society renders him unable to achieve his dream. McCarthy further acknowledges the futility of clinging to “[one’s] country”, suggesting that such idealism ultimately leaves individuals suffering an acute sense of loss.