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.