All the Pretty Horses (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Cormac McCarthy’s novels are about wanderers, boys and men cut adrift from moorings, whether geographical, emotional, or moral. Black destiny hovers. And McCarthy serves it up in a prose style unashamed of being, now and again, purple. A persuasion of the depths around and in the characters requires a proper rhetorical ballast. Sometimes it sounds Faulknerian, sentences with no ending, swirling contextually and rhythmically. Sometimes it is Hemingway, pronouns repeated, conjunctions holding off periods. The matter borne by this artfulness is darkness, curse, and the simultaneous panorama of fallen nature and fallen humanity. Suttree (1979) opens with the main character, son of wealth, living as a bum on the river in Knoxville trotlining for catfish in water three parts sewer. Conventional civilization is unsupportable by the like of Suttree, and vice versa. In Blood Meridian (1985), the bloodiness involved in civilizing the wastes of northern Mexico, land of the Apache, removes the humanity of a boy who, typical of McCarthy’s stories, wanders onto the scene.
All the Pretty Horses, which received the 1992 National Book Award for fiction, takes up the homeless dirge again, but with a tenderness and wistfulness and comedy not so typical of McCarthy. Horses, at least, are tameable and beautiful, capable of driving the pastoral dream of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole, who heads south to Mexico on horseback with his friend,...
(The entire section is 2002 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
This award-winning best seller has a more conventional plot and structure than is typical of most McCarthy novels. The concluding paragraph with its image of a bull rolling in the dust may make the novel seem open-ended, but the novel actually employs some conventional structures. The final image is of John Grady Cole riding off into the sunset, a typical ending for a Western. There is also a circularity to the novel since it begins and ends with funerals, both of which cause dispossession and alienation. After his long trek, John Grady winds up at the end of the novel basically where he began — in Texas. This novel also has a love story as a significant subplot, and besides the funeral McCarthy places another ceremony near the end of the novel — a wedding, which would be the conventional ending of a happy love story or comedy. But appropriate to the mood of this novel, the wedding is described in very antiromantic terms.
One of the techniques that McCarthy employs to balance his pessimistic world view, a technique that probably contributed to the novel's popularity, is the inclusion of a great deal of humor. There is slapstick humor from Jimmy Blevins's vividly described pratfalls and from the fact that John Grady is asked to drop his pants for an official. There is much gently teasing leg-pulling humor, and there is a certain amount of satire, as for example when John Grady hears the radio evangelist snoring soon after he announces, "I got to go to...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Because McCarthy is so reserved in his characterization techniques, it should prove especially interesting to discuss the motivations of his characters and the extent to which they should be admired. There is plenty of room for controversy. Is John Grady's determination to retrieve his horse heroic, or is he feeling recklessly self-destructive because Alejandra has just broken his heart? Is Alejandra to be viewed as a strong female character or is she ultimately weak-willed? Is Jimmy Blevins a sympathetic, fated boy, or does he get what he deserves? It should also be fruitful to compare the male and female characters in this novel. McCarthy is not noted for his creation of strong female characters, but, as one scholar has observed, in this novel John Grady's mother, Alejandra, and the Duena Alfonsa all have a certain amount of power and control.
1. What is the effect of the title, which is taken from a lullaby?
2. What is the point of the nakedness motif?
3. What do horses symbolize in this novel? Specifically, what is the significance of John Grady's exchanging mounts with Alejandra, allowing her to secretly ride the stud stallion?
4. What does John Grady Cole learn about Mexico during the course of his adventures? How does his view of this foreign country and culture change?
5. Do you feel that the mixture of comedy and tragedy in this work is appropriate? Does the novel succeed at being both funny and sad at...
(The entire section is 325 words.)
The primary social concerns of All the Pretty Horses seem to center on marriages and the love relationship between John Grady Cole and Alejandra. John Grady Cole's parents are divorced because his father loves the rugged lifestyle of a cowboy on a ranch, whereas his mother is an aspiring actress who craves the culture, refinement, and sophistication of life in the city. This same male/female dichotomy is exemplified in Alejandra's parents. Her parents are not divorced, but her father, Don Hector Rocha, spends much of his time at his ranch while his wife remains in Mexico City.
Although John Grady Cole and Alejandra fall passionately in love, there are tensions in their relationship that eventually break it apart. There are potentially ulterior motives for the relationship on both sides. Alejandra may partly wish to rebel against her father and her grandaunt, the Duena Alfonsa. And John Grady may not only "have eyes for the daughter" but also "eyes for the spread," the large, prosperous ranch owned by Alejandra's father. It is John Grady's dream and ultimate goal to own or manage just such a ranch.
The main forces, however, that prevent the marriage of the young lovers are social. They are from different countries, different cultures, and different economic classes. When Alejandra confesses their premarital lovemaking, her father loses respect for his daughter and becomes enraged at her lover. Because Alejandra's guardians enforce...
(The entire section is 305 words.)
This novel has all the makings of a good film Western, and it may be one some day. In the tradition of characters played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, John Grady Cole is a strong, laconic cowboy who has trouble with women. The novel includes good fighting, good riding, and good shooting. About the only thing Hollywood has to complain about is the lack of a happy ending.
All the Pretty Horses also proves once again that American authors have excelled at the bildungsroman genre. Like Huck Finn, John Grady Cole grows to prefer a more natural, more primitive lifestyle so that he too seeks the frontier at the end of his novel. Like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, John Grady matures partly through tests of his physical and moral courage.
Critics have noted the importance of myth to an understanding of this novel. As one points out, the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden is brought to mind since the boys at first think of parts of Mexico as an unspoiled paradise — and like the Genesis story, John Grady's story is also about a loss of innocence. As another critic points out, this novel has remarkable parallels to the Orpheus myth. Like Orpheus, John Grady descends into an alien underworld and tries unsuccessfully to bring his beloved back up into his own world.
(The entire section is 229 words.)
All the Pretty Horses is the first of what publishers are calling McCarthy's Border Trilogy. The second installment of this trilogy, The Crossing, presents a completely new slate of characters but repeats many of the earlier novel's patterns and themes.
Blood Meridian (1985), the McCarthy novel that immediately preceded this one, is also a Western involving a young male character who travels into Mexico, but that is about where the similarities end. The graphic violence and horrifying evil in Blood Meridian are utterly relentless. The youth, known only as "the kid," joins a gang of scalp hunters led by the obsessive Captain Glanton and the satanic giant, Judge Holden.
A much closer literary relative for John Grady Cole can be found in McCarthy's first published novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), where even the protagonist's name sounds similar — John Wesley Rattner. Although he is not a cowboy, John Wesley is a frontiersman, a heroic rescuer of animals, and a rebel against corrupt civil authority. Adaptations
(The entire section is 162 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, April 1, 1992, p. 1412.
Chicago Tribune. May 10, 1992, XIV, p. 5.
The Christian Science Monitor. June 11, 1992, p. 13.
Commonweal. CXIX, September 25, 1992, p. 29.
Library Journal. CXVII, May 15, 1992, p. 120.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 17, 1992, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, May 17, 1992, p. 9.
Newsweek. CXIX, May 18, 1992, p. 68.
Publishers Weekly. March 16, 1992, p. 64.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 3, 1992, p. 1.
(The entire section is 60 words.)