Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

Start Your Free Trial

Download Cities of the Plain Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Cities of the Plain Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cities of the Plain, set in the early 1950’s around El Paso, Texas, and across the border in Juarez, Mexico, brings together the protagonists of the first two novels of The Border Trilogy. Billy Parham, now in his thirties, and John Grady Cole, now nineteen, both find themselves working on a ranch in the Tularosa Basin, an area threatened by U.S. government appropriation for military purposes. “Anyway this country aint the same,” Billy tells John Grady. “The war changed everthing. I don’t think people even know it yet.”

The central action revolves around John Grady’s single-minded obsession with a young Mexican epileptic prostitute, Magdalena, an obsession that readers understand better in the light of his experiences in All the Pretty Horses. The extent to which John Grady is devoted to this woman and willing to sacrifice for her shows how difficult it can be to distinguish between foolishness and heroism. Grady’s powerful emotions propel him along the path of romance, despite cautions and counsel offered by older men such as Billy, Mac the ranch owner, and the maestro, a blind Mexican musician who subscribes to a kind of fatalist philosophy: “Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life.”

There are plenty of signs that the relationship will not work; the narrative bears the usual markings of tragedy. The most stubborn, insurmountable obstacle turns out to be Eduardo, the girl’s pimp who is also in love with her. Despite her mortal fear of Eduardo, Magdalena finally arranges to escape with John Grady. The price of her defiance is death: She is caught and killed in her attempt to flee. When John Grady finds out what happened, he seeks revenge, going after Eduardo. An extremely graphic knife fight between the two men ends with a critically wounded Grady killing his rival. Despite Billy’s attempt to save him, Grady dies from his wounds. Neither energies nor the beings housing them stay within prescribed boundaries. Grady’s obsession, the woman’s epilepsy, Eduardo’s capacity for jealousy and desire for triumph over his rival—all are displays of excess, and, while this excess leads to tragedy, it at least is vivid proof of life’s intensity, perhaps preferable to a dull, lifeless, modern existence, void of tragic potential.

As do the first two novels in the trilogy, Cities of the Plains discloses the complex dynamics between the United States and Mexico, fraught with tensions, mutual suspicions and fascinations. Both Billy and John Grady, fully aware of cultural differences, register a real appreciation of their neighbors south of the border. Billy recounts the extraordinary generosity and hospitality of ordinary Mexicans:I was just a kid. I rode all over northern Mexico. . . . I liked it. I liked the country and I liked the people in it. I rode all over Chihuahua and a good part of Coahuila and some of Sonora. I’d be gone weeks at a time and not have hardly so much as a peso in my pocket but it didn’t make no difference. Those people would take you in and put you up and feed you and feed your horse and cry when you left. You could of stayed forever. They didn’t have nothin. Never had and never would. But you could stop at some little estancia in the absolute dead center of nowhere and they’d take you in like you was kin. You could see that the revolution hadn’t done them no good. A lot of em had lost boys out of the family. Fathers or sons or both. Nearly all of em, I expect. They didn’t have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I...

(The entire section is 1,015 words.)