Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

On a basic level, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a fictive exposé of the dance marathon, a short-lived Depression-era fad that Horace McCoy saw as a particularly grotesque example of what American popular culture can spew up in moments of economic crisis.

On a deeper level, McCoy’s novel is a sweeping indictment of American civilization. It takes little imagination to understand that the marathon dance contest serves as a metaphor for life in 1930’s America. What is supposed to be fun (dance or life) has become hard, competitive work, really a Darwinian endurance contest with no other object than survival. In keeping with the pyramidal nature of capitalist society, only one couple will win the big prize. Yet the promise of the prize, the ideology of the American Dream, is held out to all contestants, most of whom will find only meager sustenance before they fall by the wayside. Grueling, monotonous, physically and psychologically punishing, the marathon also happens to be crooked. (Promoters Socks Donald and Rocky Gravo concoct a phony wedding ceremony to stir up publicity and ticket sales and then unjustly disqualify a couple to preserve the scam.) Furthermore, the contest is held indoors, in a large hall situated on an ocean pier. For the thirty-seven days of the marathon, the contestants are imprisoned in the building, shut off from nature, from the sun and sea that is all around them, from life in its widest context—a literal...

(The entire section is 440 words.)