All the Pretty Horses: Essay Q&A
1. What is the significance of the novel’s title, All the Pretty Horses?
The novel’s title is an ironic echo of lines from a nursery rhyme, which reads:
Hushabye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy, little baby;
When you wake, you shall have cake,
And all the pretty little horses.
Black and bay, dapple and gray,
Coach and six white horses.
All the pretty little horses.
This nursery rhyme attempts to soothe a child by promising it fulfillment and plenty, which are invoked in the form of pleasant dreams. Similarly, John Grady sets out as an idealistic young man who is pursuing his dream of a cowboy lifestyle. It appears that he and Rawlins find it at Don Hector’s ranch.
The dream quickly turns into a terrible reality when John Grady becomes a hunted man as a result of falling in love with Don Hector’s daughter, Alejandra. He and Rawlins are thrown into jail. Rawlins is tortured and both men suffer attempts on their life as a result of failing to bribe the wealthy prisoner Pérez. Their companion Blevins is executed. John Grady’s desire to marry the girl he loves – the traditional fulfillment of romantic fiction and Westerns – is foiled by the arbitrary decisions of a bitter old lady, Alfonsa. John Grady’s affair marks the end of his ambition to live the cowboy lifestyle. He gains little from his adventures but scars on his body, returning home to find the family ranch sold and its inhabitants dead or gone. Even the country, he knows, is not his country.
Far from finding fulfillment and plenty, then, John Grady has found suffering and betrayal. The only fullness that remains at the novel’s end is his own integrity, which is foregrounded by his insistence on looking for the true owner of Blevins’s horse and put into words by the judge when he tells John Grady that there is nothing wrong with him and that he should put his experiences behind him.
2. Analyze the role that horses play in the novel.
Horses are portrayed in the novel in a poetic and intensely romantic way that claims their deep and mystical connection with humans. This connection was most lively in the Old West, of which the horse is an icon. For example, when John Grady and Rawlins ride out on Don Hector’s ranch (Part II), they talk with an old Mexican called Luis who fought on horseback in the Mexican civil war. Luis’s reflections on horses emphasize their oneness with men: “The souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose … horses also love war.”
What is more, Luis says, horses are unified amongst themselves: “the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal. He said that if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were.” Luis adds that among men, there is no such communion as among horses. Thus the horse represents a sacred unity of being that men and society have lost, if they ever had it.
John Grady Cole, who also embodies the spirit of the Old West, has a particular sense of oneness with horses. He “sat a horse not only as if he’d 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” (Part I). Given this sense of mutual dependence of man and horse, it is significant, then, that McCarthy portrays an America where the horse is increasingly being displaced by technology. Buses frighten the horses, and oil pumps replace them in the landscape. In order to pursue his chosen way of life when his family ranch is sold, John Grady must leave Texas for Mexico, where modern American civilization has been slower to reach.
Luis’s and John Grady’s deep understanding and sense of oneness with horses is contrasted with John Grady’s mother’s attitude. In Part I, John Grady Cole’s father says that his ex-wife, John Grady’s mother, “liked horses. I thought that was enough. That’s how dumb I was.”
John Grady’s father means that at the time he was courting her, he thought that her fondness for horses was enough to justify marrying her. He soon learned that he was mistaken. She was not interested in the ranching way of life and soon left the family to live in the town of San Antonio and pursue an acting career. Hers is typical of the modern American sensibility that has rejected the lifestyle and values of the Old West in favor of the distractions and comforts of civilization.
Her attitude sums up the way in which American society left behind the lifestyle of the Old West. The novel’s title, All the Pretty Horses, reflects John Grady’s mother’s stance. For her, unlike for her son, horses are not a way of life but merely a hobby, a decorative element in the landscape, which she has now left behind without a thought. One of the tragedies expressed in the novel is that it portrays a society in which just such an alienation from horses, and the history that they embody, has become the norm.
3. Analyze Alfonsa’s role in the novel.
Alfonsa’s sad romantic history could easily make her more sympathetic to John Grady’s love for Alejandra. But in reality it has the opposite effect, making her bitter, cynical, and manipulative. She is determined that Alejandra will not marry John Grady, and bribes the Mexican police to let him out of jail in return for Alejandra’s promise never to see him again. Alfonsa dismisses John Grady as a suitor for Alejandra partly on the grounds that he is a victim of circumstances, and bad things have happened to him. But this objection could also apply to Alfonsa’s own lover, who started out as a maker of his own (and his country’s) fortune but ended up very much a victim of circumstances.
It might be argued that in making this objection, Alfonsa is trying to protect Alejandra from suffering at the loss of her beloved as she herself has suffered. But if applied logically, this would mean that Alfonsa believes that she (Alfonsa) should never have developed any relationship with her lover, just as she is not allowing Alejandra to develop any relationship with John Grady. However, there is no indication that she does believe this. Her philosophy therefore seems contradictory and arbitrary. One possible interpretation of her views is that, although she denies it, she really wants someone wealthier or of a higher social standing for Alejandra than John Grady.
What is beyond doubt is that Alfonsa’s meddling ensures that Alejandra will end up as unhappy as Alfonsa herself. Also, Alfonsa’s intellectual confusion and self-contradictions make her destruction of Alejandra’s relationship with John Grady seem all the more unnecessary and cruel, as they are being made unhappy for no sound reason. The contradictions in Alfonsa’s attitude are best summed up by Alejandra when she tells John Grady (Part IV): “She tells me I must be my own person and with every breath she tries to make me her person.” Perhaps behind all her philosophizing, Alfonsa simply likes to control others.
The inscrutable nature of Alfonsa’s attitude to John Grady and Alejandra’s relationship is part of the novel’s anti-romantic and realistic edge. While in conventional romantic fiction and Westerns, the hero overcomes the antagonists and gets the girl, in All the Pretty Horses, the antagonist wins, and for reasons that remain unclear and confused, and are probably unworthy.
Alfonsa’s victory leaves the reader with the sense that goodness and truth are not rewarded from the outside. It is not that they are not seen as valuable qualities – they are portrayed as noble and heroic. But, in the absence of external benefits, they must remain their own reward.
4. Discuss the significance of the passage in Part II of the novel beginning “While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped …” (p. 128 in the 1993 Pan Books edition).
In this passageMcCarthy uses a combination of animal and religious imagery to convey moral context and to contrast the characters of John Grady and Don Hector. The stallion that John Grady rides is vividly described in the paragraph beginning,. The imagery is both visceral and intensely alive. The fact that the horse is a stallion that John Grady is breeding with Don Hector’s mares foregrounds the theme of sexuality, which connects the horse with John Grady, who is undergoing his own sexual awakening in his burgeoning relationship with Alejandra.
The life force is not seen as mechanistic, in spite of the author’s almost anatomical description of the insides of the horse’s body. Instead, McCarthy’s anaphoric (anaphora is a literary device meaning repetition of a word or phrase for effect) repetition of the phrase “of who’s will” refers elliptically to God, or the creator, who is seen as driving and animating the workings of the horse’s body. This religious phrase links back to the sentence that closely precedes this passage: “he spoke constantly to it in spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law.” The conversation between John Grady and the stallion is seen as something prophetic and holy, suggesting a divinely inspired connection.
It is worth comparing the pulsing imagery in this description of the stallion ridden by John Grady with the imagery used to describe Don Hector’s dogs at the point when they appear at John Grady and Rawlins’s campfire. Greyhounds are hunting dogs, and Rawlins thinks their arrival is a sign that Don Hector is hunting them because he has found out about John Grady’s affair with Alejandra. He turns out to be correct. Also, the greyhounds are described as “pale and skeletal shapes with the hide stretched taut over their ribs and their eyes red in the firelight.” The imagery of paleness and skeletons connotes death; the redness of their eyes makes them seem demonic. Thus, through imagery, Don Hector’s determination to disallow the relationship between Alejandra and John Grady is portrayed as life-denying and even evil.
5. Several critics (among them, Gordon Slethaug in his book Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction, SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture, State University of New York Press, 2000, pp. 149-54) discuss All the Pretty Horses in terms of a mathematical theory known as chaos theory. What relevance does this theory have to the novel?
In Part I, the following exchange occurs between Rawlins and John Grady:
You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.
Yeah. I guess he does. You?
Yeah. I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell. You dont know what’s goin to happen. I’d say He’s just about got to. I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.
Rawlins is expressing his belief in a philosophy that correlates with the mathematical theory known as chaos theory. Chaos theory describes the behavior of dynamic (chaotic) systems – systems that change over time – that are sensitive to tiny variations in initial conditions. The outcome of a series of causative events may therefore be massively affected by a very minor perturbation in the initial conditions. Although the behavior of chaotic systems appears to be random, it is in fact deterministic, or driven by cause-and-effect.
An analogy that is often used to illustrate chaos theory is that of a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, which could affect the weather on the other side of the globe.The American mathematician and pioneer of chaos theory Edward Lorenz (1917–2008) is credited with using this image in a talk he gave in 1972 to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.
A more everyday example of chaos theory in practice is a ball thrown down a hill, which may end up half a mile away from another ball thrown down the same hill because of some minute change in the way that the ball was initially thrown – a slight turn of the wrist, perhaps. In the context of All the Pretty Horses, Rawlins is aware that the decision that they make at this point, regarding whether to leave Blevins behind or seek him out and take him along with them, will have huge and potentially disastrous consequences down the line of events.
Rawlins believes that such is the potential for destruction in what he sees as a chaotic universe, that God has to look out for people or no one would manage to stay alive for even a day.
In the context of the novel as a whole, the lives of John Grady and Rawlins do descend into a chaotic state that may at first glance seem random, in that they appear to do nothing to deserve their fate. John Grady is an unusually good man and Rawlins occupies the moral middle ground of an Everyman, yet some extraordinarily bad things happen to them. Yet the events are not random. There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the novel’s events: from this early decision by John Grady not to leave Blevins behind comes Blevins’s false betrayal of his companions and their stay in the Mexican jail, with all the consequent sufferings.
Where Rawlins’s take on chaos theory as it expresses in the world comes unstuck in the context of All the Pretty Horses is the notion that a benevolent God looks out for man and tries to protect him. Quite the reverse appears to be true. While John Grady’s motivations and actions are good, the worst kind of chaos still envelops him and his companions. There is without doubt a cause-and-effect relationship between his decisions and the terrible outcomes (such as his decision to stick by Blevins, resulting in the imprisonment of all the men), but there is no morality or compassion in the process. The good (John Grady and Alejandra) suffer alongside the malevolent and foolish (Alfonsa and Blevins).
The only anchor of certainty in this run of terrible events is John Grady’s integrity, which comes under huge stress but which never crumbles. Though this is in many ways a pessimistic novel, ultimately it becomes a testament to the undefeated human spirit.