The romance and reality of the West
All the Pretty Horses deals with the collision between the romantic ideal of the cowboy lifestyle of the Old West and the reality. This collision is traced in the arc of John Grady and Rawlins’s fortunes throughout the novel.
John Grady begins with the knowledge that the Old West to which he feels he belongs has been lost in his homeland of Texas. He sets out on his journey to Mexico with hopes of finding it there. By the end of Part I, Rawlins and John Grady rejoice in their good fortune in finding work at Don Hector’s ranch:
I believe these are some pretty good old boys, whispered Rawlins.
Yeah, I believe they are too. …
How long do you think you’d like to stay here?
About a hundred years. Go to sleep.
However, the seeds of destruction of the dream have already been sown in John Grady’s attraction to Don Hector’s daughter, Alejandra. By the end of Part II, Don Hector has turned from their benefactor to their persecutor and has had John Grady and Rawlins arrested. Rawlins blames John Grady for what he sees as his rash affair with Alejandra. John Grady replies that he cannot help it – a statement that reflects his romantic view of life, whether concerning the cowboy lifestyle or his feelings for Alejandra.
Part III documents the nadir of the men’s fortunes as they suffer, are tortured, and are almost killed in the Encantada and Saltillo prisons. While Mexico is a place where someone can indeed live the dream of the Old West, this sordid and brutal reality comes along with it. The integrity of John Grady matters nothing to his captors: their souls are too corrupted to see it.
Just as John Grady is denied the dream of living the lifestyle of the Old West, so he is denied happiness with Alejandra. Again, he is at the mercy of a corrupted soul. This time it is Alfonsa, who either cannot see him for what he is or is blinded by greed in wanting a wealthier match for Alejandra. Part IV documents John Grady’s loss of Alejandra for no good reason. He loses everything: the cowboy lifestyle, the girl, his family home, even his country, which, he finally knows, is not his. The only thing of value with which he emerges from his ordeal is his integrity. McCarthy, through the stunned response of the court to John Grady’s story and through the voice of the kindly judge, makes clear that this is an achievement that deserves admiration and honor. But that is the sum total of John Grady’s gain: to keep that which he had already – the shining quality of his spirit.
Violence and bloodshed
In defense of the carefully detailed gore that pervades his novels, McCarthy told Richard B. Woodward in an interview for the New York Times Magazine: “There's no such thing as life without bloodshed.” The author added: “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous” (Richard B. Woodward, “Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction,” the New York Times Magazine, 19 April 1992).
While John Grady in no way invites trouble, he encounters it anyway. He and Rawlins are subjected to torture and attempts on their lives in the Saltillo prison. These events seem all the more terrible because the men have done nothing to deserve them – quite the reverse. They occur as a result of their association with Blevins, whom John Grady stood by out of the goodness of his heart, even though it would have been easy to ‘lose’ him.
The message seems to be that violence and bloodshed are an inevitable part of the human condition. As John Grady reflects in Part IV, “He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”
The unreliability of words
The narrator’s comment about John Grady’s dream of horses when he is in prison, that “they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised” (Part III), highlights a major theme in the novel: the inadequacy, and sometimes falsehood, of words. Readers may find it odd that a writer will emphasize the limitations of words in a novel, which is a collection of words. But the technique of drawing attention to the limitations of the spoken word has been used by the authors of ancient Greeks, the English dramatist William Shakespeare, and many others. In part, this is an appeal to the reader’s imagination to fill in any gaps left by the author’s efforts to capture reality. In the case of McCarthy’s novel, the narrator’s gesture of helplessness also emphasizes the unreliability of words.
In Part I, a man who gives John Grady a ride draws attention to his taciturnity:
You don’t talk much, do you? he said.
Not a whole lot.
That’s a good trait to have.
The man’s approval of this trait sets up the theme of volubility versus taciturnity, words versus deeds. In this novel, the characters who talk a great deal – Don Hector, Alfonsa, the police captain, and Pérez – are generally false, treacherous, and malevolent, or at least antagonistic to John Grady. They give elaborate justifications for what are essentially heartless or evil actions. Alfonsa actually draws a distinction between a person’s words and the moral high standard when she tells John Grady in Part II that he must not be seen with Alejandra again: “It’s not a matter of right. … It is a matter of who must say. In this matter I get to say. I am the one who gets to say.”
In contrast, John Grady says little, but has deep integrity. When he is interrogated by the police captain in Part III, John Grady says, “There aint but one truth … The truth is what happened. It aint what come out of somebody’s mouth.”