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All the Pretty Horses

Context
The first American colonials, the Puritans, envisioned the vast unexplored reaches of land to
the west of the colonies as a "desert wilderness," where danger lurked most obviously in the
form of hostile Native Americans. At the same time, however, the Puritans also thought of the
American continent as somehow sacred, a new promised land. As white Americans began to
explore westward, these two attitudes remained at the forefront of the American imagination.
Ideas of the American West have become an important part of our literature and mythology;
they are pervasive in the American mind. For as long as white Americans have lived on this
continent, they have regarded the unsettled West with a mixture of fear and excitement. It has
been seen as a place of possibility but also of peril: a proving ground.
It is obvious, of course, that the history of the exploration and settlement of the country west of
the original colonies--with its attendant violence and savagery towards the Native Americans
who already lived there--is the history of the United States. Even the original colonies, as an
unknown and uncivilized frontier for the European colonists, were an expression of Western
expansion. The great moments in the history of the West are the great moments in American
history: the Louisiana Purchase of western lands in 1803; the Lewis and Clark overland
expedition to the Pacific Northwest from 1804-1806; the mapmaking and explorations of John
C. Fremont in the late 1830s and 1840s; and the 1849 gold rush that brought Americans
westward in unprecedented numbers. The gold rush, especially, solidified in the American
mind an image of the West as a place of vast possibility. And other facets were being added to
the vision: the West was a place, far away from civilization, of violence and lawlessness; a
place relatively devoid of women and children, dominated by the men who explored and settled
it first, governed by their codes of strength and toughness; a place of lonely and awesome
beauty. The West was, as the literary critic Jane Tompkins has written, "a symbol of freedom,
and of the opportunity for conquest."
While the boundaries of any geographical area that might be known as the "West" have
changed dramatically (for the Puritans, Western Massachusetts was quite far enough West), the
popular imagination began to delineate areas that represented the ideas they associated with the
West. This was--again, in Tompkins' words--"the West of the desert, of mountains and
prairies." The West was the area in which cowboys roamed along the great cattle trails. This
West certainly existed. And the idea of the West as a breeding ground for American traits of
individualism and risk-taking, as a place of possibility where a poor man might become rich, is
surely an idea authenticated by history. But it must be said that the West as it is popularly
imagined--of cowboys and Indians, of "big-sky" country--was to a great extent a product of an
industry and a genre that has defined American culture in the past century: the Western.
Movies set within the Western experience comprise a significant percentage of American
films. Everyone has seen these movies, and recognizes their brave but antisocial heroes, their
lawless villains, the sweep of violins while a horse rides off into a sunset. For a generation of
Americans, the cowboys they saw in the movies became symbols of American masculinity. The
Western novel, too, has been a popular form since the first nineteenth-century dime-store

pamphlets described, in terms so melodramatic and exaggerated as to be formulaic, the exploits


of the great heroes of the West. In the twentieth century, immensely popular novelists like Zane
Grey and Louis L'Amour have maintained the tradition of the Western novel (and in a much
better written form).
The end of the twentieth century saw a revision of popular attitudes about the West, as scholars
in many disciplines began to question previously accepted assumptions about America's
historical and cultural heritage. New attention, for instance, was given to the appalling
treatment of Native Americans during the Western expansion, and how this treatment was
reflected in the Western movies that either vilified or trivialized the Native American
characters. Where in earlier generations the gunfighting past of the American West was
glorified--a symbol of American traditions of individualism and roughshod justice--many at
the end of the twentieth century began to ask questions about the harmful impact of that
violence to our culture and to the men who used violence to justify their moral codes. It is
telling that the best American western of the 1990s was Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1993),
an anti-Western, a story about the human casualties and psychological scarring of gunfights.
And it is telling that the great writer of Western novels at the end of the twentieth century and
into the twenty-first is Cormac McCarthy.
Indeed, McCarthy is most probably the greatest writer of Western novels in American history,
to such a degree that his novels also transcend the "Western" genre. He may write in the
tradition of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, but he is certainly also an heir to America's
towering literary geniuses, such as William Faulkner--from whom McCarthy learned his long,
flowing sentences--and Ernest Hemingway, whose attitudes of heroic stoicism and quiet
romanticism pervade McCarthy's prose.
McCarthy's great epic Border Trilogy --whose first novel, All the Pretty Horses, has become
McCarthy's most famous--tells the story of cowboys in the middle of the twentieth century,
men who pursue a romantic Western idea that has vanished and turned from history into myth.
McCarthy writes about the dark and unseen side of the Western idea: you will read in
McCarthy's novels what you will never see in most Western movies, stories about tragedy,
cruelty, and blood without a heroic or redemptive ending. The irony of All the Pretty Horses is
that it exposes characters desperately trying to inhabit the cowboy myth--to subscribe to the
cowboy code of stoicism, understated nobility and great physical skill--in the realities of
exploration in a savage and uncivilized land. What emerges is a picture of what the West might
really have been, together with a picture of the human spirit under awesome moral pressure.

Summary
All the Pretty Horses begins with the 1949 funeral of John Grady Cole's grandfather. With his
death, John Grady's mother will sell their Texas ranch and move away. There is nothing left in
Texas for John Grady, who loves the ranch and idealizes the cowboy's way of life. Only sixteen
years old, John Grady runs away from home with his friend Rawlins. On horseback, they head
toward the Mexican border, leading the idyllic, storybook life of migrant cowboys. They are
joined by a younger boy, the sensitive and stubborn Jimmy Blevins. Together, the three cross
over the Rio Grande into Mexico.
Soon after they enter Mexico, the companions ride into a lightning storm. Blevins, who is
terrified of lightening, strips off his clothes, abandons his horse, and hides in a ditch. The next
day finds him nearly naked, his horse and gun stolen. In the village of Encantada, the
companions see Blevins' lost horse, but it has been claimed by someone else. In the aftermath
of their attempt to steal the horse back, Rawlins and Cole become separated from Blevins. They
escape from the posse pursuing them, however, and continue to travel south, where they find
work as cowboys on the vast ranch owned by Don Hector.
John Grady quickly proves himself a remarkable cowboy with an intuitive understanding of
horses. Don Hector, impressed, puts him in charge of breeding the ranch's horses. But John
Grady's good fortune is imperiled by his infatuation with Don Hector's beautiful daughter,
Alejandra. Although John Grady is warned off by Alfonsa, Alejandra's cynical and
manipulative great-aunt, he nevertheless falls in love with the girl, and they begin an illicit
affair. When Don Hector finds out about it, he turns John Grady and Rawlins over to the
thuggish, corrupt police captain of Encantada. Blevins, it seems, returned to Encantada to
reclaim his gun and killed at least one of the townspeople. Now he is being held in jail, and
John Grady and Rawlins are accused of being his co- conspirators. Rawlins is tortured until he
gives a false confession.
Blevins is executed, but John Grady and Rawlins are merely imprisoned in the town of Saltillo.
In the prison the Americans are marked as victims, and forced to fight constantly to survive.
When they refuse to ally themselves with the wealthy, influential prisoner Perez, he sends
assassins after them both. Both men survive the attacks--with John Grady killing his assailant-but they are badly wounded, and end up in the hospital's infirmary. Only partially recovered,
they are suddenly released by the prison commander, who has been bribed by Alfonsa at
Alejandra's request.
Although Rawlins returns to Texas, John Grady is intent on reuniting with Alejandra. He goes
back to the ranch, where Alfonsa meets with him, delivering a long discourse about human
powerlessness and about the foolishness of romantic dreams. Nevertheless, he meets with
Alejandra and they spend a short day together, but in the end she decides that she cannot
abandon her family for him.
John Grady, shattered, refuses to leave Mexico without his horses. He goes back to Encantada
and, taking the captain as a hostage, reclaims the American horses. He is pursued on the way
back and wounded severely, but manages to evade the pursuit and cross back into Texas. He

finds that he no longer has a home: his father is dead, the ranch sold, and his friend Rawlins
seems like a stranger. The novel ends with John Grady riding west, into the setting sun.

Characters
John Grady Cole - A sixteen-year-old man; the central figure in All the Pretty Horses. We
know almost nothing about Cole's physical appearance, only that by the end of the novel he is
badly scarred across the face and chest. Laconic and pensive, he seems prematurely aged. He
lives his life according to a strict, almost ritualistic code, valuing honor, intelligence,
responsibility, justice, loyalty, and skill. Above all other things, he loves horses, with which he
is preternaturally gifted, and the cowboy life, the solitude and dignity of the West. The novel
follows Cole's journey as he flees the Texas ranch on which he grew up and travels with his
companions Rawlins and Blevins south into Mexico; on a psychological level, it depicts what
happens to Cole's romantic vision of the West.
Lacey Rawlins - Lacey Rawlins is John Grady Cole's best friend and his companion on the
trip into Mexico. We know little about Rawlins physically, just that at age seventeen he is tall
and thin, with long arms. Rawlins is louder, more impatient and less introspective than Cole; he
is also the less intelligent and less skilled member of the partnership. While he is faithful to
Cole, he does not subscribe to Cole's code of absolute loyalty and strictly moral action, and he
lacks the iron will that drives Cole to tirelessly pursue his romantic dreams. Rawlins and Cole
stick together until their ordeal in the Mexican jail: afterwards, Rawlins returns to Texas.
Jimmy Blevins - A thirteen-year-old runaway who follows John Grady Cole and Rawlins to
Mexico. His real name, which is not Blevins, is never revealed. He is hypersensitive to
mockery and insult, anything impinging on his dignity. This sensitivity led him to run away
from his abusive stepfather, and it also leads to his death: he returns to reclaim his stolen horse
and gun, and is captured and eventually executed by the cruel captain.
Alejandra - The daughter of Don Hector, the owner of the Mexican ranch on which John
Grady Cole and Rawlins find work. She is quite beautiful: dark- haired, blue-eyed, pale and
thin. There is always an attitude of sorrow about her, of tragedy waiting to happen. Alejandra
and Cole fall in love and start an illicit affair. The discovery of the affair results in Don Hector
turning Cole in to the Mexican police. When Cole returns from jail he spends one more
passionate, tragic day with Alejandra: but she cannot bring herself to abandon her family and
follow him to America. She has been manipulated by her cynical great-aunt, Alfonsa.
Don Hector - Don Hector Rocha y Villareal is the owner of the hacienda, or ranch, where
John Grady Cole and Rawlins find work. Don Hector, a member of the Mexican aristocracy, is
intelligent and cultured, seeming both practical and kind. He is impressed by Cole, and
promotes him to the position of breeder. But when he discovers that Cole has been having an
illicit affair with his daughter Alejandra, Don Hector is unforgiving, turning the Americans
over to the lawless Mexican police. It is for fear of losing Don Hector's love--as well as for fear
of her scheming great-aunt Alfonsa's manipulative power- -that Alejandra abandons Cole.
Alfonsa - Alfonsa is Alejandra's grandaunt. She lives at the ranch of her nephew, Don Hector.
An intelligent and intuitive student of human nature, Alfonsa had an aristocratic upbringing and
a cosmopolitan, European education. In her youth she was what she calls a "freethinker," allied
with the forces that would bring about the Mexican civil war on behalf of the oppressed and
poverty-stricken working class. She fell in love with one of the revolutionary leaders, but was
prevented from marrying him by her disapproving family. Her personal sorrows, instead of
making her more sensitive, have made her cynical and manipulative. It is she who pays the
bribe to get Cole and Rawlins out of jail, but at the price of making Alejandra swear never to

see Cole again.


Antonio - Antonio is a cowboy who works on Don Hector's ranch with John Grady Cole. He is
the brother of the ranch's foreman, Armondo. More than any of the other Mexicans, he becomes
Cole's friend, working with Cole to breed the horses and giving him counsel and help in Cole's
pursuit of Alejandra both before and after Cole's imprisonment.
The Captain - The captain--whose name, Raul, is almost never used-- is the sadistic, corrupt
lawman in the town of Encantada. The captain is the man who wrongly accuses Cole and
Rawlins of being outlaws, and tortures Rawlins to confess to crimes he did not commit. Later,
after accepting a bribe from the charro, a relative of the man Blevins killed, the captain
murders Blevins. When Cole returns after being released from prison, he takes the captain as
his hostage. The captain exemplifies the corruption and cruelty rampant in this lawless part of
Mexico.
John Grady Cole's father - We never learn the name of John Grady Cole's father. At the
beginning of the novel, Cole's father is dying, possibly of lung cancer (although we never find
out for certain). The father was a prisoner of war during World War II, and came back from it a
changed man; afterward, he and John Grady's mother--a flighty, promiscuous women who ran
off to become an actress--were never reunited. He is a lonely, silent man.
John Grady Cole's mother - John Grady Cole's nameless mother appears only in the opening
pages of the novel, and only briefly. John Grady's mother has divorced John Grady's father;
their marriage was never strong, and for a while during his infancy and early childhood, John
Grady's mother left him to be raised by Louisa. At the time the narrative begins, John Grady's
mother is only thirty-six years old, and wants to start another life away from the solitude of the
ranch, which has become lonely and unprofitable. She and her son are virtual strangers.
Perez - The wealthy and powerful prisoner who tries to force John Grady and Rawlins to ally
themselves with him or pay him bribes to arrange for their freedom. When the Americans
refuse, he has Rawlins stabbed, and--presumably, although we are never told for certain--pays
an assassin to try to kill John Grady.
The charro - A citizen of Encantada. Like the captain, the charro is only referred to by his
title, not by his name, Luis. He pays the captain a bribe to execute Blevins, who killed a relative
of his. When John Grady Cole returns to Encantada, he forces the charro to show him where he
has hidden the American horses.
Armondo - The foreman on Don Hector's ranch.
Maria - The kind, quiet cook at Don Hector's ranch. Though she never says so explicitly, she
seems deeply sympathetic toward John Grady Cole.
Louisa - Louisa is the cook at the Grady ranch where John Grady Cole grew up. She raised
Cole when his mother ran away and went to California.

Chapter I - Part 1
Note: All the Pretty Horses is divided into four long chapters. For ease of organization, this
SparkNote will divide both the first and last of these sections into two thematically coherent
parts. The section of the SparkNote that deals with John Grady Cole before his departure for
Mexico is labeled "Chapter I - Part 1"; the section that deals with John Grady after his arrival in
Mexico and until the end of Chapter I, when John Grady is hired as a cowboy, is "Chapter I Part 2". Similarly, "Chapter IV - Part 1" deals with Chapter IV from the chapter's beginning
until John Grady's final split with Alejandra; "Chapter IV - Part 2" concerns itself with the end
of the novel, from the split with Alejandra onward. Note that the novel itself does not subdivide
these two chapters in this manner.
Summary
All the Pretty Horses opens with the funeral of John Grady Cole's grandfather, in the late
autumn of 1949. John Grady is a sixteen-year-old who has lived his whole life on his
grandfather's ranch outside of San Angelo, Texas. With his grandfather's death, John Grady's
mother will sell the unprofitable ranch: the boy feels, inescapably, that he is witnessing the
final act of a drama that has been ongoing since his great-grandfather built a one-room hovel on
the site in 1866. This first section of the novel, leading up to John Grady's departure for
Mexico, consists of a group of connected scenes--conversations with friends and parents--that
lead to John Grady's conclusion that there is nothing left for him in San Angelo.
John Grady's parents are estranged. His mother, who at thirty-six is still young and longs for a
life of excitement and romance away from the isolation of the ranch, is trying to build an acting
career; she no longer speaks to his father, a professional gambler who was deeply scarred
psychologically by his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Although it is not
made explicit, it also seems that John Grady's father is dying of lung cancer. After his
grandfather's funeral, John Grady meets with his father at a cafe in San Angelo. The two are
silent and awkward, not knowing what to say to each other; the father feels that he has failed
his son.
John Grady sits at dinner with his mother, and asks her--in what seems to be an oft-repeated
conversation--to let him run the ranch. She denies the request, repeating her intention to sell it.
In response, John Grady goes to visit Franklin, the family's lawyer, who tells him that there is
nothing he can do to prevent the sale; he learns from Franklin, too, that his parents have
become officially divorced. After some passage of time, we see John Grady taking a trip from
San Angelo to San Antonio to see the play in which his mother is acting. He is out of place in
the relatively cosmopolitan city, and his trip only confirms that he and his mother are separated
by a vast distance.
John Grady sees his father for the last time in the spring of 1950; they go riding together in the
countryside around San Angelo. It is another episode in the string of John Grady's difficult and
choked goodbyes. We see him outside in the dark with his friend Rawlins, and learn that they
are planning to run away from Texas. We see him in downtown San Angelo, talking with Mary
Catherine Barnett, a girl whom he used to date but who broke up with him. Finally, we see him

standing one night outside Rawlins' house. The two friends slip quietly away, and ride out onto
the prairie, away from home and toward their adventure.
Commentary
All the Pretty Horses both begins and ends with a funeral: first, the funeral of John Grady
Cole's grandfather, and at the end of the novel the funeral of the woman we know only as
"Abuela" ("grandmother" in Spanish), the old Mexican woman--Louisa's mother--who lived on
the ranch since the turn of the century, and who helped raise John Grady. This is appropriate,
since All the Pretty Horses is a novel about endings--about the closing of America's great
historical and mythic chapter of cowboys on horseback. The Grady ranch was established by
John Grady Cole's great-grandfather in 1866, and tended by his grandfather until 1949. Its
lifespan, then, parallels the lifespan of the American cowboy. The death of the grandfather
expresses a larger phenomenon: a way of life passed away, too. The ranch is no longer
profitable, and will be sold by John Grady's mother, a woman who aspires to a cosmopolitan
life away from the solitude and hardships of the ranch. John Grady realizes this when he rides
out the night of the funeral and stands in the sunset: in McCarthy's words, he "stood like a man
come to the end of something."
Cormac McCarthy is perhaps the great American poet of the sunset. This is a novel filled with
sunsets, and the sunset described as "coppering" John Grady's face at the novel's beginning is
mirrored by the sunset at the novel's end, following the funeral of Abuela, the last surviving
connection to the old way of life at the ranch. We are told then, too, of the sun "coppering his
face." Throughout the novel we have sunsets, signifying the end of things and painting the
novel's scenes blood-red.
John Grady Cole is a relic from an earlier time, perhaps even a relic from a mythic time that
never truly existed in history. He refuses to accept the passing of the cowboy age symbolized in
the novel's many sunsets. The novel's action is driven by this refusal: John Grady leaves home
in search of something he cannot exactly express, but which clarifies itself as an inchoate and
passionate love of land, of cattle and horses, of independence and honor. He associates these
things with the past of the West, a past which he pursues implacably. His search may well
prove unsuccessful: readers will see that at the end of the novel John Grady is still headed west,
still riding off into a sunset, just as he does at the beginning of the novel.
But it could be argued equally easily--and perhaps more compellingly--that John Grady does
indeed rediscover the mythic West: he recreates it, idealized, in his own romantic and heroic
code of conduct, and he finds it in Mexico, entirely deromanticized and stripped to its brutal
core. The great American novelist William Faulkner once said that the past is not, in fact, past:
it is instead present, and unavoidable. We see echoes of this maxim (and of many other
Faulknerian stylistic and philosophical tropes) throughout this novel. From the very beginning,
McCarthy raises the question of the relationship between the past and the present. When John
Grady rides out in the evening after his grandfather's funeral, he rides out along an old
Comanche road. The ghosts of the Comanche, on the move across the plains, are audible in the
sound of the wind. These men are warriors, bound by pledges of blood, and their spirit
continues to inhabit the West of this novel. Here there is a sense that the violent past of the
West has bled into the soil, and beats down in the perpetual red sunlight; it is an inheritance,

recurrent and unavoidable.

Chapter I - Part 2
Summary
John Grady Cole and Rawlins ride out of San Angelo, headed south towards Mexico. They
encounter no trouble. Indeed, they live the life they've imagined belongs to cowboys: sleeping
under the stars, subsisting hand-to-mouth, and migrating always towards a greener pasture. As
they ride they maintain an occasional banter, adopting the laconic humor and wisdom they
associate with cowboys.
A few days into their journey, the companions discover that somebody is following them. He
turns out to be a thirteen-year-old boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins and rides a
magnificent and valuable horse. Rawlins is disdainful of Blevins, and, after jokingly
threatening to kill the boy and steal his horse, the two companions leave Blevins and continue
on their way. But on the banks of the Rio Grande, as they are preparing to cross over into
Mexico, he catches them again, and this time, despite Rawlins' repeated objections, Blevins
manages to convince them to let him travel with them. On the other side of the river, in
Mexico, Rawlins again begins poking fun at Blevins, whom he derides as an inexperienced boy.
Blevins goes some distance towards proving his competence when he succeeds in a remarkable
feat of marksmanship, shooting a hole through Rawlins' wallet.
In Mexico, they continue to travel unmolested: the people are wretchedly poor, but friendly and
hospitable. The travelers are taken in for the night by a friendly family, but Blevins storms out
embarrassed when he falls off his bench at the dinner-table: we learn that he cannot tolerate
being embarrassed or mocked. Blevins refuses even to come back into the house to sleep. The
two older boys meet him again the next morning, on the road. Over lunch, Rawlins and Blevins
discuss horsemanship, and Rawlins claims that John Grady Cole is the finest rider ever. With
typical modesty, John Grady deflects the claim. Later, in another conversation, Rawlins and
John Grady learn more about Blevins' past: he has run away from home before, because he will
not tolerate discipline from his stepfather.
On their ride south, the companions pass many groups of Mexicans. They are unsuccessful in
an attempt to buy water, and end up with alcohol. By the time a storm blows up, they are badly
drunk. Blevins is superstitious about storms--his family has a history of getting struck by
lighting--and he panics: he abandons his horse, strips himself of all metal objects, including his
pants and shirt, which have metal buckles, and hides in a ravine. Rawlins and John Grady hide
beneath a rock outcropping to wait out the storm. When they find Blevins the next day, he has
lost his clothing and his horse. He puts on a shirt of John Grady's, and they continue their
journey southward. They run into their first taste of depravity when a band of migrant workers,
with whom they stop for lunch, offers to buy the half-naked Blevins as a slave.
The companions ride into the village of Encantada, where they find Blevins' horse and pistol:
but someone else has found them first and appropriated them. John Grady and Rawlins discuss
their predicament: Rawlins is worried that Blevins, and his desire to reclaim his property, will
get them into trouble. John Grady insists on standing by Blevins. That night, they creep into
Encantada and try to steal the horse. Blevins succeeds in reclaiming the horse, but he wakes up

everyone in the village: chased by a gun-wielding posse, the Americans ride out of town. They
decide to split up. Blevins, on the better horse, will try to outrun the pursuit; the other two leave
the road and try to evade their pursuers.
Separated from Blevins, John Grady and Rawlins continue south, safely away from the
Encantada posse. After a few days of travel, hungry and thirsty, they come to a vast stretch of
grasslands and meet a troop of cowboys. They have arrived at the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora
de la Purisima Concepcion. As the Americans ride into the ranch, they are passed on the road
by a beautiful young girl, who proves to be Alejandra, the rancher's daughter. The first chapter
of the novel ends as John Grady and Rawlins are hired by the ranch's foreman, Armondo, and
settle happily into their lives as cowboys.
Commentary
This section begins as the most untroubled in a troubled novel. For an idyllic stretch of perhaps
a few days and thirty pages, there is no violence. Nothing goes wrong. The journey from San
Angeelo to Mexico is accomplished flawlessly and easily. It conforms to the expectations of
the teenage cowboys: this is the life they imagined living, without responsibility, under the sun
and starlit nights. It is not that the life is either easy or leisured; they do not have the creature
comforts of civilization. But this is precisely the point: their aim is to act like the men who fill
their idealized imaginings, men not of leisure but of serious purpose, effort, and perseverance.
Of course, the two teenagers have yet to encounter situations that will require their true effort
and perseverance. Instead, they begin to think--especially Rawlins, the more immature and less
driven of the two--that they have succeeded in recapturing the cowboy lifestyle. For now we
have the sense of a storm building (this storm, of course, will be both literal and figurative),
that this idyll is merely a prelude to the bloody trauma of their trial-by-fire; as the nervous
Rawlins puts it, "Just seems too damn easy in a way." Suffering will authenticate their choice
of lifestyle: the price it will eventually exact will be nearly incalculable.
If rough and independent living is inseparable from the life to which Rawlins and John Grady
Cole aspire, so too is their laconic style of speech. As the companions ride, we overhear their
dialogue. There is a stoic refusal to convey emotion; an avoidance of introspection and
elaborate discussion in favor of aphoristic wisdom and statements of fact; occasionally, there is
some quiet humor. Of the two companions, Rawlins is the more talkative and nervous: he
makes jokes, boasts, and pokes fun at Blevins. John Grady remains nearly silent throughout,
especially during Rawlins' conversations with Blevins. John Grady's silences are not merely an
incidental facet of his personality: they are part and parcel of the code to which he subscribes,
and which governs all of his behavior.
Readers of American literature will recognize John Grady's silences and speech patterns. They
are a version of the patterns shared by the protagonists of Ernest Hemingway's novels and short
stories. Like John Grady, Hemingway's men subscribe to what Hemingway critics have referred
to as a "sportsman's code," characterized by scrupulous honesty, self-control, courage, skill,
and stoicism. Adherence to this code, for Hemingway's heroes, is necessary for survival, and
also necessary to retain any honor and individuality in the chaos of human life. The same might
be said of John Grady Cole. Although his code leads him again and again into mortal danger--in
this section he refuses to abandon Blevins and attempts to rescue Blevins' horse, and later in the

novel he returns to the ranch to see Alejandra and refuses to bend to Perez' will--it eventually
preserves him as a moral creature. John Grady's triumphs in the novel are largely internal
triumphs, and they flow from his unwavering adherence to his moral code. This moral code, in
McCarthy as in Hemingway, manifests itself in the speech patterns of its adherents: it demands
thoughtfulness rather than verbosity; modest silence rather than boasting; concise wisdom
rather than elaborate argument and discussion; and repression of emotion rather than
expression of fears or weakness.

Chapter 2
Summary
The Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion (Ranch of Our Lady of the
Immaculate Conception), where the young Americans John Grady Cole and Rawlins find work
as cowboys, is a huge spread owned by Don Hector Rocha y Villareal, a wealthy Mexican
aristocrat. John Grady quickly proves himself a master horseman when, with Rawlins' help, he
successfully breaks a group of sixteen horses in only three days, a remarkable feat. This success
earns the Americans the favor of Armondo, the ranch's foreman, and of his brother Antonio.
John Grady is called in to see Don Hector, and quickly impresses the rancher with his
knowledge of horses. Don Hector promotes him: John Grady moves out of the cowboys'
bunkroom and into a room of his own in the stable. John Grady will help Don Hector breed the
magnificent new stallion that he has bought. John Grady's move to the stable also gives him
greater exposure to the rancher's beautiful daughter, Alejandra. One Sunday, Rawlins and John
Grady go into the neighboring town, La Vega, and buy new clothing. That night they go to a
dance at the local grange hall. Alejandra is there, and she and John Grady dance and go walking
outside.
One evening, while riding Don Hector's new stallion bareback across the ranch, John Grady
once again meets Alejandra, whom he has not seen since the night of the dance. She commands
him to let her ride the stallion, and he is forced to accede. As he brings her horse back to the
barn, however, he is seen by a shadowy someone from the ranch house. Soon afterward the
Duena Alfonsa, Alejandra's aunt, calls John Grady for an audience at the ranch house. After
they play chess, she orders him not to be seen again with Alejandra. Five nights later, Alejandra
comes to visit John Grady at night. Secretly, they begin to ride out together at night through the
ranch. One night he swims out naked into the ranch's lake, and she too removes her clothes and
joins him.
There comes a day, perhaps immediately afterwards, when five Mexican soldiers ride up to the
ranch house. There is the sense that they are there to inquire after the Americans, but they leave
without taking further action. The next night, and for the subsequent nine nights, Alejandra
again visits John Grady in his room, and they make love. Then Alejandra goes back to stay with
her mother in Mexico City, where she lives, and John Grady is again invited to the ranch house
to play pool with Don Hector, who tells him that Alejandra is being sent away for schooling in
France. It is only a week afterwards that John Grady learns from Antonio that Alejandra has not
been sent to France at all: she is being kept inside the ranch house.
A few days later finds John Grady and Rawlins in the mountains, roping wild horses. Don
Hector's greyhounds walk into their campfire circle one night, and the two suspect that Don
Hector has found out about the affair, and come to the mountains to hunt and kill them. The
next morning, the Mexican soldiers return. This time, they take John Grady and Rawlins away
in chains.
Commentary

Like a lot of tough men before them, John Grady Cole and Cormac McCarthy are both
romantics. All the stoicism of John Grady's cowboy code, all of his emotional self-repression
and his long silences, serve not to conceal but to throw into sharp relief his innate romanticism.
When he runs into Alejandra riding on the ranch, he is defenseless: her "eyes had altered the
world forever in the space of a heartbeat." This is a little bit of a surprising sentence to read in
this novel. For one thing, a good argument could be made that it is a poor sentence--clichd,
unevocative, naive--for such a master stylist as McCarthy. For another, love at first sight may
seem a strange emotion for a cowboy like John Grady Cole. What follows, too--when looked at
from a certain vantage point--is something of a predictable romantic plot: a poor boy falls in
love with a rich girl, and eventually wins her heart, beginning a passionate affair despite the
machinations of her powerful relatives.
Of course, John Grady's love affair falls to pieces. And the machinations of Alejandra's
relatives, in their deviousness and in the concrete power of the repercussions, go far beyond
what would be expected in a typical romance novel. But it should be acknowledged that John
Grady is a romantic, and this is a romantic novel. To embrace an ideal, to privilege a dream
over reality, is fundamentally a romantic undertaking. The care and the obvious love that
McCarthy lavishes on the physical landscape bespeaks a deep-seated romanticism: he
sometimes cannot restrain his urge to gild and burnish the hills and sky of the West, to endow
them with a power that goes beyond the tangible. The assertion that the physical landscape of
the West has metaphysical meaning, just as much as the valorization of John Grady Cole's
doomed heroism, is in itself a romantic assertion.
Not that this is a novel that avoids facing the cruelties and concreteness of reality: the third
chapter, which tells the story of John Grady and Rawlins in jail, is an unsparing story about
physical and psychological cruelty and suffering. As the back cover of the novel's paperback
version luridly proclaims, this novel details a landscape "where dreams are paid for in blood."
But that does not mean that the dreams have been rendered illegitimate. Indeed, the world of
All the Pretty Horses is a world in which dreams and reality seem to inhabit the same space.
Dreams leave their mark on reality, just as the past leaves its mark on the present, refusing to
vanish from relevance: as Alfonsa tells John Grady, scars have the power to remind one of the
reality of the past. We remember that we know almost nothing about John Grady physically,
only that he has a scar on his cheek. He seems a human connection with the past and with the
shadowy world of dreams, which is no less real for its being imagined.
If dreams alter and reflect reality, they are also constituted by reality. As John Grady watches
Alejandra ride away into a summer rainstorm, the novel reflects on the scene before him: "real
horse, real rider, real land and sky"--and yet a dream. Somehow the concrete elements of the
landscape, evoked into being so effectively by McCarthy, combine to form something other
than real. This transmutation is akin to the alchemical process of mythmaking, the process by
which the West was transformed from coldly literal reality into nationally worshiped mirage.
The novel's opening line is a key to deciphering this transubstantiation. There, Johhn Grady
comes inside to look at his grandfather's corpse, and the novel tells us that both the candle
flame and the image of the candle flame gutter in the wind through the open door. Similarly,
only a few pages later, we hear about the Comanches, who are simultaneously "nation and ghost
of nation." In All the Pretty Horses, as in the study of the American West, we are confronted

with both a thing and its own dreamlike reflection, a thing and the spectral image of a thing.
John Grady is confronted with a Mexico that is both an incarnation of his romantic imaginings
about the West, and the twisted and terrifying reality behind that romance; just as he, himself,
is both an authentic cowboy and the self- conscious, stylized, image of a cowboy.

Chapter III
Summary
The Mexican guards take John Grady Cole and Rawlins northward. On the third day of travel,
the manacled prisoners reach the town of Encantada, the same town where they helped Blevins
recover his stolen horse. There, the two Americans have an argument: Rawlins blames John
Grady for their arrest, maintaining that Don Hector turned the Americans over to the police
because he learned of what Rawlins sees as John Grady's foolish affair with Alejandra. John
Grady asks for Rawlins' loyalty, maintaining that were the situations reversed he would show
Rawlins the same loyalty.
In the Encantada jail, the Americans find Blevins. It seems that Blevins was not content to
escape with his horse: instead he returned to Encantada and reclaimed his gun, as well. In the
chase that followed, Blevins shot and killed one of his pursuers. He has been in the jail ever
since. The next day, the local police captain takes Rawlins in for questioning. He accuses
Rawlins of being a murderer and impersonator, and tortures him until he confesses to crimes he
did not commit. He does not torture John Grady, but he accuses him, too, of being a liar and a
criminal.
Three days later, guards place the three Americans in the bed of a truck, and then drive them
south to the prison at Saltillo. In the front of the truck ride the captain and the charro. They
progress southwards in a curiously casual manner, delivering mail and produce to passing
villages. Eventually they stop near an abandoned farm: the captain and the charro take Blevins
into a grove and execute him. The truck continues to Saltillo, where John Grady and Rawlins
are transferred to the Saltillo prison.
The prison is brutal. The prisoners are cruel and violent, and the Americans spend their first
days in a continuous fight for survival. They are badly bruised and battered, but they support
each other, and John Grady exhorts Rawlins not to surrender. They suspect that the prison
commandant believes that they are rich, and is waiting for them to bribe him. After a few days,
they are summoned to see Perez, a wealthy and influential prisoner who also asks them for a
bribe. The day after they refuse him--after all, they have no money--a man knifes Rawlins in
the prison-yard. Rawlins is taken to the prison infirmary, and John Grady loses contact with
him.
Desperate to learn what happened to Rawlins, John Grady goes three days later to see Perez.
Perez talks to him about the necessity of seeing things--evil, money, human nature--as they
truly are, of discarding romantic notions; he also makes sinister innuendoes about what will
happen if John Grady does not bribe him. John Grady still refuses to deal. The next day, he uses
the last of his money to buy a knife to protect himself against the attack that will inevitably
come. Soon it does: an assassin tries to stab him in the mess hall. They fight, and John Grady is
seriously wounded, but at the last moment he is successful in killing his assailant. Staggering
from the hall, he collapses in the prison-yard, and is taken to the infirmary by none other than
Perez' bodyguard.

Days pass in the darkness and pain of the infirmary; John Grady is badly scarred, but he
survives and heals. Still weak, he is brought before the jail warden, given an envelope full of
money, and, together with Rawlins, released onto the street. John Grady discovers that it was
Alfonsa, Alejandra's great-aunt, who paid for their release. They discuss what they have done,
and what they will do. Rawlins, haunted by the memory of Blevins' death, decides to return
home to Texas; John Grady will remain in Mexico, and make a last attempt to reclaim their
horses and win over Alejandra. The chapter's end sees Rawlins on a bus home, and John Grady
hitchhiking a ride back north towards Don Hector's ranch.
Commentary
Cormac McCarthy's sentences have a balance and flow that make their author a worthy heir to
one of America's greatest prose stylists, William Faulkner. One of McCarthy's most striking
techniques is his variation of pace. In general (although not a hard-and-fast rule), McCarthy's
descriptions of thoughts and observations tend toward the staccato exhilaration of quick
movement, the outpouring of richly evocative phrases piled behind and on top of each other;
his descriptions of action, somewhat paradoxically, seem relatively still and serene. Contrast
the rush of John Grady's dream of horses, which flows toward and past the reader in a stream of
sensation, with the novel's many crisp, terse descriptions of action, so detailed and dry as to be
matter-of-fact, even in the crucial scene when John Grady kills the assassin. The action comes
without melodrama, simply and directly. If you read too fast, you might miss it.
Throughout All the Pretty Horses, there is the sense that some things cannot be adequately
expressed. This is a belief cherished by John Grady, but it is also evident that the novel itself
accepts this attitude stylistically and philosophically. It is a curious attitude for a novel. The
idea that a novel must necessarily fail in conveying some motions or describing some things
seems self-defeating. And yet we have it clearly. Speaking of John Grady's dream of running
horses, the novel praises the "resonance" of the world itself, which "cannot be spoken but only
praised." The novel throws up its hands: there are moments and emotions better described by
silence and implication, better guessed and inferred than fleshed out in words. This attitude is
expressed most clearly by John Grady in his rejection of the falsehoods offered by the captain:
he says that the truth is "what happened," not words out of someone's mouth. If John Grady's
code of honor approaches a religion of courage, endurance, stoicism, honesty, faithfulness, and
skill (unlike Rawlins, John Grady rarely talks about God or heaven, preferring instead to be
guided by his own absolute moral principles), then action is his preferred mode of ceremonial
worship. John Grady, it has been noted, is laconic to the extreme. He believes that actions, in
their purity, speak for themselves.
Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of this novel's belief in the deceptiveness of speech is
evident in the fact that the novel's great talkers and ideologues--Alfonsa, Don Hector, the
captain, and Perez--are all either fundamentally evil or at least antagonists to John Grady.
Alfonsa and Perez, especially, cloak their actions in complicated philosophical rationalizations.
They are, in fact, the most eloquent characters in the novel. To combat them, John Grady has
only his commitment to his idea of what is right, expressed plainly and honestly: Alfonsa tells
him that it is not a matter of what is right, but of "who must say." This act of saying, the novel
seems to indicate, is fundamentally untrustworthy.

In the prison, Perez presents John Grady with his version of a moral code: realism. Perez
believes that Americans, and their exemplar, John Grady, are flawed because they fail to see
things as they truly are: he claims that the American looks only at what he wants to see. John
Grady refuses to recognize the stark reality that underlies Mexican behavior. In Mexico, Perez
preaches, evil is not an abstracted idea but a presence, incarnated. Strictly moral behavior will
bring death. Only those who are both brave and devious survive. This may, ultimately, prove
true in the Mexico portrayed by McCarthy. Blevins dies, and John Grady repeatedly faces
death. But John Grady's own moral survival is conditioned on his continued adherence to his
unspoken code, without which his life is not worth living.

Chapter IV - Part 1
Summary
John Grady Cole heads north, back towards Don Hector's ranch, meeting only with the simple
kindness of the local Mexicans. Antonio, his old friend from the ranch, shows him kindness as
well, as do the hired cowboys. He goes to see Alfonsa, Alejandra's manipulative grandaunt.
From Alfonsa, he learns that it was Don Hector who turned him over to the Mexican police
after he conducted his own investigation into John Grady's relationship with Blevins. He also
learns that a condition of Alfonsa paying for his release from jail was Alejandra's promise
never to see John Grady again. Alfonsa speaks to him of her view of the world, her belief that
life is controlled by inscrutable forces. She also tells him about her childhood of privilege, and
her decision to cast her lot with the revolutionary, Francisco Madero, who became the country's
first democratic president. She fell in love with this revolutionary's brother and helper, Gustavo
Madero, who showed her tremendous kindness when she believed herself an outcast for life
after she lost part of her hand in a shooting accident. Her family, however, disapproved of her
relationship with Gustavo, and kept her in Europe until Gustavo married, rose to power, and
was eventually tortured and killed by a mob of counter-revolutionaries. As a result of the
cruelty and deprivation she has seen in her life, Alfonsa believes that the only eternal truths are
greed and bloodlust: the world, she says, is consistent in destroying dreams. Alfonsa believes
herself to be a libertine and a iconoclast, but she still refuses to consider John Grady--whom
she considers a criminal or at least a victim of circumstance--as a match for Alejandra.
Alfonsa will not entertain his suit, and Alejandra is in Mexico City; there is nothing for John
Grady at the ranch, and so he leaves. Riding out of town, he shares his lunch with a group of
Mexican children, who give him their simple, innocent and hopeless advice about how he can
regain his lost love. He calls Alejandra, who eventually promises that she will leave school a
day early for vacation, take a train from Mexico City to the town of Zacatecas, and meet him
before she goes on to the ranch.
Alejandra joins John Grady in Zacatecas, and they spend a tortured twenty-four hours together.
That night, he tells her about his experiences in jail, and she confesses that she was the one,
manipulated by Alfonsa, who told Don Hector about their affair. She confirms that Don Hector
had John Grady arrested as a result. She believes her affair with John Grady has made her
father stop loving her. The next day, she tells him that she cannot bring herself to go with him
to America. As if in a dream, he takes her to the train and she leaves. John Grady is devastated.
Commentary
There is a sacramental aspect to blood in this novel. There is, of course, a sacramental aspect to
blood in Christian religion: it is a substance both transformed and transforming. The wine of
communion becomes--either symbolically or, for Catholics, actually--the blood of Jesus. In
turn, this blood has the capacity to recreate an individual anew. Christians speak of being "born
again in the body and blood of Christ." Similarly in All the Pretty Horses, blood is both sacred
itself, and possesses the capacity to sanctify. We have numerous instances in which things,
especially aspects of the physical landscape, are painted in red, transubstantiated into blood.

And we have the fact that it is through bloody sacrifice that John Grady reaches his maturity:
when he leaves the prison and heads back to the ranch, after bleeding at the hands of the
assassin, he is described as a "newfound evangelical being."
Whether or not John Grady is a religious man, in the sense of being a believing Christian and
man of faith, is open to doubt. What seems clear is that this is a religious novel, concerned with
the relationship between the human, the natural, and the supernatural. There is a great deal of
talk about God and the spiritual: there is Rawlins and his discussions of heaven; seemingly
incidental remarks and scenes, as when the old Mexican prays to the God by whose will, he
believes, all things grow (at the beginning of the chapter); and Alfonsa, with her talk about God
that is simultaneously devout and heretical. Alfonsa refers to God as knowing everything, and
yet believes that he is powerless to interfere with the passions that govern the world harshly
and with inexorable force. In her world, God must prove himself, just as man must be tested, in
blood.
The paradox of Alfonsa's personality is that she is both a traditionalist and a libertine; she is,
one might say, a radical conservative. She believes both in an omniscient God and in forces that
overwhelm him. These forces are not given the name of fate; for Alfonsa, they are more
powerful than fate. The world, in her view, is like a vast puppet-theater, and the strings are
pulled by these forces. Avarice, bloodlust, and impetuousness are embedded in human nature,
and probably in the nature of things inhuman as well. Individual human agency--the capacity of
men and women to influence their own lives and realize their dreams--is impossible in the face
of these forces, which are simultaneously impersonal and deeply embedded in the human
personality. It is human folly and stubbornness to persist with the kind of romantic dreams that
motivate John Grady Cole: life and death act against them: "Between the wish and the thing,"
goes the mellifluous aphorism, "the world lies waiting." This sentiment is reminiscent of, and
perhaps cannot help but have been influenced by, Lieutenant Frederic Henry's famous
realization at the end of Ernest Hemingway's great novel A Farewell to Arms : "The world
breaks everyone.... It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If
you are none of those you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special
hurry."
Whether or not the world of this novel is indeed as Alfonsa sees it is open to question. Indeed,
the moral and logical coherence of Alfonsa's philosophy is thrown into doubt. She seems
preternaturally eloquent, dispensing her wisdom in both elegant aphorisms and long,
beautifully told stories. But it could well be argued that she is neither internally consistent with
her own argument (the question of whether or not Alfonsa believes in fate is utterly unresolved)
nor is she honest about her own motivations. Again, eloquence and verbosity in All the Pretty
Horses are to be distrusted. It could be argued (although this argument takes something away
from the complexity of her character) that Alfonsa is indeed what John Grady thinks her: a
bitter old woman determined to shatter Alejandra and John Grady as she herself was shattered.
All the talk about philosophy and human nature may just be a smokescreen. It could also be,
more intriguingly, that Alfonsa is unaware of her own motivations. Her complex musings about
destiny and fate have wrapped her inside a web of words, and she is unable to see clearly
beyond them.

Chapter IV - Part 2
Summary
After Alejandra leaves him in Zacatecas, John Grady Cole rides northward, wracked by sorrow.
When he reaches Encantada, the town where he, Rawlins, and Blevins were imprisoned, he
determines that he will not leave Mexico without retrieving his horse from the captain who
impounded it when he falsely arrested the Americans. John Grady breaks into the captain's
office and holds him at gunpoint. He forces the captain to take him to the house of the charro,
the man who paid to have Blevins executed. There, they find Rawlins' horse. John Grady forces
the two men to take him out to the ranch where the other horses--his and Blevins'--are being
held.
The horses are there, but as John Grady leaves the stable with them he is shot from behind, in
the leg; two of the men who work at the ranch figured out what was happening, and lay in wait
for him. In tremendous pain, he manages to mount and ride out of the stable-yard, driving the
riderless horses in front of him and taking the captain, whose shoulder was painfully dislocated
in the confusion, with him as a hostage. He is pursued by six riders, but manages to evade them
throughout the day.
That night, John Grady heats a pistol barrel and uses it to cauterize his wound. The captain is
exhausted and in agony, but John Grady, despite his own considerable pain, insists on riding
onward through the night and the next day. When he finally sleeps, he is woken by a troop of
local men, who question him about the horses and take the captain, but leave John Grady
unharmed. Alone now, he continues riding northward through the Mexican countryside, feeling
utterly alone, reflecting on the terrible cost of pain and suffering the world exacts on beauty.
Finally, John Grady crosses the Rio Grande back into Texas. It is Thanksgiving Day, 1950. He
senses that his father has died during his absence, and for the first and only time in this novel
John Grady begins to cry.
For weeks, John Grady travels across the border country, looking for the true owner of Blevins'
horse. Three men swear out a false warrant for the horse, and the matter goes to court. John
Grady tells the full story of how the horse came to be in his possession, starting from the first
time he met Blevins. The court is speechless. The judge is stunned, and awards the horse to
John Grady. That night, John Grady goes to the judge's house and talks with him, confessing
that he is tormented by killing the assassin in the Mexican jail, and by almost killing the
captain.
Listening to the radio the next Sunday morning, John Grady hears the Jimmy Blevins Gospel
Hour. He rides to meet preacher Blevins, thinking that the boy who claimed to be Jimmy
Blevins must have known the preacher, and that perhaps the horse truly belongs to the preacher.
This proves not to be the case. Next, John Grady goes to visit Rawlins. They talk about John
Grady's experiences in Mexico since Rawlins left, and Rawlins confirms that John Grady's
father is dead. A distance has opened up between them, and John Grady realizes that he cannot
stay in San Angelo.

John Grady watches the funeral of Abuela, Louisa's mother, the last connection with the old
way of life at the ranch. Afterward he drifts westward, riding out into the sunset. The novel
ends.
Commentary
The scene where the wounded hero sits by a campfire and cauterizes his wounds with hot metal
is not unfamiliar to Western movies and novels. It is emblematic of toughness and resolve: the
hero stoically does what is good for him, even if it involves pain. John Grady Cole does it too.
But he does not do it gracefully. What follows on John Grady Cole's application of the burning
metal to his open wound is a scene of absolute chaos. It is tough, in that confusion, even to tell
the location of the principle characters and what they are doing. John Grady, it is clear, is
screaming bloody murder. If in the end we must evaluate John Grady as a hero, his is a kind of
diminished heroism, a kind that would perhaps have been unfamiliar to John Wayne, a kind that
admits to weakness and vulnerability. Perhaps it is precisely that diminishment which places
John Grady on a human scale and allows the reader to appreciate him both as a hero and as a
person.
Not that John Grady Cole is weak. With all that he goes through, we see him cry precisely one
time in the novel, and then it is so understated that we might miss it. At the novel's end, he
rides his horse back over the river to Texas, and senses that his father has died during his
absence. It is then that he cries. What strikes John Grady is more than sadness over the death of
his father, a beaten man with whom John Grady shared silences more often than words. Even in
his return to his home country, John Grady recognizes that he is fundamentally rootless: the
ranch is sold; Abuela, the last connection to the farm, is dying; and his father is dead. What
comes with the realization that his father is dead is the realization that, as John Grady tells
Rawlins, "it aint my country," and he no longer knows where "his country" is. Neither, in the
final analysis, does the novel. The question of why these changes occur, making certain
lifestyles obsolete and men rootless, is fundamental to this novel, tied to the questions of fate,
destiny, and inscrutable historical forces. All the Pretty Horses is a superstitious novel in the
sense that it believes there are forces--tied to places like the vast West and perhaps even
emanating from God--that exert control over human destiny. A heroic response to these forces
is almost inevitably a tragic response. John Grady Cole goes to meet destiny and bloodlust with
nothing more than the cowboy code of skill, honor, and stoicism. His defeat may be inevitable,
but, as the great critic Edmund Wilson has said, the recognition that goodness and bravery are
in vain "is not in the least the same thing as saying that there is no use in being good or brave."

Analytical Overview
The American conception of the West is a romantic ideal born of a profoundly unromantic
reality. It has been the self-appointed role of contemporary scholarship and culture to reach
past the popular vision of America's westward expansion and settlement--a vision shaped and
colored by hundreds of Western movies and their depictions of death without blood, and
solitary heroic cowboys vanquishing ultimately cowardly villains--in an attempt to recover the
true history of the American West, to remove the romantic and heroic veneer from a past of
violence and prejudice, of dreams shattered as much as hopes fulfilled. Cormac McCarthy's
novel All the Pretty Horses concerns itself with the meeting place between realism and
romanticism.
All the Pretty Horses is set in 1949 and 1950. The opening of the novel shows John Grady Cole,
a sixteen-year-old Texan who wants badly to be a cowboy, at the funeral of his grandfather. The
driving economic force in Texas, it becomes clear to John Grady, is oil rather than cattle: after
the funeral, John Grady's mother will sell the ranch the grandfather owned, and on which John
Grady was raised. It is a ranch built by John Grady's great-grandfather in the formative years of
the cowboy culture, the years immediately after the Civil War, and its passing out of the family
is a symbol of the passing of the old West, the West of cowboys, horses, and cattle. But John
Grady Cole retains a romantic vision of the cowboy life, and he tries desperately to live his life
according to the code he has both inherited and invented, defined by the critic Jane Tompkins
as consisting of "self-discipline; unswerving purpose; the exercise of knowledge, skill,
ingenuity, and excellent judgment; and a capacity to continue in the face of total exhaustion
and overwhelming odds." In order to live his life by this code, John Grady Cole needs to leave
the United States for Mexico, to go to a place American civilization has not yet reached.
Looking for something that has been lost from America--indeed, some romantic lifestyle which
may never have existed--he travels to a place that is, on a metaphysical level, more West than
the West.
All the Pretty Horses is the story of this cowboy code of honor--the foundation of the Western
lifestyle--put to the test. It is the story of the maturation of John Grady Cole in blood, as his
romantic idealism is tried in a place where survival does not concede anything to propriety and
nobility. All the Pretty Horses tries to describe, time and again, the human and psychological
cost of living according to dreams and romantic ideals: it is the search for the romantic cowboy
life that leads John Grady and his companions into Mexico; it is the romantic pursuit of
forbidden love that ends in John Grady's harrowing imprisonment.
What is remarkable in all this is that John Grady Cole survives, and his idealism survives as
well. In Mexico he finds nothing but tragedy, but he keeps faith with his religion of stoicism
and skill and competence. If McCarthy's is a de-romanticized world peopled by the cynical and
the savage, men and women driven by the need above all else to survive, John Grady Cole
remains a hero, albeit shrunken and sensitive--perhaps the ghost of a hero, a hero victim to
anachronism. Most moving and tragic among John Grady's heroic traits is his refusal to bow to
fate, his insistence on personal responsibility. John Grady is a cowboy who denies destiny,
however manifest: All the Pretty Horses details its hero's struggle against forces of history and

changing economy, against social barriers and overwhelming odds. On some level, John Grady
Cole fails tragically. On another level, whether he succeeds or fails must be measured in terms
of his consistency to his internal code. In All the Pretty Horses, the fabled Western mindset has
become internalized: it is something perhaps absent from the external world but that exists in
the minds of heroes. Indeed, it is fair to say that All the Pretty Horses is about the
internalization of a myth that has always been writ in starkly physical, larger than life terms. Its
landscapes, sunsets, horses, and mountains, so iconic of the West, are symbols and reflections;
through them the novel concerns itself with the human soul.

Study Questions
It is always difficult to assess the relationship between our finest American contemporary
authors and their literary predecessors, since such an assessment generally implies a relative
assessment of worth. This SparkNote has tried to suggest a few ways in which Cormac
McCarthy can be considered an heir to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Think of one
or two authors from an earlier literary generation (other than Hemingway and Faulkner) and
write about the relationship of their work to McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.
The Western genre of film and literature has been important and popular in American culture,
from High Noon in 1952 to Dances with Wolves in 1990, from the novels of Owen Wister to
those of Louis L'Amour. What makes for "genre" fiction is the adherence to certain literary
conventions, the application to the text of a certain literary ideology. Drawing from your
knowledge of outside sources, try to describe the conventions of a "Western." In what ways is
All the Pretty Horses a Western? In what ways, if any, does it transcend the Western genre?
It has often been remarked, especially with the rise of feminist criticism in the late twentieth
century, that novels about the West are essentially novels about masculinity. Women tend to
play minor roles, serving as plot devices in novels concerned with the importance of manhood
and the proper way to act like a man. Is this generalization true about All the Pretty Horses?
What are the roles of women in this novel? How are they different, if at all, from the roles of
men? What can you say about the relationship between John Grady Cole and the women in All
the Pretty Horses? What about John Grady Cole's attitude towards women?
All the Pretty Horses is a novel set at the end of the mythic era of cowboys. In some important
ways, the novel is about the end of that era. What are John Grady Cole's feelings about the end
of the cowboy era? What symbolism does the novel use to signify that end? (In your answer, try
to get beyond merely talking about sunsets.) In McCarthy's view, what does the end of that era
mean, about the way the world and its inhabitants have changed?
All the Pretty Horses contains scenes of depraved cruelty, vicious cynicism, and bloody
violence. It also contains scenes demonstrating hope, love, loyalty, and warmth. Do you think,
in the end, that this is an optimistic or a pessimistic novel? What does the novel has to say
about human nature, and the capacity of men and women for good and evil?
Before John Grady Cole leaves Texas for his tragic journey to Mexico, he sees his exgirlfriend, Mary Catherine Barnett, for the last time. It is an uncomfortable conversation: he is
embarrassed and upset, she is guilt-ridden. She proposes, in age-old fashion, that they be
friends, to which John Grady responds, "It's just talk, Mary Catherine." "Everything's talk isn't
it?" she asks. "Not everything," he answers. What does this exchange indicate about John
Grady's attitude towards speech? What else do we know from this novel about John Grady's
habits of speech and silence? What do his attitudes and habits imply about his personality?
Cormac McCarthy has strict rules about rendering conversation: he does not use quotation
marks, and he does not relate Spanish-language conversations in English. These are not
accidents, but conscious choices of a master stylist. What effect do these choices have on the

reader and on the narrative? If some of the novel's conversations are difficult to understand,
what effect does that give? What does it mean about the novel and the world of the novel?
Consider the title of this novel. What does it mean? What relationship does it bear to the text?
Keep in mind some of the novel's important themes: the role, and value of romanticism and
sentimentality; maturation and innocence; the human soul, the collective soul, and the question
of whether it is possible to ever truly know another person or thing.
One of the concerns of All the Pretty Horses is its protagonist's maturation. John Grady Cole
goes to Mexico with certain dreams about what it means to be a cowboy and a man. What
happens to these dreams? Characterize John Grady Cole as a person and as a hero. How has he
changed? What has he changed into? Can he properly be called a hero? In this novel's view,
what would it mean to call him a hero?

Review Quiz
What is the name of Rawlins' horse?
(A) Redbo
(B) Padre
(C) Junior
(D) Gillian
How was Alfonsa injured?
(A) She was kicked in the face by a horse
(B) In a shooting accident
(C) She cut off her fingers with a knife
(D) A careless doctor spilled acid on her face
Who is Armando?
(A) A worker on the Grady ranch
(B) The foreman at Don Hector's hacienda
(C) The rich prisoner at the Saltillo prison
(D) A man who lets the Americans spend the night in his house
When John Grady and Rawlins first meet him, what does Blevins have concealed in the bib of
his overalls?
(A) A bible
(B) A revolver
(C) A deed to his horse
(D) A crucifix
What town is John Grady from?
(A) San Antonio
(B) Corpus Christi
(C) La Vega
(D) San Angelo
What gift does John Grady's father give him at the start of the novel?
(A) His horse, Redbo
(B) A silver revolver
(C) A chess set
(D) A new saddle
What is the captain's first name?

(A) Raul
(B) Armando
(C) Hector
(D) Felix
In what year did John Grady's great-grandfather first build a house on his newly claimed ranch?
(A) 1921
(B) 1949
(C) 1849
(D) 1866
What is the real Jimmy Blevins--not the boy who calls himself by that name--famous for?
(A) He is a bronco-buster
(B) He is a radio-broadcasted preacher
(C) He is a sharpshooter
(D) He is a wealthy rancher
What is the name of the man with whom Alfonsa fell in love?
(A) Gustavo Madero
(B) Antonio Barillo
(C) Juan Castilla
(D) Luis Carreras
What does Blevins shoot to demonstrate his excellent marksmanship?
(A) A wild turkey
(B) A quarter
(C) A tin can on a fence-post
(D) Rawlins' wallet
What does the Texas judge NOT ask John Grady Cole?
(A) The number of hectares in Don Hector's ranch
(B) Whether or not he is wearing clean underwear
(C) What Rawlins' first name is
(D) The name of the husband of Don Hector's cook
What surprising offer do the Mexican wax-makers make to John Grady?
(A) They offer to buy Blevins
(B) They offer to kill the captain
(C) They offer to help recover the lost horse and gun
(D) They offer to loan the Americans some money
What is the name of the girl who breaks up with John Grady before he leaves for Mexico?

(A) Louisa Gonzalez


(B) Mary Catherine Barnett
(C) Annie Oakley
(D) Karen Ogilvie
How many people, if any, does John Grady kill in this novel?
(A) Two
(B) None
(C) One
(D) Four
Who pays the bribe to get Rawlins and John Grady out of the Saltillo prison?
(A) Jimmy Blevins
(B) Alfonsa
(C) Don Hector
(D) Antonio
What does John Grady do to treat the bullet wound he suffers while rescuing the horses?
(A) He cauterizes it with iodine
(B) He elevates it above his heart and waits for the bleeding to subside
(C) Nothing--he ignores it
(D) He burns it with a pistol barrel
What day is it when John Grady Cole finally returns to the United States?
(A) Thanksgiving Day
(B) Christmas Day
(C) New Year's Day
(D) The Fourth of July
What is the last name of the lawyer who John Grady goes to see at the beginning of the novel,
in San Angelo?
(A) Johnson
(B) Gonzalez
(C) Franklin
(D) Blodgett
What does the name of Don Hector's ranch mean in English?
(A) The Ranch of Our Lady of Blessed Memory
(B) The Ranch of St. Martin in the Fields
(C) The Ranch of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
(D) The Ranch of St. Francisca of Blessed Memory

Suggestions for Further Reading


Brooks, Cleanth and Warren, Robert Penn. "The Killers." The Short Stories of Ernest
Hemingway: Critical Essays. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.
Lamar, Howard R., ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West. New York: Crowell,
1977.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1992.
Utley, Robert M. High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier. Albuquerque, NM:
The University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985.

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MLA
Their conversation is awkward, especially when she mentions Wickham, a subject Darcy
clearly wishes to avoid (SparkNotes Editors).
APA
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clearly wishes to avoid (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.).
Footnote

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Table of Contents
Chapter I - Part 1
Chapter I - Part 2
Chapter 2
Chapter III
Chapter IV - Part 1
Chapter IV - Part 2