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 ex-girlfriend, 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?
Most of Cormac McCarthy's work centers around the notion of inescapable evil, or as one critic named it, "sacred violence." No matter how peaceful the appearance of a situation or how comfortable characters might make themselves, violence is always building latently under the surface. McCarthy rarely agrees to interviews, but in a rare conversation with the New York Times, he virtually spells out the theme at the center of All the Pretty Horses:
There is no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a 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.
The theme of sacred violence, then, has two components - human's innate affinity for bloodshed and the futility of denying this affinity. We see examples of this human instinct once John Grady and Rawlins arrive at the La Purisima ranch. Just as a metal rod attracts lightning, the two Americans serve as scapegoats for a community to exorcise its repressed hostilities. Alejandra uses John Grady as a pawn in her own adolescent rebellion, Rocha allows the arrest of the two men as virtual whipping boys for his daughter, Alfonsa wars against John Grady to purge the rage of her own past. Innocent in their youth, both Rawlins and John Grady never question their assumption that members of two communities can merge harmoniously. But after being expelled from the ranch, thrown into prison and unjustly accused of a crime, witnesses to the execution of a friend, beaten into submission by convicts, and stripped of their dignity, the two Americans learn that their souls are not only defined by their search of serenity and fulfillment, but also their ability to survive in the face of primal aggression. Rawlins ultimately cannot handle this duality of human nature and returns home. John Grady learns to embrace it - after being released from prison, he appropriates the violence inflicted onto him and seeks vengeance as the last step in his rite of passage. He returns to San Angelo with all the possessions with which he began his journey - his horses, his pride.
The coming-of-age novel warrants its own genre, since its characteristics are so entrenched: hero or heroine rebels against family, finds love unexpectedly, loses their innocence as a result of consummating or sacrificing this love. Though John Grady follows this template in All the Pretty Horses, love is only one aspect of his rite of passage. Before he leaves San Angelo, John Grady seems unsure of himself and in a state of perpetual blankness - like most teenagers - but he also is unusually possessed by a search for meaning, for fulfillment. He searches the plot of his mother's play for divine significance, looks to the landscape for answers while riding with his father for the last time, and eventually leaves his hometown not to pursue a new destination, but rather in a quest for one, for some purpose to his life. In San Angelo, his life lent itself to a vacuous limbo - his mother neither offered him guidance nor ceded him control, his father is a beaten man on his last breaths, his last relationship with a girl ended apathetically. But by the end of McCarthy's novel, John Grady grows up in all the capacities of a true hero - he has learned to be a father (to Blevins), a lover (to Alejandra), and a friend (to Rawlins). And most importantly, he has lost his innocence without becoming disillusioned. When he leaves San Angelo again at the end of the novel, he is a hardened hero, but also a wise one. His spirit is no longer defined by its emptiness, but by its completeness - its synthesis of the moral and amoral, the serene and violent.
John Grady's character is most often revealed in conversations with characters who share opposing moral codes. Where he sees his love for Alejandra in terms of 'right and wrong', Duena Alfonsa sees it as an affair that can be aborted by outside parties - a matter not of right and wrong, but rather of 'who gets to say'. Similarly, the captain and Emilio Perez reject the idea of 'tainted money' and mock John Grady's righteous opposition to paying his way out of prison. McCarthy does not validate John Grady's romanticism, but rather complicates it. John Grady becomes a hero not because he stands by his idealistic beliefs, but because he learns to relinquish them when it is necessary to pursue justice, when it is necessary to survive.
Though not a paramount theme of All the Pretty Horses, it is worth noting that John Grady's fate seems to be principally dictated by women - certainly an unusual development for a Western novel. His mother prevents him from running the ranch, Alejandra essentially signs the papers for his arrest by confessing the affair to her father, Duena Alfonsa pays his way out of prison and ends any possibility of resuming his relationship with Alejandra. All of his violent encounters, however, involve men. Indeed, it is as if the course of John Grady's life is determined by women, and only occasionally interrupted by a tussle with a fellow man - either to purge rage or defend against it.