All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | Chapter 1, Part 1 | Summary

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Summary

It's 1949 and a 16-year-old Texan named John Grady Cole is paying his respects to his maternal grandfather. The old man lived (and died) on the Grady family homestead, a cattle ranch near the west Texas town of San Angelo. When the family acquired the ranch in 1872 it contained 2,300 acres and a one-room shack; over the years, however, it expanded to 18,000 acres and a house large enough to require a staff.

After the funeral John Grady takes his horse out for a long ride, and he thinks about the American Indians who used to live on the land. John Grady's parents are divorced. His father, a rancher and horseman, lives in a hotel in San Angelo. When John Grady was a baby his mother left his father to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. He was raised by his father and two female members of the household staff: Luisa and her mother Abuela.

John Grady meets up with his father. They have lunch, during which John Grady's father explains, in between cigarettes (and frequent coughing fits), that he wishes the state of affairs were different. The reader doesn't know exactly what he's alluding to, but it becomes clearer in the following sections.

Later that night John Grady hangs out with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, outside the Grady house. Rawlins tries to console John Grady about his recent breakup, telling him he was helpless to compete against a boy who is two years older and has a car. When Rawlins asserts that "she aint worth it. None of em are," John Grady responds "yes they are." John Grady goes back into his house and enters his grandfather's office. As he's looking around at old mementos his mother comes downstairs. She observes him sitting in the office and then goes back upstairs to sleep.

Over the next few days John Grady spends afternoons with his father in his hotel. During one visit he notices oil company representatives hanging around downtown. That afternoon he asks his father if he can speak to his mother about passing the farm down to him. His father replies that they haven't spoken since 1942, and besides, he decided not to buy the farm even when he had the money. Before they part, John Grady's father gives him an early Christmas gift: a brand new saddle.

One evening John Grady makes another attempt to convince his mother to change her mind about selling the ranch. He asks why she won't lease it to him and says he'd give her all of the ranch's proceeds. She scoffs at his logic, explaining that the ranch "has barely paid expenses for twenty years." Not to mention, she says, 16-year-olds need to be in school.

Still not ready to give up, John Grady visits the office of his mother's lawyer, Mr. Franklin. Like John Grady's father, Franklin is sympathetic to John Grady's plight, but he insists nothing can be done. The farm is his mother's property, and she can do with it what she wants, he says. Though Franklin pleaded with John Grady's father to get a lawyer, his father gave in to his mother without a fight. The realization that the farm is going to be sold takes a toll on Luisa and her mother Abuela, who has worked for the Gradys for more than 50 years.

One morning after Christmas John Grady hitchhikes to San Antonio to secretly watch his mother perform in a play. He tries to wring meaning from the play, but it leaves him completely uninspired. The next day he goes to a nearby hotel to find his mother, and while he's reading in the lobby he spots her in the arm of an elegantly dressed man.

In March John Grady and his father go for a long horseback ride that extends into a neighboring county. Along the way they pass by an abandoned ranch. The pair eat dinner in the town of Robert Lee and talk. John Grady's father tries to get him to consider his mother's perspective and says that she came back to the ranch for John Grady's sake, not his. He also expresses his wish that John Grady and his mother "make up [their] differences," but John Grady remains mostly silent. His father, whose health has deteriorated further, smokes and picks at his food.

Late one night outside Rawlins's house, John Grady tells Rawlins about his plan to leave town. The farm will be sold on June 1, but, he says, there's no reason to wait even that long. He tries to convince Rawlins to come with him, but Rawlins isn't sure. When Rawlins asks if he'll go without him, John Grady says, "I'm already gone."

In downtown San Angelo John Grady runs into his old girlfriend, Mary Catherine Barnett. She tells him that she wants to be friends and asks him not to have any hard feelings, but he remains aloof. She tells him to take care during his trip, and they shake hands before parting.

John Grady stops by Rawlins's house in the middle of the night, and the two head out of town on their horses. They travel by old horse paths and creeks, and by the next day they have covered 40 miles. At night they camp out, and during the day they pass through various small towns. At one point their talk turns to home, and after Rawlins wonders what their friends and family are doing, John Grady says spitefully that they're probably celebrating their new oil riches. "I'd say they're in town about now pickin out their new cars and all," he says.

Near the border town of Del Rio, Texas, the boys realize they're being followed. They keep riding but after some time decide to hang back to confront their stalker. At last he shows himself: a 13-year-old-boy on a beautiful bay-colored horse. The kid claims not to be following Rawlins and John Grady, but it's clear he has been. Rawlins talks tough in hope of scaring the boy off, and the duo leaves him. The next day Rawlins and John Grady make it to the Rio Grande, the river that serves as the border between Mexico and the United States. As they prepare to cross the river, the boy appears on a bank downstream. He says his name is Jimmy Blevins—just like the radio preacher. Rawlins continues to give him a hard time, but the three of them cross together into Mexico. Once they reach the shore on the Mexican side, they break out in laughter and pat their horses. Rawlins seems to be in awe when he says, "Goddam ... You know where we're at?" That night they camp out under the stars in the desert of northern Mexico.

Analysis

The Grady family ranch is depicted as a rustic idyll. With hard work the Grady family took a plot of land acquired from a land grant and transformed it into an 18,000-acre cattle ranch with a solid-built home. Despite the fact that the farm "has barely paid expenses for twenty years," as John Grady's mother tells him, it has provided the family with an income comfortable enough to support at least two full-time domestic workers, Luisa and Arturo. The Grady family was also able to retain the services of Luisa's mother, Abuela, who worked (and presumably lived) on the ranch for more than 50 years. John Grady's grandfather and his parents embodied the western American dream.

Nevertheless, a confluence of events have conspired against the family ranch. For one, the sole heir to the land, John Grady's mother, moved to California to start a new life as an actress. As a result her connection to the family homestead is minimal, if not completely severed. As the profitability of raising cattle has declined, the discovery of oil has made land in west Texas newly valuable. The death of John Grady's grandfather provides his mother with an opportunity to sell the farm and close this chapter of Grady family history. John Grady's father might have presented an obstacle, but as the lawyer Mr. Franklin tells John Grady, he did nothing to oppose John Grady's mother when they laid out the terms of their divorce.

The death of John Grady's grandfather thus represents the death of ranching and an older way of American life. John Grady, who wants nothing else but to follow in his grandfather's and father's footsteps, refuses to accept this denial of his birthright, so he asks every authority—his father, his mother, his mother's lawyer—to help him stop the world from turning. None of them are able or willing to do so, so he resolves to live out his ranching fantasy somewhere else.

The gulf between John Grady and his mother is enormous. In each of their interactions they barely speak, except for discussing why John Grady can't take control of the ranch. His mother is strong-willed, and John Grady's alienation from his mother pains his father, who wishes they would reconcile, probably because he is sick and won't be around much longer to look after John Grady. During a meal out, John Grady reports that "she" is in San Antonio, spurring his father to command "don't call her she."

With her decision to leave her family and pursue her own dreams—in Hollywood, that most modern of industries, no less—his mother is seen by some critics to represent postwar feminism. She is an independent woman who has put herself first, even at the cost of her family. John Grady, on the other hand, represents the past. He is decent and mature, but he longs for the good old days of family patriarchs, manual labor, and classic romantic love—in short, the American western fantasy. His sensitivity to Rawlins's remarks about girls ("She aint worth it. None of em are.") shows he deeply values passion and was wounded by his breakup with Mary Catherine Barnett. This earnestness foreshadows his intense romance with Alejandra and explains why such a reasonable person would so recklessly throw himself into such an ill-fated relationship.

John Grady simply can't relate to his mother's life or understand why she'd want to abandon the ranch, which he values so highly. Nor can he understand the appeal of acting, her life's passion. His interpretation of his mother's play is literal and completely lifeless: "Then the curtain rose and his mother came through a door onstage and began talking to a woman in a chair." His mother's lawyer, Mr. Franklin, tries to explain her position in terms that John Grady can relate to: "Son, not everybody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in west Texas is the second best thing to dyin and goin to heaven." His future foreclosed with the sale of the farm, John Grady feels compelled to uproot himself and seek a new life elsewhere—the very same thing his mother did.

Rawlins is a year older than John Grady, but he is clearly the follower in the relationship. In contrast to John Grady, he is doubting, impatient, and frequently expressive. Still, even John Grady succumbs to attitude. Though he is typically composed and uncomplaining, his rare sarcastic remark, made about his family's new oil wealth, reveals his feelings of bitterness and betrayal.

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