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All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | Chapter 4, Part 1 | Summary



The truck picks up a group of Mexican farmworkers. They make small talk with John Grady and make space for him to rest atop their parcels. John Grady gets off in the town of Monclova and then hitchhikes and walks back toward the ranch. Along the way he passes families and workers, all of them making pleasant conversation or offering him something to eat or a place to rest. When he gets to the ranch many of the workers move away from him or don't talk, but Antonio meets with him. He informs John Grady that Don Rocha is in Mexico with Alejandra, but Dueña Alfonsa is still on the ranch. He gives John Grady his pistol and personal things.

The next morning John Grady goes to the ranch house and is told that Dueña Alfonsa will speak with him that night. During the day he takes the stallion out for a ride to the mesa among the wild horses. He takes a rest and thinks about Alejandra and Blevins. When he returns to the bunkhouse for dinner, one of the vaqueros tells him he's welcome to sit with them. He tells them about his and Rawlins's experiences.

After dinner he meets Dueña Alfonsa in the parlor of the ranch house. They get right down to business: "I think I'm owed an explanation," John Grady starts. John Grady wants to know why Don Rocha didn't let him tell his side of the story, but Dueña Alfonsa says that he had already lied to Don Rocha twice: about not knowing Blevins and presumably about Alejandra. She confirms that she bought the boys' way out of prison in exchange for Alejandra's promise not to see John Grady again. At this point Dueña Alfonsa speaks directly: "I can scarcely count on my two hands the number of women in this family who have suffered disastrous love affairs with men of disreputable character." John Grady says she exploited his desperate circumstances to elicit the promise from Alejandra and should have just left him to die in prison.

John Grady says he would've thought she'd be more sympathetic to him, given the heartbreak she's faced in her own life. "You would have thought wrongly," she responds, flatly, and then launches into a long speech touching on her youth, Mexican history, philosophy, and her beliefs about human nature. When she was young, she says, she was horrified by the poverty in Mexico. She read lots of books and became a rebellious "freethinker," which was a risky position for a girl in Mexico of her social class. She fell in love with Gustavo Madero, another high-born radical educated in Europe and who dreamed, like her, of changing Mexican society. Her father, however, forbade her from marrying Gustavo. Gustavo and his brother Francisco came home to take part in the Mexican Revolution, and Francisco eventually became president of the new government. Not long after, the brothers were betrayed by the infamous Mexican General Victoriano Huerta, and Gustavo was brutally murdered by a mob. The lesson Dueña Alfonsa took from this horror is that systems cannot change. All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why John Grady and Alejandra cannot be together.

John Grady tells Dueña Alfonsa she won't let him explain his side of the story, to which she responds, "I know your case ... But it's no case." He is going to keep pursuing Alejandra, he says. She waves him off, telling him he will hate her in due time.

Dueña Alfonsa had instructed him to take one of the horses in the stable to ride home, and he picks the grullo (tan-gray) horse Rawlins broke and then rode while he worked on the ranch. He leaves with a packed lunch and an envelope stuffed with money. He heads south, passing through La Vega and then taking off through the countryside. At noon he stops to eat and shares his lunch with some children playing nearby. The children pepper him with questions, and by the time he's done talking with them he recounts his entire saga in Mexico. He patiently listens to the children's advice. That night he arrives in Torreon.

John Grady checks into a hotel and sleeps, and the next afternoon he calls Alejandra in Mexico City. He tells her he must see her, but she resists and says she can't, and besides, she's returning to the ranch in two days. He confesses his love to her and eventually convinces her to meet him in Zacatecas the next day. He boards the grullo horse and early the next morning takes a train to Zacatecas. He greets Alejandra at the train station that evening. They walk around the city and have dinner, and John Grady fills her in on Rawlins and Blevins and his experience in prison. Alejandra cries when he tells her about the boy he killed.

Alejandra confesses she told her father about their relationship. She says she did this because Dueña Alfonso had threatened to tell him, and she couldn't let her great-aunt blackmail her. Once she told her father, he went up to the mountains with his dogs and had John Grady and Rawlins arrested. Alejandra cries as she retells the story. John Grady says he will do whatever it takes to make it right, but she shakes her head.

That night in the hotel room Alejandra and John Grady lie together. Alejandra says she loves him, and John Grady proposes to her, promising they can build a life in the United States. The next morning they walk around the town, and John Grady again professes his undying love to her. They go back to the hotel and have sex. She says she loves him but is adamant they cannot be together. They go to the train station that evening, and then she kisses him goodbye forever.


At the beginning of the chapter, all of the people John Grady comes in contact with while traveling to the ranch treat him with kindness. More than just showing that ordinary people are friendly, this reveals the profound power of everyday kindness and respect. The smiles and good will he comes across, the narrator says, "had power to heal men and to bring them to safety long after all other resources were exhausted." John Grady's experience with these people juxtaposes his experience with more powerful adults: his mother, her lawyer, Don Rocha, Dueña Alfonsa, and the captain.

John Grady's conversation with Dueña Alfonsa—or more accurately, Dueña Alfonsa's sermon—is one of the most illuminating sections of the book because it reveals her and Don Rocha's motivation for keeping Alejandra and John Grady apart. She explains she was once like John Grady, young and idealistic, believing the past can be overcome. But after the brutal death of the Maderos, she realized the futility of this belief. "In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments," she says. "Those whom life does not cure death will." These "sentiments" refer to the hope societies can be reformed and human nature can be thwarted. None of this, she sadly reports, is true: "What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change."

This is a deeply fatalistic view of humankind and the absolute opposite of what John Grady believes, at least at the beginning of his trip. The view is deeply un-American—a complete rebuke to the romantic cowboy values of rugged individual choice and making your own way in the world. When confronted with the inevitable fact his life on the Grady family farm would never be, John Grady exercises his independence by seeking a life he wants elsewhere.

Dueña Alfonsa could be considered a brutal realist, perhaps in the mold of Niccolò Machiavelli, the Renaissance political philosopher. She has thought long and hard about human nature and how to get ahead in the world (and how to not be taken advantage of). To get by, she says, people must get real. She tells John Grady "I only know that if she does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all ... And by true I do not mean what is righteous but merely what is so." This has an eerie echo of the captain, who told John Grady "we can make the truth."

Thus, given Mexican society's "truth" that young women must be virginal and have spotless reputations, Dueña Alfonsa would be betraying her responsibility to Alejandra if she let her pursue a relationship with a poor American horse thief. John Grady can protest and wish it were different, but their love can never be.

Dueña Alfonsa's views are quickly challenged in the story, but not by John Grady. During his conversation the next day with the group of children, he's given all sorts of advice. One of the girls asserts "that if his novia truly loved him she would marry him no matter what." The child's sincere and simple resolution is a poignant reminder of all of the forces keeping John Grady and Alejandra apart. After John Grady explains all of the ins and outs of his predicament, the children agree John Grady is in a very difficult position.

Alas, Alejandra confirms Dueña Alfonsa's assertion when she breaks up with John Grady in the hotel room. "I cannot do what you ask, she said. I love you. But I cannot," she tells him. The rejection leaves John Grady devastated. "He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly," the narrator says.

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