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All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the significance of the title All the Pretty Horses?

The title of the book, All the Pretty Horses, comes from a children's lullaby and creates a contrast between childhood innocence and dreaming and the harsh realities and violence of John Grady's coming of age story: Hush-a-bye, don't you cry Go to sleep, my little baby When you wake, you shall have All the pretty little horses Dapples and grays, pintos and bays All the pretty little horses The title of the book, All the Pretty Horses, may also refer to the stable of beautiful horses any successful rancher or cowboy is sure to own. Good-looking horses are a sign of success and a mark of pride among these men. Don Rocha sends one of his stable hands, Antonio, on a two-month journey to the United States just to pick up a single prized stallion. And, of course, he gave his daughter Alejandra a beautiful Arabian horse. Also, Blevins rides a very attractive bay horse—so attractive, in fact, that his attachment to it gets him into deep trouble. Like his grandfather and Don Rocha, John Grady dreams of having "all the pretty horses" for himself one day.

What is the relationship between Jimmy Blevins the boy and Jimmy Blevins the preacher in Chapter 4, Part 2 of All the Pretty Horses?

It's difficult to say with certainty, but the text offers some hints that the boy took on the name "Jimmy Blevins" as an alias while he was on the run. For one, the radio preacher who lives and broadcasts from Del Rio, Texas, tells John Grady he doesn't know any young boy who shares his name without an added last name (likewise, when John Grady goes searching for the owner of "Blevins's" horse, he's unable to find anyone). Also, earlier in the story, when John Grady and Rawlins are heading south through Texas, Rawlins points out there's a radio station in Del Rio with a signal so powerful it can be picked up all around Texas. This could mean the boy took on the name Jimmy Blevins because he'd heard it on the radio.

Why does John Grady tell Alejandra and the judge about the killing he committed in prison in All the Pretty Horses?

John Grady, like most people who have a conscience, is anguished by the killing. Even though it was completely justifiable—if he didn't kill his attacker, he would certainly have been killed—the act weighs heavily on him, and he needs reassurance he's not a bad person. When he tells Alejandra about the killing, she cries and says she's not sure who he really is, a response that likely doesn't make him feel any better. The judge, however, is much more understanding. He's lived a long life, and his job requires him to deal with murderers. As a judge, in fact, he's even sentenced people to die. So when he assures John Grady he simply did what he had to, and he is not in fact a bad person, his words carry great meaning.

How do the characters of John Grady and Rawlins compare and contrast in All the Pretty Horses?

John Grady is a year younger than Rawlins, but in many ways he comes off as more mature. He is very even-keeled, and rarely expresses any sort of worry or doubt. His speech is understated and direct. He also feels a sense of responsibility for Blevins's welfare and tries to help him despite the fact that Blevins's bad decisions continually put the three boys at risk. John Grady is a serious person who is very concerned with abstract ideals like right and wrong—perhaps atypically so for a 16-year-old boy. Rawlins, on the other hand, seems much more like a typical 17-year-old. He's not exactly cocky, but he's frequently boisterous. He's also much more impatient than John Grady, especially when it comes to Blevins, who always seems to get under his skin. This may be because Blevins's puffed-up personality is an exaggerated version of Rawlins's, and he sees what he doesn't like about himself in the younger boy. Still, despite all of his irritation, Rawlins clearly cares about Blevins. When Blevins is separated from him and John Grady he expresses concern about the boy multiple times, and after Blevins is murdered Rawlins cries when he thinks about him.

In Chapter 1, Part 1 of All the Pretty Horses, what does John Grady and Rawlins's discussion about girls reveal about John Grady's thoughts on relationships?

In an attempt to console John Grady after he's dumped by a classmate named Mary Catherine Barnett, Rawlins says "she aint worth it. None of em are." His plan backfires, however, as it becomes clear John Grady feels quite differently. In response to Rawlins's remark, "[John Grady] didn't answer for a while. Then he said: Yes they are." John Grady's long silence, followed by his short and assertive statement, suggests he values romantic relationships highly. This is confirmed later in the story, when John Grady falls head over heels in love with Alejandra. Despite his quiet and unassuming demeanor, John Grady is clearly a romantic.

Why does John Grady's father defend John Grady's mother in Chapter 1, Part 1 of All the Pretty Horses?

The distance between John Grady and his mother is enormous. She left the family for California when he was young, and though she came back to Texas intermittently, John Grady was mostly raised by his father and the female staff at the Grady family ranch, Luisa and Abuela. More importantly, however, John Grady's mother is selling the family farm, thereby thwarting John Grady's dream of spending his life as a cattle rancher and horseman. Despite their estrangement, however, John Grady's father defends her and tries his best to convince John Grady to give his mother a chance. When John Grady refers to his mother as "she," his father objects strongly. During another conversation, he tells John Grady he "wouldnt be here if it wasnt for her." When he was in Goshee, a World War II POW camp, he pretended he was talking to her to stay sane. More importantly, however, John Grady's father is dying, and he worries John Grady won't have any family to look after him when he dies. "She's goin to be around a lot longern me. I'd like to see you all make up your differences," he tells John Grady.

What does the Grady family ranch represent in Chapter 1, Part 1 of All the Pretty Horses?

The Grady family ranch represents an older way of American life that was once viable but has become irrelevant as the country has modernized. In post-World War II America, the economy transitioned rapidly from agriculture to more industrial and service-type jobs, and cities increased substantially in size. John Grady's mother's complaint that the ranch "has barely paid expenses for twenty years" reveals the precarious state of cattle ranching in 1949. When John Grady leaves town, oil companies are coming in, betting (wisely) on a future of manufacturing and cars, not cattlemen and horses. The demise of the ranch also represents the decline of rugged labor. Cattle ranching and horse raising are tough (and deeply "manly") pursuits, a key element of cowboy culture. Arguably, the end of the ranch is meant to represent the decline of masculinity. At the very least, the death of John Grady's grandfather is a not-so-subtle symbol that an era has passed.

How does John Grady's relationship with his mother affect his female relationships in All the Pretty Horses?

Arguably, John Grady's estranged relationship with his mother explains his deep longing for a female companion and his feelings of devastation every time a love interest abandons him. Though his relationship with his classmate, Mary Catherine Barnett, doesn't appear to have been all that serious, he is clearly stung by the breakup. He becomes combative when Rawlins tells him to just shrug her (and all relationships) off, and when he sees Mary Catherine in downtown San Angelo he tries to avoid her. When she does catch up with him he is aloof, and he rejects her proposal to be friends. The breakup clearly hurt him. John Grady's willingness to risk his life for Alejandra's love reveals the extraordinary value he places on their relationship. It seems fair to say this is because a meaningful female connection has been denied to him for so long. As bad as he may have felt after breaking up with Mary Catherine, he is disconsolate after Alejandra breaks up with him. He gets blind drunk, and after his hangover wears off he's so distraught he doesn't even have the will to make a fire at his camp. Taken together, these are the actions of a boy who wants to be loved.

For John Grady what does Mexico represent in All the Pretty Horses?

When he realizes the Grady family ranch is actually going to be sold, John Grady flees to Mexico. The land south of the border, however, is more than just a place to roam around and get some kicks. Rather, Mexico represents the life he feels he has been denied. It is a poor, traditional country reliant on agriculture and hardy men. It is a place where horses, not cars, are the main form of transportation for many people. In other words, it is what Texas was once like, before his grandfather died and before the oil companies came. John Grady sees Mexico as a fantasyland—at least, at the beginning of the story.

How does All the Pretty Horses fit within the Western genre?

In many ways All the Pretty Horses follows the template of a classic Western. At least, superficially: two tough but naïve Texas horsemen seek adventure, find it, get tested physically and mentally, and return home. This is definitely a "masculine" novel—there is plenty of action, violence, displays of manliness, and the like. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear All the Pretty Horses is a departure in many ways. For one, the main hero John Grady gets the girl, then loses her and goes home by himself. It's hard to say whether either John Grady or Alejandra lives happily ever after. And when John Grady arrives back in Texas, he's hardly triumphant. He's dead broke, suffering from anxiety over the jail killing, and dragging a second horse around. Who is a "good guy" and who is a "bad guy" often isn't so clear in the book. Blevins is a young boy from an unstable home—but he is also a horse thief and killer. Don Rocha nearly sends John Grady to his death, but he does so in an attempt to protect his daughter. Even John Grady abandoned his dying father in order to pursue a fantasy. The book also complicates some of the assumptions taken for granted in the average Western. The land in the Southwest is depicted as a borderland temporarily conquered. It's a place where empires and cattle farmers come and go, not a God-given Eden for white settlers. The Indians suffered the same fate as the Grady family ranch, and someday in the future the current occupants of the land will no longer remain.

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