All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is the significance of the name of the Rocha family ranch in All the Pretty Horses, Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción?

The name of the ranch, Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, has multiple meanings. In Catholic Mexico (and other Latin countries), places are often named after religious icons, and the ranch is no exception. It is dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, "Our Lady of Pure Conception." Of course, the name is also meant to dramatize Alejandra's situation when she has a sexual relationship with John Grady. Alejandra is not Mary—but whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the person. To Don Rocha and Dueña Alfonsa, this is an unbearable tragedy. For John Grady, who is head over heels in love with Alejandra, this is a blessing. For many modern observers, demanding that women act as Mary is an example of the sexist and unfair standards women have sometimes been held to.

What is the point of Dueña Alfonsa's story about her youth in Chapter 4, Part 1 of All the Pretty Horses?

Dueña Alfonsa tells John Grady about her youth to convince him she was once like him but has now grown wiser. She used to be young and full of ideas about how to improve the world. She says: "By the time I was sixteen I had read many books and I had become a freethinker. In all cases I refused to believe in a God who could permit such injustices as I saw in a world of his own making." All of this discussion about her past is used to set up her conclusion. The events of the Mexican Revolution and her observations of human behavior during the rest of her life eventually convinced Dueña Alfonsa she was wrong. She is no longer a freethinker, nor does she believe the world will ever rid itself of violence, power-seeking, and other human failings. As a result, she must make her way in the world on the world's terms, not her own.

Why does Rawlins nearly attack Blevins in the jail cell in Chapter 3 of All the Pretty Horses?

After Rawlins and then John Grady are interrogated by the captain, the three boys sit together in the jail cell. Blevins asks the other boys what they told the captain about him, and criticizes them for telling the truth, asserting "You could of tried to help me out." This statement enrages Rawlins, and he threatens to hurt Blevins if he says another word. It seems unlikely Rawlins would actually hurt Blevins, but he's so aghast at Blevins's ungrateful and unconcerned tone he nearly loses it. He feels like Blevins has no appreciation for everything he and John Grady had done for him, not to mention the reason they are sitting in jail is because Blevins killed someone. Also, Rawlins has probably realized Blevins is going to die, and his reaction is an emotional response to this fact.

How do the depictions of ordinary Mexicans compare and contrast with the depictions of more powerful figures in Mexico in All the Pretty Horses?

Throughout his journey, John Grady is consistently treated kindly by ordinary Mexicans (his interaction with the man at the wax camp who wanted to buy Blevins is a notable exception). He's offered food, transport, conversation, and even boarding as he makes his way around the country. The vaqueros (cattle ranchers) he works with treat him respectfully and accept him and Rawlins without any issues. When he walks around Zacatecas with Alejandra, the scenes of normal city life reassure him. His experiences with regular Mexicans stand in stark contrast to his experiences with people in the country who are powerful or have positions of authority, such as Don Rocha, Dueña Alfonsa, the captain, and Emilio Pérez, the well-connected prisoner in Saltillo. All of them either exploit him or betray him. Given this contrast, the author seems to be demonstrating—consciously or otherwise—how power corrupts. Ordinary Mexicans—rather, ordinary people—don't have much to lose from being decent. The powerful and wealthy, however, may have much to lose.

In All the Pretty Horses, why does John Grady travel to see his mother's play?

Before he leaves Texas, John Grady hitchhikes to San Antonio to see his mother act in a play. His exact motivations aren't completely clear, but it seems likely he was trying to understand her better now that she'd come back into his life. Alas, his effort, though well meaning, seems to be in vain. He gets nothing out of the play, except perhaps further confirmation that his values and his mother's values are completely different. She is cosmopolitan, artistic, and urban; he is provincial, no-nonsense, and country. It makes more sense why she would want to sell the farm. This realization contributes to John Grady's shifting worldview. The world around him is becoming more modern while he wants to remain rooted in traditional rural life.

In what ways are the captain's and Dueña Alfonsa's views on God similar in All the Pretty Horses?

The existence (or nonexistence) of God is a recurring topic of discussion in the book, as are the limits of his power. Different characters, unsurprisingly, have different views about God, but the captain and Dueña Alfonsa reveal themselves to share similar perspectives. When John Grady and Rawlins are about to enter prison in Saltillo, the captain makes another appeal for payment. Alluding to the bad things that will happen to them if they don't pay him, he says, "everybody knows that God is no here [in the prison]." From a theological standpoint, the captain seems to be asserting God's abilities are limited, since he can't save prisoners—even innocent ones like Rawlins and Grady—from horrible fates. This perspective is in line with Dueña Alfonsa's, who remarks in Chapter 4 , Part 1 that "What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God ... seems powerless to change."

What is the function of the lengthy descriptions of landscapes in Chapter 1, Part 1 of All the Pretty Horses?

Poetic descriptions of land are one of McCarthy's signatures. He is a master of evocative prose that marries fine details with philosophical meditation. Take, for example, this section from the very beginning of the book, which describes John Grady's favorite riding route: "he'd always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down." In McCarthy's view every landscape reveals a history and tells something about a place. The descriptions also amplify the dramatic events in the book. Landscapes are inviting, threatening, or something else, but they are never just boring places characters pass through and forget about.

Why does John Grady return to Encantada for his, Blevins's, and Rawlins's horses in Chapter 4, Part 2 of All the Pretty Horses?

John Grady returns because he's acting out; utterly heartbroken and angry at the world, he's raring for a fight. This may be his initial impulse, but as he slowly drags the three horses—and the captain—north toward the United States, it becomes clearer he has more admirable motivations. He's trying to atone for the negative chain of events he unleashed by coming into Mexico. If he can bring the horses back to their owners and away from the clutches of the captain, he will have made things better in some small way. Likewise, punishing the sadistic captain, who is as close to caricature as the novel gets, will bring some sort of existential closure. John Grady can't bring himself to kill the captain, but he beats him down, both literally and figuratively.

What is the effect of Cormac McCarthy's minimal use of punctuation marks on the story in All the Pretty Horses?

Cormac McCarthy's minimal use of punctuation reflects a deliberate decision to leave the text as unadorned as possible. The visual effect of this spare text style mirrors the environments the story takes place in, west Texas and northern Mexico. It also helps to keep the reader's attention away from superfluous elements, and forces him or her to focus instead on just the words and the story. It's a modern (even postmodern) take on the novelistic form. Some critics have found this style awkward, but it is McCarthy's signature and helps create an atmosphere in all of his works as original as his characters.

What does the border represent in All the Pretty Horses?

The Mexico-Texas border represents both a physical and psychological boundary. It is physical, because it separates the United States and Mexico. Psychologically, it separates two different societies, each with their own unique values and belief systems. As John Grady discovers in his pursuit of Alejandra, these separate sets of values are not necessarily compatible. For the boys, at least in the beginning of their adventure, the border symbolizes freedom and adventure. After they cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, the boys celebrate wildly, galloping their horses on the riverbank and "laughing and pulling up and patting the horses on the shoulder." Their excitement reveals their joy at the prospect of making their way to a new place. The possibilities, at least in the moment, seem endless.

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