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All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | Symbols



The idea that blood has some sort of cosmic significance repeats itself throughout the story.

The notion that the earth is a repository for blood is introduced at the beginning of the book, when John Grady goes riding after the funeral. As he travels across the land, a road once used by Comanche Indians, the narrator says, he passes under a "blood red" sun and "reefs of bloodred cloud." At this time of day—late in the evening—the entire landscape whispers about the Indians who once lived and fought on the land, "all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only." This description comes to represent John Grady, who pledges his own blood for the love of a woman, Alejandra.

John Grady's belief that blood is the cost of life reappears during his return trip to Texas, after he shoots a doe. He caresses her as she lies bleeding, observing that "the world's heart beat at some terrible cost" and that "the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower." Put another way, the road to survival is paved with pain and suffering.

The issue of blood also rises when the captain murders Blevins. According to the captain, the charro paid him to kill Blevins to avenge the killing of his brother. There is no death penalty in Mexico, so the charro took matters into his own hands to salvage his family's honor. The captain tells John Grady and Rawlins, "He came to me. Speaking of justice." In the charro's view, "justice" dictates bloodshed and must be paid in bloodshed.


Horses symbolize a connection to an earlier age. By 1949, the year the boys set out, America had transformed almost completely into a car culture. When the boys stop at a general store close to the border a day after they leave San Angelo, the woman behind the counter asks if they rode their horses into town, which they confirm: "Well I'll declare," she says, in amazement. Even in this tiny country town, people use cars. That the boys are riding horses on a long-distance trip reveals their nostalgia for the past and their wish to recreate it.

Ranching, too, is a throwback to an earlier age. As John Grady's mother explains, the Grady family ranch has been eking by for at least the past 20 years. The land in west Texas is almost exclusively used to provide oil for the country's cars. The ranch, and the horses in it, have a reduced if not entirely unnecessary place in the modern world. Horses provide a link to the Southwest's Indian past. Throughout the book, John Grady rides on old Indian roads and frequently imagines Indian tribes passing through the land on horseback.

Mexico is a place where people still travel by horse and where horses supply ranchers with status and wealth, not economic liability. It's no surprise, then, that John Grady and Rawlins are so taken with their life in Mexico after they start working on the Rocha family ranch. On their first night on the ranch, in Chapter 1, a smitten Rawlins tells John Grady, "this is some country, ain't it?" He then asks how long John Grady wants to stay around. "About a hundred years," he says.


Many of the events in All the Pretty Horses can be interpreted through a Christian religious lens. For example, when John Grady, Rawlins, and Blevins cross the Rio Grande in Chapter 1—naked and nearly submerged—their water crossing represents a baptism into their new lives. John Grady's suffering in prison is Christlike, since he is willing to die (and literally bleed) out of his love for Alejandra.

The name of the Rocha family ranch, Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (in English, "Our Lady of Pure Conception"), is more than just a tribute to the Virgin Mary and an example of the importance of the Catholic faith in Mexican society. Rather, it symbolizes the desirable position of women in Mexico and in the Christian world. For a time it is a celebration of Alejandra. She is the pure young virgin—like Mary before her—but after her relationship with John Grady, she is no longer seen in the same light. Her fall from grace is taken so seriously that it compels her father to attempt to murder John Grady and deeply estranges John Grady from Alejandra, whom he now considers tainted and un-Mary-like.

Throughout the story characters frequently debate God's will and whether or not there are limitations to his power. John Grady's conversation with Dueña Alfonsa in Chapter 4, Part 1 is the most prominent example. She casts doubt on a single all-responsible being, preferring the metaphor of a puppet master who is controlled by other puppet masters. While John Grady is a believer in the beginning of the story, his faith is tested as he endures heartbreak and violence. He seems to come back around after he separates himself from the captain, but he seems less certain about the Lord's ways, especially compared to Reverend Jimmy Blevins.

Questions for Symbols

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How does Jonathan Edwards use ethos, pathos, and logos in his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God? Examples please.
Read "The Story of an Hour" below. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" and "The Story of an Hour" share a universal theme, but the stories come to the same conclusion in very different ways. In a parag
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