True Grit | Study Guide

Charles Portis

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True Grit | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Mattie remarks on a difference between attitudes now—when she tells her story—and back then—when her story happened. Now it seems surprising "a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood," but back then "it did not seem so strange." She then tells the story of her father's murder.

Mattie's father Frank Ross hired a drifter named Tom Chaney to help on their farm near Dardanelle, Arkansas. One day in winter Ross and Chaney traveled 70 miles to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Ross bought some Mustang ponies from a livestock trader, Colonel Stonehill. The night the sale was made Chaney got drunk and lost money at cards. He was threatening to kill someone when Ross intervened to calm him. Chaney shot the unarmed Ross, killing him, and then he robbed Ross of his cash, two "California gold pieces," and his horse, Judy. Chaney fled for the Oklahoma territory, and no one in Fort Smith gave chase.

In the course of telling the story of her father's death, Mattie compares herself and her mother to the New Testament figures Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Mattie says she is like Martha, "agitated and troubled by the cares of the day," while her mother was like Mary: "she had a serene and loving heart."

Analysis

In Chapter 2 readers find out Mattie is 64 years old. Although readers do not have this information in the first chapter, there are already clues to Mattie's age. She emphasizes the great shift in attitudes since her father's death, as if she is looking back over a long stretch of time. She interjects a stray remark typical of an older person's interests: "As I recollect, shelled corn was something under fifteen cents a bushel then."

The shelled-corn remark is part of a strategy Portis uses to make Mattie's voice sound conversational. He gives her an elaborate, old-fashioned, Bible-inflected Southern speaking style; phrases like "sulled up [sulked] like a possum" give her a distinct, non-standard English. However, in structuring his paragraphs, Portis also makes Mattie sound like a talker; often her paragraphs end with a stray or unnecessary remark. Usually the last sentence of a paragraph in prose, even in prose fiction, is a clincher, summarizing what has come before. Mattie's paragraphs in this chapter often end anticlimactically, with a short sentence of no value to the plot. "It had a good roof," Mattie concludes about a "cotton house," when the real topic is Tom Chaney.

Through Mattie's voice, Portis makes sharp judgments about the characters. Mattie recalls her father as "a handsome sight" and says, "He might have been a gallant knight of old." She recalls Chaney used "a piece of cotton plow line" as a rifle sling, instead of "a nice leather strap." In her eyes this demonstrates Chaney's laziness and even his low moral character. "There is trash for you," she says. She assesses her mother's skills matter-of-factly, saying "Mama was never any good at sums and she could hardly spell cat." However, this does not reflect badly on her mother: "Figures and letters are not everything."

Mattie's comparisons to Mary and Martha reflect her assumptions; she assumes her listeners have the Bible as a frame of reference. She also has a black-and-white view of her father's death, perhaps justifiably so. Her father is good and brave, "a knight of old," while Chaney is simply "trash."

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