True Grit | Study Guide

Charles Portis

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True Grit | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Mattie takes the train from her home in Yell County, Arkansas, to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to see about her father's remains. She is accompanied by "a colored man named Yarnell Poindexter," a neighbor whom her father had hired to feed the livestock while he was away. At first Mattie and Yarnell cannot find seats on the train because there is to be "a triple hanging" in Fort Smith and the train is crowded with eager spectators. They sit on Mattie's trunk in the aisle of "a colored coach." The conductor barks an order at Yarnell and calls him "nigger." Mattie rebukes the conductor for being "hateful about it."

Mattie is not interested in the hanging, but Yarnell wants to see it. Mattie decides they will both go but keep it a secret from her mother. The condemned are two white men and a Native American. The first condemned man says a few casual words, concluding "I see men out there in that crowd that is worse than me." The Native American says a Christian prayer, much to the approval of Mattie. The third condemned man gives a moralizing speech, enjoining parents to "train up your children in the way they should go." Mattie is moved to tears. When the hangman George Maledon springs the trap doors, the Native American's neck does not break, and he begins to spasm. Mattie and Yarnell and many of the crowd turn away "in revulsion" and leave "in some haste" as the Native American slowly strangles.

Mattie and Yarnell go to the undertaker, "an Irishman." Mattie arranges to have her father's body shipped to Dardanelle, Arkansas. Mattie tells Yarnell to stay with the coffin while she goes to the sheriff's office. The sheriff recounts what he knows about Chaney, which is not much. He calls him "Chambers." Chaney has "a black mark on his cheek" and is now "in the Territory" in the company of Lucky Ned Pepper, who robbed a mail coach recently. Mattie is angry that the sheriff is not out looking for Chaney. The sheriff says he has no jurisdiction in the Territory; only federal marshals can pursue him now.

Mattie asks for the best marshal. Out of approximately 200, the sheriff names three men: one is the best tracker; another is "the meanest" and "double-tough"; a third is "as straight as string" and will not "plant evidence or abuse a prisoner." Mattie asks about the meanest one, Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. The sheriff says Rooster will testify the next day in court.

Mattie sends Yarnell home on the train with her father's coffin. She goes to the Monarch boardinghouse to rent a room from Mrs. Floyd. There she has to share a room with an old woman named Grandma Turner and spends an uncomfortable night.

Analysis

Mattie's attitudes are shaped by the post-Reconstruction era in the South. She demonstrates a righteous anger toward the conductor who calls Yarnell "nigger," but ultimately her rebuke is about manners, not racial equity. Mattie objects to the conductor's lack of character in stooping to bully Yarnell. In her narration Mattie follows her tart remark to the conductor with "He saw that I had brought to all the darkies' attention how little he was." Mattie accepts Yarnell's deference; she decides whether they will see the hanging, and she sends Yarnell home when it suits her. To be fair, Mattie expects this deference from all the men she meets, white and black. She expects Rooster to do her bidding, and she expects Colonel Stonehill to be cowed by the threat of her lawyer.

The hanging scene is both festive and gruesome. There is a crowd of "a thousand or more people and fifty or sixty dogs." Boys walk through the crowed selling peanuts, fudge, and "'hot tamales' ... a cornmeal tube filled with spicy meat they eat in Old Mexico." Executions were public in the United States until the 1930s; Mattie perhaps reflects the changing attitudes when she says "a year or two later" the execution spot was surrounded by a wall "and you had to have a pass from the marshal's office to get in." The public aspect of hangings reflected the belief executions are a just punishment that satisfies all citizens. This is also why Mattie thinks it is to Judge Isaac Parker's credit that he watches all the hangings he orders. Mattie, Yarnell, and many of the crowd cannot stomach the sight of the botched hanging of the Native American. It is not clear whether they would have also turned away "in revulsion" at the sight of the properly conducted hangings, in which the men's necks break and death is instantaneous. It is also not clear whether Mattie would be satisfied to see Tom Chaney hanged. Speaking to the sheriff, she wishes eternal damnation on Chaney: "I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!"

Mattie shows herself a partisan of Arkansas, or of her neck of Arkansas. Tom Chaney is not just a cur, but a "Louisiana cur." In Chapter 1 she says, "People in Arkansas did not think much of Texas mustang ponies." It is as though the appellation "Texas" is what makes the ponies so worthless. She finds Fort Smith alien; it is Arkansas, but she thinks it belongs in the Territory. It is not civilized, by Mattie's lights: "The buildings are made of fieldstone and all the windows need washing."

Mattie's reactions to the final words of the three condemned men tell readers a lot about her. She is not moved by the first man, whose words have a self-justifying ring: "I see men out there in that crowd that is worse than me." Later Tom Chaney will exhibit a similar self-justifying self-pity, when he says, "Everything is against me." However, the first condemned is quite likely right; there probably are worse men than he in the crowd. Later Mattie will learn Rooster Cogburn the lawman was once an outlaw. The second man to speak, the Native American, wins Mattie's approval with his Christian prayer. In his moralizing speech, the third man condemns himself for "what I have come to because of drink"; this meets with Mattie's highest approval. Mattie is a Christian with stern moral judgments about people's characters and the evil of drink.

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