True Grit | Study Guide

Charles Portis

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True Grit | Chapter 4 | Summary



Mattie wakes up at the Monarch boardinghouse with a cold. She goes back to bed, and Mrs. Floyd gives her some medicine, "Dr. Underwood's Bile Activator." Mattie stays in bed for two days and passes the time by reading the news of the Wharton trial to Grandma Turner. She also reads aloud the novel Bess Calloway's Disappointment.

On the evening of the second day Mattie rises and has supper in the dining room. A stranger arrives, the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. (He pronounces his name "La Beef"). He wears big spurs and a "fancy" gun belt "bedecked with cartridges." He grins readily and has a "confident manner [that] cowed everybody at the table" except Mattie.

LaBoeuf reveals he knows Mattie's name and has spoken to her mother. LaBoeuf and Mattie confer in private, and he shows her a picture of Tom Chaney from before Chaney had gotten the black mark on his face. LaBoeuf says Chaney's real name is Theron Chelmsford and he is wanted for killing a Texas senator and his dog. LaBoeuf reveals he is a Texas Ranger pursuing Chaney. Mattie tells him she has hired Rooster Cogburn to pursue Chaney.

LaBoeuf proposes he join forces with Rooster. He plans to bring Chaney to Texas, to stand trial. Mattie replies, "Chaney is not going to Texas, he is coming back to Fort Smith and hang." LaBoeuf will get a reward for Chaney in Texas. Mattie regrets "opening up to this stranger." She blames LaBoeuf's good looks and the doping effect of the cold medicine.

Mattie is tart with LaBoeuf. She advises him to get himself another marshal, since she has already laid claim to Rooster. LaBoeuf says she should leave criminal investigation "in the hands of men who know the work." Mattie scoffs at LaBoeuf, who has been unable in four months to "find Tom Chaney with a mark on his face like banished Cain." LaBoeuf comments on Mattie's "saucy manner." Mattie tells him, "I will not be bullied." Angered, LaBoeuf says he had thought of "stealing a kiss" but "now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." Mattie says both prospects would be unpleasant, concluding, "I have no regard for you." LaBoeuf leaves, "clanking away in all his Texas trappings."


Mattie's reaction to the cold medicine makes reference to the time she is telling her story. The cold medicine left her light-headed, reminding her of the time "when half the old ladies in the country were 'dopeheads'" who took medicines containing codeine or laudanum. Mattie then thanks God for "the Harrison Narcotics Law. Also the Volstead Act." The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act Law of 1914 taxed and restricted cocaine, opium, and other drugs. The Volstead Act outlawed the sale of alcohol. The years between 1920, when Volstead went into effect, and 1933, when it was repealed, are known as Prohibition. True Grit is about a story in the 19th century, but it also reflects its narrator's times in Prohibition.

Mattie's light reading, Bess Calloway's Disappointment, is the exact opposite of the novel Mattie is in. Mattie describes Bess as "a pretty girl in easy circumstances." Mattie's circumstances are hard—a dead father and no help from her mother or the other adults around her. Where Bess is pretty, LaBoeuf calls Mattie "unattractive" in this chapter. The plot of Bess Calloway's Disappointment centers on Bess's choice between marrying "a rich man named Alec with a pack of dogs or a preacher." Mattie says Bess "makes trouble for herself" by not saying what she means, "only blush[ing] and talk[ing] around it." The pleasure of the novel, according to Mattie, comes from trying to figure out "what [Bess] was driving at. That was what held your interest." Bess is in a novel of marriage and manners, while Mattie is in a Western novel—an adventure tale.

The contrast between the two heroines might seem to be a feminist one. Bess blushes and demurs; Mattie insists on what she wants and "will not be bullied." Bess has a limited sphere of action; she is reduced to making trouble for herself in the domestic sphere. But Mattie bravely goes out into the world, where she repairs the troubles others have made. However, Mattie is only 14 years old and thus not marriageable (although LaBoeuf clumsily flirts with her). A girl heroine does not undermine the notion that grown heroines in novels can do nothing but choose between men. The tendencies in novels are little girls have adventures, grown women marry. Although Mattie and LaBoeuf later change their opinions of each other, there is never a question of Mattie ending up with either LaBoeuf or Rooster. In many ways Mattie's later spinsterhood shows her trapped in Portis's initial idea of her as a character: not suited for marriage.

Portis also draws attention to LaBoeuf as a fictional character. Mattie remarks his fancy "Texas trappings" are "like something you might see today in a 'Wild West' show.'" On the one hand Mattie is trying to help her modern-day readers envision LaBoeuf. By the time she tells her story in 1928 or so, there is no more Western frontier. The only way she can depict LaBoeuf is with reference to genre of entertainment called the "Wild West show," where stage cowboys and Indians enact a parody of themselves. On the other hand, LaBoeuf is already a parody of a Wild West lawman. His getup is absurd, in Mattie's eyes. Later Rooster will claim LaBoeuf is just spouting common Texas cowboy myths when he speaks of being so deprived of water he drank from a muddy hoof print. Rooster says he has yet to meet "one of you Texas waddies [cowboys]" who does not claim "he ... drank from a horse track."
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