Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "True Grit Study Guide." Course Hero. 23 Aug. 2017. Web. 15 Nov. 2018. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, August 23). True Grit Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "True Grit Study Guide." August 23, 2017. Accessed November 15, 2018.


Course Hero, "True Grit Study Guide," August 23, 2017, accessed November 15, 2018,

True Grit | Themes


Moral Character

The title of the novel, True Grit, refers to a character trait Mattie seeks, and the whole story is suffused with Mattie's sharp judgments of character. She depicts her father as having "mistaken the drummers [salesmen] for men," because the salesmen did not chase after her father's murderer. Mattie believes good and evil are plainly stamped on a person's—or an animal's—face. Thus, the face of murderer Tom Chaney has "cruel features" and a "mark on his face like banished Cain." In the book of Genesis Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve, the first people. Cain murders Abel, becoming mankind's first murderer. God tells Cain he is cursed from then on. Mattie is also instantly aware of people who are "trash," such as the discourteous former robber Ross James. "Keep your seat, trash," Mattie tells James when he neglects to rise in her presence. Even cats show their wickedness visibly: "Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?" Her late father, by contrast, was a good man who looked like a good man: "He was a handsome sight ... He might have been a gallant knight of old."

But Mattie's judgments shift in the course of traveling with Rooster and LaBoeuf. Initially Mattie is indifferent to Rooster's negative qualities; she chooses him because this "meanest" of the federal marshals has true grit. Later when Mattie watches Rooster and LaBoeuf ride away while Ned Pepper holds her hostage, she curses Rooster as a "gabbling drunken fool." She scoffs at the idea the man who led her into Ned's clutches could have "true grit." She says, "Was this what they called grit ... ? We called it something else in Yell County!" She later changes her appraisal of Rooster yet again, first when he rides at Ned's gang with both guns blazing, and then when he saves her from death in the rattlesnake pit.

Likewise, with LaBoeuf, Mattie initially takes in his fancy spurs and styled cowlick and judges him "a vain and cocky devil." Mattie changes her mind about his character when LaBoeuf comes back for her and shoots Ned Pepper from distance, saving Rooster. However, Mattie's earlier, harsh judgment of LaBoeuf was not wrong. Immediately after LaBoeuf shoots Ned, he is "pleased with himself." While the vain LaBoeuf's attention is on himself and his impeccable aim, Chaney overtakes both LaBoeuf and Mattie. Even so LaBoeuf proves himself heroic, rousing himself after the blow to save Mattie.

Mattie does not draw a life lesson from her experience with LaBoeuf and Rooster. She does not promise to judge differently or less harshly. The 64-year-old "cranky old maid" delivers some tart words about her potential suitors, for example. True Grit is not about teaching Mattie a lesson. But Mattie's world is enlarged by her journey to the Territory and her rise from the underworld when Rooster brings her back from her near-death experience. Before, her world held only a small number of morally good characters: Mary and Martha in the Bible, her mother, and her father. In chasing after vengeance, she gains two good friends. She loses them, in the course of time, as she reflects in the novel's closing thoughts, "Time just gets away from us."

Myth of the West

True Grit belongs to the Western genre, which consists of novels, stories, and movies depicting the white settlement of the American West in the 19th century. Even the outdoor stage shows of a Wild West show are Westerns in dramatic form. The novels reached their peak of popularity in the early- to mid-20th century; the Wild West shows, too, were mythic recreations decades after the original events. These recreated stories became a myth of the West rather than an accurate historical accounting. However, such stories on a mythic scale were also popular during the lifetime of men like Rooster. In 1896 a book The Life of John Wesley Harding as Written by Himself, which claimed to be the autobiography of the Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin, was published after Hardin's death. In 1903, the year in which Mattie travels to the Wild West show in True Grit, the actual Cole Younger published an autobiography called The Story of Cole Younger, by Himself. Throughout the white settlement of the West, the exploits of the West's lawmen, outlaws, and cowboys had readers eager for more of the myth of the West.

While True Grit is a Western, it also shows how its characters participate in creating the myth of the West. LaBoeuf tells anecdotes about his exploits in the Texas Rangers, while Rooster accuses him of just quoting the same anecdotes as every other Texas cowboy. Even Mattie attempts to get in on the myth of the West, writing a "historical article" whose long title shows its roots in sensationalized mythic portrayals of the West. The title addresses itself to Odus Wharton, who must "be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!" and styles itself as "a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge." As demonstrated by the flashy title of Mattie's "historical article," the myth sometimes borders on parody. At the end of True Grit the West returns as a parody in the Wild West shows. Mattie meets the aged and decrepit Cole Younger and Frank James. Mattie sees Younger, James, and Rooster, as men who "all fought together in the border strife under Quantrill's black standard, and afterward led dangerous lives." But now "this was all they were fit for." They "show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle." Mattie does not even stay for the show itself, "as I guessed it would be dusty and silly like all circuses."

Lawmen and Outlaws

While they wait to ambush Ned Pepper, Rooster reveals to Mattie he was an outlaw before he became a lawman. To set himself up in his new life after the war, he stole a federal payroll and robbed a "high-interest" bank. True Grit makes reference to many other men who switch between the roles of lawman and outlaw. The Confederate guerrilla fighters in Quantrill's Raiders are considered outlaws by the North and lawful soldiers by the South. Veterans of Quantrill's Raiders and other groups, like Cole Younger and brothers Franks and Jesse James, go on to become outlaws in the post-Civil War South and West. Rooster approvingly mentions the outlaw John Wesley Hardin, but Rooster does not mention how Hardin was shot by a thief-turned-lawman, the El Paso policeman John Selman, Sr. What makes someone a lawman rather than an outlaw seems to be a matter of social convention. Before 1862 Quantrill's Raiders were outlaws; after the Confederacy declared them part of the army in 1862, they became lawful combatants. One day Rooster is on his way to getting in trouble with the marshals for shooting his boss, a mule drover, the next his buddy Potter is swearing him in as a marshal. Many times in True Grit a lawman is revealed to be an outlaw.

However, the switch does not always work the other way; not all outlaws turn out to be lawmen. True Grit distinguishes between rogues and villains. The villains threaten Mattie with real violence; the rogues try to get rid of her but eventually accept her. Rogues like Rooster stretch the truth and pilfer money from institutions; they are harsh and violent and hold roguish men like Hardin and Quantrill in high esteem. But when push comes to shove, a rogue does the right thing. The bloody judge Isaac Parker forces himself to watch every execution he orders, and the quick-to-shoot Rooster Cogburn gives his all to save a little girl.

The course of events in True Grit suggests the West became increasingly hostile to roguish, free-wheeling men like Rooster or Judge Isaac Parker. In the post-Civil War period of True Grit a man of grit like Rooster Cogburn could do his job as a marshal—he could stretch the truth, move dead bodies, and even shoot more men than he delivered into the hands of justice. Likewise, the judge in Fort Smith, Isaac Parker, answers only to the president. He hands out so many death penalties that his court is known as "the Parker slaughterhouse." True Grit does not shy away from showing how violent the United States was; it also celebrates the freedom of roguish men.

By the end of True Grit things have changed for Rooster and Parker and others like them. Parker no longer answers solely to the president but begins to be reversed by the Supreme Court, which finds him "too hard and highhanded." Likewise, Rooster's casual ways with ethics and law are no longer tolerated. In a duel with Odus Wharton, Rooster shoots two men not wanted by the law. Mattie reasons the two "must have been trash." However, the incident gets Rooster into trouble with the law and he is "made to surrender his Federal badge."

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about True Grit? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!