In All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy attempts to dissect the idea of the cowboy, showing us what remains if you separate the man from his “horse”. This is carefully reflected in the representation of the teenagers John Grady Cole, Lacey Rawlins, and Blevins.
To be real cowboys they need a frontier life and, judging by the noisy train heading west, there is none left to be explored. Travelling west is therefore no longer an option and so south – where the maps reveal nothing – lures John Grady and Rawlins (and possibly Blevins) out of America and away from home towards an idealised, romanticised frontier life of old. What starts out with unspoilt surroundings, companionship, independence, and a simple and carefree outdoors life they ‘could get used to’ begins to unravel when they encounter Blevins. As the trio continue – naïvely assuming to “put their name on the map” – they are quickly confronted by a harsh land with a past deeper than theirs, and darker too.
These proving grounds quickly expose Blevins to be what he is: immature, ill-prepared, and out of place; he is the first to lose his horse. His recklessness in getting drunk, superstition of lightning, hot-blooded and revenge-fuelled decision making all lead to his early demise – indicative that having a fast horse and an accurate gun don’t equate to success as a cowboy, and in this Mexican climate, are ironically disastrous for him. His horse (arguably) and gun taken, his last throw of the dice, in the form of his pesos, are given to Grady – a suggestive nod to the last thing he has faith in – and later proving pivotal to Grady’s survival. Blevins comes face to face with reality in the forms of mother nature, the law, and justice (albeit a Mexican version of it), and – all unmerciful – finds himself fresh out of luck. His comic book ideas of being a free cowboy out in the wild are, comically, about as plausible as his past.
In contrast to Blevins, Rawlins is every bit a legitimate cowboy and this, coupled with his “fittest survive” individualism, make him well prepared for a Mexico that seems to punish any physical or mental weakness. Rawlins appears to have no motives beyond those that serve himself, and his role seems primarily to accentuate Grady’s superiority to him (physically and morally) and this is hinted at in Alfonsa’s mentioning of control groups in experiments. While she suggests that ‘history has no control groups so nothing can be learned’, Rawlins makes an excellent “control group” by which Grady can be measured, and learned from.
Rawlins thrives at La Purisima but his unjust incarceration eventually breaks him and he is fortunate to escape with his life, albeit it via a bribe and ‘a litre of Mexican blood’. The blood transfusion implies that he is able to survive the duality of a frontier existence but, once mercifully rescued and faced with a choice, he chooses to bus home at his first opportunity and return to his former life rather than continue in a reality he discovered was over-romanticised. While Grady endured almost identical experiences to Rawlins in Mexico, apart from the exception of a love interest, what made him choose a different path post-release?
The quintessential cowboy – John Grady can shoot, ride, tame horses, thrive outdoors, speak Spanish, think on his feet, and remain calm – he justifiably earns everyone’s admiration, from the humble vaquero to the ranch owner and his beautiful daughter; surely his initials “J.C.” are not unintentional. Ultimately, his tolerance and mercy towards Blevins comes back to haunt him, resulting in both his imprisonment, and loss of Alejandra (once, then likely forever). As a law unto himself (in typical cowboy fashion) this inversion of his power in society began with the collapse of his life in Texas, builds at La Purisima, and reaches its climax in the prison. In Mexico he is affronted by a land that is harsher, more suffocating, and with an older, more complicated history than he expected and he must learn to play by a new set of rules to survive. If America was advancing, forcing him to give in or become irrelevant, then the stakes are raised in Mexico and, as an echo of the “wild west”, require him to adapt or die.
When playing chess with Alfonsa his loss of the queen and the game (in conceding) is a foreshadowing of his eventual loss of Alejandra, and his lack of motivation to live in Mexico without her. His billiards game with Don Hector (in which the protective father ‘broke the balls’ and wins the game) is suggesting this wild stallion is soon to be a gelding – without a mate, progeny, or status. Combined, these two games illustrate that despite Grady’s prowess as a cowboy, he is now on an unfamiliar playing field and is powerless to win. When he later asks Digame if ‘it’s worse to be poor or American’ and is answered that a golden key is required, his lessons are now complete and will shortly be proven.
Theory rapidly becomes a practical reality when he is arrested and imprisoned. Stripped of his identity as a cowboy – of his horse, job, outdoor livelihood, independence – Grady must for the first time rely on others to survive. His use of Belvins’s money to prolong his survival, resorting to violence, and eventual release (based solely on another’s power and mercy) all appear to be new experiences for him. It is telling that he is equated to money (when the jailer “mistakenly” says ‘This is you’) and as is becoming ever clearer: without money and connections he is doomed in Mexico. The cards Grady is dealt seem completely unfair but as truth, morals, and justice in Mexico show themselves to be adaptable, so too does Grady.
Having endured tragedy after tragedy, when granted his release and some money he Is finally given a chance and a choice: will he use it to head home and give in? or instead to seek truth and justice? His parting from Rawlins to return to La Purisima shows some bravery (or foolish stubbornness) but he is surely motivated by his love for Alejandra and the horses – possibly the only two good things he has left in the world. He exposes Alfonsa’s fatalistic (and negative) attitude as contradictory and proves that love is stronger than reason and record by convincing Alejandra to disobey her grandaunt. He is thankfully given his answers, and, in the releasing of Orlando and capture of the horses and the madrina, he executes some justice, suggesting things are slowly moving back to his terms. His compassion for the Captain (in healing his shoulder) shows Mexico hasn’t robbed him of his morals, and the compassion of the horsemen (who find him later) perhaps reflects that Mexico is not completely lost either.
Having lost Alejandra (after seeing her for the last time) Grady has one last true thing to hold on to in this world: horses. His last, Quixotean act of justice and truth is seeing Blevins’s horse returned to its rightful owner and, considering that the American judge acquits him and grants its possession to him, it feels like his identity as a cowboy is returned. Months later when he dines with the real Jimmy Blevins he learns that ‘the message makes it all the way to Mars’, indicative that the truth (albeit subjective in this context) is powerful and knows no borders.
Grady is, as the Don says, truly a gentle knight: noble, merciful, respectful, dutiful, but, like the legends of old, a mixture of man and myth. His refusal to give in to modern society (in denying his country) and perseverance along the road less travelled (morally and otherwise) suggest that he, like a horse, belongs to a bygone era. Grady’s end – seen riding west, into the wind, alone and one with his horse – suggests that he is still living the cowboy myth; however, as he vanishes before the American Indians it seems that the future of the cowboy is similarly fated.
Blair, John. “Mexico and the Borderlands in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 42:3 (2001): 301-7.
Kollin, Susan. “Genre and the geographies of violence: Cormac McCarthy and the Contemporary Western”. Contemporary Literature 42.3 (2001): 557-88.
McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. London: Pan Macmillan, 2002.
Wegner, John. “Whose story is it? History and Fiction in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.” Southern Quarterly, 36:2 (1998): 103-10.