Critical Analysis of Idea and Major Themes In McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

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In McCarthy’s, All the Pretty Horses, John Grady’s character is constantly used to romanticize and challenge the myth of a cowboy. In The Searchers, John Ford shows a different way to romanticize and challenge the myth of a cowboy. Even though the two authors represent the myth differently, the strong message of the myth still gets across to the reader. The myth is much more complex than one would imagine. McCarthy writes about the myth of the cowboy to show us that our ideals are not far from that of the cowboy and that humans cannot just live life in one orderly and perfect way. One strong message McCarthy gets across to the reader is that humans, even cowboys, make mistakes. Throughout the novel and the film, many things like the loss of innocence, the deaths, the depiction of violence, and gender roles, all develop and represent the significance of the myth and how it is related to the idea of realism. Grady is portrayed as a very complex and smart man; however, he still makes mistakes which makes him more realistic to the reader.

One major theme in the novel and the film is the depiction of violence. In the film, we see a lot of blatant violence, constant gunfire, and blood. In the novel, there is also a lot of violence, but when there is it seems like it is for a more significant reason. The reader is made aware that this violence is just a way of life for a cowboy and it helps develop and thicken the plot and proves to the reader that in some ways John Grady is a stereotypical cowboy. After the boys were arrested, they went to jail and found Blevins there. He was suffering from injuries after going back to Encantada to retrieve his pistol. “What happened then? I didnt have no more shells. I’d shot em all up. My own damn fault. All I had was what was in the gun” (160). Blevins seemed to care more about his gun then his horse. His need for a pistol, a big sign of violence, causes problems for the boys. They were being transferred to another prison when Blevins was marched into the woods and shot to death. This shows how violence was such a big part of Blevins' life, that it even ended it. This goes back to the ideas of why McCarthy wrote this novel, the portrayal of Blevins is showing how imperfect people can be, and how this is a normality.

Another big idea in the stories is gender, in All the Pretty Horses, woman and men are seen in different ways. All the boys are all very young; however, they have this independence and advanced skill of violence that is expected from the ideas of a stereotypical cowboy. On the flip side, women are constantly striving for independence, but are caught by social forces beyond their control. In both the novel and the film, women seem powerless and are shown as the stereotypical stay at home woman. In the end, Alejandra discovers that no matter how strong your will, it is not easy to fight social conventions about gender. Alejandra is limited by her role as the daughter of a wealthy man of society. She always has to adhere to many traditions regarding chastity, that do not apply to men. Despite her continuous efforts to break out of this role, she is sucked back into it through her relationship with her father. “There is no forgiveness. For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a women cannot. She cannot” (137). Alejandra could not lose the honor of her name as a man could. A man could regain his honor, she did not have that option. This can be compared to today’s society, to this day woman are still faced with gender inequality regularly. McCarthy shows another comparison of how the cowboy life can be so similar to our reality, even when speaking to gender norms.

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Furthermore, a big part of the novel is death. Right at the beginning of the novel, there is the loss of John Grady’s Grandfather, which takes a big toll on him. Then, Grady went through the loss of Blevins. After this happens, Grady struggles to shake off the loss. Then, one of the most impactful losses in the book was the death of the cuchillero in prison. There are a lot of deaths throughout the novel, but this one seemed to impact John Grady the worst since he was the “killer.” Grady says, “I dont know. I dont know nothin about him. I never even knew his name. He could have been a pretty good old boy. I dont know. I dont know that he’s suppose to be dead” (291). Grady was guilty of the murder in the prison, and he tells the judge how he did not even know him, and that is what made it even worse. One thing everyone in this world can relate to is death, it sounds absurd, but at some point in our lives, we lose someone we know. Even if you did not know them at all, the situation can cause the loss to be seriously impactful. McCarthy speaks to this reality by facing John Grady with multiple deaths throughout the novel. The deaths help create a story that most readers can relate too, which causes a connection to John Grady. Showing the impact the deaths have on John Grady, challenges the myth of a cowboy, however, shows the reader that even though he is a cowboy, he still faces hard life events.

Another big part of the novel is the loss of innocence. Grady, Rawlins, and Blevins were all very young and went into the world with little experience. Little sixteen-year-old Grady went out into the world as a little innocent boy and throughout his journey, he lost a lot of his innocence due to experiences he had. Throughout his journey in Mexico, Grady uses many of his skills he learned growing up to help him complete daily jobs. Grady quickly gains respect and admiration from the Hacendado, which was very impressive to all the people around him. This impression John Grady makes helps romanticize the myth since he is good at his cowboy tasks. John Grady’s knowledge and skill enable him and Rawlins to manage in Mexico, and sometimes even comes in handy for survival. The crazy and severe events that Grady experiences throughout his journey takes a toll on his innocence. For example, after he killed the man in prison it took Grady a long time to process it. “I never thought I’d do that. You didnt have no choice. I still never thought it. He’d of done it to you. He drew on the cigarette and blew the smoke unseen into the darkness. You dont need to try to make it right. It is what it is” (215). Rawlins is trying to comfort Grady and tell him he had no choice but to protect himself, and Grady would not agree. Even though Grady has a lot of skills, his lack of experience in age shows. In a scene towards the end of the novel, John Grady shows up at the Texas judge’s house to ask him for advice, this similarly highlights how lost he can feel when faced with new experiences, realities, and choices. Many concepts of life are being shown, and the reader can see that expertise at certain skills is not equivalent to wisdom gained from life, which is true in our reality too.

In conclusion, the myth of a cowboy is much more complex than people know. In the novel and film, McCarthy and John Ford continually prove how the myth is so much deeper, and there is a lot more to it. McCarthy writes about the myth to show the reader that our ideals are not far from that of the cowboy and that humans cannot just live in such a perfect way. Overall one of the strongest messages McCarthy gets across to the reader is that humans make mistakes, and Grady’s loss of innocence, the patterns of death, gender, and the depiction of violence, are all shown to help the reader understand this idea. The theme of realism in the novel shows that not everything in your life will always be perfect, and you need to accept that.

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Critical Analysis of Idea and Major Themes In McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
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