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Essay on All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy: Analysis of the Protagonist John Grady Cole

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In literature it is not uncommon for the author to give an essential character an atypical, unfamiliar background for the sake of grabbing the readers attention and to set up a gripping story. This is the case with the origins of the protagonist John Grady Cole, in All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. John Grady Cole is a boy, looking for freedom from his broken home on the southern border of the United States. Cole comes from a long lineage of ranchers, and has dreams of one day taking over the ranch, but it has already been sold. Cole decides to leave America to head south in search of his idealistic, traditionalist, dream of a cowboy rancher; because the times have changed in America, and that golden western era has passed. As a sixteen year old boy, Cole experiences an identity crisis during a changing time, a lacking in knowing who he is or what he is supposed to be, launching him into ever changing world that he is not prepared to take on, with the lacking of his identity, he leaves America to search for something greater.

“Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candle stub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed mustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.” (1 McCarthy) The very opening of the book takes place with a symbolic end of an era with the passing of Cole’s grandfather, the last rancher in the family. “The Grady name was buried with that old man the day the norther blew the lawn chairs over the dead cemetery grass.” (7 McCarthy) Cole has no one to lookup now in his life, completely isolated from his mother and father. Cole and his best friend Rawlins pack their few belongings and go on their adventure in Mexico where they soon realize, it’s nothing what they expected it to be like. There is a contrast between Cole and Rawlins while they’re out in the desert, Cole makes decisions based on romantic ideals and dreams, and Rawlins bases his on his more nihilistic, realistic perception. They meet a young boy name Blevins on a stolen horse, with a stolen gun. Cole and Rawlins make a decision on whether to let Blevins stay, after arguing, Rawlins backs down to Cole. The reason Cole allows Blevins to stay with them even though they know it’s a bad idea is because Cole can see himself in Blevins. Both are boys who have no where to go to, on a search for a place of belonging, a place to call home.

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Cole’s thirty six year old mother is off pursuing her own dreams of becoming an actress. He is distant from her and has resentment for her because she sold the ranch, Cole never actually says her name, he only refers to her as “she”. With his lacking of loyalty or consideration from his mother in his life, it’s not surprising to see how quickly he falls in love with Alejandra, the only female in his life he doesn’t have a negative connotation of. His love affair with her is short term and not long lasting, much like his childhood and dreams. Cole thought he would work his way into the family business, becoming a rancher and live out his western dream. When Alejandra’s father finds out about the two of them, there is a parallel between their forced separation and his separation from his dreams and family back in the United States.

Cole’s unusual origin of being born in a changing society, a broken family, and his lack of identity from a young age all tie into the overall themes of the novel. There are major themes of: loss of innocence, romanticism and faith, and fate. Cole believed that you can change any scenario you are in to get a positive outcome. Alfonsa is the direct counter to Cole’s aspirations, telling him about societal and family roles and stereotypes. Alfonsa reprimands Cole for his desire to be with Alejandra, saying he’s too innocent and doesn’t know how the world works. When Cole returns, he returns as a man, learning his lessons of tragedy, fate, and growth through his struggles. As he heads back to the border, there is a willingness in him, to accept the changing age, because it won’t stop for him.

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Essay on All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy: Analysis of the Protagonist John Grady Cole. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 3, 2024, from
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