Note: All the Pretty Horses is divided into four long chapters. For ease of organization, this SparkNote will divide both the first and last of these sections into two thematically coherent parts. The section of the SparkNote that deals with John Grady Cole before his departure for Mexico is labeled "Chapter I - Part 1"; the section that deals with John Grady after his arrival in Mexico and until the end of Chapter I, when John Grady is hired as a cowboy, is "Chapter I - Part 2". Similarly, "Chapter IV - Part 1" deals with Chapter IV from the chapter's beginning until John Grady's final split with Alejandra; "Chapter IV - Part 2" concerns itself with the end of the novel, from the split with Alejandra onward. Note that the novel itself does not subdivide these two chapters in this manner.
All the Pretty Horses opens with the funeral of John Grady Cole's grandfather, in the late autumn of 1949. John Grady is a sixteen-year-old who has lived his whole life on his grandfather's ranch outside of San Angelo, Texas. With his grandfather's death, John Grady's mother will sell the unprofitable ranch: the boy feels, inescapably, that he is witnessing the final act of a drama that has been ongoing since his great-grandfather built a one-room hovel on the site in 1866. This first section of the novel, leading up to John Grady's departure for Mexico, consists of a group of connected scenes--conversations with friends and parents--that lead to John Grady's conclusion that there is nothing left for him in San Angelo.
John Grady's parents are estranged. His mother, who at thirty-six is still young and longs for a life of excitement and romance away from the isolation of the ranch, is trying to build an acting career; she no longer speaks to his father, a professional gambler who was deeply scarred psychologically by his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Although it is not made explicit, it also seems that John Grady's father is dying of lung cancer. After his grandfather's funeral, John Grady meets with his father at a cafe in San Angelo. The two are silent and awkward, not knowing what to say to each other; the father feels that he has failed his son.
John Grady sits at dinner with his mother, and asks her--in what seems to be an oft-repeated conversation--to let him run the ranch. She denies the request, repeating her intention to sell it. In response, John Grady goes to visit Franklin, the family's lawyer, who tells him that there is nothing he can do to prevent the sale; he learns from Franklin, too, that his parents have become officially divorced. After some passage of time, we see John Grady taking a trip from San Angelo to San Antonio to see the play in which his mother is acting. He is out of place in the relatively cosmopolitan city, and his trip only confirms that he and his mother are separated by a vast distance.
John Grady sees his father for the last time in the spring of 1950; they go riding together in the countryside around San Angelo. It is another episode in the string of John Grady's difficult and choked goodbyes. We see him outside in the dark with his friend Rawlins, and learn that they are planning to run away from Texas. We see him in downtown San Angelo, talking with Mary Catherine Barnett, a girl whom he used to date but who broke up with him. Finally, we see him standing one night outside Rawlins' house. The two friends slip quietly away, and ride out onto the prairie, away from home and toward their adventure.
All the Pretty Horses both begins and ends with a funeral: first, the funeral of John Grady Cole's grandfather, and at the end of the novel the funeral of the woman we know only as "Abuela" ("grandmother" in Spanish), the old Mexican woman--Louisa's mother--who lived on the ranch since the turn of the century, and who helped raise John Grady. This is appropriate, since All the Pretty Horses is a novel about endings--about the closing of America's great historical and mythic chapter of cowboys on horseback. The Grady ranch was established by John Grady Cole's great-grandfather in 1866, and tended by his grandfather until 1949. Its lifespan, then, parallels the lifespan of the American cowboy. The death of the grandfather expresses a larger phenomenon: a way of life passed away, too. The ranch is no longer profitable, and will be sold by John Grady's mother, a woman who aspires to a cosmopolitan life away from the solitude and hardships of the ranch. John Grady realizes this when he rides out the night of the funeral and stands in the sunset: in McCarthy's words, he "stood like a man come to the end of something."
Cormac McCarthy is perhaps the great American poet of the sunset. This is a novel filled with sunsets, and the sunset described as "coppering" John Grady's face at the novel's beginning is mirrored by the sunset at the novel's end, following the funeral of Abuela, the last surviving connection to the old way of life at the ranch. We are told then, too, of the sun "coppering his face." Throughout the novel we have sunsets, signifying the end of things and painting the novel's scenes blood-red.
John Grady Cole is a relic from an earlier time, perhaps even a relic from a mythic time that never truly existed in history. He refuses to accept the passing of the cowboy age symbolized in the novel's many sunsets. The novel's action is driven by this refusal: John Grady leaves home in search of something he cannot exactly express, but which clarifies itself as an inchoate and passionate love of land, of cattle and horses, of independence and honor. He associates these things with the past of the West, a past which he pursues implacably. His search may well prove unsuccessful: readers will see that at the end of the novel John Grady is still headed west, still riding off into a sunset, just as he does at the beginning of the novel.
But it could be argued equally easily--and perhaps more compellingly--that John Grady does indeed rediscover the mythic West: he recreates it, idealized, in his own romantic and heroic code of conduct, and he finds it in Mexico, entirely deromanticized and stripped to its brutal core. The great American novelist William Faulkner once said that the past is not, in fact, past: it is instead present, and unavoidable. We see echoes of this maxim (and of many other Faulknerian stylistic and philosophical tropes) throughout this novel. From the very beginning, McCarthy raises the question of the relationship between the past and the present. When John Grady rides out in the evening after his grandfather's funeral, he rides out along an old Comanche road. The ghosts of the Comanche, on the move across the plains, are audible in the sound of the wind. These men are warriors, bound by pledges of blood, and their spirit continues to inhabit the West of this novel. Here there is a sense that the violent past of the West has bled into the soil, and beats down in the perpetual red sunlight; it is an inheritance, recurrent and unavoidable.