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All the Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy

Study Questions

Analytical Overview

Review Quiz

It is always difficult to assess the relationship between our finest American contemporary authors and their literary predecessors, since such an assessment generally implies a relative assessment of worth. This SparkNote has tried to suggest a few ways in which Cormac McCarthy can be considered an heir to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Think of one or two authors from an earlier literary generation (other than Hemingway and Faulkner) and write about the relationship of their work to McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.

The Western genre of film and literature has been important and popular in American culture, from High Noon in 1952 to Dances with Wolves in 1990, from the novels of Owen Wister to those of Louis L'Amour. What makes for "genre" fiction is the adherence to certain literary conventions, the application to the text of a certain literary ideology. Drawing from your knowledge of outside sources, try to describe the conventions of a "Western." In what ways is All the Pretty Horses a Western? In what ways, if any, does it transcend the Western genre?

It has often been remarked, especially with the rise of feminist criticism in the late twentieth century, that novels about the West are essentially novels about masculinity. Women tend to play minor roles, serving as plot devices in novels concerned with the importance of manhood and the proper way to act like a man. Is this generalization true about All the Pretty Horses? What are the roles of women in this novel? How are they different, if at all, from the roles of men? What can you say about the relationship between John Grady Cole and the women in All the Pretty Horses? What about John Grady Cole's attitude towards women?

All the Pretty Horses is a novel set at the end of the mythic era of cowboys. In some important ways, the novel is about the end of that era. What are John Grady Cole's feelings about the end of the cowboy era? What symbolism does the novel use to signify that end? (In your answer, try to get beyond merely talking about sunsets.) In McCarthy's view, what does the end of that era mean, about the way the world and its inhabitants have changed?

All the Pretty Horses contains scenes of depraved cruelty, vicious cynicism, and bloody violence. It also contains scenes demonstrating hope, love, loyalty, and warmth. Do you think, in the end, that this is an optimistic or a pessimistic novel? What does the novel has to say about human nature, and the capacity of men and women for good and evil?

Before John Grady Cole leaves Texas for his tragic journey to Mexico, he sees his ex-girlfriend, Mary Catherine Barnett, for the last time. It is an uncomfortable conversation: he is embarrassed and upset, she is guilt-ridden. She proposes, in age-old fashion, that they be friends, to which John Grady responds, "It's just talk, Mary Catherine." "Everything's talk isn't it?" she asks. "Not everything," he answers. What does this exchange indicate about John Grady's attitude towards speech? What else do we know from this novel about John Grady's habits of speech and silence? What do his attitudes and habits imply about his personality?

Cormac McCarthy has strict rules about rendering conversation: he does not use quotation marks, and he does not relate Spanish-language conversations in English. These are not accidents, but conscious choices of a master stylist. What effect do these choices have on the reader and on the narrative? If some of the novel's conversations are difficult to understand, what effect does that give? What does it mean about the novel and the world of the novel?

Consider the title of this novel. What does it mean? What relationship does it bear to the text? Keep in mind some of the novel's important themes: the role, and value of romanticism and sentimentality; maturation and innocence; the human soul, the collective soul, and the question of whether it is possible to ever truly know another person or thing.

One of the concerns of All the Pretty Horses is its protagonist's maturation. John Grady Cole goes to Mexico with certain dreams about what it means to be a cowboy and a man. What happens to these dreams? Characterize John Grady Cole as a person and as a hero. How has he changed? What has he changed into? Can he properly be called a hero? In this novel's view, what would it mean to call him a hero?

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