The title of Cormac McCarthy’s novel – All the Pretty Horses, reflects the significance and variance of roles that horses play in this coming-of-age story, as they relate to John Grady Cole who is the focus of the novel. The horse, which was the social foundation of Western American culture then, is described as an economical and practical asset to the boys – John Grady and Lacey Rawlins. However, the author also describes horses’ abstract qualities using idyllic and impassioned diction, depicting them as animals of a highly advanced spiritual nature, similar to humans in some ways. John Grady has an intimate relationship with all horses and understands the world of horses extraordinarily well.
On his journey from Texas to Mexico, he learns that the world of men is very different from that of horses and is forced to rethink about the relationship between humans and horses. John discovers that his preconceived notions about men and human society are false. He finds that they do not live in a romantic world, as he had believed. Therefore, the title that McCarthy has chosen is ironic and symbolizes the change that John experiences. The author uses the title to represent John’s initial perspective on the world, which turns out to be the opposite later on.
John’s life, like all of Western American society during the timeframe of the story, revolved around horses. In fact, I think that he is able to understand the horses more than he does about men. The horses in the novel represent strength, untamed passion, and most importantly, freedom of spirit. The veneration that the vaqueros have for horses is apparent in the tales Luis tells the boys. “… the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing” (111). I feel that this quote demonstrates to the readers very well on the strong feelings of passion of the vaqueros, cattle-ranchers, that they value horses so highly that they are able to regard themselves as nearly divine.
It also reinforces John’s romantic notion that horses are highly spiritual beings. Like the vaqueros, the boys respect the horses, and these animals play large roles in their lives. The boys use horses in many ways throughout the novel, such as companions and as means of transportation or escape. John
even has dreams about horses, as “his thoughts were of horses…still wild on the mesa who’d never seen a man afoot and who knew nothing of him or his life yet in whose souls he would come to reside forever” (118). This style of expression used in referring to horses here “wild” and “souls” is idealistic and almost poetic. Furthermore, the fact that John dreams about horses in this way and that he wants to “reside forever” in their souls shows that he, like the vaqueros, thinks of them very highly.
Throughout the novel, the author does not fail to use romantic and emotional language to describe horses and their connections to humans. By using venerating diction in describing the horses, the author portrays these animals as noble being with wild spirits. Besides that, with vivid imagery, the author is able to paint us a poignant picture of horses. “The painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life…When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide” (5). This introduction of horses in the beginning of the novel demonstrates the passion and dedication that the author attributes to horses. The mood created by words such as “painted ponies” and “the breath of the horses” is passionate and emotionally charged. The author also continues to describe the raw energy and life that flows through the horses.
“John Grady…was holding the horse…with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world” (103). These metaphors such as “the dark wells of its nostrils” and “news from another world” create a forceful likeness of mysterious animals with a nature that is foreign to humans. The horse’s “hot sweet breath…flooding up” displays the life and energy that fill the horses. This mysterious energy is also apparent later, when the author writes, “He rode the last five horses…the horses dancing, turning in the light, their red eyes flashing…they moved with an air of great elegance and seemliness” (107).
This imagery of “red eyes flashing” and “horses dancing” is very mysterious yet still striking. The descriptive detail is very cinematic, and any of these scenes could easily be made into a movie. These extremely in depth descriptions are so exaggerated that they are almost unrealistic, but they are able to create the desired effect in making horses seem mystical and bizarre. These are the romantic creatures that John sees, the “pretty horses” that can be taken off the title.
John Grady’s connection with horses is as mystical as the horses themselves. He is one way or another, able to communicate with all horses on a deeper level than any other character in the story. This is evident on the Hacienda in the scene in which John and Rawlins are breaking some new horses. John “cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out” (103). John’s ability to “stroke the terror out” of the horses is just like in a case of a parent calming a frightened child. Obviously, he must have some natural tie with these animals if he is able to do this.
Indeed, the author has already unambiguously stated that such a bond does exist between John Grady and the horses earlier on when he writes, “The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he had been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway” (23). This passage shows that John’s relationship with horses extends into the metaphysical range, a view that is reinforced throughout the novel as more is revealed about John Grady and the horses. As Luis says, “the horse shares a common soul…if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were” (111). It seems like as if the author is trying to tell us that John Grady has this ability to be familiar with the soul of the horse, and that is why his relationship with horses is so unique.
John’s reliance on his knowledge of horses as a guide in the world of men eventually reveals to him that the two species are actually very different. When John starts out on his journey, he has very little knowledge about the inner workings of the human society, but he has superficially assumed men and horses to be similar. As the author writes in the opening of the novel, “What he loved in horses he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the
blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise” (6).
John knows that horses are “ardenthearted” and believes that men must be the same too. He thinks that his journey will be a romantic and passionate one, like the horses he loves, and will strengthen his view of the world. However, he soon learns that his assumption is not what the reality is. Before anything unfortunate happens to him, John hears from Luis that “among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all is probably an illusion” (111). The first doubts then began to creep into John’s mind, and eventually, he finds out about this personally.
Instead of “pretty horses,” John’s journey is filled with murder and stealing, prison and broken hearts. His ill-fated journey proves clearly about Luis’ point, and totally destroys John’s belief that the world of men is at all an understandable thing. Finally, when it is all over, he returns home disappointed, only to find that both his father and his Abuela have died. John’s fanciful concept of the world of men now has been completely replaced by a “world that…seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. Nothing for the living or the dead” (301). The world of “all the pretty horses” is nothing to him now but a distant memory. This reveals the title’s irony, a story titled All the Pretty Horses would apparently never involve the death and violence that is included in John’s travels. Indeed, John has come “full circle” and realized that his original assumptions about men were false.
The title of McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses is not meant to be taken literally. Before he runs away, John Grady believes in the world of “all the pretty horses,” because he has never known anything else. However, his time in Mexico disheartens him and forces him to believe otherwise, that the real world is not so simple, carefree, or innocent. John learns that the romanticism that he ascribes to horses cannot be applied to men. John respects horses and experiences the praise of these animals in the folklore of the day. His relationship with horses exists on many levels, by being his transportation, his friends, and his spiritual companions. Furthermore, the author illustrates the horses with emotional diction creating almost a motif of passion whenever horses are described. John’s unusual understanding of the fervent spirit of horses leads him to believe that men are the same. However, on his bleak and disappointing journey, he learns that men do not have the same passion of spirit as horses. Instead, they are unpredictable, violent creatures, and their world is certainly not always pretty.
I think that it is utterly important for us as readers to understand what the author is trying to tell us by looking at the title and try to understand deeper with the details that the author provides us. Initially I thought that this novel is just going to give details of various horses that man uses in many different ways. However, I was completely wrong on making the judgment by its cover – title. This novel teaches us about the reality in human world that no one will be able to predict what is going happen. He illustrates the morals and ethics that have survived throughout the ages, while ending up with nothing else is left, leaving only memories to be reminders of the mysterious and naturally beautiful time period. I am sure after reading this novel, one would never be able to forget the pain, suffering, romance, and above all loyalty inscribed on its pages or in the memories of those who lived through it.
Courtney from Study Moose
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