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Border Trilogy (1)

Written by Cormac McCarthyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Cormac McCarthy


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On Sale: August 11, 2010
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48130-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Now a major motion picture from Columbia Pictures starring Matt Damon, produced by Mike Nichols, and directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

The national bestseller and the first volume in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses is the tale of John Grady Cole, who at sixteen finds himself at the end of a long line of Texas ranchers, cut off from the only life he has ever imagined for himself.  With two companions, he sets off for Mexico on a sometimes idyllic, sometimes comic journey to a place where dreams are paid for in blood.  Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.

From the Trade Paperback edition.


The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. 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 wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. 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 moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

It was dark outside and cold and no wind. In the distance a calf bawled. He stood with his hat in his hand. You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said.

Inside the house there was no sound save the ticking of the mantel clock in the front room. He went out and shut the door.

Dark and cold and no wind and a thin gray reef beginning along the eastern rim of the world. He walked out on the prairie and stood holding his hat like some supplicant to the darkness over them all and he stood there for a long time.

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing groundshudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

She looked up from the stove when he came in and looked him up and down in his suit. Buenos días, guapo, she said.

He hung the hat on a peg by the door among slickers and blanketcoats and odd pieces of tack and came to the stove and got his coffee and took it to the table. She opened the oven and drew out a pan of sweetrolls she'd made and put one on a plate and brought it over and set it in front of him together with a knife for the butter and she touched the back of his head with her hand before she returned to the stove.

I appreciate you lightin the candle, he said.


La candela. La vela.

No fui yo, she said.

La señora?


Ya se levantó?

Antes que yo.

He drank the coffee. It was just grainy light outside and Arturo was coming up toward the house.

He saw his father at the funeral. Standing by himself across the little gravel path near the fence. Once he went out to the street to his car. Then he came back. A norther had blown in about midmorning and there were spits of snow in the air with blowing dust and the women sat holding on to their hats. They'd put an awning up over the gravesite but the weather was all sideways and it did no good. The canvas rattled and flapped and the preacher's words were lost in the wind. When it was over and the mourners rose to go the canvas chairs they'd been sitting on raced away tumbling among the tombstones.

In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he'd always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where 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 and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. 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 and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and footslaves following half naked and sorely burdened an above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.

He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west. He turned south along the old war trail and he rode out to the crest of a low rise and dismounted and dropped the reins and walked out and stood like a man come to the end of something.

There was an old horseskull in the brush and he squatted and picked it up and turned it in his hands. Frail and brittle. Bleached paper white. He squatted in the long light holding it, the comicbook teeth loose in their sockets. The joints in the cranium like a ragged welding of the bone plates. The muted run of sand in the brainbox when he turned it.

What he loved in horses was what 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.

He rode back in the dark. The horse quickened its step. The last of the day's light fanned slowly upon the plain behind him and withdrew again down the edges of the world in a cooling blue of shadow and dusk and chill and a few last chitterings of birds sequestered in the dark and wiry brush. He crossed the old trace again and he must turn the pony up onto the plain and homeward but the warriors would ride on in that darkness they'd become, rattling past with their stone-age tools of war in default of all substance and singing softly in blood and longing south across the plains to Mexico.

The house was built in eighteen seventy-two. Seventy-seven years later his grandfather was still the first man to die in it. What others had lain in state in that hallway had been carried there on a gate or wrapped in a wagonsheet or delivered crated up in a raw pineboard box with a teamster standing at the door with a bill of lading. The ones that came at all. For the most part they were dead by rumor. A yellowed scrap of newsprint. A letter. A telegram. The original ranch was twenty-three hundred acres out of the old Meusebach survey of the Fisher-Miller grant, the original house a oneroom hovel of sticks and wattle. That was in eighteen sixty-six. In that same year the first cattle were driven through what was still Bexar County and across the north end of the ranch and on to Fort Sumner and Denver. Five years later his great-grandfather sent six hundred steers over that same trail and with the money he built the house and by then the ranch was already eighteen thousand acres. In eighteen eighty-three they ran the first barbed wire. By eighty-six the buffalo were gone. That same winter a bad die-up. In eighty-nine Fort Concho was disbanded.

His grandfather was the oldest of eight boys and the only one to live past the age of twenty-five. They were drowned, shot, kicked by horses. They perished in fires. They seemed to fear only dying in bed. The last two were killed in Puerto Rico in eighteen ninety-eight and in that year he married and brought his bride home to the ranch and he must have walked out and stood looking at his holdings and reflected long upon the ways of God and the laws of primogeniture. Twelve years later when his wife was carried off in the influenza epidemic they still had no children. A year later he married his dead wife's older sister and a year after this the boy's mother was born and that was all the borning that there was. The Grady name was buried with that old man the day the norther blew the lawnchairs over the dead cemetery grass. The boy's name was Cole. John Grady Cole.

He met his father in the lobby of the St Angelus and they walked up Chadbourne Street to the Eagle Cafe and sat in a booth at the back. Some at the tables stopped talking when they came in. A few men nodded to his father and one said his name.

The waitress called everybody doll. She took their order and flirted with him. His father took out his cigarettes and lit one and put the pack on the table and put his Third Infantry Zippo lighter on top of it and leaned back and smoked and looked at him. He told him his uncle Ed Alison had gone up to the preacher after the funeral was said and shook his hand, the two of them standing there holding onto their hats and leaning thirty degrees into the wind like vaudeville comics while the canvas flapped and raged about them and the funeral attendants raced over the grounds after the lawnchairs, and he'd leaned into the preacher's face and screamed at him that it was a good thing they'd held the burial that morning because the way it was making up this thing could turn off into a real blow before the day was out.

His father laughed silently. Then he fell to coughing. He took a drink of water and sat smoking and shaking his head.

Buddy when he come back from up in the panhandle told me one time it quit blowin up there and all the chickens fell over.

The waitress brought their coffee. Here you go, doll, she said. I'll have your all's orders up in just a minute.

She's gone to San Antonio, the boy said.

Dont call her she.


I know it.

They drank their coffee.

What do you aim to do?

About what?

About anything.

She can go where she wants to.

The boy watched him. You aint got no business smokin them things, he said.

His father pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on the table and looked up. When I come around askin you what I'm supposed to do you'll know you're big enough to tell me, he said.


You need any money?


He watched the boy. You'll be all right, he said.

The waitress brought their dinner, thick china lunchplates with steak and gravy and potatoes and beans.

I'll get your all's bread.

His father tucked his napkin into his shirt.

It aint me I was worried about, the boy said. Can I say that?

His father took up his knife and cut into the steak. Yeah, he said. You can say that.

The waitress brought the basket of rolls and set it on the table and went away. They ate. His father didn't eat much. After a while he pushed the plate back with his thumb and reached and got another cigarette and tapped it against the lighter and put it in his mouth and lit it.

You can say whatever's on your mind. Hell. You can bitch at me about smokin if you want.

The boy didnt answer.

You know it aint what I wanted dont you?

Yeah. I know that.

You lookin after Rosco good?

He aint been rode.

Why dont we go Saturday.

All right.

You dont have to if you got somethin else to do.

I aint got nothin else to do.

His father smoked, he watched him.

You dont have to if you dont want to, he said.

I want to.

Can you and Arturo load and pick me up in town?


What time?

What time'll you be up?

I'll get up.

We'll be there at eight.

I'll be up.

The boy nodded. He ate. His father looked around. I wonder who you need to see in this place to get some coffee, he said.

He and Rawlins had unsaddled the horses and turned them out in the dark and they were lying on the saddleblankets and using the saddles for pillows. The night was cold and clear and the sparks rising from the fire raced hot and red among the stars. They could hear the trucks out on the highway and they could see the lights of the town reflected off the desert fifteen miles to the north.

What do you aim to do? Rawlins said.

I dont know. Nothin.

I dont know what you expect. Him two years oldern you. Got his own car and everthing.

There aint nothin to him. Never was.

What did she say?

She didnt say nothin. What would she say? There aint nothin to say.

Well I dont know what you expect.

I dont expect nothin.

Are you goin on Saturday?


Rawlins took a cigarette out of his shirtpocket and sat up and took a coal from the fire and lit the cigarette. He sat smoking. I wouldnt let her get the best of me, he said.

He tipped the ash from the end of the cigarette against the heel of his boot.

She aint worth it. None of em are.

He didnt answer for a while. Then he said: Yes they are.

When he got back he rubbed down the horse and put him up and walked up to the house to the kitchen. Luisa had gone to bed and the house was quiet. He put his hand on the coffeepot to test it and he took down a cup and poured it and walked out and up the hallway.

He entered his grandfather's office and went to the desk and turned on the lamp and sat down in the old oak swivelchair. On the desk was a small brass calendar mounted on swivels that changed dates when you tipped it over in its stand. It still said September 13th. An ashtray. A glass paperweight. A blotter that said Palmer Feed and Supply. His mother's highschool graduation picture in a small silver frame.

The room smelled of old cigarsmoke. He leaned and turned off the little brass lamp and sat in the dark. Through the front window he could see the starlit prairie falling away to the north. The black crosses of the old telegraph poles yoked across the constellations passing east to west. His grandfather said the Comanche would cut the wires and splice them back with horsehair. He leaned back and crossed his boots on the desktop. Dry lightning to the north, forty miles distant. The clock struck eleven in the front room across the hall.

She came down the stairs and stood in the office doorway and turned on the wall switch light. She was in her robe and she stood with her arms cradled against her, her elbows in her palms. He looked at her and looked out the window again.

What are you doing? she said.


She stood there in her robe for a long time. Then she turned and went back down the hall and up the stairs again. When he heard her door close he got up and turned off the light.

There were a few last warm days yet and in the afternoon sometimes he and his father would sit in the hotel room in the white wicker furniture with the window open and the thin crocheted curtains blowing into the room and they'd drink coffee and his father would pour a little whiskey in his own cup and sit sipping it and smoking and looking down at the street. There were oilfield scouts' cars parked along the street that looked like they'd been in a warzone.

If you had the money would you buy it? the boy said.

I had the money and I didnt.

You mean your backpay from the army?

No. Since then.

What's the most you ever won?

You dont need to know. Learn bad habits.

Why dont I bring the chessboard up some afternoon?

I aint got the patience to play.

You got the patience to play poker.

That's different.

What's different about it?

Money is what's different about it.

They sat.

There's still a lot of money in the ground out there, his father said. Number one I C Clark that come in last year was a big well.

He sipped his coffee. He reached and got his cigarettes off the table and lit one and looked at the boy and looked down at the street again. After a while he said:

I won twenty-six thousand dollars in twenty-two hours of play. There was four thousand dollars in the last pot, three of us in. Two boys from Houston. I won the hand with three natural queens.

He turned and looked at the boy. The boy sat with the cup in front of him halfway to his mouth. He turned and looked back out the window. I dont have a dime of it, he said.

What do you think I should do?

I dont think there's much you can do.

Will you talk to her?

I caint talk to her.

You could talk to her.

Last conversation we had was in San Diego California in nineteen forty-two. It aint her fault. I aint the same as I was. I'd like to think I am. But I aint.

You are inside. Inside you are.

His father coughed. He drank from his cup. Inside, he said.

They sat for a long time.

She's in a play or somethin over there.

Yeah. I know.

The boy reached and got his hat off the floor and put it on his knee. I better get back, he said.

You know I thought the world of that old man, dont you?

The boy looked out the window. Yeah, he said.

Dont go to cryin on me now.

I aint.

Well dont.

He never give up, the boy said. He was the one told me not to. He said let's not have a funeral till we got somethin to bury, if it aint nothin but his dogtags. They were fixin to give your clothes away.

His father smiled. They might as well of, he said. Only thing fit me was the boots.

He always thought you all would get back together.

Yeah, I know he did.

The boy stood and put on his hat. I better get on back, he said.

He used to get in fights over her. Even as a old man. Anybody said anything about her. If he heard about it. It wasnt even dignified.

I better get on.


He unpropped his feet from the windowsill. I'll walk down with you. I need to get the paper.

They stood in the tiled lobby while his father scanned the headlines.

How can Shirley Temple be getting divorced? he said.

He looked up. Early winter twilight in the streets. I might just get a haircut, he said.

He looked at the boy.

I know how you feel. I felt the same way.

The boy nodded. His father looked at the paper again and folded it.

The Good Book says that the meek shall inherit the earth and I expect that's probably the truth. I aint no freethinker, but I'll tell you what. I'm a long way from bein convinced that it's all that good a thing.

He looked at the boy. He took his key out of his coatpocket and handed it to him.

Go on back up there. There's somethin belongs to you in the closet.

The boy took the key. What is it? he said.

Just somethin I got for you. I was goin to give it to you at Christmas but I'm tired of walkin over it.


Anyway you look like you could use some cheerin up. Just leave the key at the desk when you come down.


I'll see you.

All right.

He rode back up in the elevator and walked down the hall and put the key in the door and walked in and went to the closet and opened it. Standing on the floor along with two pairs of boots and a pile of dirty shirts was a brand new Hamley Formfitter saddle. He picked it up by the horn and shut the closet door and carried it to the bed and swung it up and stood looking at it.

Hell fire and damnation, he said.

He left the key at the desk and swung out through the doors into the street with the saddle over his shoulder.

He walked down to South Concho Street and swung the saddle down and stood it in front of him. It was just dark and the streetlights had come on. The first vehicle along was a Model A Ford truck and it came skidding quarterwise to a halt on its mechanical brakes and the driver leaned across and rolled down the window part way and boomed at him in a whiskey voice: Throw that hull up in the bed, cowboy, and get in here.

Yessir, he said.
Cormac McCarthy

About Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy - All the Pretty Horses

Photo © Derek Shapton

Born in Rhode Island in 1933 but raised and educated in Tennesee, Cormac McCarthy is the author of a dozen previous novels and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Praise | Awards


"Rambunctious, high-spirited...All the Pretty Horses is a true American original." --Newsweek


WINNER National Book Awards
WINNER National Book Critics Circle Awards
WINNER ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

The questions, author biography, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at--and talking about--a novel that won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992 and that has established McCarthy as a writer whose popularity now approaches his critical reputation.

About the Guide

At once a Western, a picaresque adventure, and a coming-of-age novel, suspenseful, wryly funny, and elegiac, All the Pretty Horses is the story of John Grady Cole, the last of a long line of west Texas ranchers. Upon his grandfather's death and his parents' divorce, the sixteen-year-old Cole finds himself landless, penniless, and possessed of skills that mean nothing in a country transformed by highways and a world war, where cowboys are as doomed and marginal as the Indians they once displaced. With his friend Lacey Rawlins, John Grady sets off for Mexico. They have no idea what they will find there: on their map, the area south of the Rio Grande is blank. They have between them two horses, a rifle, and their bedrolls. The year is 1949.

In the months that follow the two boys--who are soon joined by a third, the unlucky Jimmy Blevins--will journey backward in time while simultaneously going forward into a precocious and saddened manhood. They will find their way to a place where a horse is still a thing of value and breaking one is considered a worthy feat, a place where love can still burn like a cold fire. But in Mexico love also has the power to destroy a reputation, and one can encounter obstacles of medieval severity. Stealing a horse--even one that is by all rights his own--can get a man killed. Or subject him to ordeals that amount to nothing less than the death of his former self.

About the Author

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933 and spent most of his childhood near Knoxville, Tennessee. He served in the U.S. Air Force and later studied at the University of Tennessee.

McCarthy's fiction parallels his movement from the Southeast to the West--the first four novels being set in Tennessee, the last three in the
Southwest and Mexico. The Orchard Keeper (1965) won the Faulkner Award for a first novel; it was followed by Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), Suttree (1979), Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), and The Crossing (1994). The last two books are part of McCarthy's Border Trilogy.

All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. McCarthy is also the recipient of a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, among other grants.

Discussion Guides

1. All the Pretty Horses opens with one death--that of John Grady'sgrandfather--and ends with the death of the family servant called Abuela,"grandmother." (At the novel's end, John Grady also learns that his father has died.) How do these deaths impel the novel's plot? What larger meanings do they suggest?

2. What other events in this novel occur more than once? How does McCarthy use repetition as a structuring device?

3. How does the author establish John Grady's character? How has he changed by the novel's end? At what points in the book do we see him change?

4. What attributes does McCarthy seem to value in his characters, and how can you tell he does so? Do these traits always serve them well, or are the boys in All the Pretty Horses victims of their own virtues?

5. On the hacienda an old man named Luis tells the boys that "the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal...that if a person understood the soul of a horse then he would understand all the horses that ever were" (p. 111). "Among men," Luis continues, "there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men could be understood at all was probably an illusion." How are these statements borne out or contradicted within the novel? To what extent does the author allow us to "understand" his horses, while keeping his human characters psychologically opaque? What sort of contrasts does McCarthy draw between the communal soul of horses (see especially pages 103-107) and the profound solitude of men? What role, generally, do horses play in this book?

6. On page 89 Rawlins says: "A goodlookin horse is like a goodlookin woman...They're always more trouble than what they're worth." How does this statement foreshadow events to come? Where else in the novel do casual statements serve as portents?

7. How does the author establish the differences between the United States and Mexico? How do their respective inhabitants seem to view each other?

8. Alejandra's aunt offers two alternative metaphors for the workings of destiny, comparing it both to a coiner in the moment he places a slug in the die and to a puppet show in which the strings are always held by other puppets (pages 230-231). Which of these metaphors seems more apt to the narrative as a whole? Is what happens to the boys in the course of the novel the result of character or fate?

9. Do the boys' journey and subsequent ordeals ever seem foolish, futile, or anachronistic? If so, how does McCarthy suggest this?

10. All the Pretty Horses is spare in exposition (note the economy with which McCarthy establishes John Grady's situation at the book's beginning) yet lavish in the attention it devotes to scenes and details whose significance is not immediately clear (note the description of the cantina on page 49 and the scene in which John Grady and Rawlins buy new clothes on pages 117-121). Why do you think the author has chosen to weight his narrative in this way?

11. Although John Grady and Rawlins are innocent of stealing horses, McCarthy suggests that they are culpable of other crimes. At different points in the book he compares them to "young thieves in a glowing orchard" (p. 31) and "a party of marauders" (p. 45). When John Grady makes love to Alejandra, we are told that it is "sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh" (p. 141). What kinds of theft might McCarthy be writing about? Might the boys' suffering be seen as warranted by earlier transgressions? What sort of moral system applies within the universe of this book?

12. Is All the Pretty Horses a violent book? How do the novel's characters feel about the deaths they cause? At a time when graphic and gratuitous descriptions of mayhem are standard in much popular fiction for purposes of mere shock and titillation, does McCarthy succeed in restoring to violence its ancient qualities of pity and terror? How does he accomplish this?

13. What role does history play in McCarthy's narrative? To what extent are his characters products of a particular era?

14. Although the occurrences in All the Pretty Horses are, strictly speaking, plausible and its human voices, in particular, are nothing if not realistic, the book also contains a strong mythic component. How, and where, does McCarthy introduce this? What specific myths and fairy tales does the book suggest?

Teacher's Guide


"A book of remarkable beauty and strength, the work of a master in perfect command of his medium....Like classic literary journeys before it--from Jason and the Argonauts chasing the golden fleece to Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi—this is a trip that covers much more than just geography. It covers the distance from childhood to adulthood and from innocence to experience."—Washington Post Book World

John Grady Cole, the last in a long line of west Texas ranchers, is, at sixteen, poised on the sorrowful, painful edge of manhood. When he realizes the only life he has ever known is disappearing into the past and that cowboys are as doomed as the Comanche who came before them, he leaves on a dangerous and harrowing journey into the beautiful and utterly foreign world that is Mexico. In the guise of a classic Western, All the Pretty Horses is at its heart a lyrical and elegiac coming-of-age story about love, friendship, and loyalty that will leave John Grady, and the reader, changed forever.

When his mother decides to sell the cattle ranch he has grown up working, John Grady Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins set out on horseback for Mexico, a land free of the fences and highways that have begun to invade west Texas, a land where the boys are not able to read the look in a man's eye. As they approach the Rio Grande, they are joined by the youthful and mysterious Jimmy Blevins, whose fine horse, hot-blooded temper, and talent with a pistol are as certain an omen of trouble as the desolate and forbidding landscape stretching out before them.

In a violent and freakish thunderstorm, Blevins loses all his worldly possessions; and the foolhardy attempt to recover them soon brands the boys as horse thieves. On the run, they split up, with John Grady and Rawlins finding refuge on a hacienda where few questions are asked and a talent for breaking horses is still a source of honor, and where they fall into a routine as familiar to them as the shape of their saddles.

At night, John Grady rides the patron's prized sire through the mountains beyond the hacienda in the company of Alejandra, the patron's beautiful daughter. But in a land as bound by honor and reputation as this is, the white-hot love between John Grady and this girl is as dangerous as anything they will face.

When soldiers arrive to take John Grady and Rawlins away, the boys know it has nothing to do with Jimmy Blevins, but is instead because of some deeper, more elusive transgression that John Grady has committed in the name of love. With no one to plead their case, their fate is dire indeed. John Grady and Rawlins find themselves in a Mexican prison governed by stark violence. But in the hands of Cormac McCarthy this place takes on a dreamlike quality; it is not right or wrong, good or evil, but merely as inevitable a part of life as the sun setting in the West, something that must be faced in order for one to survive.

All the Pretty Horses is the first volume in the Border Trilogy (the second volume is entitled The Crossing; and the third, The Cities of the Plain), and this name implies that the text is as much about the arid and desolate landscapes and blood-red skies of the great Southwest as it is about the people who inhabit the region. Together the land and sky form a lyrical tapestry that colors and alters the narrative in subtle and unexpected ways.

John Grady's journey leaves him wiser but saddened, yet out of this heartbreak comes the resilience of a man who has claimed his place in the world. Written with the lyricism that has made McCarthy one of the great American prose stylists, All the Pretty Horses is at once a bittersweet and profoundly moving tale of love, loss, and redemption and a stunning commentary on the nature of fate and the weight of manhood.


The following questions are designed to guide students through this rich and evocative story. They are broken into questions of "Comprehension" that will draw out some of the larger themes. These themes will be explored more directly in "Questions that further understanding." A deceptively simple tale, All the Pretty Horses deftly couples an American Western vernacular with some of the most moving and powerful prose in American literature. Much can be learned from the interplay of John Grady's taciturn voice and the rich and evocative descriptive passages that come together to create one of the few true modern classics. A remarkable blend of the Western, the coming-of-age novel, and the picaresque tradition, All the Pretty Horses is an ideal choice for classroom study, with depth and complexity and a compelling narrative that is certain to engage your students.



Chapter I

1. What is the occasion at the outset of the book, and what does it mean to John Grady?

2. After his grandfather's funeral, John Grady Cole rides along an old trail, dismounts at the crest of a rise, and stands "like a man come to the end of something." [p. 5] What has John Grady come to the end of? What might the future hold for him?

3. Why does John Grady's grandfather reflect upon primogeniture (inheritance by the first-born son)? [p. 7]

4. How would you characterize John Grady's relationship with his father? What do their conversations consist of? [pp. 8, 9]

5. What do we know about John Grady's father? About his mother?

6. What does John talk to Mr. Franklin about? What is it John wants? Is he able to accomplish it?

7. What does John Grady expect to find out when he watches his mother perform on stage? In contrast, what does he learn?

8. ". . .as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway." [p. 23] What does this mean? What is the author trying to say about John Grady?

9. What is Goshee? Why was John's mother so important to his father while he was there?

10. In the first chapter, John Grady's father tells him two things he has never told him before. [p. 25] What are they, and why does he choose this opportunity to tell him?

11. Why do John Grady and his father study the two horsemen who pass the cafe window? [p. 25] What does this tell you about father and son?

12. What does Rawlins mean when he says, "I could understand if you was from Alabama you'd have ever reason in the world to run off to Texas. But if you're already in Texas. I don't know?" [p. 27]

13. Who is Mary Catherine, and what is John Grady's relationship to her?

14. "He stood back and touched the brim of his hat and turned and went on up the street. He didn't look back but he could see her in the windows of the Federal Building across the street standing there and she was still standing there when he reached the corner and stepped out of the glass forever." [p. 29] What does McCarthy mean by this?

15. Why is Rawlins worried about his father catching him? [p. 30]

16. What does McCarthy mean by "ten thousand worlds for the choosing?" [p.30]

17. John Grady and Rawlins set out on this trip together. Who instigated it and why?

18. Why don't John Grady and Rawlins want to ride with the Jimmy Blevins? Why do they think someone is hunting the horse he's riding, and why do they let him come along?

19. When they find out Blevins can shoot, does it change their attitude toward him?

20. Why does Blevins abruptly leave the Mexican household? How do John Grady and Rawlins feel about his leaving? How do you feel about it? Was it an appropriate response to the situation?

21. What do you think of the zacateros they encounter, who are riding up into the mountains? [pp. 61, 62] How are they dressed? What are their skills as horsemen? What does John Grady think of them, and what does this tell you about him?

22. How does Blevins lose his horse, gun, and clothes? What do you think of this scene? Is it comic or tragic?

23. Why does Rawlins want to leave Blevins? [p. 76]

24. How do John Grady and Rawlins feel when the arrive at the hacienda? Why do they feel that way?

Chapter II

1. Have John Grady and Rawlins broken horses before? Do they seem knowledgeable about it?

2. Why does John Grady talk to the horses before he rides them? Why is this effective?

3. John Grady sets out to break all sixteen horses. Why is this important to him?

4. Does John Grady tell Don Hector about Blevins? Why not? Does this seem like a wise choice?

5. John Grady shares with Don Hectór the belief that "other than cattle there was no wealth proper to a man." [p. 127] Why do they believe this? What does it say about them?

6. What does Alejandra mean when she says, "You are in trouble?" [p. 131]

7. What does McCarthy mean by "Real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal?" [p. 132]

8. "Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real." [p. 135] What does dueña Alfonsa mean by this? Do you agree with her?

9. Why is John Grady so confused by his conversation with dueña Alfonsa?

10. Compare the game of chess with the grandmother and the game of pool with the father.

11. What is John Grady's relationship with Alejandra? What do they have in common, and what sets them apart?

12. What does Don Hectór mean when he says, "Beware gentle night there is no greater monster than reason?" [p. 146]

13. Why do the soldiers come to take John Grady and Rawlins away? Was this situation avoidable?

14. Why do you think Rawlins will not meet John Grady's eyes as they are taken away by the Mexican soldiers?

Chapter III

1. Describe the image of Blevins in jail.

2. How would you describe Blevins' code of honor? What do you think of his leaving the house of the Mexican family after falling over backward? What about getting his horse back and then returning for his gun? Are his actions partially responsible for the trouble they all face?

3. Discuss John Grady's "horse dream" on pages 161-62. What does this dream mean to him?

4. Why doesn't the captain believe Rawlins is who he says he is?

5. Why is Rawlins so angry at Blevins? Is he fair to blame Blevins for their predicament?

6. When they stop at the abandoned estancia, Blevins is nervous. Why does Blevins give John Grady his money?

7. How do John Grady and Rawlins feel about the execution of Blevins? How do you feel about it? Is it just?

8. "Yet the captain inhabited another space and it was a space of his own election and outside the common world of men. A space privileged to the men of the irreclaimable act which while it contained all lessor worlds within it contained no access to them. For the terms of election were of a piece with its office and once chosen that world could not be quit." [p. 179] What does McCarthy mean by this?

9. What does the captain mean when he tells them to "make arrangements?" What does he expect of John Grady and Rawlins?

10. How would you describe the prison in Saltillo?

11. What does John Grady mean when he says, "Horse had nothing to do with it?" [p. 185] Do you agree?

12. How would you describe the boy John Grady has a knife fight with? What caused it, and was there anything John Grady could have done to avoid it? How does he feel about it afterward?

13. What does McCarthy mean when he describes the prison as "So like some site of siege in an older time, in an older country, where the enemies were all from without?" [pp. 208-9]

14. Who gets John Grady and Rawlins out of prison? Why?

Chapter IV

1. Why does John Grady return to the hacienda?

2. "And after and for a long time to come he'd have reason to evoke the recollection of those smiles and to reflect upon the good will which provoked them for it had power to protect and to confer honor and to strengthen resolve and it had power to heal men and to bring them to safety long after all other resources were exhausted." [p. 219] What do you think of this passage? What does it mean for John Grady?

3. Why do the people from the hacienda treat him so indifferently when he returns?

4. Discuss the passage about dreams on page 225.

5. What does the aunt mean by "The societies to which I have been exposed seemed to me largely machines for the suppression of women." [p. 230] Do you agree about this in her case? What about your own?

6. What does Grady learn in the final confrontation with the aunt? What do you think of the aunt in the wake of their discussion? What does John Grady think? Why does the aunt reject John Grady's plea for Alejandra?

7. "Those whom life does not cure death will." [p. 238] What is the meaning of this passage?

8. What does John Grady discuss with the children on page 244? Why? What do the children think of his predicament? How does the Mexican culture of the time affect their reaction?

9. What do we learn about John Grady's capture from the grandmother? Do we believe her?

10. "He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all." [p. 254] What does this mean for John Grady? Is this further commentary on the role of fate in the novel?

11. "He saw a light over a doorway in the corrugated iron wall of a warehouse where no one came and no one went. He saw a vacant field in a city in the rain and in the field a wooden crate and he saw a dog emerge from the crate into the slack and sallow lamplight like a carnival dog forlorn and pick its way brokenly across the rubble of the lot to vanish without fanfare among the darkened buildings." [p. 255] How are John Grady's feelings reflected in this paragraph?

12. Why does John Grady go to retrieve his horse? Would he have taken this action at the beginning of the novel?

13. How does he get away from the posse?

14. Why does he take the captain with him? Is John Grady planning to kill him?

15. What happens when he is awakened by "the men of the country?" Why do they take the captain, and what is his ultimate fate?

16. What does the wedding near the end represent? What does it mean to John Grady? What is McCarthy implying here?

17. Why does John Grady confess to the judge?

18. What does he tell the reverend? Why?

19. The reverend says "There's a purpose for everything in this world." [p.296] In light of this statement, discuss the reverend's philosophy.

Questions for further discussion

1. Compare and contrast John Grady, Rawlins, and Blevins. Is one of them the leader? If so, who and why?

2. John Grady experienced a number of profoundly significant events in the course of the novel. How do they affect him? What qualities does John Grady develop as he matures during the course of the novel? What role does the killing of the boy in prison play in his development?

3. Why does John Grady feel he needs to return the horse? Would he have gone to such lengths at the beginning of the story?

4. In chapter one Rawlins tells Grady "Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision made before got me into it." Do John Grady and Rawlins do any dumb things that cause them harm?

5. Dueña Alfonsa discusses two views of fate. The first, regarding the connectedness of things, is shown in the example of a "tossed coin that was at one time a slug in a mint and of the coiner who took that slug from the tray and placed it in the dye in one of two ways and from whose act all else followed." And then: "For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on." [pp. 230-31] Discuss these two passages and the meaning of fate in the novel.

6. Do Blevins's fate and John Grady's confrontation with the boy in prison seem inescapable? What purpose does violence serve in the narrative?

7. What is the role of death in All the Pretty Horses? The novel opens with the death of John Grady's father and closes with the death of Abuela. Why do you think this is the case?

8. All the Pretty Horses is set in 1949. Why that year? Could this story take place today? How would it be different? How does the time period affect the story?

9. What do you think of McCarthy's portrayal of Mexico in 1949? Do you think it is like the Mexico of today? What role does Mexico itself play in the narrative?

10. What does the judge represent? Compare him to the captain. What does this say about Mexican law versus that of the United States? How would a Mexican have fared in Texas in 1949?

11. What is the nature of religious beliefs in All the Pretty Horses? Compare and contrast the roles of the judge and the reverend. What does this say about the respective places of religion and law within the narrative?

12. Why all the blood-red imagery? Why are the landscapes often described as blood-red? On page five you find images of blood and the recent frontier, and the threat of Comanche warriors still echoing in the air. What feeling is McCarthy trying to create?

13. What role do horses play in the novel? Do they represent anything beyond what they are?

14. The dreams in this novel are suffused with images of horses. What do the dreams represent?

15. Discuss the role of the landscape in the narrative.

16. How would you describe McCarthy's language? Does he use the vernacular often? And what about the passages that are not delivered in the voice of the characters?

17. Read Faulkner's short story "Spotted Horses" and compare the role of the horse in this to All the Pretty Horses.


Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, and Suttree; Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn; Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island; William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August; Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time and The Old Man and the Sea; Homer, The Odyssey; Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove; William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow; Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall.


This teacher's guide was written by Edward Kastenmeier. He is a Senior Editor at Vintage Books.


Copyright © 1997 by Vintage Books
Random House Academic Marketing
ISBN 0-676-52047-2

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