A death vigil serves as the opening scene in All the Pretty Horses. It is the year 1949, and John Grady Cole has returned to the ranch for the wake of his grandfather. It is dark and cold in the early morning when he learns from the housekeeper that his mother is also in the house. Wearing a black suit, John Grady walks down a hallway where portraits of his ancestors hang. A candle lights the room where his grandfather is laid in funeral cloth. The only sounds are a clock ticking and the whistle of a train. He goes to the kitchen and has coffee with Luisa.
At the funeral John Grady sees his father. A storm is brewing, with spits of snow and lots of wind, which cause the preacher’s words to be lost. That evening John Grady saddles his horse for a ride near the old Comanche road, which comes down from the Kiowa country on the western section of the ranch. He returns in the dark.
McCarthy provides John Grady’s family history, and we finally learn the protagonist’s name. The house in which John Grady grew up was built in 1872. The original 1866 ranch had 2,300 acres; the first house was one room made of sticks and wattle. The grandfather was the oldest of eight boys, the only one to live past the age of 25 and the first to die in the house. The Grady surname dies with the old man.
John Grady meets his father in the lobby of a hotel in town, and they go to the Eagle Cafe to eat. His father has little appetite and smokes too much, according to his son, who chastises him for the habit. They arrange a horseback ride for Saturday. In the next scene John Grady and his friend Rawlins have returned from a ride and are discussing John Grady’s mother, who has a boyfriend only two years older than John Grady. He rubs down his horse and goes to the kitchen for coffee. Then John Grady enters the study of his grandfather. His mother comes down the stairs and asks him what he is doing and he replies, “Settin.”
He spends some afternoons talking with his father about why he didn’t buy the ranch. The father at one time had money from work in the oil rigs and gambling but wasted it all. He is a veteran of World War II and hasn’t spoken to John Grady’s mother for seven years. The father gives John Grady a Hamley Formfitter saddle.
John Grady stays on the ranch with Luisa and Arturo after his mother returns to San Antonio and her acting engagements. When she returns, John Grady tries to get her to lease him the ranch. She says it hasn’t paid for 20 years and that he has to go to school. John Grady goes to see a lawyer named Franklin who does not give him any hope about the ranch. They also talk about John Grady’s father’s ill health.
After Christmas, when his mother is away most of the time, John Grady hitchhikes to San Antonio to see her in the play she is appearing in. He does not let her know he is there, but he watches her from behind a newspaper with her young boyfriend in the lobby of the Menger Hotel.
In March, he takes a last ride with his father. They discuss horses, John Grady’s girlfriend, and John Grady’s future. His father provides some explanation of his marriage to John Grady’s mother as well as their divorce. The father wants John Grady to make up with his mother. Closing on the ranch sale is scheduled to take place June 1. John Grady and his friend Rawlins make plans to run away on their horses. He sees his girlfriend, Mary Catherine, for the last time.
The last two-thirds of Chapter I follow the two young men on their horses to the border at Langtry and tell of their ride approximately 170 miles into Mexico to a large hacienda where they seek work as cowboys.
Their journey is filled with the details of riding and camping and finding food and water. Their brief discussions are often about horses and women.
A raggedy kid on a big horse attaches himself to John Grady and Rawlins. Rawlins wants to leave him, but John Grady is kinder, even though he joins Rawlins in teasing the country kid.
After their food supply is depleted, they occasionally buy food. But they also rely on the kindness of strangers. In one scene, they are invited to dinner with a Mexican family. The two little girls in the family enjoy laughing at Blevins when he leans back and falls off the bench at the table.
The three boys get some fermented drink from some migrant traders, which makes them very drunk and sick. They leave to continue their journey.
A storm comes and Blevins is afraid of lightning and tells stories about his relatives who have been struck dead. He tries to outride the storm. John Grady and Rawlins find him the next morning, naked except for undershorts. He has removed all of his clothes so that he is wearing no metal and will not attract lightning. His horse and pistol are gone, and all his clothes, except one boot, have washed away.
In a dangerous and comic scene, the three boys recover the horse they find in a village. Water becomes even more of a problem than it has been in the past, and the horses start to suffer. John Grady and Rawlins split ways with Blevins, whose horse is stronger; Blevins tries to get the pursuers to follow him.
Finally, John Grady and Rawlins come upon grass that has been described to them as part of a beautiful hacienda. The vaqueros, or cowboys, tending the cattle let them follow along, and the foreman takes them to the manager’s house. A young girl in English riding gear rides by from the marsh on a black Arabian horse. John Grady and Rawlins are hired on and sleep in the bunkhouse.
The major characters of Chapter I are John Grady Cole, his best friend Rawlins, his parents, and his grandfather. But the sidekick Blevins, the landscape (as noted by others), and the horses are also major players in the story. McCarthy’s descriptions of the land, vegetation, and wildlife impart to the novel a tone and texture that frames the events and the characters.
The theme of nature is strong. The sense of place imbues the characters, especially John Grady, with a masculinity that makes them larger than life and certainly more significant than labels like “cowboy” or “macho.” John Grady is talented and skilled — lucky enough to be doing what he was born to do. When John Grady rides, he is one with the horse. This ease is seen clearly when he takes one foot out of its stirrup, leans over on the other side, and picks up Blevins’ hat, never slowing his horse and always maintaining the gait.
John Grady loves the land, and the first great tragedy of the story is the fact that his family’s ranch will be sold after his grandfather’s death. In analyzing the causes of the sale of the ranch, we see a changing world where a horse culture is dying. World War II is one of the villains of the story, because it has left John Grady’s father unable to take charge not only of his own life and marriage, but also of the ranch.
John Grady’s mother is an actress playing at a theater in San Antonio in a play that disappoints John Grady because it tells him nothing about the way the world “was or was becoming.” His mother is determined to get rid of the ranch, and she refuses to let John Grady lease it or become any part of it. All of the Mexican workers at the ranch will have to leave as well.
In this chapter, we find out that John Grady’s parents are only recently divorced, although they have been separated for nearly John Grady’s entire life. His mother may have planned to sell her father’s property after his death all along. We know that the lawyer John Grady consults says there is nothing to be done, and that same lawyer had warned John Grady’s father about signing the divorce papers because he knew that to do so would be to give up his rights to the land. So both of John Grady’s parents may be partially responsible for the outcome.
But we must also wonder about the role of John Grady’s grandfather in the unfortunate conclusion to the family ranch. We know that he defended both his son-in-law and his daughter — the daughter in fights against gossipers and the son-in-law when he was reported missing in the war. How could such a man with so much caring for his family, of whom everyone is so fond, not plan for the ranch’s future? Was he unable to plan for the future because he was paralyzed by the deaths of his seven younger brothers? Did he not know what to do with his land because he had no sons? He must have known his daughter would not keep the ranch, and how could he not see his son-in-law’s problems and weaknesses? Did it occur to him to provide for his namesake, his grandson John Grady? Perhaps fatalism plays a role in the grandfather’s indifference. Often, one hears a defeated, aging person say, “Well, I don’t care what happens to this ranch, or farm, after I die.” The Grady family story is a warning to others that if you love the land, you must plan for its future. The American Dream isn’t just about acquiring land and fortune and assuming that it will be passed down as one wishes to the next generation. The land, and ownership of it, is a trust; providing for its future is as important as proper grazing techniques and keeping up the fences. Indeed, the American Dream should not just be about providing money for one’s heirs. The greatest legacy would be to save the land for future generations’ contented enjoyment. Apparently, Grandfather Grady did not have the vision to do this.
So Chapter I begins not only with a wake and a funeral in the cold of winter shortly before Christmas, but also with the impending loss of the ranch. The significance of the ranch is not its size; what matters is that it carries the entire history of John Grady’s family, from the moment his great grandfather first came to America. John Grady tries valiantly to save the ranch. He hitchhikes to San Antonio to observe his mother, to try to understand her and find a way, then, to change her mind. He talks, not only to the lawyer, but to both of his parents, to no avail. Now the ranch will be acquired by an oil company, or worse, and who knows what will become of it.
Another significant loss in John Grady’s life is the marriage of his parents. His father tells him that he and John Grady’s mother shared a love of horses and says he thought that was enough. Obviously, and unfortunately, it was not. The freedom with which John Grady’s mother leaves her family to pursue acting — and a younger male companion — is very unusual for the era. This loss of his parents’ marriage — and of a cohesive family — prophesies the great fracture that would occur in American life with shocking percentages starting about 20 years after the novel takes place. More importantly, it foreshadows problems with which John Grady will struggle in his own life. Rawlins tells John Grady that women aren’t worth it, but John Grady replies, “Yes, they are.” However, even with his optimism about women, the problem of love and making a workable relationship are ones that John Grady will struggle with in the last half of All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain, the third of McCarthy’s trilogy and the sequel to John Grady Cole’s story.
After the somewhat bizarre funeral of his grandfather, with the lawn chairs blowing about and the minister’s words lost, John Grady Cole saddles his horse in the evening’s long shadows and rides one of many solitary rides, to the western edge of the ranch where he imagines a past with painted ponies and riders of the lost nation, pledged in blood, as he dreams the scene. He thinks that when the wind is in the north he can hear them, the breath of the horses and their hooves shod in rawhide. He pictures in his mind a complete scene, from dogs and children and women to the giant serpent-like marks in the sand from their dragging travois poles. He hears their song and mourns their short and violent lives.
Although the negative themes of death, loss of family and love relationships, and a change in the land are critical in All the Pretty Horses, some positive themes do hold their own. The first of these positive themes is friendship. The bond between Rawlins and John Grady extends beyond their similar problems with their families; they are complements to each. John Grady is the more skilled, honorable, and idealistic of the two — and probably the brightest. But Rawlins gives him perfect dialogue, not only in their discussions of life and death, but in their undertakings. Rawlins is the realist, the survivor, who is always slightly cynical. He tries to moderate John Grady’s excesses, and even if he does not succeed, they always consult each other when solving a problem. John Grady and Rawlins have been successful in their journey and survived and reached the place they were searching for. McCarthy says, “The vaqueros knew them by the way they sat their horses and they called them caballero.” This is significant, because “caballero” is the highest designation for a cowboy or rider. “Caballero” has connotations of hero, just like the American best use of “cowboy.” And the word derives from gentleman, which adds to the distinction in Spanish culture. A vaquero is also a highly skilled horseman or cowboy, but not quite as highly regarded, yet superior to a trainer of horses. In the United States, “cowboy” often has a higher designation than “wrangler” or “horse handler,” but now sometimes it has a derogatory meaning. Not so with caballero and vaquero. So, by making this long trip and by how they sit their horses, the Mexican vaqueros have given high praise to John Grady and Rawlins by calling them “caballero.”
Above all else, All the Pretty Horses is an adventure story. It is this journey, started in Chapter I, that helps both of the young men to mature. John Grady begins the story as the 16-year-old boy who arrives at the ranch dressed in a black suit, trying to be grown up for his grandfather’s funeral. When he views the body, he says, “That was not sleeping,” as though he were a child who has been told that death is a sleep and who must grow up and face what death really is.
waisted cutglass vase a vase ornamented with patterns cut into the glass, considered valuable as an antique; “waisted” here apparently refers to the shape, usually called “hourglass,” but either McCarthy likes to humanize important objects or this is a southern expression.
Buenos dias, guapo (Spanish) Good morning, handsome guy.
Como? (Spanish) What?
la vela (Spanish) the candle.
No fui yo (Spanish) It wasn’t me.
la senora (Spanish) the mistress (of the house) or Mrs.
claro (Spanish) of course.
Ya se levanto? (Spanish) She’s already up?
antes que yo (Spanish) before me.
Comanch, Kiowa Native American Indian tribes who were located in the central and western plains of the United States.
grail object of endeavor. The holy grail was the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and the object of the knights’ medieval quests (searches or journeys).
die-up cowboy language for a big loss of livestock.
Palmer Feed and Supply blotter a heavy piece of almost felt-like paper, approximately 18 inches square, which protects the wood on a desk and is used to blot the ink of writing when using an old-fashioned ink well and pen. An old western practice of feed stores was to give good customers presents at Christmas. Today, feed store memorabilia is considered quite valuable and includes household utensils that are inscribed.
Good Book the Christian Bible.
Hamley Formfitter saddle Hamley was a respected and prominent saddle maker of the era before and during the novel. The term “formfitter” designated a type of saddle where the cantle (the swells at the rear of the saddle) were very high and almost tight fitting, making it more difficult for the rider to fall out of the saddle. However, if the saddle was not custom fitted to the owner, it might have been too difficult for the rider to get into or out of the saddle.
Algo mas? (Spanish) Anything else?
Buenas noches (Spanish) Good night.
Andalusian an ancient breed of horses from Andalucian, Spain; often gray, but also black or bay (reddish brown) in color. Many horse breeds can be traced to these high-stepping horses, including the Lipizzaner. The Spaniards brought these horses to North and South America, where such breeds as the Mustang, Criollo, Paso Fino, and Appaloosa can trace an Andalusian lineage.
Barb an ancient breed of horse originating in Algeria and Morocco known for their toughness and stamina; may also be quick-tempered. These horses may date back to prehistoric times and have similarities with the Arabian horse, with which they have been crossbred since the Muslims invaded the north coast of Africa. However, the Barb has a broader head than the Arabian horse, and slopping hindquarters as well. The foundation horses of England and America can be traced back to this Barb horse. Most horse breeds have mixed lineage, with some breeds having been crossbred more than others. The Barb is a horse with certain strong physical features, but it was not bred purely until quite recently. In contrast, the Arab has been purebred for centuries and is perhaps one of the few breeds that one could rightly call purebred. This subject is a confusing one, even to horse fanciers, because a horse can be registered in a breed, depending on its lineage and its characteristics. Many horses are registered as part of a distinct breed, but they may not be “pure” at all.
Steeldust a famous stallion in 19th century Texas; a legendary bay quarter horse that came from Kentucky and sired many horses for the old Texas foundation horses.
cutting horse a western horse bred for cutting, or separating, cattle from the herd. These horses can move very quickly, make exceptional sharp turns, and spin around on one back hoof to close in on a wayward steer or cow. The best cutting horses are known for being, as the cowboys say, “cowy”; that is, they are attracted to cattle and are interested in moving in close and shoving them into place.
Mas cafe? (Spanish) More coffee?
Si por favor (Spanish) Yes, please.
Hace much frio (Spanish) It is very cold.
Bastante (Spanish) That’s enough. (Here, this probably refers to filling the coffee cup and not to the weather, although it may be referring to both.)
closing a real estate term for the day when all papers are signed in the sale of a piece of property.
soogan bedroll; derivation may be Native American.
catspaw a tool for grabbing that has one or more hooks.
gyp water containing gypsum and, thus, calcium.
javelina wild pig.
bajada (Spanish) drop; slope.
gunsel goose or criminal.
Colt Bisley with guttapercha grips Colt revolvers were the popular guns that won the West. Guttapercha is a hard rubber-like material from a Malaysian tree. This gun handle, or grip, is made of that material.
nopal prickly pear cactus of which many varieties exist. The fruits of many varieties of nopal are edible, and the beaver-tail shaped pads, found in some varieties, also make good food.
creosote a shrub of the desert southwest with small leaves and a pungent smell. Also called greasewood and chaparral. Used as a cancer treatment by the Native Americans.
tienda (Spanish) store.
Tiene also que tomar? (Spanish) Do you have anything to drink?
Buenas tardes (Spanish) Good afternoon.
retablo an artwork often fashioned of tin.
Deben comer (Spanish) You ought to eat.
bizcochos Mexican biscuits or hard rolls.
cordilleras (Spanish) chain of mountains.
sideoats grama a short pasture grass that is very resilient and makes decent nutrition for cattle and horses.
Basketgrass a native grass to the Americas, used in making baskets.
Lechugilla a large wild lettuce, shaped from a crown, like a century plant.
kiacks baskets hung at the side of pack animals.
Son de Tejas? (Spanish) Are you (plural) from Texas?
buena suerte (Spanish) good luck.
candelilla large-leaved plants used to make wax.
cholla a desert cactus of which there are many varieties, most with terrible stickers, but often beautiful in their miniature tree shapes.
Que vale? (Spanish) What is it worth?
Es mucho trabajo (Spanish) It is a lot of work.
Es su hermano, el rubio? (Spanish) Is he your brother, the blonde?
Quien es? (Spanish) Who is he?
un muchacho, no mas (Spanish) a kid, no more.
Algun parentesco? (Spanish) Any kinship?
un amigo (Spanish) a friend.
pollarded mountains mountains with the peaks cut off.
hackamore a horse bridle that has no bit and uses a rope fitting around the top of the horse’s nose, about four inches up from the muzzle. Knots at the side of the nose attach to the reins. The horse is controlled because, when the reins are pulled, the hackamore shuts off the horse’s air by tightening around the nose. The side knots, if positioned carefully, can also press sensitive nerves to help control the horse. Without extra equipment, John Grady and Rawlins are fashioning this bridle so that Blevins can still ride bareback.
ocotillo a Sonorean desert plant, not a cactus, but with tall, thin, pole-like branches that fan out from the base. These poles have very small green leaves all over when the plant has received enough rain, and the tops form six-inch, flag-like, orange-red flowers. The poles make excellent fences.
paloverde a southwestern tree about four to eight feet tall. The name means green stick. These trees have no leaves unless they receive rain, in which case they become covered with fern-like greenery and flowers. They can photosynthesize from their bark and stems and can live for extremely long periods without water.
caballero (Spanish) vernacular for “cowboy”; also, originally, “gentleman who travels by horse”; here, both meanings apply.
cienagas (Spanish) swamp or marsh.
gaited rack a little trot. A good saddle horse can perform two walks, two trots, a rack, two lopes or canters, as well as a gallop.
caporal (Spanish) foreman.
gerente (Spanish) manager.
gueros (Spanish) fighter.