Summary and Analysis
From Saltillo, John Grady catches rides north on a truck with farm workers whose goodwill he appreciates. They arrive in Monclova at midnight. He sleeps on a bench and the next day has a breakfast of coffee and pan dulce before catching two more rides. He bathes in an irrigation ditch and starts to walk toward Cuatro Cienagas. Everyone speaks to John Grady as they pass, and, in the evening, workers in a camp invite him to supper. Through a series of rides, he makes his way beyond Nadadores, out of La Madrid, and into La Vega. After buying a Coke in a small store, he starts walking toward La Purisima, and after dark he knocks on the manager's door, only to find that Sr. Rocha and Alejandra are in Mexico City. Antonio gives John Grady his and Rawlins' belongings.
John Grady sleeps in his old room in the barn, and, in the morning at breakfast, he is told that Alejandra's great-aunt has invited him to see her that evening at ten o'clock. He asks if he can ride the horse, and he takes the stallion out for the day, riding across the lands of the beautiful hacienda. He thinks of Alejandra and Blevins. At one point, he passes a dead colt being devoured by buzzards. Later, he comes upon an abandoned cabin. He picks an apple, but it is too green to eat and the cattle have eaten all the ripened apples from the ground. The stallion is nervous in the old cabin and, on the ride home, is afraid of its own shadow.
He has a cigarette with the vaqueros who ask him about Rawlins, whom they miss. They tell John Grady the news, but nothing of the Rocha family. He goes to the kitchen and waits to see the old señorita. Alejandra's great-aunt tells John Grady he has been a great disappointment to Sr. Rocha and a great expense to her. He replies, "I've been some inconvenienced myself." John Grady is angry that he didn't have the opportunity to tell his side of the story. She says that the Rocha family had John Grady investigated, and they found he lied twice. She confirms what he had suspected — that Alejandra promised never to see him again if the aunt paid for him to be released. They argue about the recent events, and then the great-aunt tells John Grady more of her life's story, about the Mexican Revolution and the Maderos. She talks about her father and his philosophy. She recounts the poverty in Mexico when she was young. She explains how Gustavo Madero helped her face her handicap after the shooting accident and how he was brutally treated — burned and shot after his arrest. She relates how Francisco Madero was also shot and how the family went into exile. She talks about the bonds of grief, about how she stayed in Europe and taught school in London until after her father's death. Now she visits his grave near the house and talks to him. John Grady asks again to be able to make his case, and she tells him she knows his case.
The next morning John Grady tells his friends goodbye and picks out the horse he calls "Rawlins' grullo." At noon, near farmland, he stops to have his lunch given to him at the hacienda, and he shares it with some children who want to know his story. So he tells them of Rawlins and Blevins and Alejandra. An older girl tells him he is forgetting that he is poor and the family is rich. She says he should appeal to the "grandmother," meaning the oldest female member of his intended's family. When he tells them that is not possible, they suggest a medicine woman. Finally, they tell him to pray.
John Grady rides to Torreon and phones Alejandra in Mexico City. Finally, she agrees to meet him in Zacatecas on her way to the hacienda. She will travel by train. He stables the grullo and catches a train and arrives in Zacatecas in the late afternoon. He gets a room in the Reina Cristina Hotel and walks around the old city. Alejandra's train is late and he almost doesn't recognize her in a blue dress and hat. She tells him he is thin. They walk and have dinner in a public place where the men stare at her. He tells her everything. Alejandra does not understand John Grady, or men in general, and says, "What are men?" Alejandra tells him that she told her father of their affair. "How could you tell him?" John Grady responds. Alejandra cries. She believes that her father did not kill John Grady in the mountains when the greyhounds came into the camp because he was afraid Alejandra would commit suicide if he did.
In the hotel room, John Grady asks Alejandra to go away with him. In the morning, she tells him she had a dream some time ago in which she saw him dead and she made a promise for his life. She takes him to the plaza where her grandfather died in 1914, serving under one of the Maderos. They go to the hotel room and make love, and she tells him she cannot go with him. He takes her to the train, where they part for the last time. He gets drunk, and in the morning he does not know where he is. He hitchhikes back to Torreon. He buys shells for his pistol and rides into the countryside. That night, he camps without a fire and listens to his horse grazing. He thinks about the pain of the world. Five days later, John Grady comes to a crossroads and decides to go the other way to La Encantada. "I aint leavin my horse down here."
He captures the captain who shot Blevins, and they ride to the hacienda where the horses are. After some fighting and the passive help of a charro, he does retrieve his horses, but eventually he must leave the grullo behind, because it is not strong enough for the trip. But he is able to travel with Redbo, Junior, and Blevins' big bay. John Grady has rigged a pistol to shoot after he and the horses are farther away, and it does, leading their followers off the trail. He keeps the captain as a hostage and doctors himself by putting a fire-heated pistol into his wounds to cauterize them. The captain says he can go no father, but John Grady helps him by pulling his shoulder back into place. He awakens to three men of the country standing over him. They take the keys and the captain, but they give John Grady a blanket. He never sees them again. He rides all day, headed north, killing a small doe for food.
John Grady crosses the river west of Langtry, undressed with his boots stowed, as he had entered Mexico in "that long ago," as McCarthy notes. In Texas, naked, he sits on his horse and looks at the pale landscape and knows his father is dead in that country. He weeps. John Grady knows this only by intuition, and he is right. In the town of Langtry, he finds out it is Thanksgiving Day. He rides the border country for days, trying to find the owner of the big bay. Then, just before Christmas, three men try to go to court to get the horse. He tells his story to the judge, who thinks kindly of John Grady and sends him on his way. After hearing a reverend named Jimmy Blevins on the radio, he goes to Del Rio to meet the man. The preacher and his wife feed John Grady and tell him the horse is not theirs. They have no memory of anyone fitting Blevins' description. The minister tells him how he came to be a radio personality. John Grady never finds the owner of the horse, and, finally, the first week of March, he is back in San Angelo.
He goes to Rawlins' house and whistles to get Rawlins' attention. John Grady returns Rawlins' horse, Junior, to his friend. When Rawlins asks John Grady what he's going to do next, John Grady says he's going to head out. Rawlins points out that it's still "good country," and John Grady says, "Yeah. I know it is. But it aint my country." Before John Grady rides away, he goes to the funeral of Abuela. He stands across the road, and, after all the mourners leave, he walks the cemetery where he knows most of the Spanish names. He rides west, leading his second horse. Some camped Indians watch him, without any reaction.
The final chapter is the unraveling and unwinding of all that has come before. It begins with the outcast theme, as John Grady, injured but healing, makes his way back to La Purisima. It contains the greatest disillusionment of the novel, when Alejandra rejects John Grady and leaves him forever. And it continues to answer the cause and effect questions — this most clearly seen in the meeting between John Grady and Alejandra's great-aunt.
John Grady is portrayed as the wanderer, wandering with some purpose until the very last page when he sets out with Redbo and the big bay to become only a silhouette on the horizon. Until this moment, he has ridden with purpose — to try to find Alejandra, to retrieve his horses, to find the owner of the big bay. But at the end of the novel, he joins those who wander forever.
Mexico has let down John Grady. It is a land of cruelties he had not imagined when he first came upon its beauty. The great-aunt is rigid in her adherence to reason. She has no sympathy for the young, the idealist (even if she thinks she once was one herself), the romantic. And Alejandra is too educated and tied to her society to run away with John Grady. She even refers to herself as a whore because of the affair she had with John Grady, clearly unable to reconcile the passion she felt toward John Grady with the role she has been groomed to play.
So all of John Grady's Mexican adventures have resulted in him being an outcast again. Was it not enough that John Grady was cast out from his own family ranch after his grandfather's death? Now he has to endure leaving another beloved landscape. He takes the stallion on a day's ride across the property, just as he had taken a last ride with Redbo on the Texas ranch. But here, in Chapter IV, the images are even more onerous: the dead colt being eaten by buzzards, the cabin that has some kind of spooky spirit that bothers the horse ("There was a strange air to the place. As of some site where life had not succeeded."). Is John Grady's destiny to fail as those before him failed?
But although sadness and loss pervade this chapter, goodwill is also a strong force We see that goodwill in the children who share lunch with John Grady and try to advise him on how to win Alejandra back; in the country peasants who take the captain away from John Grady but leave John Grady with his horses and even give him a blanket, taking pity on his plight and blessing him with their kindness; in the many people who feed John Grady; in the judge who believes him and lets him keep the bay horse; and in the Reverend Jimmy Blevins and his wife, who feed him a huge meal. These people, all of whom are strangers, offer advice and help to John Grady.
The person from whom John Grady learns the most is the judge. Forthcoming with wisdom and advice, he tells John Grady that he is being too hard on himself. The judge points out that the prisoner John Grady killed was not a good person and reminds him that the captain was not a peace officer at all. The judge is trying to teach John Grady that there really are, after all, good men and bad men in this world, and we must be able to distinguish between the two.
Disillusion is a major theme in Chapter IV. Rawlins is going home, but neither he nor John Grady is happy. When Alejandra leaves John Grady in Zacatecas, there is more than disillusion; there is a sense of foreboding and doom. Thus, when John Grady makes it back to San Angelo with the three American horses, it is a testament to his strength of will. Sheer willpower brings John Grady back to Texas to his friend Rawlins, whom he has never wanted to let down. One of John Grady's best qualities is loyalty, and he demonstrates this to the end. John Grady also demonstrates his honesty; it is because he believes in honesty and truth that he travels for three months in the border region searching for the original owner of Blevins' big bay. The one inconsistency in John Grady's character is the lie he tells to Rocha when he says he doesn't know Blevins. The fact that such an honest and honorable person could be lowered to this level serves as a warning to all of us of what can happen if we ignore our sense of right and wrong.
In the end, having traveled and learned lessons he could not have anticipated, John Grady is alone to face the death and funeral of Abuela, the old grandmother who raised him. The novel comes full circle, from the grandfather's death in the beginning to the death of his Mexican caretaker. And both the ranches, Texan and Mexican, offer no future for John Grady. So he sets out to travel west, to New Mexico, perhaps in search of another ranch — a bittersweet ending to a wonderful adventure.
The last scene of All the Pretty Horses, in which John Grady rides into the red sunset, is what can be referred to as western existentialism. The myth of the cowboy in the west is present, but the image is demythologized. To visualize the scene is to see that classic scene from Gone with the Wind of the riders and stragglers walking across the hill in silhouette against the sky. Scarlett does return to Tara (which is similar to the Latin word "terra," meaning earth, signifying her connection to her family's land) and she does survive, but she loses her Rhett. John Grady loses Alejandra, so there is a parallel there as well. Scarlett's great passion is the land and running the plantation to make money so she will never starve again. John Grady's passion is horses and wanting to have a ranch. Because the land is often so barren in the western border region, few admit to loving that land the way Scarlett loved her beautiful Tara, but in Cities of the Plain, John Grady and another cowboy have a discussion in which they admit they find this land very satisfying. Yet it is the work and love of horses, and ranching with them, that drives John Grady. He loves his friends with great loyalty, just as Scarlett cares for her family, but essentially it is the landscape they are both tied to, even if the connections to that landscape have differing sources. John Grady cannot be attached to his family ranch, because it is irretrievably lost, so he moves on in the quest for "the" ranch.
The silhouette on the horizon is a modern image, perhaps first used in the movie Gone with the Wind, and now come to represent the modern dilemma of displaced people. The other movie that has used that image with great power is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, in which the characters are dancing in silhouette at the end, after death has taken them all, except for the artist, wife, and baby. Strong parallels exist between this movie and All the Pretty Horses: the longing for home, and the knight who has been on an arduous quest, only to return and have to play chess with Death on a regular basis. John Grady's quest is not over at the end of All the Pretty Horses and he will continue to search for a home, but he has certainly been playing chess with Death. He survives for now, but when will he be checkmated?
John Grady — a lover of horses, passionate, rash, strong, stubborn, and, for now, a survivor — joins a long line of memorable characters.
McCarthy adds a great touch to the final scene, just before we see the last of John Grady. He passes some Indians camped on the western plains.
The indians stood watching him. He could see that none of them spoke among themselves or commented on his riding there nor did they raise a hand in greeting or call out to him. They had no curiosity about him at all. As if they knew all that they needed to know. They stood and watched him pass and watched him vanish upon that landscape solely because he was passing. Solely because he would vanish.
The key phrases here are "he was passing" and "he would vanish." What McCarthy is concluding is that all of us are just passing along, both on and in the landscape, and we all will vanish. The point of the novel is not the myth, or the heroics, or even the survival. Perhaps, like the knight of faith, John Grady does go out each day to fend off evil and try to do good. But in the end he is just passing by.
The final words of the novel — ". . . horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come. . . ." — remind us of Katherine Anne Porter's story of death, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." The horse and rider are becoming pale or transparent, like a photo dissolving. The land is "darkening," signaling not just the end of the day, but the end of the dreams, the end of the old way of life, and, ultimately, death.
We know the novel has circled back to San Angelo from the grandfather's funeral to Abuela's funeral. Will John Grady be like all the great uncles who never died in bed or on their own ranch? Or will he find a ranch and turn out more like the man he was named after? A certain sense of doom lingers here at the end. The reader can choose to leave the story with a sense of hope, because of John Grady's ability to survive. Or the reader can take the signs of fading and darkness to mean John Grady is destined to fade into darkness as well.
De dónde viene? (Spanish) Where are you from?
Tejas. Y dónde va? (Spanish) Texas. And where are you going?
El va a ver a su novia. (Spanish) He is going to see his girlfriend.
pan dulce (Spanish) sweet bread.
Quién está en las casa? (Spanish) Who is in the house?
Se fue él y la hija a Mexico. Por avión. (Spanish) He and the young girl fled to Mexico City. By airplane.
Cuándo regresa? (Spanish) When does he return?
Quién sabe? (Spanish) Who knows?
Tus cosas quedan aqui. (Spanish) Your things are here.
Sí. Tu pistola. Todas tus cosas. Y las de tu compadre. (Spanish) Yes. Your pistol. All your things. And those of your friend.
Yo no se nada, joven. (Spanish) I know nothing, young one.
Entiendo (Spanish) I understand.
En serio (Spanish) It is serious.
Está bien. Puedo dormir en lad cuadra? (Spanish) It is okay. May I sleep in the stable?
Sí. Si no me lo digas. (Spanish) Yes. If you don't tell me.
Cómo están las yeguas? (Spanish) How are the mares?
Mochila (Spanish) pack or knapsack.
Puedes esperar aquí. Se levantará pronto. (Spanish) You can wait here. She will get up soon.
Quisiera un caballo. (Spanish) I would like a horse.
Sí. Por el día, no más. (Spanish) Yes. For the day, no more.
Tienes tu caballo. Espérate un momento. Síentate. (Spanish) You may have the horse. Wait a moment. Sit.
Ándale pues (Spanish) Well, let's go.
Vigas (Spanish) beams.
tacked and quartered a riding technique that makes the horse move with a special gait so that it moves forward, but with its body at an angle.
Estás bienvenido aquí. (Spanish) You are welcome here.
Ya comiste? (Spanish) Have you eaten?
adobada sauce marinated sauce.
Siéntate. Hay tiempo. (Spanish) Sit. There is time.
Está en las sala. (Spanish) She is in the parlor.
Gachupines (Spanish) lower-class Mexicans whose speech has a twang.
Soldadera (Spanish) female soldier.
cara y cruz (Spanish) heads or tails.
Teníamos compradrazgo con su familia. (Spanish) We had a good empathy with their family.
Quinceañera (Spanish) coming out party at age fifteen.
Mozo (Spanish) young servant.
Ojo Parado (Spanish) Glass Eye.
Abrazo (Spanish) embrace.
Puede vivir con nosotros (Spanish) You can live with us.
Es bonita, su novia? (Spanish) She is beautiful, your intended?
De acuerdo (Spanish) Of course, or agreed.
Que ofensa le dio a la abuelita? (Spanish) What offense did you give the grandmother?
Es una historia larga (Spanish) It is a long story.
Curandera (Spanish) medicine woman; folk doctor who cures; wise old woman.
Puede dejarlo atrás (Spanish) You can put it back.
Afuera (Spanish) outside.
Por dónde? (Spanish) Where?
Por aquí? (Spanish) Through here?
Hice una manda (Spanish) I have made a promise.
Lloraba to madre. Con más razón tu puta. (Spanish) Your mother was crying. With more reason than your whore.
callejones (Spanish) alleys.
melcocchas and charamuscas (Spanish) taffy(s) and candy twists.
Alcatraz shape to stuff things in.
Quién fue el Pensador Mexicano? (Spanish) Who was this Mexican thinker?
Cierra la puerta (Spanish) Close the door.
Criada (Spanish) maid.
Mande? (Spanish) Come again? What?
Ya estás, viejo? Sí, cómo no. Ven aqui. (Spanish) You are already old? Yes, of course. Come here.
No lo mire a él. Te lo digo yo. Ándale. (Spanish) Don't look at him. I tell you. Go forward.
quiero mi caballo (Spanish) I want my horse.
Tú. Dónde están los otros caballos. (Spanish) You. Where are the other horses.
Tenemos un preso (Spanish) I have a prisoner.
Un ladrón (Spanish) A thief.
Tenemos que ver un caballo (Spanish) We have to see a horse.
Qúe pasó, hombre? (Spanish) What happened, man?
Quién está contigo? (Spanish) Who is with you?
No tire el caballo (Spanish) Don't shoot the horse.
No me mate (Spanish) Don't kill me.
Pásale. Nadie le va a molestar. (Spanish) Pass on. No one will hurt you.
Está loco (Spanish) You are crazy.
Tiene razón (Spanish) I have my reasons.
Carabinero (Spanish) rifleman.
Quítese su camisa (Spanish) Take off your shirt.
No tiene otra salida (Spanish) No other way out.
Está compuesto? (Spanish) Is it set?
Deme las llaves (Spanish) Give me the keys.
Cuáles de los caballos son suyos? (Spanish) Which of the horses are yours?
Todos son míos. (Spanish) They are all mine.
Donde está su serape? (Spanish) Where is your blanket?
No tengo. (Spanish) I have none.
Veronica (Spanish) pass with the cape; a special movement in bullfights. Veronica refers to how the cape is held, in the manner of St. Veronica as she wiped Christ's brow. A very graceful movement in the bullfight.
Hombres del país (Spanish) Men of the country.
huevos revueltos (Spanish) scrambled eggs.
Canela (Spanish) cinnamon.
Comal (Spanish) a hot iron or grill used over an open fire.
lay hands on in Christianity, a way of passing on the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes used by clergy, like Reverend Blevins, for healing purposes.
crystal set an old kind of radio, with an earphone for hearing. The crystal picked up the sounds.