All the Pretty Horses

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Alejandra’s great-aunt, the matriarch of the hacienda. She was a bookish child and had radical, free-thinking ideas, making her a natural partner to Francisco and Gustavo Madero, two brothers who would help to start the Mexican Revolution. Like Alejandra, Alfonsa was always proud and stubborn—she refused to return from Europe if it meant promising her father that she would renounce her relationship to the Madero brothers. In many ways, Alfonsa is an admirable example of a woman ahead of her time. She tells John Grady that it is not his poverty or class that matters to her, but his ability to affect Alejandra’s honor through his entanglement with the law. Nevertheless, Alfonsa’s true motivations remain ambiguous. It’s difficult to tell whether she is truly acting in Alejandra’s best interests, or is instead using her compelling story to justify more selfish interests. Her monologue on fate and destiny is similarly ambivalent.

Alfonsa Quotes in All the Pretty Horses

The All the Pretty Horses quotes below are all either spoken by Alfonsa or refer to Alfonsa. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of All the Pretty Horses published in 1993.
Part 4 Quotes

Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing.

Related Characters: Alfonsa (speaker), John Grady Cole
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa has called John Grady to him so that he might understand that she was the one who had him freed from prison, though only on the condition that he and Alejandra never see each other again. In a long series of passages, Alfonsa attempts to justify her decision to John Grady, while also musing on her own past and the way in which she sees Mexican history and individual choice within it. Alfonsa brings up a question that has beset several of the characters throughout the novel: whether there is ultimately an underlying order to the world, or whether life is only a chaotic series of events.

For Rawlins and, at times, John Grady, this question has been closely tied to the existence and the omniscience of God: if an all-powerful God exists, then he would be the author of a pattern, which would exist. Alfonsa does not refer to God in this passage, but she too is concerned with such ideas. What is terrifying for Alfonsa is that the lack of a pattern, the existence merely of random events, would to her mean that human actions are essentially meaningless. Yet she cannot, at least here, determine whether the pattern exists or not—whether there really is a kind of meaning or purpose behind the events of life.

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My father had a great sense of the connectedness of things. I’m not sure I share it. He claimed that the responsibility for a decision could never be abandoned to a blind agency but could only be relegated to human decisions more and more remote from their consequences. The example he gave was 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 die in one of two ways and from whose act all else followed, cara y cruz. No matter through whatever turnings nor how many of them. Till our turn comes at last and our turn passes.

Related Characters: Alfonsa (speaker), John Grady Cole
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa continues to speak to John Grady about her own past and her thoughts about Alejandra's future. For her these notions are inextricably bound up with the question of fate: whether there is an ultimate pattern in everything that happens, and thus whether all that happens does so for a reason, or whether events are no more than random. Alfonsa's father, for his part, does not seem to embrace the exact notion of fate that some others, like the cook Luis, have espoused to John Grady. Rather than understanding actions as driven by an external force, God or another power, Alfonsa's father sees causes and consequences as part of an unending stream of human activity: whether one tosses a coin and sees heads or tails (cara y cruz) might seem to have nothing to do with a coiner making money out of metal, and yet these two events are tied together, however distant they may seem. One particular human being enters into this stream at a given point, but it is larger than himself or herself. However, even as Alfonsa describes this viewpoint of her father's, she doesn't align herself with it entirely, complicating the book's portrayal of fate even more.

He said that those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart but that it is just that misfortune which is their gift and which is their strength and that they must make their way back into the common enterprise of man for without they do so it cannot go forward and they themselves will wither in bitterness.

Related Characters: Alfonsa (speaker), John Grady Cole, Gustavo Madero
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa tells John Grady of a severe accident she suffered to her fingers as a teenager, an accident that made her, in the eyes of society, much less appealing as a marriageable young girl. However, Gustavo Madero, recently returned with his brother Francisco from Europe, was one of the few who continued to call on her  and speak with her. He had a glass eye from an accident of his own, and it was Gustavo who cheered Alfonsa by talking of their shared misfortunes, and of the strength that they can draw from it. 

In some ways, Gustavo's sense of those struck by misfortune as "set apart" recalls the way John Grady perceives those, like the captain, who have murdered. The difference in Gustavo's opinion is that he stressed the need to immerse oneself once again in the "common enterprise" of human activity, so as not to become embittered and isolated. Alfonsa drew solace from Gustavo's words because they seemed to suggest that meaning could be drawn from an apparently meaningless, painful accident. In addition, his words tied the two of them together as people who had experienced more than others. Especially since Gustavo would later die a horrible, violent death, Alfonsa continues to remember his emphasis on courage and constancy, and his attempt to draw meaning from tragedy and violence.

The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.

Related Characters: Alfonsa (speaker), John Grady Cole
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa finishes the story of her past to John Grady by telling him of how her father sent her off to Europe, refusing to bring her home unless she would disassociate herself from the radical Madero brothers, which she refused. As a result, she did not return home until her father, as well as both the brothers, were dead. Alfonsa recognizes now that her father was more like than unlike Gustavo, and she regrets her stubborn idealism. She has lived long enough now to understand the difference between "the dream" and "the reality": she has accepted that even the greatest idealism is no match against the ruthlessness of the world.

The way this quotation is structured, though, leaves us with little sense that Alfonsa's growing knowledge and wisdom about the way of the world, or her dismissal of youthful idealism, has anything positive or fruitful about it. She does not embrace reality as a productive, meaningful truth revealed, but rather only forces herself to come to terms with it. Indeed, she portrays this process of maturation as tragic and inevitable, taking place as a result of vast workings on the scale of life itself.

In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change.

Related Characters: Alfonsa (speaker), John Grady Cole
Related Symbols: Religion, Blood
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa was once a student of biology, which taught her that the way to best decide on causes and effects, and distinguish between them, was to put one set in an experiment aside to use as a control group: that is, a group that the experimenters never touch, so that they can compare it to what happens to the other sets that they do modify. This scientific method, Alfonsa argues, is useless for history, because there is never any group that remains outside historical forces: there is thus no way to know how things could have been different if certain events had never occurred. 

Again, Alfonsa expresses her deep skepticism that experience and knowledge are positive goods. She has certainly gained wisdom, but those she loved were still violently killed, and Mexican history has only grown uglier—there is no redemptive power to that experience, as she sees it. Rather than understand God as the author of a pattern lying behind everything, she sees even God as implicated in the irrational, bloody forces of human desires. The law of violence, as Alfonsa understands it, seems to be the only way that she can make sense out of human affairs—and even this law has nothing inherently meaningful behind it.

It’s not so much that I dont believe in it. I dont subscribe to its nomination. If fate is the law then is fate also subject to that law? At some point we cannot escape naming responsibility. It’s in our nature. Sometimes I think we are all like that myopic coiner at his press, taking the blind slugs one by one from the tray, all of us bent so jealously at our work, determined that not even chaos be outside of our own making.

Related Characters: Alfonsa (speaker), John Grady Cole
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa has explained to John Grady that she has told him about her past so that he might understand her, even if he still hates her for separating him from Alejandra. Indeed, Alfonsa argues that even though things happened outside John Grady's control, that is no excuse in his favor.

Alfonsa has already positioned herself as a skeptic with regard to the existence of fate, that is, a predetermined pattern that dictates what will happen and who we will be. Here she qualifies that view. Fate, according to Alfonsa, is something we think of as an external, independent force, and yet we often use it to assign responsibility for why things happen the way they do, just as we think of ourselves or others as responsible for what we as people do (and how we affect others). Fate, then, comes to be another way for humans to put themselves at the center of the world: rather than an escape of responsibility, it is for Alfonsa another way of considering responsibility, as people become convinced that you can trace actions back to a given agent (even if that agent is a kind of personified Fate, like the coin-maker).

Alfonsa's tone suggests that she is doubtful about this possibility, and humans don't really have control over anything—there is no "responsibility" if everything is essentially random. But Alfonsa also recognizes that it almost doesn't matter whether or not fate and responsibility exist, or whether or not she doubts their existence, since human history has proven that we cannot get away from these ideas no matter what.

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Alfonsa Character Timeline in All the Pretty Horses

The timeline below shows where the character Alfonsa appears in All the Pretty Horses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
...books, a piano, a pair of Greener guns, and other belongings of the dueña (madame) Alfonsa, Alejandra’s grandaunt and godmother. There are pictures of her taken in front of European cathedrals,... (full context)
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Alfonsa invites John Grady into the dining room, speaking with an English accent. They play chess,... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Alfonsa says she lost her fingers in a shooting accident when she was seventeen, Alejandra’s age.... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Loyalty and Belonging Theme Icon
...watching a storm from the north, and John Grady tells him about his conversation with Alfonsa. John Grady says she’s easy to talk to. Then he looks at Rawlins and asks... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Several nights later, Alejandra knocks at John Grady’s bunk. She asks what Alfonsa said to him, and John Grady tells her. She says she won’t be treated in... (full context)
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
...Don Héctor, who wins easily, tells John Grady of the history of Mexico and of Alfonsa and Francisco Madero, whose brother may have been engaged to her. The families were very... (full context)
Part 3
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon
Loyalty and Belonging Theme Icon
...their steaks and fried potatoes, Rawlins lights a cigarette and asks why they’re not dead. Alfonsa the aunt must have paid them out, John Grady says. He expects it has to... (full context)
Loyalty and Belonging Theme Icon
...mind. Rawlins says there’s only one kind of a deal Alejandra could have made with Alfonsa, and John Grady says he knows, but she’ll have to tell him herself. (full context)
Part 4
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
...hacienda just after dark and knocks at the gerente’s door. Antonio comes out, saying that Alfonsa is at home, but Don Héctor and his daughter have left for Mexico City. No... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
...house, where Carlos is standing outside and nods to him gravely. María tells him that Alfonsa is still asleep, and that she will be gone all day and will return before... (full context)
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
...is born in a certain country and not another. No one speaks of Don Héctor, Alfonsa, or Alejandra. (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
After dinner John Grady waits in the kitchen until María tells him that Alfonsa is in the parlor. She stands formally and with a chilling elegance. Alfonsa says Héctor... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
John Grady asks why Alfonsa bought them out of prison. She says he knows that, and that he also knows... (full context)
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon
John Grady says he would have thought Alfonsa’s own disappointments would have made her more sympathetic to others. Alfonsa says he thinks he... (full context)
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
Alfonsa sees a child, but also a version of herself, in Alejandra. In another life she... (full context)
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
As a child, Alfonsa was deeply affected by the devastating poverty in Mexico. Families owned nothing, and attempted to... (full context)
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Alfonsa says her family had compadrazgo (loosely, comradeship or closeness) with the family of Francisco Madero.... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon
Alfonsa was especially attracted to Gustavo, who had a glass eye from an accident, and with... (full context)
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Loyalty and Belonging Theme Icon
...the United States, but he and Gustavo returned with guns and the revolution began. Meanwhile, Alfonsa was sent to Europe. Her father refused to bring her home unless she promised to... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon
...of rifle shots. Francisco was shot behind the penitentiary. The family went into exile, but Alfonsa is still close with Francisco’s wife Sara. They are joined by bonds of pain, as... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon
Alfonsa didn’t return from Europe until her father died, and now she regrets that she didn’t... (full context)
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Alfonsa often speaks to her father at his grave, knowing he did not want to make... (full context)
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
John Grady says Alfonsa won’t let him make his case for being with Alejandra, and she says his case... (full context)