All the Pretty Horses

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Themes and Colors
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon
Loyalty and Belonging Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All the Pretty Horses, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate and Responsibility Theme Icon

Is taking responsibility for one’s own actions an essential part of growing up, of accepting what it means to be human? Or is it simply hubris to assume that humans can escape or conquer fate? The novel doesn’t take a clear-cut position either way. Instead, the characters struggle to determine what they are responsible for and what remains beyond their control. During a long conversation between John Grady and Alfonsa, she mentions a story her father used to tell to explain his conviction that responsibility can always be traced to human decisions. The story concerns a coin-maker who chooses which way to place the metal, heads or tails. From this, all other decisions follow—heads or tails—as remote as they may become. Alfonsa isn’t sure she agrees with her father, however, as she thinks that human nature makes us “determined that not even chaos be outside our own making.” Alfonsa’s skepticism about the ability to master fate stems directly from the twists and turns of her own life, in which suffering and pain seem often to remain outside her or anyone’s control. Paradoxically, she asks John Grady to accept his fate—no longer being able to see her grand-niece Alejandra—as inevitable, even though she intervened directly to bring it about.

For John Grady and Rawlins, the tension between fate and responsibility is tied to Jimmy Blevins, who seems to simply appear in their lives and remain there, as if their fates were destined to be intertwined. John Grady and Rawlins are torn between wanting to be free of him and feeling responsible for his well-being. John Grady’s deep-seated guilt, shown as he confides to the judge at the end of the novel, stems from what he sees as his inability to take full responsibility for Blevins’ safety. Guilt and penitence only make sense in a world in which people are fully responsible for their actions. In addition, each time John Grady and Rawlins talk about God, they are implicitly discussing fate—if and how things could have turned out differently, and why things happen the way they do. These conversations are circular and inconclusive. While the novel never fully decrees whether humans are ultimately responsible for their own actions, it shows just how troubling this ambiguity can be, especially when other people’s lives are involved.

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Fate and Responsibility ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate and Responsibility appears in each part of All the Pretty Horses. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate and Responsibility Quotes in All the Pretty Horses

Below you will find the important quotes in All the Pretty Horses related to the theme of Fate and Responsibility.
Part 1 Quotes

Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell. You dont know what’s goin to happen. I’d say He’s just about got to. I don’t believe we’d make it a day otherwise.

Related Characters: Lacey Rawlins (speaker)
Related Symbols: Religion
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Rawlins and John Grady have narrowly escaped being caught by ranchers as Blevins was trying to get "his" horse back. They've lost Blevins, and Rawlins has expressed some concern about the boy's safety, even though both he and John Grady have been exasperated at Blevins's naiveté when he was tagging along. 

Rawlins has a greater tendency to voice his religious thoughts and doubts than John Grady, and several times over the course of this book he treats his friend as a sounding board for such questions. His suggestion here is about the interrelation of seemingly disjointed events. These connections can be so obscure and so complex, he says, that mere human beings do not stand a chance at unraveling the true causes of events; there must be a God, then, who is beyond it. The existence of a God who has written a script backing up all the causes and consequences of worldly affairs would be comforting, at least, as it would mean that Rawlins would not have to imagine himself in a meaningless void. But if all human actions are ultimately directed by a divine force, it is unclear to what extent human beings are responsible for their own actions. This is a problem that the book will return to again and again, as John Grady and Rawlins consider the consequences of their own actions, and their own responsibility for other people. 


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Part 2 Quotes

Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all was probably an illusion. […] Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole, Luis
Related Symbols: Horses, Religion
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Luis, in the same conversation with John Grady and Rawlins as above, has already suggested that there is something shared between the souls of human beings and of horses. Here he qualifies that view, expressing an even more pessimistic outlook on the fate of humans. Even if there is something shared in these beings' souls, Luis suggests, humans fail to understand that unity. Luis also continues to use his age and lived experience not to convince John Grady and Rawlins of certain truths, but rather to show how, according to what he has learned over the years, so little about human beings can be understood at all.

John Grady is fascinated by Luis and by his knowledge of horses. He takes the opportunity to run his own theories on the souls of horses past the elderly man. However, Luis is skeptical about this desire to construct theories or play hypothetical, "what-if?" games. For Luis, the world is the way it is because of what God has ordained. God has filled the world with horses, so it will remain with horses as part of his larger plan, and it is pointless to speculate on what things would be like otherwise. The book seems to privilege Luis's point of view as someone who has slowly and painfully gained knowledge and humility over the years; but it also underlines how difficult this same process will be for John Grady, who still has the innocence of youth. 

Part 3 Quotes

But some things aint reasonable. Be that as it may I’m the same man you crossed that river with. How I was is how I am and all I know to do is stick. I never even promised you you wouldnt die down here. Never asked your word on it either. I dont believe in signing on just till it quits suitin you.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole (speaker), Lacey Rawlins
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady and Rawlins have been captured by guards and led away from Don Hector's hacienda, quite possibly at Don Hector's command (because of John Grady's budding relationship with Alejandra). They have reached the town of Encantada, and neither of the boys knows what is going to happen to them, or even what they may be charged for. Rawlins is sulking, angry at John Grady for having gotten them both into this mess. Here John Grady attempts to defend himself through two arguments. First, he says that he hasn't changed, and indeed wouldn't know how to change if he wanted to. All they can do is accept what the world has in store for them, and react to it the best way that they know how. Second, John Grady appeals to Rawlins's sense of loyalty, which he knows is strong in his friend, and to the value of determination in refusing to "quit" each other when things become difficult.

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 men of the irreclaimable act which while it contained all lesser 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.

Related Characters: The captain
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady is attempting to grapple with the captain's killing of Blevins, especially since the captain seems to consider it as merely a business transaction, an opportunity for him to fulfill the desire of the brother of the man Blevins killed, though outside the official legal system. This passage is quite obscure, but its very obscurity underlines the confusion that John Grady feels as he attempts to draw meaning out from an action (murder, or "the irreclaimable act") that can only seem meaningless.

Through John Grady's eyes, the captain is portrayed as someone who willing chose or "elected" to murder, a choice which assigns him irrevocably to a certain class of fellow murderers. This class of people are still tied to the world—the world includes, of course, those who are murdered—and yet murderers still stand apart from them, fated to always be identified as such. This requirement of assuming responsibility for such a choice has something awe-inducing, almost admirable in it for John Grady, even as he cannot at this point imagine joining the ranks of this class. Still, he is beginning to recognize that a space where violence always seemed a weak background threat is actually full of stark choices concerning decisions of life and death.

I never thought I’d do that.
You didnt have no choice.
I still never thought it.
He’d of done it to you.
He drew on the cigarette and blew the smoke unseen into the darkness. You dont need to try to make it right. It is what it is.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole (speaker), Lacey Rawlins (speaker)
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady has just killed another prisoner, and he is expressing the shock of what seems to have been an almost disembodied experience: he repeats to Rawlins that he never could have imagined doing such a thing. In claiming that John Grady had to kill the man, since he would have been killed himself otherwise, Rawlins is trying to comfort his friend, and also to in some way justify John Grady's actions.

John Grady refuses to accept any easy answers or justifications for why he killed. At this moment, John Grady's thoughts on the captain after he killed Blevins—thoughts expressed in a quotation above—come back to haunt him: John Grady has now joined the ranks of that class of murderers that he once perceived as so divided from the rest of the world. Even then, John Grady had considered the captain as possessing some kind of powerful secret, but now John Grady hardly revels in his new status—he has gained unique knowledge and experience, but has also lost a crucial kind of innocence forever. Now, though John Grady doesn't seem particularly emotional about his guilt, he is still apparently committed to bearing the burden of his actions and taking responsibility for them.

Part 4 Quotes

They were saddened that he was not coming back but they said that a man leaves much when he leaves his own country. They said that it was no accident of circumstance that a man be born in a certain country and not some other and they said that the weathers and seasons that form a land form also the inner fortunes of men in their generations and are passed on to their children and are not so easily come by otherwise.

Related Characters: Lacey Rawlins
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady has returned to Don Hector's ranch, this time without Rawlins, and he shares everything that has happened with the other vaqueros. As they express sorrow for not being able to see Rawlins again, the vaqueros simultaneously seem to understand his desire to return home. In general, this group has throughout the book seemed confident that there is an underlying order to human affairs. It makes sense to them that a person could be so tied to his or her native land because fate dictated that connection: indeed, much of their belief seems to rest on the deep intertwining of the human and the natural, the seasons and the "inner fortunes" of people. Americans or Mexicans, they imply, bear within them the actions of their ancestors and the things that happened on their land, and must take on that burden as they choose how to act themselves. 

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.

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.

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.

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfonsa had already told John Grady that Alejandra will refuse to be with him, but he has not fully believed it until now. They have met at a town called Zacatecas and have spent several nights together; now, after he has asked her to go away with him, she says that she loves him but she cannot leave with him. In this passage John Grady takes a retrospective look back at his life—a look that for us mirrors the events of the novel—and believes that, even if he could not see it at the time, this moment is the culmination of everything he has done. Now, however, with Alejandra refusing to be with him, John Grady does not see what else might give his life meaning as he goes forward. The "something cold and soulless" might be considered a kind of knowledge, the wisdom that comes from experiencing profound loss after the period of romantic and romanticized love that had formerly characterized his relationship with Alejandra.

In his sleep he dreamt of horses and the horses in his dream moved gravely among the tilted stones like horses come upon an antique site where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stone the weathers had taken it away again and the horses were wary and moved with great circumspection carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again. Finally what he saw in his dream was that the order in the horse’s heart was more durable for it was written in a place where no rain could erase it.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole
Related Symbols: Horses, Blood
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady has taken the captain prisoner and the two of them are riding through the Mexican hills. He has told the captain that he will not kill him: John Grady is not like the captain. John Grady has dreamt of horses before, and here his dream becomes a kind of allegory for the ideas of destiny and order that have concerned so much of the novel. The "antique site" he dreams of is full of stones on which are written a meaning and pattern to the world, but now time and history have made that meaning unclear. The horses bear within them not any explicit meaning and purpose, but rather the memory of former times and places. For John Grady, however, this means that they do reflect a kind of order to the world. Even if he does not embrace a "solution" to the problems of violence, loss, and heartbreak that he must confront, having been fully disabused of his romantic innocence, horses present a way to accept the overwhelming nature of the world, and to trace some kind of an order through what might otherwise seem mere chaos.