All the Pretty Horses

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Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Analysis

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.
Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge Theme Icon

In several ways, John Grady seems older than his sixteen years. Throughout his time in Mexico, John Grady is able to draw on the skills he learned growing up on a ranch, where he was responsible for many of the ranch’s daily activities. John Grady gains respect and admiration for his skill with horses: the hacendado is impressed by this expertise and gives him a special job at the hacienda taking care of them. In addition, John Grady’s knowledge of Spanish is a key skill that enables him and Rawlins to manage in Mexico—and at times ensures their survival. The novel is full of Spanish phrases, even short conversations that aren’t translated. This can be disorienting for a reader who doesn’t speak Spanish, though such disorientation reflects what must be Rawlins’s own experience. It also helps to situate John Grady in a position of expertise, forcing Rawlins (and the reader) to trust him.

At the same time, John Grady’s Spanish skills belie his ignorance of many aspects of Mexican life—a point that is underlined when Pérez at the prison tells him he doesn’t “speak the language” of Mexican prison life. Further, while John Grady has remarkable expertise in specialized skills such as horse-breaking, his real-world choices often appear astonishingly naïve to other characters, as well as to the reader. Rawlins begs John Grady not to get them mixed up with Blevins, who has most likely stolen his horse. Likewise, Alfonsa reminds John Grady of his greater ignorance, stressing several times that he hasn’t lived as long as she has and lacks her wisdom about life. The scene near the end of the novel where John Grady shows up at the Texas judge’s home to ask him for advice similarly highlights how lost he can feel when faced with new experiences, realities, and choices. There are different kinds of knowledge, the novel seems to be saying, and expertise at a skill is not the same as wisdom gained from life.

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Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in All the Pretty Horses related to the theme of Innocence, Expertise, and Knowledge.
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. 


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They went to France for their education. He and Gustavo. And others. All these young people. They all returned full of ideas. Full of ideas, and yet there seemed to be no agreement among them. How do you account for that? Their parents sent them for these ideas, no? and they went there and received them. Yet when they returned and opened their valises, so to speak, no two contained the same thing. […] People of my generation are more cautious. I think we dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea.

Related Characters: Don Hector Rocha y Villarreal (the hacendado) (speaker), Gustavo Madero
Page Number: 145-146
Explanation and Analysis:

Don Hector, the owner of the hacienda, has invited John Grady into his billiard room and is discussing the history of his family and of Mexico. These histories are intertwined, since Hector's mother Alfonsa may have once been engaged to Gustavo Madero—Gustavo's brother Francisco was the first popularly elected president of Mexico, but waves of violence ultimately resulted in the death of both brothers. Here, Don Hector contrasts his own pessimism with the idealism of an earlier generation, which learned radical ideas from France (long a hotbed of revolutionary activity). For Don Hector, at least, those ideas failed, since instead of resolving Mexico's issues they only fostered greater disagreement; indeed, ultimately they fostered only greater war and violence.

In a way, Don Hector's story rewrites the book's emphasis on individual growth, and the replacement of a romantic view of the world with an understanding of reality, on a broader scale—that of an entire society. He argues that the knowledge and idealism gained by powerful ideas can be harmful, and is skeptical that "reason" alone can change people's minds or improve them. At the same time, Don Hector is not just giving John Grady an abstract history lesson. He knows that he is taking a risk by inviting a young American into his home, especially since he knows that his own daughter Alejandra is headstrong and independent. His words thus also have personal implications, prodding John Grady to have a sense of humility as he enters into this complex world.

Part 3 Quotes

You dont understand the life here. You think the struggle is for these things. Some shoelaces or some cigarettes or something like that. The lucha. This is a naïve view. You know what is naïve? A naïve view. The real facts are always otherwise. You cannot stay in this place and be independent peoples. You dont know what is the situation here. You dont speak the language.

Related Characters: Emilio Pérez (speaker), John Grady Cole, Lacey Rawlins
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The prison where John Grady and Rawlins are housed is supposedly guarded over by the state, but the boys soon learn that the real authorities in the jail are certain prisoners, in particular Emilio Pérez, who rules the place through bribery, corruption, and intimidation. Like the captain, Emilio Pérez expresses to John Grady a cynical, stark view of institutional reality. John Grady and Rawlins have come to recognize that even the smallest possessions, like cigarettes, are part of a dangerous, shifting economic system—yet Emilio Pérez tells them that the reality of prison life goes far beyond those material trades. The prison, he claims, is its own social microcosm with its own tribes and leaders. The two boys cannot understand this world, not only because they are Americans, but because they do not yet speak the "language" of these social relationships. Even after having confronted violence and cynicism head-on, the boys still have to be disabused of the idea that they can simply adapt to the new circumstances by following their reason, or their thoughts on what this new life is like. They can only learn "the language" through their own harsh experiences.

The Mexican does not believe that a car can be good or evil. If there is evil in the car he knows that to destroy the car is to accomplish nothing. Because he knows where good and evil have their home. The anglo thinks in his rare way that the Mexican is superstitious. But who is the one? We know there are qualities to a thing. This car is green. Or it has a certain motor inside. But it cannot be tainted you see. Or a man. Even a man. There can be in a man some evil. But we dont think it is his own evil. Where did he get it? how did he come to claim it? no. Evil is a true thing in Mexico. It goes about on its own legs. Maybe some day it will come to visit you. Maybe it already has.

Related Characters: Emilio Pérez (speaker), John Grady Cole
Page Number: 194-195
Explanation and Analysis:

Pérez is trying to win John Grady over to his side, so he continues to choose his words carefully, but as he does so he also develops a fascinating contrast between what he sees as American and Mexican ethical theories. Americans might think that Mexicans are superstitious, he says, but in fact Americans see everything as black and white, good and evil, and believe that you can simply bang evil out of something or someone, as Pérez once saw an American attack his car with a hammer out of anger since it wouldn't start. This is part of Americans' general naïveté, he believes. But Mexicans understand that evil is more clever, unruly, and thus more powerful than that: it can move "on its own legs" from person to person and from situation to situation. On the one hand, this means that a person is not inherently evil, even if he commits an evil action. But it also means that it is more difficult to track down and eradicate evil. 

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

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.

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.