All the Pretty Horses

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Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence 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.
Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence Theme Icon

Some readers might recoil at the violence of All the Pretty Horses, which ranges from graphic portrayals to bleak descriptions. Different characters take different attitudes towards violence, regarding if and when it can be justified, and how closely it may be tied to revenge and justice. As a whole, the novel seems to distinguish between different kinds of violence, but it also remains committed to portraying violent acts as a method of literary realism—showing how violence can be a part of daily life in the settings where the characters find themselves.

In some ways, the novel links violence to bravery and stoicism. In this conception, John Grady enters into a gunfight for a higher purpose: in trying to steal back the horses, he is honoring Blevins’ memory and showing his loyalty to Rawlins and his own horse. The description of his gunshot wound and the process of burning it out with a pistol shaft to avoid infection is equally violent and graphic. When John Grady tells a Texas judge his story, the entire courtroom listens to him in silent awe. John Grady himself, however, is more ambivalent about the ethics of violence. He struggles over whether he should have killed a fellow prisoner, even though it was in self-defense, and confesses to the Texas judge that he’s not a good person because he did so.

The novel is clearer about other instances of violence. The prison captain who marches Blevins into the woods to shoot him is portrayed as a monster. He is probably one of those to whom Alfonsa refers when she tells John Grady that many in Mexico live only by the law of violence—the only law they can follow and respect, the only one that means anything to them. The novel thus draws a line between violence that serves a higher purpose, and violence that is simply gratuitous, that obeys no law but itself.

Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in All the Pretty Horses related to the theme of Meaningful and Gratuitous Violence.
Part 2 Quotes

He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent’s flesh for its bite. He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war.

Related Characters: Luis
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Luis is an elderly cook with a bad leg who tells John Grady and Rawlins about his years spent fighting during the Mexican Revolution, while the boys are out in the mountains on the hunt for wild horses to bring back to Don Hector's ranch. As the boys's journey into Mexico continues, their romanticized view of the country begins to be affected by the testimony of people who have actually lived through violent, dangerous times. 

Luis, at least according to this passage, seems to be deeply ambivalent on the subject of violence. In one sense, he condemns what war has done to his country, and he does not believe that the solution for war is like a solution that a healer would suggest for a serpent's bite—that is, more of the same. Luis seems to love horses as much as John Grady does, and there is a tragic element in what he relates about the horses being killed out from under him while on the battlefield. Still, Luis acknowledges that horses, like men, are fascinated by war, even if, unlike men, they do not try to impose some kind of meaning on such violence. Luis's wisdom comes not from his claim to know the solution to such violence, but rather from his own lived experience, his ability to testify to what he has seen in the past.


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Part 3 Quotes

We can make the truth here. Or we can lose it. but when you leave here it will be too late. Too late for truth. Then you will be in the hands of other parties. Who can say what the truth will be then? At that time?

Related Characters: The captain (speaker), John Grady Cole
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady and Rawlins have been thrown in prison, where they encounter Blevins. Now the prison guards bring John Grady and Rawlins, separately, into the office of the "captain," most likely a police chief, who is attempting to get them to corroborate his story about Blevins's career stealing horses. Rawlins and John Grady both tell the truth, but that doesn't seem to satisfy the captain, as he orders the guards to whip them both.

The captain's words reveal a frightening cynicism about the very nature of the truth, and destroy any kind of idealized concept of objectivity. The way he employs the term suggests that the truth can be whatever he and John Grady decide that it is. He dangles the word "truth" in front of John Grady as a kind of bait, proposing that John Grady choose one version of the truth now, which will be better for both of them. In some ways, the captain is merely maximizing his own chances to get what he wants. But the narrative also wants to show how, in an unfamiliar world, all values that one might believe to be eternal and unchangeable are actually subject to being challenged. The captain's threat suggests that the "other parties" that have their own version of the truth could be even more dangerous to John Grady.

John Grady watched the small ragged figure vanish limping among the trees with his keepers. There seemed insufficient substance to him to be the object of men’s wrath. There seemed nothing about him sufficient to fuel any enterprise at all.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole, Lacey Rawlins, Jimmy Blevins, The captain
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

The prison guards have loaded John Grady, Rawlins, and Blevins into a truck to carry them to some unknown place. They pause somewhere far from any civilization, and the captain takes one of the guard's guns and leads Blevins away into the woods, where he will shoot the boy. Meanwhile, John Grady and Rawlins remain in the truck, knowing that there is nothing that they can do, and until the last moment imagining that something else will happen.

This is the first moment in the book where John Grady and Rawlins are made to confront seemingly meaningless violence, spurred by rules and customs that they cannot understand, rather than merely hearing about such violence from other people. The brute force of Blevins's murder is so incomprehensible to John Grady, as shown in this passage, because it clashes with how small and unthreatening he knows Blevins to be. It is not that John Grady will mourn the loss of Blevins as a friend—Blevins is not like Rawlins to him—but he cannot understand why such an effort has been mounted to hurt and kill someone so harmless. John Grady is brought face-to-face here with the tragic gap between powerful institutions and fragile human beings, as well as the gap between his idealistic view of Mexico and the reality of the situation in which he finds himself.

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.

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.