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.
Romanticism and Reality Theme Icon

While John Grady’s romantic notions apply most powerfully to his ideal of the American West, they also apply to other values he holds dear for much of the novel. All the Pretty Horses has been called McCarthy’s most romantic novel, and that’s not just because part of it is a romance story: it’s because John Grady believes strongly in the power of love to conquer all, from economic interests to family concerns. Other characters are more realistic. In a sweeping monologue in Part 3, Alfonsa, Alejandra’s great-aunt, attempts to show John Grady just how powerful politics, economics, gender norms, and other social values can be. They’ve impacted her own life directly, and can certainly make love impossible. Alfonsa and other characters have learned to place other values, such as stability and even happiness, above love. In fact, Alfonsa sees John Grady’s stubborn pursuit of his affair with Alejandra as proof that he couldn’t be trusted as head of the family hacienda. As John Grady remains willfully immune to such practicality, the novel portrays his denial of reality as admirable but also, ultimately, both doomed to failure and highly naïve.

Romanticism, of course, is more than just romantic love: one meaning of the term is a poetic movement emphasizing individual, subjective experience, heroic action, and the primacy of emotion. Such elements are evident in the way John Grady thinks of Mexico and its citizens, as well as his notions about justice. John Grady feels a deep, personal, and emotional connection to horses—much of the book is taken up simply with lavishly drawn scenes of riding across the mesas and plains of the country. His relationship to horses gives him a perhaps unique understanding of ownership, based less on laws and property rights than on one’s subjective relationship with other living creature. This way of thinking is most intensely depicted in John Grady’s attempt to get his, Blevins’, and Rawlins’ horses back at the end of the novel. The world, John Grady learns little by little, may support Romantic ideals in theory, but in practice a brute pragmatism tends to prevail.

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Romanticism and Reality ThemeTracker

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

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

They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole, Lacey Rawlins
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is typical of Cormac McCarthy's prose, with its lack of punctuation and rousing descriptions that carry the reader along breathlessly. John Grady and Rawlins have just left, late at night, to run away to Mexico. The world seems vast and empty to them, but rather than terrifying this proves beguiling to them both: they revel in feeling like the night belongs to them, and that the land over which they ride is also available for them, beckoning them in endless "worlds" of possibilities. 

As John Grady departs with Rawlins, he is simultaneously constructing a narrative about the deeper meaning of their departure. They are not just running away from home, as he sees it, but also taking part in a story of their own creation. He imagines them as "thieves" confidently riding into the night rather than two teenagers escaping their family obligations. John Grady tends to see the land of the West as wide-open, simply waiting for him to encounter adventures wherever he might find them. He has little sense at this point of the real-world compromises of this land, or even of the other people and groups with their own complicated histories also populating this space. 


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Part 2 Quotes

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

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.

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.

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

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.