All the Pretty Horses

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The Idea of the American West 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.
The Idea of the American West Theme Icon

Most readers of Cormac McCarthy will already be familiar with his setting—southern Texas and northern Mexico—from the long tradition of American Westerns, filled with cowboys and gunfights on wide-open terrain. By the time the novel takes place, in 1949, this world is no longer to be found in Texas. Instead it has become a myth, one filled with powerful values of freedom and honor, which John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins set off in search of in Mexico—but what they find is a much grimmer, coarser world. When the novel opens, John Grady’s long family line of ranchers has begun to disintegrate, and though he’s desperate to keep the family ranch going, he’s too young to take it over. In 1949, as the United States is growing increasingly industrialized, Mexico seems to be a country where John Grady can revive a way of life that is dying out back home.

Neither John Grady nor Rawlins, however, can ever seriously articulate why they’ve gone off to Mexico. Several times they tell other characters that they’re bank robbers or bandoleros. At one point a jail captain questions why they’d want to take care of horses in Mexico for four times less money than they could get in the States. In fact, neither of the boys sets out with a serious plan for their time in Mexico. Instead, the country serves as a place of exciting escape, populated by bank robbers and cowboys. McCarthy’s lush descriptions of the plains and vistas of Mexico only underline the boys’ mythical vision of the country, to which physical beauty, beautiful girls, freedom of movement, and a simpler way of life all contribute. Indeed, while their idea of the American (that is, North American) West is thrilling, it’s also largely benign: it’s a place where they can sharpen their sense of independence and adhere to a worldview of honor and dignity. The problem is that the boys don’t understand until too late that the stakes are higher than this, and that the mythical ideals they’re seeking in Mexico contain a brutal underside of violence, misogyny, and corruption. Mexico may hold the ideals of the old West, but it’s also a place of extreme inequality, endemic poverty, and terrible corruption. By experiencing this side of Mexico first hand, the boys come to be disillusioned, understanding the myth of the West as just that—a myth.

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The Idea of the American West ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in All the Pretty Horses related to the theme of The Idea of the American West.
Part 1 Quotes

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.

Related Characters: John Grady Cole (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses, Blood
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

John Grady has just found an old skull of a horse lying in the grass on his family's ranch, and as he looks at it he is reminded of what is so appealing to him about riding and taking care of horses. Interestingly, it is an inert, bloodless skeleton that reminds John Grady of the blood coursing through horses' veins, blood that for him symbolizes the ardent desires and courage that one needs to succeed in the American West. John Grady identifies with horses in many ways, as he measures horses so too does he measure his fellow human beings: in terms of how strong and intensely alive they are. The skull is certainly a powerful image, but it is largely important in terms of what John Grady reads into it—his romanticized view of the West colors much of what he experiences.


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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. 

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.

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.