All the Pretty Horses


Cormac McCarthy

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Pretty Horses makes teaching easy.
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.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

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.
How often theme appears:
part length:
Get the entire Pretty Horses LitChart as a printable PDF.
All the Pretty Horses PDF

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:
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:
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:

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:

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:
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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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: