The Development of John Grady Cole in Corman McCarthy’s "All the Pretty Horses"

Term Paper, 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. The Plot

3. The Character of John Grady Cole

4. John Grady Cole’s Journey
4.1. The Beginning of the Journey and the Importance of Loss
4.2. The First Part of the Journey and the Importance of Responsibility
4.3. The Second Part of the Journey and the Importance of Love
4.4. The Third Part of the Journey and the Importance of Violence
4.5. The End of the Journey and the Importance of Guilt

5. All the Pretty Horses as Bildungsroman

6. Conclusion


Ehrenwörtliche Erklärung

“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 young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.” (All the Pretty Horses)

“There isn't a place in the world you can go where they don't know about cowboys and Indians and the myth of the West.”[1](Cormac McCarthy)

1. Introduction

Cormac McCarthy is one of the most famous contemporary writers in America and is celebrated as one of the major American novelists of his time. However, this has not always been the case. Despite his earlier writings, it was for McCarthy’sAll the Pretty Horsesthat he finally became famous for.[2]With the publication of this sixth novel, for which he won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award[3], he gained widespread recognition as an American writer. All the Pretty Horseswas first published in 1992 and is the first part of hisBorder Trilogy.

As Morrison notes

most of McCarthy’s novels [...] involve both metaphorical and literal journeys which bring their voyagers inevitably into a series of conflicts and confrontations with themselves as well as with the various communities intersected be their wanderings. And, in most of these novels, the central characters’ journeys, however random in time and place they may be, are apparently rooted in dysfunctinal families and troubled filial relationships.[4]

This also applies toAll The Pretty Horses. In this novel, Cormac McCarthy concerns himself with the development of his main protagonist, the 16-year-old John Grady Cole: At the beginning of the novel, McCarthy portrays John Grady as a boy in search for adventure, freedom and a home. During his journey to Mexico however, he soon has to grow up. He has to witness the execution of his compagnion; he is put in jail even though he is innocent; he has to fight with other convicts, and at last he is attacked by a hired killer. He thus has to learn that the world is a dangerous and violent place and that the world portrayed inAll The Pretty Horseshas nothing to do with an idyllic wild country as the novel’s title might suggest. In the end, John Grady has hardened. He has killed a man, he has lost his innocence and he returns as a man and as a hero.

In the following, I will first outline the plot of the novel. Then I shall want to concentrate on the development of its main character. Last, I like to discuss whether All the Pretty Horses may be read as a Bildungsroman. I will come to the conclusion that McCarthy’s novel is partly a Bildungsroman and partly a Western for several reasons which I shall point out in due course.

2. The Plot

The novel is set in Texas, in 1949, and opens with the death of John Grady Cole’s grandfather. After this terrible loss, John Grady Cole wants to run the ranch, but his mother plans to sell it. As he is homeless and with no apparent future in Texas, he hopes to find fulfillment in the big world outside of his country. Thus, he leaves the ranch together with his best friend Lacey Rawlins.

In the course of their journey, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a thirteen year old boy who has run away from home. He claims being sixteen and riding his own horse, both of which is a lie. Even though Cole and Rawlins do not trust Blevins and are sure that his horse is stolen, they allow Blevins to join them. The trio rides together for several days until Blevins panics in a thunderstorm. Terribly afraid of being killed by lightning, he wants to outride the bad weather. When John Grady finds him later, he is naked, having taken off his clothes because of its metal fasteners. Blevins has not only lost his clothing, but also his pistol and his horse. John Grady puts him up onto his own horse and they continue their ride. Soon they arrive in Encantada, where they see Blevins' horse and recapture it the following day. They are noticed and to escape the pursuing riders, they split up.

John Grady and Rawlins find work as cowboys at the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima. The ranch is owned by Don Hector Rocha, who is interested in breeding wild mountain horses. Though he mistrusts the Americans for their motivations to come to Mexico, he orders them to tame sixteen wild horses. Having accomplished their task, Grady and Rawlins start to feel at home. Soon, John Grady falls in love with Alejandra Rocha, Don Rocha’s beautiful daughter. A few days later, Grady is invited to Duena Alfonsa, Alejandra’s grandaunt and godmother. She forbids an affair between him and her grandniece. However, Grady and Alejandra ignore Alfonsa’s warning, and they become secret lovers.

When the landlord learns about this affair by his daughter, he tells Grady that he will send Alejandra to France and Grady sees her leave in an airplane. After a few days, Rawlins and Grady are arrested by men in uniforms and brought to Encantada, the same town where they have found and rescued Blevins’ horse a few months earlier. The two boys are put in jail together with two other men, of whom one turns out to be Blevins. Blevins tells them that he has worked for a German family in Palau for two months. With his earned money, he has returned to Encantada in order to get back his pistol, and in doing so he has attacked the man who has stolen his pistol. In this fight, Blevins has killed a man and injured two others, and now he is accused of murder. However, Blevins insists that it has not been him who has betrayed Grady and Rawlins.

Rawlins and John Grady are accused by the police capitain of being horse thieves and the accomplices of Blevins and they are to abe imprisoned in Castelar. On their way there, Blevins is taken aside from the group and shot; Rawlins and John Grady are put in jail. After having had to fight the other convicts, they are invited to meet with a man named Emilio Perez, who offers to help them to get out of prison as long as they pay him. As neither John Grady nor Rawlins have enough money to buy their way out of prison, Perez refuses to help and tells them that those who are not under his personal protection will die.

This prediction seems to come true when Rawlins is stabbed by one of the convicts for no obvious reason. Consequently, John Grady returns to Perez, who again refuses to help without getting any money. Thus, Grady decides to take the matters in his own hands and buys a knife. The same night, John Grady is attacked by a boy, whom he - in an act of self-defence - kills, thereby being severly injured. He collapses and when he awakes, he finds himself with a doctor and learns that Perez has decided to help them. Soon after, both he and Rawlins are released. In the end we hear that it was Alfonsa who has paid for John Grady’s and Rawlins’ release from prison, but only because Alejandra has promised her that she would never see John Grady again.

After their release, Rawlins heads home to San Angelo. John Grady on the other hand goes back to La Purisima. There, he finds out that Rocha has taken Alejandra to Mexico City and that it is not clear when she will return. He calls Alejandra and they meet in Zacatecas. There, he confesses her everything that has happended, and she admits that she herself is responsible for all the trouble: she has told her father that they have been lovers. As a result, her father has turned in Grady and Rawlins after Alejandra has confessed their affair. In Zacatecas, Alejandra is forced to make a decision between her love for Grady and her family: she sacrifices John Grady and for her promise given to her grandaunt and leaves the next morning on a train.

Grady returns to Encantada. He does not want to leave his horse in Mexico and decides to free it. He waits for the captain and forces him to free the four horses - his own, Rocha’s, Blevins’ and Rawlins’ horse - but he is shot from behind. After a struggle, he manages to lead the captain and the horses from the hacienda while being followed by four riders from Encantada. Even though they soon lose their pursuers they are both near death. The captain begs John Grady to let him go. Eventually the latter takes pity, cuffs him to the saddle of one of the horses, and tells him he can go as far as he can carry the saddle. The next morning, when he is woken up by three men standing over him with pistols, he sees that the captain has stayed. The men take the captain with them and his fate remains unclear.

Days later, Grady passes the border to Texas. He searches for the owner of Blevins' horse, but does not find him. In Ozona, three men make multiple claims for the horses, and Cole has to appear in court. In the hearing, he tells the judge his story, who fully believes him and thus awards him the horse. Even though John Grady is cleared of all charges before the law, he still feels guilty. In the night, he goes to see the judge in his home and explains to him the reasons for his bad conscience. The judge comforts John Grady and promises him that he will get everything sorted out.

Cole returns to San Angelo to give Rawlins back his horse. His friend tells him that his father and his nurse Abuela have died. Cole remains in San Angelo for a short time and and then leaves again.

3. The Character of John Grady Cole

The main character of the novel, the 16-year-old John Grady Cole, is not a typical hero. At the beginning of the novel, he is a boy who dreams of “picturebook horses”[5], of following his grandfather’s footsteps and running his ranch. John Grady Cole an idealist and his idealistic dream, as Busby stresses, is represented by the world of horses.[6]Horses play an extremly important role in John Grady’s life, as can be seen in his special relationship to them: He rides a horse “not only as if he’d been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway.”(23) The horses symbolize the Old World, the world of his grandfather, the world he hopes for: the “deepest continuity with life”[7]. What Cole loves in horses is what he loves in men: “the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.” (6)

Cole is driven by his vision to life the traditional life of a cowboy, of a man in harmony with nature. However, this life is not possible in Texas anymore. Thus he decides to leave he country, looking for a new home and for the fulfillment of his dream.

Priola claims that John Grady is also a very careful, considering person. For her, John Grady’s ability to play chess symbolizes his manhood. As chess requires patience, she argues, he cannot be “a young rash man”[8]:

The mind of a chess player is one that is different. Grady thinks carefully and analyses everything about the board. These characteristica conflict with his seemingly impetuous actions involving other aspects of his life, such as horsebreaking and romance, and make him a more complex character than might be supposed.[9]

I shall disagree with this opinion. Of course one can say that a chess-playing cowboy is a paradoxon; however, I would merely interprete the chess scene as a struggle between Duena Alfonsa and John Grady Cole. In my view, Cole is not a very thoughtful person. Being non-pragmatic, he does not understand when he incites or provokes trouble. He “shares Blevins’ inability to see his limits and thus does not know where his authority ends and the world’s begins.”[10]Lacey and John Grady are the representatives of two different world views. They “represent pragmatism versus idealism, facts versus dream.”[11]Whereas Lacey Rawlins “recognizes Jimmy Blevins as a dangerous force of chaos and anarchy”, John Grady is full of “sentimentality about the innocence of childhood.”[12]Without thinking about any consequences, he entrusts himself to the world’s kindness, naively believing in the goodness of humanity.

In the end however, he will have to grow up. He will return a man, a moral hero, and yet he will have failed. Thus,All The Pretty Horsesdescribes the journey from childhood to manhood, “a movement from innocence to experience”[13]. In the following, I shall discuss the development of the main protagonist by analysing his journey south to Mexico.

4. John Grady Cole’s Journey

Regarding the change in John Grady Cole’s character, I will at first consider the reasons for John Grady’s departure in the first place; then I shall look at the journey itself. I have divided his journey into four main parts: The journey until the arrival at La Hacienda the Purisma, then the episode on the ranch, third his experiences in prison and last his journey home.

4.1. The Beginning of the Journey and the Importance of Loss

The novel opens with John Grady Cole looking at the dead body of his grandfather. “This is not sleeping” (3), he mutters, as if to convince himself that his beloved grandfather has passed away. With this death, a new chapter in his life begins, although he refuses to accept this: “You never combed your hair that way in your life.” (3), he says, wishing to continue the way as he has before. But “the Grady name was buried with that old man the day the norther blew the lawnchairs over the dead cemetry grass” (7), and there is no possibility to relive the past.

Built in 1872, the ranch has been the home of four generations including his own. Now, with his grandfather's death, his home, and thus his dream of running the ranch, is taken away from him, as the ranch is to be sold. The main protagonist is left with nothing but his dream, and Lilley even goes so far as to call him an orphan, even though his parents are still alive.[14]

In addition to the loss of his grandfather, John Grady is abandoned by his girlfriend Mary Catherine Barnett for an older boy with a car. Shaw ironically remarks that “the lenght of her name is disproportionate to the space commited to her actual apperance in the text.”[15]However, one could argue that John Grady might not have left in the first place if his girlfriend had not rejected him.

His thirty-six-year old mother is an aspiring actress, who is dreaming her own dream of becoming famous, neglecting her son. His relationship is so reserved that John Grady refers to his mother only as ‚she’. As the ranch “has barely paid expenses for twenty years” (15), Mrs. Cole insists on selling it. The lawyer Mr. Franklin however explains that Mrs Cole’s behaviour has nothing to do with money:

Not everybody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in west texas is the second best thing to dyin and goin to heaven. She dont want to live out there, that’s all. [...] She’s a young woman and my guss is she’d like to have a little more social life than what she’s had to get used to. (17)


[1]McCarthy. „Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction.“ April 19, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition - Final. - 12.06.2006

[2]See Phillips (1996): p.433.

[3]See Arnold (1994): p.12.

[4]Morrison. Ed. Arnold (1993): p.176 f.

[5]Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses. London: Pan Books, 1993: p.16. All further notes will be given parenthetically within the text and will refer to this edition.

[6]See Busby. Ed. Wallach (2000): p.234.

[7]Bell (19929: p.922.

[8]Priola. Ed. Wallach (2000): p. 270.

[9]Priola. Ed. Wallach (2000): p. 269 f.

[10]Barcley (2000): p.88.

[11]Barcley (2000): p.77.

[12]Morrison. Ed. Arnold (1993): p.183.

[13]Blair (2001): p.301.

[14]See Lilley. Ed. Wallach (2000): p. 276.

[15]Shaw. Ed. Wallach (2000): p. 258.

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The Development of John Grady Cole in Corman McCarthy’s "All the Pretty Horses"
University of Mannheim
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Lydia Gaukler (Author), 2006, The Development of John Grady Cole in Corman McCarthy’s "All the Pretty Horses", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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