2012 Brennan Prize Winning Essay

John Hunt, "Terrain as Narrative Lens in All the Pretty Horses"


In Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses, landscape is utilized as a physical representation of the protagonist’s transformation. The Mexican wilderness comes to reflect John Grady Cole’s internal processes in its role as a vast tract of fenceless space, a canvas upon which McCarthy renders his main character’s experiences as they shape his identity. Meanwhile, the tightness of a Texan terrain scarred and lotted by barbed wire boundaries recognizes the restlessness that drives John Grady’s transience. The effect is a realization of the rapport between space and character in a narrative, in which each embodies the other and ultimately accounts for the edification for which he strives.

When John Grady is introduced in the context of his ranch in Texas, the reader is immediately informed of his existential immobility. The novel’s opening sentence provides insight into this condition: “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door” (McCarthy 3). Here is a character whose vitality is cruelly contained in a setting through whose barriers he is denied perception of his surroundings, and in which he therefore remains “caught,” with the result that he is denied the opportunity to interact with those surroundings as he might wish. This fact is oppressive in the highest degree, especially for a character defined by fire’s vivacity and glow. In these bonds he struggles, “twist[ing] and right[ing]” himself again and again in agonized contortions. McCarthy wastes no time bringing the novel’s motifs of spatial and personal constraint into sharp focus.

So why the restlessness? At the problem’s source, the hardships of John Grady’s family are to blame. The Cole name has staked its interests in cattle ranching for the better part of a century and is now encountering a financial crisis stemming from the burgeoning industrial age—a trial made all the more challenging for the death of John Grady’s grandfather and the failing health of his father. His mother, unlike her son, harbors no affections for the ranch and aspires instead for the life of an actress. As the lawyer Franklin explains to a bewildered John Grady, “If it was a payin proposition that’d be one thing. But it aint” (McCarthy 17).

Her indifference to the fortunes of the family ranch certainly dismays him, yet soon he too chooses to abandon his home of sixteen years. An action that rings of surprising infidelity is clarified if considered from the standpoint of critic Jay Ellis, who posits that these fences “serve as boundaries between the spaces of the living and the place of the dead” (Ellis 17). It is therefore appropriate that McCarthy chooses to juxtapose the “image of the candleflame” and its implications of hindered virility to the description of the deceased grandfather, “caved and drawn” and “paper thin” (McCarthy 3). Although John Grady is most comfortable in a pastoral setting such as the family ranch, it also smacks uncomfortably of fatality; the dying of his grandfather coincides with the dying of his rustic way of life.

The most notable distinction between John Grady and his mother lies in their response to these deaths. For her, they signal a release of sorts. After finalizing her divorce and resolving to sell the property, she is free to pursue a profession in acting, as cosmopolitan an existence as a small Texan town can afford her. John Grady, in contrast, craves a release. The ranching lifestyle, whatever charms it had held for him, is creeping toward mechanized extinction. Nowhere is this threat more strongly communicated than the moment in which he steps outside his house and witnesses a train pass:

It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness. (McCarthy 4)

The portrayal of this behemoth of modernity, significantly rattling westward from the more populous and settled east, is notable for its interspersed references to the terrain itself; by mentioning “mesquite brakes,” “fenceline,” “wire and post,” McCarthy establishes the train as a bold force quite alien from the starkness of the prairie. It is also muscular and unsympathetic in its interaction with the land, “creating” and “sucking . . . back again” with violent industry. The scene represents death of place for John Grady. With his awareness that fighting for possession of the ranch (and by extent, his preferred lifestyle) necessitates confronting the juggernaut of expansionism, he acknowledges that such a defense is beyond his humble means.    

His situation, then, is diametrically opposed to that of his mother: while the deaths of patriarch and place are for her strokes of good fortune, prompting her toward the fulfillment of repressed creativities, they are for John Grady a banishment. It is an essential difference between the two characters that while she turns from the comparatively spacious cattle range to the far more limited areas of town life, he leaves the ranch for the even less bounded breadth of earth that is the Mexican landscape. Through his action of breaching these death-containing boundaries, the narrator portends, John Grady will at the very least secure liberation from witnessing the slow decay of his ranch life: in the passage directly preceding his flight from home, he leaves the town and its buildings behind him, “stepp[ing] out of the glass forever” (McCarthy 29). Associating this statement with that which immediately opens the novel is enormously instructive, erecting bookends for the segment of the narrative that deals with the variations of death, both figurative and literal, that are responsible for his ultimate determination to set out for feral vistas more suited to the “candleflame” of his restless youth—crucially, now freed from the “pierglass” that had circumscribed it.

            John Grady’s decision to roam the untamed reaches to the south of his homeland heralds a series of events that will ultimately coalesce into an identifiable bildungsroman. The aforementioned relevance of themes such as death and loss, as well as the stresses posed by intrusive technological changes, point toward a fundamental instability with which John Grady must wrestle out in the bare open spaces in order to acquire the peace for which he thirsts (Frick 1). But, true to the literary form, John Grady’s experience is fraught with maddening self-obstruction. As critic Ashley Bourne asserts, “the central paradox of the construction of space and place as well as the construction of identity . . . is [that] one longs for stability, a fixed sense of place and self, but . . . is also compelled to perpetual motion, seeking out those spaces where place and self will stabilize” (Bourne 109). In a contradiction that reflects the clashes of time and place that have led him to the Mexican wilderness, he must resort to transiency in order to locate the constancy and resolution that he seeks.

Seeking, in fact, is the essence of this bildungsroman narrative, just as the milieu of the search is the implement by which McCarthy renders its advancement. While critics such as Bourne have recognized that milieu as “arguably the most striking character in the [novel],” it is perhaps most operative in the role of narrative lens (Bourne 109). When John Grady and his friend Jimmy Rawlins first depart for Mexico in the bracing mystery of night, their surroundings don the mantle of high romance: “They rode out on the round dais of the earth . . . which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them . . . like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing” (McCarthy 30). Such lofty diction and grand, celestial imagery effectively raise the two boys as figures of myth, paragons of healthy masculinity loosed among the heavens and granted the stature to command them.

Yet the Mexican landscape is attended by progressively less positive connotations. These changes occur in tandem with the less savory developments of the boys’ journey, which function as the “learning experiences” typically associated with the bildungsroman . After John Grady and Rawlins have heavily imbibed (presumably for the first time), their resultant sickness is conveyed against a considerably less idyllic natural backdrop: “By dark the storm had slacked and the rain had almost ceased . . . In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste” (McCarthy 71). The scenery that had once born the boys heavenward amongst the grandeur of “ten thousand worlds for the choosing” is now a “waste” peopled by a “rude provisional species.” The regression of narrative voice from idealistic to cynical is too marked to ignore, and the wild polarity implied by their shared presence in the novel further suggests that the landscape is not so much an autonomous character as it is a narrative agent, a filter through which the protagonists’ experiences are graphically relayed and therefore a function of the characters themselves—and, importantly, the bildungsroman format.

Sexual maturation is often part and parcel of a bildungsroman protagonist’s education, and the novel’s natural context also adapts itself to aid such expression. Later in the novel, in a dreamlike scene that harkens to John Grady’s earlier attributed properties of youthful dauntlessness in an arcadian setting, the beautiful Alejandra slowly submerges herself in a hidden lake as John Grady watches. The manner of the scene’s depiction reverts to the narrative’s former romance: “She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold . . . Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wingpits to watch.” John Grady is again embarking on a journey into uncharted spaces, and so the narrative again assumes identification with the weightless heavens and uncaged elements, with surroundings that obligingly bristle and stir as he is gifted one of the genre’s most pleasant lessons (McCarthy 141). These tonal fluctuations are reminiscent of the tensions and confusions inherent to a person met with the conditions of a bildungsroman. In such a sense, landscape is tightly adhered to John Grady’s perspective.

Considering that narrative presentation is so beholden to character circumstance, it is reasonable to doubt its reliability. After all, the elements do not normally adjust themselves to manifest an individual’s mood. But the novel does seem aware of its own stretched realism, even as it proceeds to overtly illustrate the relationship between man and representative environment. As John Grady beholds Alejandra riding down from the mountains before she leaves for Mexico, the narrative continues this interplay while pointing out its own dubious qualities: “The rain caught her up and shrouded her figure away in that wild summer landscape: real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal” (McCarthy 132). The imagery of direct intercourse between Alejandra and her surroundings is paralleled to the acknowledgement that the verisimilitude of this intercourse is subject to interpretation. It is for this reason that the text largely denies John Grady’s interiority its own voice. Rarely are his emotions, motives, or thoughts clearly expressed; instead, they are shaped in the attitudes of the text’s exteriority, the landscape and elements behaving as extensions of his equally tempestuous consciousness, with which the bildungsroman format is in constant correspondence. 

Of particular weight, though, are the shared sites at which the renderings of the landscape occur. Among three of the above textual samples, two that exhibit positive emotion take place in situations involving blissful naïveté; when John Grady and Rawlins are prepared to set off on their grand odyssey into the unknown, their spirits are high, a fact that is reflected in the language describing their environment. Having not yet struggled with the harsh realities of a country and culture far different from their own, they see no reason why fate should not lie patiently at their fingertips. Similarly, John Grady’s sexual awakening at the lake with Alejandra presents a decidedly agreeable management of his inexperience; although it essentially signifies loss of innocence, the manner in which this transpires is an overwhelmingly positive one. Both scenes also develop in a stationary context. In contrast, the boys’ first encounter with drunkenness is exceedingly negative. Vomiting on the roadside, hearing the awful strains of their disillusionment reverberating across the landscape through which they travel, this distasteful emergence from naïveté serves to blemish the journeying process. Part of John Grady’s education in this bildungsroman stems from his dawning understanding that the heroic trek is not so romantic as it is purported to be. In fact, his revelation is that Bourne’s comment on the paradox of space, place and identity is a paradox at all.

Consequently, John Grady comes to terms with the core trial that drove him from Texas in the first place: the loss of a secure domestic space (Ellis 205). What was formerly an opportunity for adventure has now become a strain, ironically engendering a restlessness for home that complements his initial restlessness for escape. By the time he has commenced his final ride, from Encantada to Texas, John Grady is identified only by a grim weariness that is dutifully mirrored by the landscape: “There was just the stillness and the silence and the sound of the horses breathing and the sound of their hooves clopping in the dark” (McCarthy 286). The notion of the heroic trek has been stripped of its enchantments, its hard realities laid bare, and John Grady’s environment has traced ably and faithfully the trajectory of his disillusionment.

The moment at which John Grady bursts from the “glass” confining him to a place that is toxic to his naïve idealism is the same moment that his education begins. Aiming to achieve catharsis by traversing boundless spaces, he hardly anticipates the difficulties of which these very spaces are emblematic. He is concerned solely with engaging a bold method: riding southward, relegating death and its boundaries to a point in the shrinking distance, his logic allows for a facile solution of regeneration through flight. As his surroundings make clear, such a philosophy does not always hold.

Lying riverside with the journey still young, the boys assess a map as their horses graze. It is an oilcompany roadmap, inconveniently specific and untuned to their needs, yet neither of them is disturbed. To the south of the Rio Grande lies only an expanse of uncharted white, malleable and untested, a challenge in the pure fact of its virgin blankness. At novel’s end, they might perceive the map as irrelevant, bounded and square—hardly representative of the Earth and its infinite curve on which any fixed cardinal direction becomes its opposite. But here, cavalierly “stretched out in the shade of a stand of blackwillow,” it espouses only one truth (McCarthy 34).

“There aint shit down there.”

Works Cited


Bourne, Ashley. "'Plenty of Signs and Wonders to Make a Landscape': Space, Place, and Identityin Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy." Western American Literature 44.2 (2009): 109-25. Project Muse. Web. 9 Nov. 2011.

Ellis, Jay. No Place for Home: Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Frick, Amanda. “A Journey to Mexico and Completion.” 1-8.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.