All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2

For next two days, John Grady and Rawlins tend to cattle at the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion, a ranch in the mountains of Coahuila, Mexico. The ranch is run by Don Hector Rocha, a forty-seven year old hacendado (land-owner) with over a thousand head of cattle.

On the third day, they're taken to a holding pen with sixteen wild, spooked horses. John Grady studies the horses and convinces Rawlins that they can 'break' all the animals in four days. Rocha doubts this is possible, but one by one, the two Americans tame the horses. Indeed, their prowess with the thrashing animals is so impressive that a crowd of vaqueros, women, and children gathers to watch them work, even waiting by the pen while the men eat their dinner. As he rides one of the tamed horses, the beautiful girl he had noticed earlier passes by him on her Arabian. She tilts her hat in greeting but before he has the chance to stammer out a greeting, she rides away.

After a sojourn in the mountains, Rawlins and John Grady return to the ranch to meet Rocha. Rocha is an imposing figure and dominates the conversation, implying that it is unusual for the Americans to be in Mexico simply to "see the country" and that John Grady is the "leader" of the two. They discuss horses and Rocha's plans to raise quarterhorses for the ranch, but the conversation ends with Rocha again questioning their motives for being at the ranch.

The next afternoon, while working in the barn, he finally musters up the courage to say hello to the girl, whose name we learn is Alejandra. A dance is held at the ranch grange weeks later. He dances with her under the paper lights and they speak as if already intimate. "I bet she aint as pretty as you," John Grady replies when Alejandra says she's introduce him to her friends. "Oh my," responds Alejandra in turn, "You must be careful what you say."

Over the next few days, John Grady gets to know Rocha better as they discuss his horse breeding and rearing plans. And soon, he gets to know Alejandra better as well. One evening, while riding Rocha's prized stallion, he meets her near the lake. Flippantly and flirtingly, she demands to ride the horse. He reluctantly agrees, though he knows that somebody will see him riding back on her Arabian - and thus draw conclusions about their relationship.

John Grady is invited to meet Duena Alfonsa, Alejandra's grandaunt. They play chess over tea and she gradually steers the conversation towards the subject of her Alejandra's stay at the ranch during the coming summer. She insinuates that she doesn't want her grandniece involved with him and then quite clearly states, "I want you to be considerate of a young girl's reputation." John Grady offers a muted protest, but Duena Alfonsa denies him any say in the matter: "I am the one who gets to say."

Still, he doesn't reject Alejandra's advances when she visits him late one night in the barn. She tells him that she knows of her grandaunt's interference - and it was indeed because Armando had seen him ride her horse in the night she took the stallion. They become nighttime companions, riding their horses side by side into the night down the Cienaga road, along the western mesa, to the lake where they swim together in the dark. She starts coming to his bunk when everyone else is asleep.

Rocha invites John Grady to play billiards. In the same way that he subtly questioned the American's motives when he arrived at the ranch, he cryptically maneuvers the conversation towards a criticism of French education. John Grady is surely mystified, but Rocha waits long before lining up his eight ball: "Alfonsita tells me I am only being selfish in wanting to send Alejandra." When John Grady asks where he plans to send her, Rocha looks up and smiles. "To France. To send her to France."

A week or so later, Rawlins and John Grady return horse herding from the mountains but find no sign of Rocha. The next morning two men in uniform burst into John Grady's bunk with guns and force him out into the saddleroom. He finds Rawlins there, cuffed and slumped in the saddle of his horse. The captain and lieutenant force John Grady onto his own horse, cuff him, and then together with six officers, proceed to lead the two Americans off the ranch towards the north.


Chapter Two begins by reprising the narrative tenor of Rawlins journey to Mexico, leisurely and blissfully recounting their exploits on Rocha's ranch. But whereas the first chapter unfolds more symmetrically and conventionally, the second relies on a more careful, more latent build-up of the action. The difference in plot structure between these sections might be represented as following:

Chap. 1: Climax Introduction Resolution

Chap. 2: Climax Rising Action Introduction

The difference in narrative structure impacts virtually all the techniques and elements discussed earlier - particularly theme, character, and prose.

By building the action slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, McCarthy can highlight his principal theme of inescapable evil, or as one critic named it, "sacred violence." No matter how peaceful the appearance of a situation or how comfortable characters might make themselves, McCarthy builds violence covertly. In a rare interview with the New York Times in 1992, McCarthy said:

There is no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.

Indeed, McCarthy's fascination with human affinity for bloodshed recalls Rene Girard's seminal theories of sacrifice. According to Girard, society's must purge latent violence periodically through the destruction of a 'sacrificial' victim. Just as a metal rod attracts lightning, this victim - usually an outsider to the named society - serves as a scapegoat for a community to exorcise its repressed hostilities. John Grady and Rawlins fit all the criteria of Girard's sacrificial victim - outsiders to a community, presumptuous in their desires to become members of the society, free from family attachments that would revenge a crime against them, and invested with the belief - the 'dangerous', 'vacuous' belief as McCarthy puts it - that members of two communities can merge harmoniously. Girard would close All the Pretty Horses at the end of the first chapter knowing that John Grady and Rawlins are targeted for sacrifice from the moment they ride into Mexico.

If the narrative structure evolves towards the impending sacrifice, then the John Grady must also evolve from hero to victim. In the first chapter, Rawlins and John Grady not only control their surroundings, but are also confident in their ability to control it. In the second, they still believe in their ability to control their environment, but slowly we start to see their delusion. In each new conversation or confrontation with a family member, John Grady unwittingly reveals his vulnerability to 'sacrifice'. In his innocuous first exchange with Rocha, he fails to notice how the ranch-owner, sitting like a comic-book villain amidst the shadows of 'sunning cats', is blindly ascribing him a character:

Why are you here? He said...

I just wanted to see the country, I reckon. Or we did.

May I ask how old are you?


The hacendado raised his eyebrows. Sixteen, he said...

But you are the leader.

We don't have no leaders. We're just buddies.

Of course.

The subject turns to horses, but by the end of the conversation, it is clear that Rocha has been filling in the outlines of John Grady's persona all along. And just when the creepy cats return, so do the creepy questions to remind us that Rocha consciously believes he has the Americans 'figured out' - and perhaps unconsciously has already surmised their fate:

The hacendado leaned back in his chair. One of the cats rose and stretched.

You rode here from Texas.


You and your friend.


Just the two of you.

John Grady looked at the table. The paper cat stepped thin and slant among the shapes of cats thereon. He looked up again. Yessir, he said. Just me and him.

The hacendado nodded and stubbed out his cigarette...

When Alejandra demands to ride Rocha's stallion, John Grady offers token resistance and then acquiesces:

What do you aim to do with your horses?

I want you to take him to the barn for me.

Somebody will see me at the house.

Take him to Armando's.

You're fixin to get me in trouble.

You are in trouble.

The banter seems flirtatious, harmless - the posturing of a cowboy hero and his Mexican dama. But the irony is that when the romantic undertones are stripped away, we are left with explicit foreshadowing of John Grady's fate - Armando will see him at the house, he will get in trouble for having been seen, he already is in trouble for coveting Alejandra. Looking back at this conversation at chapter's end, John Grady loses his hero's sheen. Blissfully unaware of his own vulnerability, he sets himself up for the fall like a meek dinghy riding backwards towards a cascade. Duena Alfonsita reiterates that no matter how noble his intentions, once he attempts to cross the line from a foreigner to a family member, he will have no 'say' in his fate:

This is another country. Here a woman's reputation is all she has...

I guess I'd have to say that that don't seem right.

Right? She said. Oh. Yes. Well.

She turned one hand in the air as if reminded of something she'd misplaced. No, she said. No. It's not a matter of right. You must understand. It is a matter of who must say. In this matter I get to say. I am the one who gets to say.

She is virtually reciting the criteria of a Girardian 'victim' - the outsider with no knowledge of a society's customs, the gallant misconceptions, the failure to realize who ultimately has the power. Still, John Grady continues his pursuit of Alejandra, believing that "right" will win out, that he can reason with those who are irrational. But it is Rocha, long after the sacrifice has been planned, who returns to make his fallacy explicit:

He chalked, he moved. He bent and shot and then stood surveying the new lay of the table.

Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.

The action, the character development has all been subterraneous. Rawlins has evolved from loquacious sidekick to the taciturn voice of conscience. Alejandra is a princess in the eyes of her lover, a pawn to her family. And John Grady is no longer a righteous knight, but as Rocha puts it, a "Quixote," a foolhardy tourist trying to reason his way out of a country he knows nothing about. And thus, when on a gray morning, uniformed officers burst in to arrest the Americans, the climax seems natural - as if the story has been silently building up to it. McCarthy has kept the stirrings in both narrative structure and character latent - like a volcano that rumbles so softly that when it explodes, we watch the blood-red lava flow without surprise, as if it has been in our unconscious all along.

Accompanying the dimming tone is a gradual darkening of McCarthy's imagery. The fist chapter is swathed in morning light. The second unfolds under paper lights, starry skies, in pitch blackness. But the 'darkness' is not meant to be literal - indeed, much of the second chapter reads as idyllically as the first one, only with a contrasting set of hues:

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. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water.

McCarthy's darkness is not the darkness of evil, but rather the blindness to evil. In this darkness, John Grady cannot see. He cannot see the subtle warnings, the plots unfolding. And even when it is too late, he still cannot see:

He shaded his eyes. There were men with rifles standing in the bay.

Quien es? He said.

He leaves the ranch still mystified - 'What's this about, pardner?' he asks Rawlins - as if a living testament to McCarthy's warning of ingenuous human trust.