All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4 - Section 1 (pp. 217 - 241)

John Grady hitches a ride with some farm workers to Monclova. Seven weeks after being captured, after being separated from Alejandra, he finds his way back to the La Purisima ranch. The family is at dinner, but no one invites him in. Antonio comes to the door and tells him that Rocha took Alejandra to Mexico City - and never said when he would return. Antonio brings John Grady the things he had left at the ranch - his pistol, his shaving tools, his hunting knife - and lets him sleep in the barn.

The next day Maria, one of the house attendants, tells him that the mistress of the ranch - Duena Alfonsa - will see him later that night. John Grady asks to use a horse for the day. After checking with la senorita, she tells him he may take one of them and rushes him out. He rides through the country all afternoon, thinking of Alejandra. He returns at night to meet Alfonsa.

She puts him on the defensive immediately, telling him that she knew he would make the foolish decision to return. When John Grady tries to blame Rocha for his arrest, she lets him know that the officers had come long before they arrested him - Rocha had sent them away until he could investigate the matter himself. When he learned about the 'stolen' horse in Encantada, he realized the facts could not be disputed and let the commandante return. Alfonsa only bought his way out of prison because of Alejandra's promise never to see him again if she did so. "You took advantage of her," retorts John Grady, who heatedly adds that the disappointments in her own life should have made her more sympathetic. Duena Alfonsa responds by telling him that he knows nothing of the circumstances of her own life - and then by revealing her secrets.

As a girl, she was a freethinking idealist, disturbed by the poverty in her country, against the idea of a God who could permit such injustices. She fell in with the family of Francisco Madero, whose two oldest boys, Francisco and Gustavo, not only shared Alfonsa's ideas, but searched for ways to implement them - schools for the poor, communal kitchens, medicine distribution. Then one autumn, when she was seventeen, she suffered a shooting accident that left her hand without two of its fingers. Devastated, she withdrew from public view and 'awaited old age and death.' After a few months, Gustavo came to visit her. Handicapped himself by an artificial eye, Gustavo convinced her that she could live without bitterness, without despair. She had found her soulmate - from that day on, she was deeply in love with him.

Tragedy, however, soon returned. In the months that followed, Francisco became a political activist. After spurring a coup against the dictator Diaz, he gained a substantial following - enough to be popularly elected as president. Surrounded by plotters and schemers, however, Francisco, soon turned corrupt. Eventually, his entire cabinet fell victim to an armed uprising - Gustavo was tortured and killed by a mob, Francisco summarily executed. 'What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood,' says Alfonsa, ending her story.

She concludes by telling John Grady that her disappointments have made her more involved in Alejandra's fate. She does not object to John Grady as a suitor because he is a foreigner or because he is young, but only because Alejandra desires him too much - she believes a 'certain extravagance in the female blood' of the family makes their choices dubious. 'Something willful,' she adds. 'Improvident.' John Grady won't let Alfonsa have the last word. He says he still fully intends to see Alejandra. Alfonsa says she isn't surprised and rises to leave. 'I don't hate you,' says John Grady. 'You shall,' she replies.


Chapter Four resembles the third chapter in its renunciation of a 'showdown' climax and its juxtaposition of lush description with stark violence. McCarthy continues to subvert reader expectations in order to underscore his theme of 'sacred violence and the effect of this violence on his characters' psyche. To understand how this subversion takes place, we can look to three main episodes in this section.

First, the opening of the chapter detailing John Grady's return to La Purisima recalls Odysseus' ordeal to return home. He hitchhikes from city to city, talks to every passerby as he walks to Cuatro Cienagas in the hot sun, hitchhikes again to La Vega, and then, like a soldier returning from war, walks alone in the dark up the mud street to the ranch. The imagery might seem deliberately cliché - children bathing, picnics with smiling families, friendly truck drivers - but McCarthy wants to leave John Grady's path to La Purisima uncluttered. Indeed, since since calm and lightness often precedes sudden spurts of violence in All the Pretty Horses, the reader knows that the idyllic description opening the chapter is implicit foreshadowing: the real test, the real enemy awaits. He arrives at the ranch, sees the family eating at dinner through the window, waits for someone to come out, and then:

Quien esta en la casa? said John Grady.

La dama.

Y el senor Rocha?

En Mexico.

Imagine if Odysseus returned to Ithaca and found no one at home. Even worse, John Grady cannot find out when Rocha will return:

Cuando regresa?

Quien sabe?

The answer to John Grady's question - 'Who knows?' - is painfully ironic. Not only does our main character fail to ascertain when his nemesis will return, but the reader is also left without resolution - we never see Rocha again. The last image we have of Don Hector Rocha is the one Alejandra gives us: gun in hand, dogs in tow, ready to kill his daughter's lover. John Grady never gets revenge, never has a chance to explain himself, never 'wins.' McCarthy not only leaves his hero without a battle, but he also aborts the war.

He might not be able to meet Rocha, but John Grady is still intent on finding his daughter. In the second episode reflecting McCarthy's subversion, John Grady takes a horse from La Purisima and rides it through the rolling country, dreaming of his beloved, dreaming of Blevins, praying for "luck" when he meets with Duena Alfonsa later that night. After temporarily losing control, John Grady does the only thing he can to regain it - ride without destination:

He rode among the horses on the mesa and he walked them up out of the swales and cedar brakes where they'd gone to hide and he trotted the stallion along the grassy rims for the wind to cool him.

Indeed, it is as if he makes a pilgrimage to reset the narrative. If Rocha will not face him, then Duena Alfonsa will be his replacement. Someone will listen to him. In all this, we see the planted clichés once again: the hero knows his appeal will be rebuffed, looks for his strength as he wanders the wilderness, returns to make his righteous claim. The drama is only heightened when he sits with the vaqueros hours before his meeting with Alfonsa:

They spoke of cattle and the horses and the young wild mares in their season and of a wedding in La Vega and a death of Vibora. No one spoke of the patron or of the duena. No one spoke of the girl.

We can sense the breathless frustration of John Grady's consciousness, waiting as the conversation switches from subject to subject, never one veering in the direction that he wants. Then he is made to wait for Maria to answer the door, wait while he eats dinner, wait while Maria washes the dishes - and only then, is he invited to meet Alfonsa in the living room.

But John Grady never gets to make his claim on Alejandra. Alfonsa controls the conversation so thoroughly that we finally understand her earlier warning: love is not a matter of 'right', it is only a matter of who gets to 'say.' John Grady tries a variety of approaches to soften the old woman. First, he tries to acts offended:

I think I'm owed an explanation.

I think the accounts have been settled quite in your favor. You have been a great disappointment to my nephew and a considerable expense to me.

No offense, mam, but I've been some inconvenienced myself.

The officers were here once before you know. My nephew sent them away until he was able to have an investigation performed. He was quite confident that the facts were otherwise. Quite confident.

Then, John Grady can only manage wounded indignation before Alfonsa begins piling on the reasons why he not only should never have come back to the ranch, but why he should feel guilty for doing so. The suppressed rage infiltrates both of their words, but Alfonsa quickly gains the upper hand, becomes a mother chastising a son. Indeed, in her eyes, Rocha becomes the 'disappointed' father who refused to believe the evidence until he found his own proof. John Grady does not deserve to see Alejandra, should not have returned to the ranch, is lucky to be in his position at all. Like a cowboy who pulled out an empty revolver in a duel, John Grady never recovers. Duena Alfonsa goes on to call him a liar, a thief, an expensive nuisance, and he can only manage muted protest. Finally, he lashes out:

I'd of thought the disappointments in your own life might of made you more sympathetic to other people.

You would have thought wrongly.

Alfonsa then goes on to tell her protracted, tragic history to justify her involvement with Alejandra's marriage, her denial of John Grady's right to be her suitor. The story itself is not overly significant, but the length of it is. John Grady is silent the entire time. The tables have turned completely. It is not John Grady who gets to purge his soul, to claim his beloved, but rather his nemesis. When she's finished, he tries to take his turn - to tell of his own suffering, but Alfonsa won't hear it:

You wont make let me make my case.

I know your case. Your case is that certain things happened over which you had no control.

It's true.

I'm sure it is. But it's no case.

Just as she predicted, just as she warned, Duena Alfonsa is the only one who 'gets to say.'