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All The Pretty Horses | Bromanticism

illustration by Minnie Hau & words by Lauren Dundler 

“He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led to 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.” 

― Cormac McCarthyAll the Pretty Horses



“Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.”

― Cormac McCarthy

Human beings are perpetually terrified of change, whether they are significant changes or small ones that shouldn’t cause us any bother, like a change of coffee bean supplier at your local café. Regardless of the magnitude of these changes, we do not warmly open them into our lives. We are naturally suspicious of new things and we grapple with our disequilibrium as we decide whether to accept them or not.

Sometimes, acceptance is not an option. Sometimes it’s not just about a change in coffee bean, but the café which you visit every morning is no longer a café – it’s a tapas bar that doesn’t even have a coffee machine. How can you adjust, let alone accept, these changes? You might try to find another coffee supplier in your area, but ultimately, is it possible to ever recreate that emotional connection to your morning routine that your first café managed to provide you with?

This simple analogy evokes the conflict central to Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, a novel published in 1992. McCarthy tells his narrative in lean yet sprawling prose and an unconventional grammatical style with vivid descriptions of landscapes, evoking a sense of yearning in its audience, uniting us with the characters of the book and their romanticised perspective of the “cowboy” life. At the core of All the Pretty Horses we are dealing with mid-century American Southwest in a state of rapid transition, moving away from a world filled with ranches and cowboys, to something urbanised and unknown.

This conflict belongs to the main characters, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, and is both inseparable from their textual identities and the narrative of All the Pretty Horses. We only see these young men as they, and the lives they have begun to shape, are becoming obsolete as society continues to stampede into a future which they cannot and do not want to understand. In the case of John Grady, he is no longer able to pursue the future he has been fostering –

when the family ranch is sold by his grandfather – and the life the boy has been picturing becomes as fictional as the picture book horses that the old man mocks. Both he, and Rawlins, are living lives which parallel Alejandra’s great-aunt sorrowful tale: they are exiles in their own country.

These young men are not motivated by fear of this new, strange world – in fact, in some circumstances they prove themselves capable of moving in these new spheres of existence even if they known they do not fit there, including John Grady’s visit to the theatre where his mother is performing. But rather they are unsure of how they can reconcile the identities they have begun to forge – rich in skills, interests and a past enmeshed in family traditions – with the landscapes that are beginning to emerge in their lifetimes. They are uncertain, troubled and isolated in their own homes and feel a constant struggle with the changing world around them. Ultimately they reject this new world and forge experiences together in their isolation, desperately clinging to a world that no longer seems to exist in Texas, but may be lingering in Mexico.

To them, Mexican ranch life holds a solution to their quandary – a world that would allow them to engage with landscapes that are now only segregated to Texas’ past. Both Rawlins and John Grady are able to prove themselves as capable young cowboys, with John Grady more competent than his friend, earning the approval of the owner, allowing him to be promoted into a lifestyle with greater responsibilities, but also privileges (such as greater access to the owner’s daughter, Alejandra). But despite their pursuit of an old world, they do not understand the implications of the cultural and social differences in Mexico. They are haunted by the problematic choices they make –such as allowing Blevins to travel with them despite his shadiness and the affair John Grady has with Alejandra – and ultimately they are forced out of this world too.

It is their isolation and rejection that drives these two young men together – they are united both by a common love of horses and ranch-life, but also through their exile not only in their own country, but also in the new one they have chosen to forge their lives. Their connection to each other represents not only loyal friendship, but also the past that neither of them is able to let go of. The senora captures this idea eloquently when she talks about “the closest bonds we will ever know are those of grief. The deepest community one of sorrow,” for it is the bonds of that forges a brotherhood between these two young men – they are united by their grief for the loss of the past and the lives they were beginning to create for themselves. The intensity of this connection is revealed in the final pages of the novel, when John Grady is fetching his horse from the town he is imprisoned in and he displays utter, almost absurd, determination to get all four horses out of the compound safely – even if he dies immediately after. In this scene, the horses symbolically represent the bond between Rawlins and John Grady, and also a potent connection with a past filled with cowboy and ranches which they desperately yearn for. A past which John Grady proves, time and time again, he is willing to die for.

Whilst human beings may be known for their fear of change, perhaps this well cited anxiety doesn’t necessarily stem from a fear of the unknown, but more likely a fear of becoming obsolete. Much like John Grady and Rawlins, we are constantly unsure if we will be able to apply our experiences, our passions and our abilities to new landscapes at all stages in our lives. There is something very relatable in All the Pretty Horses to all generations as we are ultimately dealing with the consequence of change – big, real and life-altering change – and how humans attempt to navigate the resulting disequilibrium. We all forge connections to lost worlds, through keeping primary-school friendships for thirty years, or trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans that fit you when you were sixteen. We keep looking for that new café, even when the tapas bar might be an exciting and rewarding experience. Struggling with change is central to all of our lives and this conflict is masterfully realised through Cormac McCarthy’s narrative in All the Pretty Horses, where the anxieties of change are depicted through brotherhood and romanticism, making his novel a powerful and relatable reflection on the human condition.