CT Journal: Select one or more passages from
All the Pretty Horses which strike you as being,
characteristic of McCarthy's writing style. Write a well-formed essay
in which you discuss how the author's manipulation of diction and
syntax help to convey EITHER theme or character.
Note: This assigment is patterned on a similar type of task included each year on the English AP Exam.
She was dancing with a tall boy from the San Pedro ranch and she wore a blue dress and her mouth was red. He and Rawlins and Roberto stood with other youths along the wall and watched the dancers and watched beyond the dancers the young girls at the far side of the hall. He moved along past the groups. The air smelt of straw and sweat and a rich spice of colognes. Under the bandshell the accordion player struggled with his instrument and slammed his boot on the boards in countertime and stepped back and the trumpet player came forward. Her eyes above the shoulder of her partner swept across him where he stood. Her black hair done up in a blue ribbon and the nape of her neck pale as porcelain. When she turned again she smiled.
He never touched her and her hand was small and her waist was so slight and she looked at him with great forthrightness and smiled sandpit her face against his shoulder. They turned under the lights. A long trumpet note guided the dancers on their collective paths. Moths circled the paper lights aloft and the goathawks passed down the wires and flared and arced upward into the darkness again. (123)
In the passage above, author Cormac McCarthy uses a graceful style to portray a subtle, yet poignant theme of love between characters John Grady Cole and Alejandra. This particular scene takes place in chapter two with John Grady attending a dance at the old adobe hall. It is at this occasion that the young couple is able to meet and get to know each other. The atmosphere fills of romance and the beginnings of a forbidden love. McCarthy eloquently uses phrases to bring forth the reader's own emotions of love, touching our hearts as though we are in the shoes of John Grady and Alejandra.
The author's diction can be described as flowing and delicate. His use of concise words and phrases such as "blue dress" and "her mouth was red" allows the reader to have a clear image of the characters. Without hesitation, a picturesque beauty of eloquence and grace appeared in my mind. Alejandra's charm is further enhanced as she is described while dancing: "Her black hair all done up in a blue ribbon and the nape of her neck pale. as porcelain." McCarthy's poetic style is recognized as he uses alliteration to transform a simple description into one that creates a vivid image of a lovely Mexican woman. The phrase also reminds us of the belief that the beauty of a woman is often accentuated by the loveliness of the back of her neck. In this description, the simile, "pale as porcelain," is equally effective and leaves the reader with an impression that Alejandra is not only delicate, but fragile like porcelain as well. The image is symbolic of the kind of love that the young lovers will face, enchanting, yet not without the danger of being destroyed.
In telling of the ambiance of the dance hall, the author continues, "the air smelt of straw and sweat and a rich spice of colognes." Once again, McCarthy is successful in using alliteration to enhance the description of the scene. A romantic, yet mysterious mood comes to mind as the reader visualizes an old style country-dance in a barn, filled with proud young men, all waiting to make a good impression on the women.
As with diction, the author's manipulation of syntax in this passage conveys a soft tone for a theme that describes a tumultuous love affair. McCarthy repeatedly uses the word "and" to connect several thoughts together within his sentences. This style of writing forces the reader to join the author's thoughts together. In the phrase, "He never touched her and her hand was small and her waist was so slight and she looked at him with great forthrightness and smiled and put her face against his shoulder," the use of "and" links several important images of the scene together. This enables the reader to visualize more than one thought such as her small hand. In essence the connections creates an image of an entire scene where a dainty and beautiful young woman gracefully engages in a powerful and emotional dance with her partner. Similar grammatical structure is used throughout this passage and other passages in the book as well. With this style, McCarthy's scenes become flowing and well connected
"Moths circled the paper lights aloft and the goathawks passed down the wires and flared and arced upward into the darkness again." A subtle, yet poignant scene once again emerges as the reader embraces thoughts of peace and tranquility, wondering what the darkness above will bring forth. Romance is heightened with two dances in motion; one with the moths and goathawks circling the lights and passing down the wires, and the other of John Grady Cole and Alejandra in the old barn. Like moths heading upward into the darkness, the couple dances into the darkness and the unknown, naively believing that their love for one another is all that matters.
This author's unique diction and syntax style enhances the novel's ability to produce strong and solid characterizations of both John Grady and Alejandra. McCarthy's masterful use of descriptive writing is powerful in laying the groundwork for a love theme that will be as difficult as life allows. All the Pretty Horses, a book full of messages about life's adversities, challenges readers to understand its meaning using an author's individual writing style. Once this is accomplished, the reader will flourish in appreciating a story that reaches deep within our souls.
The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powdered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led. In the evening a wind came up and reddened all the sky before him. There were few cattle in that country because it was barren country indeed yet he came at evening upon a solitary bull rolling in the dust against the bloodred sunset like an animal in sacrificial torment. The bloodred dust blew down out of the sun. He touched the horse with his heels and rode on. He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come. (302)
I believe this is a very important passage of the book, especially when it comes to theme. After reading this last paragraph, one may look back on the book and truly understand what exactly the story All the Pretty Horses is about. The theme, ultimately, is like a mirror of John Grady's point of view. Specifically, his point of view on horses, Alejandra, and life. We are shown the world through his eyes and this last paragraph in particular says a lot about the way he views life.
First of all, let's look at the diction of the paragraph. Looking at the first line I noticed the way he uses words that start with the letters 'd' and 'r'. "The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised..." This line has a distinct rhythm and a certain poetic sound that is caused because of the use of these words, because of the "r"s and "d"s. A similar pattern is continued throughout the rest of the sentence: "the dust that powdered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led." The 'd' and 'r' pattern is still there and another letter is added, 'l', for "legs" and "led". Another example of this pattern is a few sentences later, "There were few cattle in that country because it was barren country indeed yet he came at evening upon a solitary bull rolling in the dust against the bloodred sunset..." In this sentence there is a pattern with the letter's 'c' and 'b'.
The color red is mentioned frequently throughout this entire passage a its significance is extremely important when it comes to the main theme of this book. John Grady is seeing the world through his own eyes. How he feels affects the way he views things. If this theory is correct and John Grady is seeing a lot of red (red desert, red sun, red dust... etc) then he is feeling a lot of red. So what does the color red represent? Red represents his pain and suffering. As we know, he's heartbroken because the girl of his dreams has sacrificed him for her values and beliefs. John Grady is unhappy and in pain on the inside and what he sees is mirroring how he feels. "..it was barren country indeed yet he come at evening upon a solitary bull rolling in the dust against the bloodred sunset like and animal in sacrificial torment." In this sentence, the bull is representative of him. He is the solitary bull in sacrificial torment. The word "sacrificial" is an important one because he sacrificed his heart and soul for Alejandra. It was a relationship he knew to some extent wouldn't work out, but he went for it anyway. He was not the only one who made sacrifices. As I mentioned earlier, Alejandra sacrificed him for her values and her beliefs. He sacrificed and in turn was sacrificed. The last line, "passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come", just shows how incurable John Grady is from this heartbreak. It seems to imply that he'll be unhappy for the rest of his life.
The syntax also supports the theme in a rather interesting way. The theme being the fact that John Grady's feelings are mirrored in the way he sees things and the syntax actually seems to mirror certain sentences. For example, once again the first line, "The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised..." The first part of the sentence ends with the word red, and then uses it again, or repeats it in the completion of the sentence "...was red and red the..." Another example is, '...few cattle in that country because it was barren country indeed..." In that one, the word "country" was used and then repeated later to continue the sentence. Yet another example is, "...and horse and rider and horse passed..." The sentences seem to mirror themselves, just like how John Grady's view of the world mirrors how he feels.
The words Cormac McCarthy used and the way he placed them in the sentences makes the scene a bit mysterious. For me, he makes me sort of curious about this place John Grady is in. The red desert with its red dust and red sunset. I think it's mysterious because he never really states what it feels like. For example, he never says "It's hot" or that "John Grady was sweating like a pig". He just describes it, and that's what kind of makes me wonder, what is this place?
"In his sleep he could hear the horses stepping among the rocks and he could hear them drink from the shallow pools in the dark where the rocks lay smooth and rectilinear as the stones of ancient ruins and the water from their muzzles dripped and rang like water dripping in a well and in his sleep he dreamt of horses and the horses in his dream moved gravely among the tilted stones like horses come upon an antique site where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again and the horses were wary and moved with great circumspection carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again. Finally what he say in his dream was that the order in the horse's heart was more durable for it was written in a place where no rain could erase it." (280)
Through this passage, Cormac McCarthy reveals various aspects of John Grady Cole's character and a glimpse of John's idea of the world. In doing so, Cormac McCarthy also establishes the concept of maturing and growing up as one of the central themes in All The Pretty Horses. In this subject area, theme and character become intertwined since the former is based on the way the latter develops and how he differs from previous chapters. By discussing what this passage means in terms of character and relating it to the sample passage discussed in class, we can see the ways in which John Grady Cole has matured.
In terms of diction, the words incorporated in this passage appear to fall into four thematic categories. One such category is the subject of order. The first words to appear that carry orderly connotations are the words "smooth" and "rectilinear", adjectives that describe the rocks the horses are treading upon. "Smooth" is defined as "having a continuous even surface". The words "continuous" and "even" imply order, as opposed to chaotic words such as "sporadic" and "jagged". "Rectilinear" is defined as "characterized by straight lines". Straight lines are likewise continuous and even, and thus, imply order as well.
The second theme is characterized by the opposite of the first, namely, disorder. The subject of disorder is established by the words "ruins" and "tilted", and furthered by the phrase "...where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again." Ruins are the leftovers of large things that have been destroyed, such as buildings and cities. When an orderly structure is broken down (a temple for example) ruins are the traces left behind in disarray. The word "tilted" means "at an incline". Something which is extended over its center of gravity is unstable, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Instability suggests disorder, as things which are ordered are continuous and enduring.
The third theme is the idea of maturity. Words such as "ancient" and "antique" imply oldness and establish age as a theme in this passage. Also, the phrase "...carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again" implies experience and familiarity with a variety of situations. Experience is gained through time and exposure, and thus, this phrase furthers the idea of old age and maturity.
The last theme is the concept of caution. We first gain an idea of caution being associated with this paragraph in the way that the horses move. The motion in this passage is slow and deliberate. The horses are "wary" and move "gravely...with great circumspection". The definition of "wary" equates to "with caution". "Gravely" means "with great consideration and seriousness". "Circumspection" means "consideration of all possible actions and consequences". Through these words, we can see how deliberation and caution are thematic in this passage.
To understand what all the above means in respect to John Grady Cole's character requires us to form connections between all four themes and tie them together with the last sentence in the paragraph. From what we can infer from the passage, order appears to come from within, while disorder appears to exist in the environment. The horses have "...come upon an antique site where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again..." Since the advent of paper, few things have been inscribed in stone. One significant document, however, which was inscribed in stone was The Ten Commandments. If we then connect righteousness and moral correctness with order we can see how this relates to John Grady Cole's character. This connection is not that great of a stretch,, since the path of virtue never changes, never wavers, and the path of viciousness allows for change, squirming, and cutting corners.
It appears, then, that from John Grady Cole's point of view, the virtue in the world, or at least in Mexico, has failed, but the virtue within his heart is more durable. While people like the Captain and Perez care nothing for what is right, but rather for power and what they believe is to their advantage (wealth for example), John Grady Cole appears to have a sense of what is correct and to follow it. What else drives him to attempt to find the owner of Blevin's horse or to tell the judge his remorse over the killing of the cuchillero? As the Duena Alfonsa says, "I only that if she [Alejandra] does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make difference whether she lives at all. And by true I do not mean what is righteous but merely what is so." Thus, what is "so" is not always what is right, at least in Mexico. It is because of this that John Grady Cole must move with caution. He cannot afford to be reckless especially since he is in a situation where correctness and idealism has nothing to do with reality. It is through his experiences in Mexico and his maturing in that country that he comes to discover this.
The sentence structure within this passage is distinct but not unique within the context of this book. The entire paragraph is composed of two sentences, one long and one shorter. The longer sentence connects several independent clauses with the conjunction "and" and appears to be a huge run-on. In addition, it contains a jumble of images that do not appear to fit together at first. For example, the phrases "where some ordering of the world had failed" and "if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again" do not seem to fit in the context of the paragraph. What do order and writing on stones have to do with cautious horses coming upon an antique site? The shorter sentence contains a succinct and relatively understandable observation from John Grady Cole. If the distinction between order and disorder is one of the themes in this paragraph, then the passage itself is a sample of this "battle". The first sentence represents the disorder of the environment, while the second represents the order that John Grady Cole creates out of the chaos around him.
One way in which the syntax in this paragraph furthers the topic of maturing is by relating itself to another passage which utilizes the same sentence structure on page 161. These two passages, when compared, reveal a number of ways in which John Grady Cole has grown. After discussing the passage on page 161 in class, we came to the conclusion that the theme of reckless freedom characterized this section. We can see this in the unfettered running and trampling through a haze of pollen (haze implying unconstrained) in beds of wildflowers and in the fearless spirit in which the horses and John Grady Cole move. These pictures and themes differ greatly from the passage discussed above and show how much John Grady Cole has changed and developed in Mexico.
From the above, we can infer the ways John Grady Cole has matured. Within his spirit, unrestrained freedom has been replaced with caution, righteousness, and order. He has become older and more prudent. He understands that his youthful idealism is not the reality of Mexico, but that just because his environment does not reflect it does not mean he cannot keep it inside of him. The world is not always sunny as he imagined in his first dream and whatever idealism and righteousness exists within it can be washed away by circumstance and environment (the rain), but even when it pours, "the order in [his] heart [is] more durable for it [is] written in a place where no rain [can] erase it."