Note: Spellings of quotations are reproduced as they appear in the novel.
You don’t talk much, do you? he said.
Not a whole lot.
That’s a good trait to have.
After his grandfather’s funeral, John Grady Cole is given a ride by a man who opens this conversation on John Grady’s taciturnity. The man’s approval of this trait sets up the theme of volubility versus taciturnity, words versus deeds. The characters who talk a great deal are generally false, treacherous, and malevolent, covering up their lack of truth with fancy speeches. John Grady does not say much, but has deep integrity.
People don’t feel safe no more, he said. We’re like the Comancheswas two hundred years ago. We dont know what’s going to show up here come daylight. We dont even know what color they’ll be.
John Grady Cole’s father says this to his son in the café where they sit and talk after John Grady’s grandfather’s funeral. The father is talking about the rancher and cowboy way of life, associated with the Old West, that is being made extinct by the onward march of progress. Just as their ancestors, the white settlers, wiped out the Native American Comanche tribe, so they themselves are being wiped out by modern civilization. Their way of life is as uncertain and perilous as that of the Comanches two hundred years previously.
You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.
Yeah. I guess he does. You?
Yeah. I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell. You dont know what’s goin to happen. I’d say He’s just about got to. I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.
In this exchange between Rawlins and John Grady, Rawlins is expressing his belief in a philosophy that correlates with the mathematical theory known as chaos theory. Chaos theory can be summed up as the notion that the outcome of a series of causative events will be greatly affected by a minor change in the initial conditions. Although the behavior of chaotic systems appears to be random, it is in fact driven by cause-and-effect.
Throughout the novel, seemingly minor decisions taken by the characters (such as John Grady’s refusal to go along with Rawlins’s suggestion that they get rid of Blevins) have huge and unforeseen consequences. But rather than leaving the reader with the feeling that God is looking out for the characters in a benevolent way, as Rawlins suggests, the events of the novel imply that terrible consequences can result from honest and true motivations, and that the creator has no interest inprotecting good people from such outcomes.
Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing. It was always some choice I’d made before it. You understand what I’m sayin?
Yeah, I think so. Meanin what?
Meanin this is it. This is our last chance. Right now. This is the time and there wont be another time and I guarantee it.
Meanin just leave him?
What if it was you?
It aint me.
What if it was?
Rawlins twisted the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and plucked a match from his pocket and popped it alight with his thumbnail. He looked at John Grady.
I wouldnt leave you and you wouldnt leave me. That aint no argument.
You realize the fix he’s in?
Yeah. I realize it. It’s the one he’s put hisself in.
This crucial exchange between Rawlins and John Grady (the first speaker being Rawlins) both tells the reader about the two characters’ differing natures and marks a decisive moment that determines how events unfold throughout the rest of the novel. Rawlins wants to leave the catastrophic Blevins behind. He knows that if they continue to allow him to ride with them, he will lead them into serious trouble. He has enough moral flexibility that he could do this, even if it meant leaving Blevins in danger in a strange place. He would put Blevins in danger to save their own skins. Plenty of readers would agree with him, particularly as Blevins is hard to like as a character. Rawlins occupies the role of Everyman, a character who is averagely good and averagely bad with whom most people can identify.
John Grady, in contrast, has an absolute moral code. Regardless of Blevins’s lack of merit (“It’s the one he’s put hisself in”), John Grady knows that it is not right to leave Blevins behind in a hostile village. On previous occasions, also, he refused to leave him, though Rawlins kept pointing out opportunities to do so. John Grady does what is right regardless of the trouble it brings on his own head, and he adheres unbendingly to this moral code throughout the novel.He sticks by Blevins, even though Blevins clearly does not deserve such loyalty.
Terrible things happen to John Grady as a result of his inability to ‘lose’ Blevins when he has the chance. As a result of Blevins’s actions, John Grady ends up in jail, where he is brutalized, attacked, and scarred. Alfonsa even dismisses him as a match for Alejandra on the grounds of this history of disaster: he is, she decides, a victim, someone to whom things happen. So he loses the girl he loves, also. Although John Grady loses on the outside, he emerges from his trials with his integrity intact. He is the same loyal, true man at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning. He embodies the moral code of the Old West: he is a silent but strong hero who says little but stands up for the truth. In this most important sense, the internal sense, John Grady triumphs.
In terms of chaos theory (see Essays, no. 5), Rawlins is aware that the decision that they make at this point, a seemingly small shift in the mind towards either leaving Blevins or finding him and taking him with them, will have momentous and catastrophic effects down the line of events. John Grady knows this, but adheres all the same to his moral code, which gives him no choice but to do the selfless thing. He knows that he must show the same loyalty to Blevins that he would show to his friend Rawlins. In the context of the theme of chaos theory, John Grady’s uncompromising morality stands as an unshakeable standard.
“There were two things they agreed upon wholly and that were never spoken and that was that God had put horses on earth to work cattle and that other than cattle there was no wealth proper to a man.”
The narrator is describing a conversation between Don Hector and John Grady, two men who understand and love horses. They also live the cowboy lifestyle, which the novel both romanticizes and examinesin all its brutality and precariousness. This conclusion sums up the cowboy philosophy, which centers on men, horses, and cattle.
“Real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal.”
The narrator describes John Grady’s sight of Alejandra riding her horse. The sentence sums up the dual nature of the novel, which is at once romantic and brutally realistic in its depiction of life on the Mexican ranch. It also hints at John Grady’s own tragedy of having a romantic soul yet having to exist in an unromantic and harsh world.
“What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God – who knows all that can be known – seems powerless to change.”
Alfonsa says this to John Grady when he returns to Don Hector’s ranch to reclaim Alejandra. Alfonsa’s statement encapsulates her bitter view of the world. It could be argued that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that she contributes to the suffering of the world by denying John Grady and Alejandra the right to be together.
“She tells me I must be my own person and with every breath she tries to make me her person.”
Alejandra, speaking to John Grady during their last tragic meeting, sums up the contradictions in the attitude of Alfonsa in opposing their romance.
“He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all.”
This is John Grady’s reflection after Alejandra says she cannot leave her family and homeland to marry him. It conveys thehopelessness he feels as a result of losing her.
He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.
John Grady reflects on the suffering he has endured and feels that beauty and suffering are inextricably linked, but not in an equal way: a mere glimpse of beauty exacts the terrible price of massive bloodshed and pain.