Death of a Stranger: Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses”

“There seemed insufficient substance to him to be the object of men’s wrath” (McCarthy 177)

The motivations to do certain actions in one’s life are generated from a multitude of places. In Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the protagonist, John Grady Cole’s, motivation to not only stay true to the mystery acquaintance, Blevins, but to return for what was sure to be a certain battle for Blevins’s horse is truly perplexing. The excerpt above will be used as a lens to peer into John Grady Cole’s development as a character and a man.

The statement that “there seemed insufficient substance to …[Blevins]… to be the object of men’s wrath,” begs two questions (177). First, why did there appear to Cole that there was not enough substance to Blevins to be killed? Secondly, what does serve as sufficient substance to be the receiver of a man’s wrath? Additionally, the diction of the excerpt bears additional analysis as well, for to use Blevins as an “object” for the wrath of man is to seemingly posit that Blevins was used as an object for man’ wrath, rather than being the subject of man’s wrath.

Let us investigate the first questions pertaining to the substance of Blevins. Jimmy Blevins is a character that mirrors those individuals in life that become victims of themselves by no fault of their own, whether it be that they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that they put themselves in those types of situations. This is a boy who is suspected at “about thirteen years old,” though he states his age as older (39). Blevins acted from a confidence derived partly from naivety and partly from some character flaw to which he was just victim to. This character flaw is simply put as forced aging. The past of Blevins is not spoken of. The reader never truly knows how he came to be heading towards Mexico on a “big bay horse” (44). Regardless of his past, the fact is that he was too young to be out in the wilderness living on his own and by that fact Blevins was doomed for an untimely fate.

As a demonstration of his naïve and young nature, when Blevins first comes into contact with Cole and Rawlins they ask Blevins, “What the hell would we want you with us for?” and Blevins responded, “Cause I’m an American” (45). This only illuminates the idealized perception Blevins has of the world, an idealized view that is unmistakably common amongst most youth. However, this might also be seen as the foreshadowing of the bond the three will share once in a foreign country.

Additionally, Blevins showed no caution when approaching Cole or Rawlins. His age plays a sizable factor in the confidence he displays. At the same time, Blevins has some skills which one is unaccustomed to seeing held by a boy of his age. Blevins is an excellent marksman and, at one point in the novel, “deadcentered” the billfold of Rawlins with a single shot (50). There is a mystery as to why Blevins is the way he is. He has skills and confidence the same as someone who might have lived years on their own in the wilderness or rough area, but neither the age nor the intelligence to make sense of these skills. Blevins is in and of himself a paradox. It is this that perplexes Cole and ultimately brings him to have sympathy for the boy. It is this mystery as to how these two things, the innocent naivety and strange foundationless confidence, come to coexist within Blevins that provides the sympathy from Cole and his belief of “insufficient substance” for being on the receiving end of man’s wrath.

As for the second question, that of what constitutes enough substance to be the “object of men’s wrath,” it is never truly answered, but rather further defined (177).  Towards the end of the novel, after Cole is released from the penitentiary and after he sees Alejandra again, he goes back to La Encantada, the town where everything happened and, most importantly, where Blevins was killed by the capitan. Cole travels back to this town to retrieve his horse, along with those of Rawlins and Blevins. However, it can also be thought that he went back for revenge, to make something right. After a battle for the horses and being shot in the leg, Cole makes it out of town with the capitan. Here he has an opportunity to end this man’s life, just as the capitan ended Blevins’s life. He refrains. Why? Some “Hombres del pais,” otherwise understood in English as “men of peace,” came and relieved Cole of his prisoner and in doing so, relieved Cole of the ability and temptation to take his life. This perplexes the reader as to why Cole refrains from taking his revenge on the man. This question is flushed out and seems to make more sense later when Cole is speaking with the judge who presided over his hearing while once back in Texas. With the judge Cole discusses how “the reason [he] wanted to kill [the capitan] was because [he] stood there and let him walk that boy out in the trees and shoot him and [he] never said nothin” (293). Cole’s failure to act, his failure to try to prevent what was certainly an inevitable fate for Blevins played havoc on his morals. The judge responded to this statement by asking if “it would have done any good? (293). Cole responds, “No sir. But that dont make it right” (293). This back-and-forth reveals a great deal of the inner battle Cole has been having throughout the novel. Inaction is just as guilt-laden as pulling the trigger. To allow death of an innocent without a putting up any sort of a fight against it is wrong, just as the killing itself is wrong. That being said, to bring it back to what constitutes sufficient substance to be the object men’s wrath; it appears that it is unclear just what constitutes this in Cole’s eyes. However, it is clear that even killing one who is undeserving of such wrath does not amount to it.

Finally, the diction of the excerpt must be discussed. McCarthy chose to use the word “object” within the statement in place of the more commonly used “subject.” To use the phrase “be the subject of men’s wrath” would imply that the wrath is about that subject, or targeted at that subject. However, to use “object” within that excerpt, as McCarthy did, it implies something completely difference. It seemingly implies something about the men’s wrath in question. Using “object” in relation to this wrath communicates to the reader an idea that it might simply be the men with which there is a problem. The men are using Blevins as an object by which to expel their wrath. After all, these men are upset that one of their own was killed after the rightful owner of a horse, that their own man came upon illegally, attempted to reclaim his property. This excerpt, via the meticulous use of language by McCarthy, provides a packed and heavily charged insinuation towards the men whose wrath is now seen to be misplaced.

The man John Grady Cole is by the end of the novel is certainly much changed from that of the beginning. This boy Jimmy Blevins is one of the largest reasons for that. Cole has experienced adversity of the greatest kind, he has been attacked, he has fallen in love, he has killed a man himself, but the main thing that tugs on his person is this boy, Blevins; a stranger, but a short time ago in his life, is now the most heavy weight on his conscience. Sufficient substance to kill an innocent, let alone an innocent boy, is undefined besides the fact that by Cole’s definition it must be more than killing someone without sufficient substance for killing either. These are the questions that wear on a man and, in the end, these are the questions that make a man. Cole knew that his idleness during the killing of Blevins was still culpable of some guilt, but the most intriguing of all is why Cole did not end the capitan’s life for revenge. Would he have done so if those “men of peace” hadn’t relieved him of the capitan? The question will remain, but Cole’s character was made by this one strange stranger boy, Blevins.

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