Throughout the novel, McCarthy uses polysyndetonic syntax, a technique also much used by his fellow American novelist William Faulkner (1897-1962). Polysyndeton is the use of several conjunctions in close succession, when some would usually be left out. A notable example is John Grady’s dream of horses near the beginning of Part III, which is described in one long sentence, with phrases linked by “and”:
“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground an the flowers ran all blue and yellow …”
The effect of this passage, as in much of the rest of the novel, is to run one impression into another and give a sense of the unity that characterizes this vision. Each horse is unified with the others, the horses are unified with the landscape, and the whole is unified with John Grady.
Perhaps for similar reasons of enabling the flow of the prose, McCarthy eschews the use of quotation marks. At times this makes it difficult to work out who is speaking; the reader has to back up to a point when one or another speaker is identified.
Also missing are the conventional apostrophes in words such as “aint” (normally “ain’t”) and “dont” (normally “don’t). This too adds to the effect of seamless prose.
McCarthy has an unerring eye for realistic dialog, and tailors speech style carefully to eachcharacter. Characters who are morally decadent or dubious, or who hide their true motives, speak in a verbose and flowery fashion. They tend to philosophize, moralize, discuss abstractions, and justify their evil actions with convoluted reasoning. Characters that fit this mold are Pérez, the police captain, Don Hector, and Alfonsa.
The hero, John Grady, in contrast, says little, and what he does say is straight to the point. He is a man of action, not words, and does the right thing according to his stoic and honest values. In this respect, John Grady is reminiscent of many heroes of the Western genre in film and also of the heroes of the American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).
McCarthy makes little concession to those readers who do not understand Spanish, often including dialog in Spanish without translating it into English. This adds to the realism of the novel and the sense of regional authenticity.
Imagery of religion, redness, and blood
All the Pretty Horses is filled with religious and Biblical imagery, reminding those readers who enjoy linking an author’s life and art that McCarthy was brought up a Roman Catholic. On the first page of the novel in Part I, John Grady Cole is described as a “supplicant”, one who pleads humbly (typically to God), at his grandfather’s funeral.
Often the religious imagery is linked with the imagery of redness and blood. It should be remembered that in Catholic theology, the wine that is drunk in Holy Communion is believed to be miraculously transformed into the blood of Christ. This is thought to cleanse the communicant spiritually. In All the Pretty Horses, blood is a spiritually transformative substance, connecting man with the landscape, with his history, with the horse, and with his destiny.At the end of Part III, after John Grady has been almost killed and lost much blood in the Saltillo prison, he begins his journey back to Don Hector’s ranch as “some newfound evangelical being.”
A significant use of religious symbolism comes in the repeated references to the “judas-hole” (Part III) in the door of the jail cell in which John Grady and Rawlins are incarcerated. The light that flows through this judas-hole into the cell illuminates the face of their cellmate, who turns out to be Blevins. It transpires that Blevins betrayed them to the Mexican police when he was arrested. The police were therefore already on the look-out for John Grady and Rawlins when Don Hector told them about the men’s presence on his ranch.
In the Bible, Judas Iscariot was the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities (this is described in several of the gospels, including Matthew 26:14-47 and John 13:18, 18:1). His betrayal led to Jesus’ crucifixion. His name has been appropriated to describe a treacherous person, a Judas, and to coin the word “judas hole,” the peephole in a jail door, because it is associated with spying and thus treachery. When the light from the judas-hole illuminates Blevins’s face, he is symbolically revealed for the false friend and betrayer that he is.
As well as casting Blevins as the Judas, the term “judas-hole” also casts John Grady, by extension of the religious symbolism, as the Jesus Christ figure. John Grady’s subsequent sufferings in the jail become associated with Christ’s suffering on the cross. Thus John Grady, like Christ, is portrayed as an innocent who suffers as a result of another’s evil.
The connotations of evil surrounding Blevins are reinforced by the image describing his outstretched leg as withdrawing from John Grady’s advance “like a serpent recoiling underfoot.” In the Bible it is the serpent that tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-20). The capitulation of Eve and her husband Adam to the serpent’s wiles marks the Fall of Man and the entry of death, suffering, and evil into the world. Revelation 12:9 links the serpent with Satan, the devil, and the association has remained in Christian theology.
In this context, Rawlins’s statement, “We’re dead … We’re dead men. I knew it’d come to that. From the first time I seen him”, has a deeper resonance than his fear of physical death due to Blevins’s betrayal. It emphasizes Blevins’s symbolic link with Satan, the bringer of death, though Blevins is far too foolish a character to be a knowing representative of the devil. Perhaps, based on Pérez’s comments to John Grady in Part III, evil is an entity in itself that uses foolish people like Blevins to do its work. Thus, Blevins partakes of evil rather than embodying it. Pérez says: “There can be in a man some evil. But we dont think it is his own evil. … Evil is a true thing in Mexico. It goes about on its own legs.”
There are many occurrences of imagery involving the color red, used to describe the landscape. This imagery serves to underline the themes of violence, blood, and bloodshed that recur in the novel and ties the violent life of humans to the landscape in which they live. Sometimes the link between imagery of redness and theme of blood is made explicit. An example is the imagery in Part I, when John Grady Cole rides out after his grandfather’s funeral into country in which “the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him.”
The image of blood is used to evoke the bloody history of the white settlement of the American West, which involved the massacre of numerous Native Americans. When John Grady rides out after his grandfather’s funeral on the old Comanche road, McCarthy writes of the Native Americans who once used the road and whose ghosts now haunt it as being “pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only.” The collective memory of their lives is described as being contained in a “grail”. In the Christian tradition, the grail was the dish used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper and is commemorated in Christian Holy Communion, in which the communicants drink blessed wine from a chalice that is supposed to resemble the grail. While the Native Americans were not Christians, the author’s portrayal of their lives in Christian imagery acknowledges the intersection of their destiny with that of the white Christian settlers.
The idea of blood is sometimes used in the novel to connote the life force. Of John Grady the author writes, “What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.” Blood is seen as a unifying force that ties the lives of men to the lives of horses, and by extension, to history and the Old West.