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Although smoking of the past was viewed as glamorous and romantic, its cancerous, harmful effects are now a common fact. Similarly, in Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses, the consistent smoking throughout the novel juxtaposes the negative effect of smoking with a naive faith in the American western myth. The recurring motif of smoking in the novel serves to portray both the romanticism behind blind faith in the Western myth and the stark realities of its modern failure.
In the relentless motifs of smoking, it’s hard to deny that smoking has a deeper, symbolic meaning in All the Pretty Horses. The friendly dialogues and clich “beginnings that take place while smoking express the poignant communion between characters before the disappointment of the western myth is discovered. John Grady and his father meet in a caf” where they hardly talk; during this awkward dinner, his father feels as though he has failed his son. Throughout this first scene where the characters smoke, John Grady’s father “got another cigarette and tapped it against the lighter,” and as Grady contemplates about his future “his father smoked.” This father/son conversation conveys the intimate rapport of characters before the demise of the myth. Furthermore, before Rawlins and Grady run off to Mexico, the two share a man to man communion (while smoking): Rawlins “took a cigarette out” and “sat smoking.” As he “tipped the ash from the end of the cigarette,” Rawlins claims that women “aint worth it. None of em are.” The empathy between John Grady and a close friend or relative while smoking emphasizes the idealized vision of the west. Just as smoking is fascinating to youthful users, the clich?d idea of the west is also. In this cliche beginning of the novel, John Grady and Rawlins experience no danger or violence on their journey to Mexico; their harmless trip to Mexico follows the boys’ naive perception of the western myth. This perception of the myth similarly follows smoking—the intriguing experience of smoking seems harmless at first. As Rawlins absorb his newfound life in the west, he “rolled a cigarette and lit it.” Here, in another communion with John Grady, he claims that he “could get used to this life.” He delicately tapped the ash, saying it “wouldn’t take [him] no time at all.” This furthermore emphasizes the childish view of Rawlins and Grady—just as they believe smoking is a harmless habit, they believe this idealized view of the West will be as they expected.
As John Grady and Rawlins face the gory reality of the American west, the fate of smoking is also recognized. The death of John Grady’s father and the violent, threatening scenes convey the degradation of the myth of the west. Although smoking began as an enthralling communion between characters, it soon becomes a brutally silent killer…or a near killer. Just as “the boy stubbed out the cigarette,” the violent fight scene erupts in the jail where John Grady is almost killed. The relationships with cigarettes have drastically changed from the beginning of the quest—no longer are characters in deep conversations while smoking; they now are facing the violent reality of the western myth. Perhaps the most painful reality of smoking was portrayed by the death of his father. This death symbolizes not only the reality of smoking, but also a death of childish view of the west. Although it is not made explicit, it can be inferred that John Grady’s father dies from lung cancer, as he was heavy smoker. His father and grandfather were an embodiment of the former, idealized vision of the west. John Grady clearly has some spiritual connection with these relatives, as he “knew his father was dead” when he awoke one morning. Although John Grady may realize that the romanticized myth is coming to an end, he still maintains his faith.
As the myth of the American West deteriorates in the eyes of some of the characters throughout the novel, smoking likewise becomes a hopeless habit, emphasizing the slow weakening of the faith in the American West. Yet, John Grady remains steadfast to his belief of the American west—he refuses to accept modernization. At the beginning of their quest, both John Grady and Rawlins have an ultimate belief in their future as cowboys. As their plans turn another direction, however, Rawlins becomes extremely cynical about this idealized dream. His doubt in the American west correlates with cigarettes. As the boys return to Encantada, a recent memory, as prisoners: “John Grady called to ask [the children] if they could get them cigarettes.” The skeptical Rawlins, however, spits and claims “they aint goin to bring you no damn cigarette,” expressing his loss of faith in the western dream. The shy children do in fact bring the cigarettes for John Grady, giving him some hope that the dream of the American cowboy may survive. Another important dialogue that concretely grounds John Grady’s faith is when he discusses the breeding of the Andalusian horses. Even more, John Grady is smoking while discussing this future. As he “tips the ash from his cigarette,” the hacendado asks John Grady if he knows what “a criollo is.” The criollo happens to be an Andalusian horse, which John Grady later breeds with the western mares. The breeding of these specific horses corresponds to the “picturebook horses” that his grandfather dismissed as a child. John Grady noticed that these animals were like none he had ever seen; they had good, heavy hindquarters, “enough to make a cuttinghorse,” which is another emphasis on the fantasy of these “picturebook horses.” These horses, which perhaps symbolize the idyllic, yet unreal, west in the eyes of the grandfather, represent an attainable reality to young John Grady. The smoking during this important scene, which paints his envision of the west, portrays John Grady’s faith in his dream—he will do anything to fulfill it. Furthermore, when John Grady is in the last prison, P?rez tells him of connections to get him out of prison. When Perez offers John Grady a cigarette, he “stubbed it out in the tin ashtray …Cigarettes in that world were money themselves and the one he left broken and smoldering in front of his host had hardly been smoked at all.” This denial of Perez’s money portrays John Grady’s similar denial of the modernization of the West—he still believes in the idealized West.
The common smoking scenes of All the Pretty Horses, whether they are of man to man communion or display the violence of the West, convey the dying dream of the American west. This idealized trope, although intriguing at first, eventually has a fatal, negative effect, just as smoking. So, beware, fascinating dreams can lead to death!
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