Last Updated 10 Jan 2023

A Feminist Criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

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In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses, he illustrates the perilous journey that John Grady embarks on through Mexico, ultimately uncovering a fragile feminist dynamic that he has yet to encounter in his life. Throughout his novel, McCarthy elaborates on a love affair, broken a part by the traditions of a patriarchal society that pervades Mexico, which observed through a feminist criticism lens, reveals the complexity and ultimately ironic dynamic that women play in the novel. The great aunt, Duena Alfonsa, is the primary figure in the novel who seems to be rooted in a feminist opposition to the patriarchal system that determines itself to limit the potential identities of women She places herself in opposition to society, noting that the “societies to which [she] have been exposed seemed to [her] largely machines for the suppression of women" (230), McCarthy furthers the great aunt’s animosity towards society as her observation is reinforced by her metaphor that compares the place of women in a patriarchal system as a puppet show (231).

As Alfonsa recounts her dilapidated childhood, she describes her relationship with her father, and the fact that she “could not oppose [her] father’s will" (234), which further demonstrates McCarthy‘s intent to present the limited choices women have; however, the great aunt represents a resourceful feminist who took advantage of the choices she did have, heightening the power of education, especially to women in a patriarchal society. The great-aunt was limited in her place within society, especially since her contingencies were dominated by patriarchal determinism. Despite these limitations, she still discovered methods of escape in order to assert her identity even within that restricting sphere, as she describes to Grady that in her childhood, “no one ever took a book from my hands" (232) and “By the time [she] was sixteen [she] had become a freethinker”, all of which horrified her parents (232)

The irony of the great aunt’s beliefs is that her recognition of the essence of the patriarchal system, in turn, transforms her into an extension of the patriarchal system as she seeks to hinder the independence of Alejandra The great aunt comments that in Mexico, “a woman’s reputation is all she has", and that love affair that happens outside of socially accepted relationships can result in “consequences of a gravity not excluding bloodshed” (136). McCarthy develops a nature of feminist criticism as he unveils the dire consequences for women when they lose their reputation or when their image stands outside what is considered conventional, truly showing the lack of choice women do have in this patriarchal society The great aunt continues to tell Grady that though a “man may lose his honor”, he can “regain it again”, whilst “a woman cannot" (137).

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Armed with these observations, the great aunt “won’t accept a conventional marriage for” Alejandra (240) and in order to protect her niece from the barbarity of the patriarchy she forbids her to see Grady, However, McCarthy establishes the great irony in the feminist dynamic of the great aunt as she condemns the patriarchal system for restricting her own choices, yet Duena Alfonsa sees no issue in controlling the autonomy of her niece, The aunt extends that identical attitude onto Alejandra that she claims the patriarchal society forced onto her, staging the great aunt as, truly, an ironic feminist figure, Ultimately, McCarthy establishes a novel that focuses much on the development of female roles in a patriarchal society and the essence of irony that can be discovered within strong female characters who strive to prevent younger girls from falling victim to this system.

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