The result is recognition of the parallel between open terrain and his character, each one exemplifying one another and in the end explains the enlightenment he struggles for. Right out of the gate McCarthy shines light on the theme of personal constraint contingent on the landscape. John Grady is introduced in the beginning of the novel on his ranch in Texas preparing for his grandfather’s funeral. Right away the reader is informed of his feelings of being trapped and contained.
The opening sentence of the novel offers intuition into this: “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door” (McCarthy 3). The symbolism here is that of a character whose energy and aspirations for western lifestyle are being confined to a location that is changing and slowly vanishing. He therefore remains “caught,” with limited opportunity to participate in the way of life he hopes for. This fact is ultimately disheartening, particularly for a character that is symbolized as a flame that burns with exuberance.
However, at the same time he struggles, “twist[ing] and right[ing]” himself to be free to chase his ambitions. John Grady’s contempt and restlessness stem from the hardships of his family. The Cole family made their name in cattle ranching for almost a century, but is now facing a financial crisis due to an increase of industrialization. The problem is made even more difficult with the death of John Grady’s grandfather and the waning health of his father, who seems to suffer from emphysema. Grady’s mother at the same time pursues life as an actress and holds no affections for the ranch she inherits and plans to sell the unprofitable plot.
Grady consults a Franklin a lawyer who explains to a befuddled John Grady, “If it was a payin proposition that’d be one thing. But it aint” (McCarthy 17). His mothers’ indifference to the welfare of the family ranch certainly disappointments him, however he too soon chooses to forsake the place he has called home for sixteen years. Even though John Grady is most content in a rural setting and on the family ranch, it opens his eyes to the mortality of the place; the death of his grandfather corresponds with the subsequent death of his agrarian way of life.
The ranching lifestyle and the attractions it had were creeping toward a mechanized extinction. This threat is most clearly grasped by John Grady when he steps outside and watches a train pass: “It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness” (McCarthy 4).
The train symbolizes something tremendously modern invading his home, from the more populated and developed east. McCarthy portrays the train as an unstoppable foreign force imposing its self on an old way of life. The event cements the death of the place for John Grady. He concludes that trying to gain possession of the ranch and confronting the juggernaut of modernism is beyond his abilities and he stands no chance. John Grady and Rawlins decision to explore the untamed expanse to south of their birthplace brings a succession of experiences that transform John Grady and forms a recognizable coming of age tale.
The core of this coming of age narrative moves along and mirrors the advancement of setting. When John Grady and his friend Jimmy Rawlins first depart for Mexico they ride an idyllic stretch in which they encounter no problems or violence. They partake on this romantic journey to Mexico flawlessly, which conforms exactly to their expectations. “They rode out on the round dais of the earth . . . which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them . . . ike young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing” (McCarthy 30).
Their aim is to act like the men who fill their idealized imaginings, men not of leisure but of serious purpose, perseverance, and models of healthy masculinity with the world at their fingertips. Little did they know the Mexican landscape they trekked across would become unforgiving and gradually more demanding. These changes can be associated as learning experiences typically linked to a coming of age story. A storm begins to build up that literally and iguratively rains on their idyllic beginning and is a prelude for what is to come. That night John Grady and Rawlins become heavily intoxicated for what seemed like their first time, their subsequent sickness is described against a significantly in a much less ideal place.
“By dark the storm had slacked and the rain had almost ceased. They pulled the wet saddles off the horses and hobbled them and walked off in separate directions…clutching their knees vomiting. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste” (McCarthy 71).
The once placid, tranquil backdrop that had once given the boys limitless options was now a “waste” occupied by a “rude provisional species. ” The deterioration of the landscape from uncompromising to contemptuous is noted and the theme that the setting is independent, but that it is a key element affecting the protagonist’s experiences. After finding work for a Mexican ranch hand the boys briefly feel stable and out of a state of transiency. However, after some time passes Mexican guards whisk the boys away after they are being charged with having ties to a murder committed by their old riding buddy Jimmy Blevins.
After a few days at Ecantada they are put on a truck over to Saltillo Prison. Upon their arrival they are greeted with hostility from the inmates and forced to live in vastly unfavorable conditions. “They slept in iron bunks chained to the walls on thin trocheros or mattress pads that were greasy, vile, infested. In the morning they climbed down the four flights of steel ladders into the yard and stood among the prisoners for the morning list” (McCarthy 182). Once again the setting defines the peril that has fallen upon them down an ever steeper slope. he shared sites at which the renderings of the landscape occur. Among the three of the aforementioned examples, the one that displays positive emotion takes place in a calm, tranquil arena; when John Grady and Rawlins set off on their odyssey into the vast southern aridness, their morale is high, which can be directly traced to the imagery used to describe their surroundings. With no immediate experiences with the severe realities of a country and culture so different from their own, they boys see no reason not to continue and pursue their dreams.
In contrast, the boys’ first encounter with hardship comes at a time of great inebriation. Vomiting along the road and hearing the painful heaves of their disillusionment echo in the mountains. Similarly, their plight in the Saltillo presents a rude awakening forcing them to fight to stay alive daily. In the end, John Grady makes amends with the idea that initially drove him out of Texas in the first place. What was once an opportunity for adventure has now become painful, and ironically his restlessness for home that balances his initial restlessness for escape.
By the time he has commenced his final ride, from Encantada to Texas, John Grady is identified only by a grim weariness that is dutifully mirrored by the landscape: “There was just the stillness and the silence and the sound of the horses breathing and the sound of their hooves clopping in the dark” (McCarthy 286). The notion of the heroic trek has been stripped of its enchantments, its hard realities laid bare, and John Grady’s environment has traced ably and faithfully the trajectory of his disillusionment. Lying riverside with the journey still young, the boys assess a map as their horses graze.
It is an oilcompany roadmap, inconveniently specific and untuned to their needs, yet neither of them is disturbed. To the south of the Rio Grande lies only an expanse of uncharted white, malleable and untested, a challenge in the pure fact of its virgin blankness. At novel’s end, they might perceive the map as irrelevant, bounded and square—hardly representative of the Earth and its infinite curve on which any fixed cardinal direction becomes its opposite. But here, cavalierly “stretched out in the shade of a stand of blackwillow,” it espouses only one truth.