Set mostly in 1875 west of the Mississippi, True Grit is in the right time and place for a Western; add a revenge plot and showdowns between the lawful and the lawless, and you've got yourself a Western—sort of. Author Charles Portis updates, parodies, and transcends the westerns being written in the late 1800s, which kicked off the genre just around the time in which True Grit is set. (See what he did there?)
The first westerns were low-class genres, published as what were called "dime novels" in America, and "penny dreadfuls" in England—basically the equivalent of comic books today. By making his book a historical Western, Portis turns the black-and-white, good-vs-evil world of Westerns into a complex tale of morality and growing up.
Literary critic Baird Schuman argues that Mattie's struggle in the snake pit transforms True Grit from an adventure novel into a novel of initiation or development, what we call a coming-of-age story (source).
Being a literary critic, Shuman uses the fancy German word "entwicklungsroman" which means novel (roman) of development. (Step one: sound it out: en-twick-lungs-roman; step two: apply amusing accent of choice; step three: impress and/or annoy family, friends, and teachers.) If you're not up to sounding that out, you could also call True Grit a Bildungsroman; the terms are basically identical.
In any case, Baird's point is that, if this were just an adventure story, the novel's climactic scene would focus on the death or capture (followed by hanging) of Tom Chaney. Bam. Villain dead; Mattie's quest would be over. Instead, Schuman argues, the snake-pit scene is the novel's climax—which means that the novel's climax is Mattie's struggle to survive, not Chaney's death.
Okay, Mr. Fancy-Pants Literary Critic. But answer us this: can't True Grit be both a coming-of-age tale of initiation or development and an adventure story, and a revenge narrative, and a western, and a western parody?
While you ponder, here's another idea we've been tossing around the Shmoop offices:
Put on your imagination caps and picture a filmmaker from the beginning of the 22nd century coming along and making a superhero movie. He'd use the conventions of the genre (lots of CGI and one-note female characters), but he'd also add his own little twist to help us think about why superhero movies were so popular in the early 21st century.
Well, Portis is like that filmmaker, but instead he's looking back at literary genres from a hundred years earlier. We've already talked about Westerns, but True Grit reminds us of another genre that would have been popular right around the time Mattie was a teen: sensation fiction. This subset of Victorian novels is steeped in gothic and/or supernatural elements and focuses on the experiences of people in perilous and often improbable situations. They're sensational in the sense that they want to evoke the senses of their readers.
In True Grit, Mattie uses lots of imagery, that is, descriptions of things we can see, taste, touch or feel. In the snake-pit scene Mattie's descriptions of her very physical predicament help us get us a sense of her dire emotional state. (See "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more on that.) Plus, the whole plot is just downright wacky, isn't it?
So here's a chew-on-this to wrap it all up: writing from the 1960s, Portis pays homage to and parodies the various literary genres of a century earlier.
No, "true grit" isn't what you track in all over your mother's just-mopped floors. It's a quality—a quality that Mattie Ross celebrates in herself and her homies Rooster and LaBoeuf. In fact, we could look at this novel as an extended definition of what it means to have true grit.
So what does it look like in action? Let's check out some qualities that all three of our gritty characters seem to share:
(1) They're sand-in-your-bathing-suit abrasive. Think of LaBoeuf clanking his spurs onto the dining table of the Monarch boarding house, or Rooster shooting a rat inside his room, or Mattie baiting murderous outlaws. They enjoy provoking people and getting into verbal and even physical skirmishes.
(2) They're determined. We know Mattie is determined to avenge her father's death. We know Rooster and LaBoeuf are determined to help her—and protect her. When Rooster needs to get Mattie to a doctor, he slashes Little Blackie's flesh to make him run faster, and then literally rubs salt in his wounds when he slows. We know Rooster is normally kind to animals from the scene in Chapter Six when Rooster punishes two young men for abusing a mule. But at this point Mattie's safety is the only thing he cares about. Of course, a man like Rooster is going to show the tenderness of his feelings for her in a really gritty way.
(3) They're not afraid to get hurt. Rooster starts out with a missing eye; Mattie ends up with a missing arm. Would she do it again to avenge her father? We're betting yes. True grit isn't just about powering through Level 128 on Candy Crush—sometimes it means sacrificing a literal part of yourself.
But that doesn't mean you have to go chop off a finger just to show you've got grit. There are other ways, too—like the kind Mattie's dad has. He's not a gruff lone ranger like her sidekicks. In fact, he's gentle:
If Papa had a failing it was his kindly disposition. People would use him. I did not get my mean streak from him. Frank Ross was the gentlest, most honorable man who ever lived. (1.6)
But being gentle doesn't mean that he's not determined and fearless. He gets in front of a loaded shotgun to try to stop a young man (Chaney) from making a terrible mistake. Maybe "true grit" is also a poignant memorial—not just to the men who helped Mattie track down his murderer, but also to Frank Ross himself.
Well, you've got your pick. We could look at what happens at the end of the madcap chase to avenge Frank Ross's killer—or we could look at the very end fifty years later, when Rooster Cogburn has been dead for twenty years; Mattie is about sixty-two-years old; and LaBoeuf is about seventy-eight-years old. (Remember from "Narrator Point-of-View," Mattie is reporting mostly on events that happened in 1875, almost fifty years before.)
Aw, fine, we'll do both.
After the blood baths, snake-pit of doom, and harrowing chase scene, it's still not over. Mattie has one more ordeal to pass: losing her hand. Just check out the gritty way she describes it:
My hand was swelled and turned black, and then my wrist. On the third day Dr. Medill gave me a sizeable dose of morphine and amputated my arm just above the elbow with a little surgical saw. (7.315)
Obviously she doesn't complain about this (remember that next time you're whining because you have to clean your room before going to the movies), but she does suggest that it played a role in keeping her on the family land and caring for her mother while her siblings Little Frank and Victoria both moved away. She seems to do pretty well for herself—we gather that she works as something like a land baroness—or one-woman bank—but she also seems to feel some intense loneliness and isolation. In spite of the hi-larious jokes ("I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him cashier" (7.337), we realize that Mattie has sacrificed to do what she thought was right by her father.
Mattie tries to keep tabs on Rooster over the years, and the ending includes a rough sketch of his life (see his "Character Analysis" for more). We gather that, like the rest of his life, it was rough and hard. But we can't really tell how she feels about him until we learn that she moves his body: "I had Rooster's body removed to Dardanelle on the train. […] He was reburied in our family plot. Rooster had a small C.S.A. headstone coming to him but it was so small that I put up another one beside it, a sixty-five dollar slab of Batesville marble […]" (7.334).
This is a sweeping, Mattie-like gesture for sure, and it tells us that she feels something like love, or at least deep kinship for Rooster. Is it romantic? Her brother teases her that it is—but we don't know. All we know is that someone must be cutting onions in here. Sniff.
Now let's get into the details. The nitty-gritty, if you will. (We sure will.) Right after we read what Mattie inscribes on Rooster's headstone, we learn that she has never married. She claims this is because she didn't have time. She hints that her missing arm might have had something to do with it. But—since she brings this up right after she's been talking about Rooster for pages, it makes us think she might have had romantic ideas about him. Maybe she's even been waiting for him all these years.
But—then she starts talking about LaBoeuf, all "if he is yet alive and should happen to read these pages, I will be pleased to hear from him. I judge he is in his seventies by now, and nearer eighty than seventy" (7.337). Mm-hm. Mattie admits she found LaBoeuf attractive when she first met him, and this ending gives us the idea that it might be LaBoeuf, not Rooster, who she has romantic feelings for. Either way, we love that the novel leaves open the possibility of a reunion.
Okay, okay we admit it, we're Mattie/ LaBoeuf 'shippers. What can we say? We're romantics.
The events may be fantastic, but the setting is 100% realistic. We can follow (basically) the same route Mattie Ross takes from her hometown as she tracks Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her Papa, Frank Ross, in November of 1875. (In fact, someone's already done it.)
The journey begins in Yell County, Arkansas, where Mattie and her family live on almost five hundred acres of land on the Arkansas River. (In 1875 terms, this makes them part of the 1%.) When Mattie learns of her Papa's murder, she travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas; from Fort Smith she travels into what is today Oklahoma and what was then Indian Territory, all the way into the Winding Stair Mountains.
With her map-like eye for geographical detail Mattie weaves descriptions of this vivid landscape into her tale. Take this funny moment from when Mattie is trying to hire Rooster by calling him a slob (works every time):
"I would be ashamed of myself living in all this filth. If I smelled as bad as you I would not live in a city, I would go live on top of Magazine Mountain where I would offend no one but rabbits and salamanders." (5.111)
Earlier, Mattie informs us that Mount Magazine is "the highest point in Arkansas" (1.9). See, Mattie loves her home state—she's practically a walking tourism brochure. (We can assume that her creator, the publicity-shy Arkansas native Charles Portis, loves it too.) At the end of the novel we almost feel like we've traveled through Arkansas with her.
That doesn't mean we get any boring history lesson. For all that Mattie does tell us, she skips over a lot.
This is not a book about history any more than it's a book about geography. It's a book about loss and vengeance and sacrifice.
Could this plot work in a time other than 1875? We think so—revenge plots are pretty timeless. But remember that Mattie opens the novel by saying that it was more common back in those days for girls to run off by themselves to pursue vengeance? Maybe the time does matter.
Yea, we go out with True Grit. For months Shmoop and True Grit have been everywhere together. The movies. The mall. Sushi. Even the bookstore.
LOL. Okay, fine. We'll keep personal feelings out of it.
Actually, we can't date the novel precisely until the last few pages when we learn the years of Rooster's birth and death. It's simple math: we already know Rooster is forty when he meets Mattie. He was born in 1835. 1835+40=1875. Presto! Mattie's quest for vengeance takes place in late 1875. Rooster dies about twenty years later, in 1903. Since Mattie was fourteen in 1875, she's only about forty-two years old in 1903 when she sets off to try to reunite with Rooster.
And then we learn when Mattie is writing:
I heard nothing more of the Texas officer, LaBoeuf. If he is yet alive and should happen to read these pages, I will be pleased to hear from him. I judge he is in his seventies by now, and nearer eighty than seventy. (7.337)
Twenty years after Rooster's death would put the time in about 1923, almost fifty years since she's seen either of the men who helped her avenge her father's murder. See, we know that LaBoeuf is ten years younger than Rooster, thirty when he helps Mattie hunt Tom Chaney. So he was fifty-eight in 1903 (when Rooster dies).
One thing: we might also notice that Mattie doesn't mention a huge event that happened in between Rooster's death and the writing of her story: World War I. But then again, why would she? Mattie might be living and writing in 1923, but it's always 1875 in her heart.
To get a fix on the year 1875 we are providing you with a nifty annotated timeline, specially tailored to show how 1875 in the context of True Grit can help us understand our own place/time in history.
1783—The Treaty of Paris officially ends the American Revolution and begins the American experiment. It also marks a new phase in the battle between the new Americans and the Native Americans over territory. We see another phase of this ongoing battle in the 1875 of True Grit.
1830—The Indian Removal Act is signed into law by then President Andrew Jackson. The act authorizes the president of the U.S. to trade lands with Native American peoples. Unfortunately, such "trades" were often done without the consent of the Native American peoples, who were forced to move from their homes to lands considered less desirable.
1838 and 1839—During these years, the U.S. military forcibly removed fifteen thousand Cherokee from their lands east of the Mississippi River to the Indian Territory we see in True Grit, present-day Oklahoma. (Some hundred thousand American Indians were removed in all.)
1865—In this year Abraham Lincoln is both sworn in for his second term as U.S. president and also assassinated. In between these two momentous historical events, the US Civil War ends. In December of this year, after Lincoln's death, the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified and slavery is abolished.
The period which followed this massive change in U.S. political (and therefore social and cultural) structure is known as Reconstruction and is another period of intense change and restructuring. We discuss some of these changes in the context of True Grit in "Themes" under "Visions of America." We get glimpses of the Civil War through conversations between Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf.
1875—Mattie avenges her Papa's death.
1968—In this year, Charles Portis publishes True Grit. Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. Andy Warhol is shot. Robert Kennedy is assassinated. President Johnson orders a cease to all bombings of Northern Vietnam. Apollo 8 Orbits the moon. A truly gritty year.
1969—The film version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, is released. Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Woodstock happens.
2010—The Coen Brothers release a second film adaptation. It gets ten Oscar nominations, but, sad face, no wins.
So, we have to ask: why would True Grit have so much appeal to the readers and moviegoers of the late 1960s? Why does it continue to appeal to readers and moviegoers in the 2000s?
Analyzing writing style gets tricky in novel like True Grit, which is itself framed as a written story. Do we talk about author Charles Portis' writing style or about Mattie's own writing style? Don't they overlap?
Let's do a bit of both and see where it takes us.
First, Mattie lets us know late in the novel that her story is a written account. She's something of a writer, penning unpublished articles about history, and she even has a sense of her own style: "Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a 'graphic' writing style combined with educational aims." (3.93)
Sounds a lot like True Grit to us: "true" (check), "interesting" (check), and "graphic" (imagery, description, sensory details—check). As for educational—well, check out our section on "Setting" for all the history that True Grit can teach us. Mattie uses a lot of devices to give her story credibility, like reproductions of court transcripts and letters. These devices lend the book an almost journalistic air, like Mattie is going to a lot of trouble to make the book seem straightforward and accurate.
But True Grit also has plenty of novelistic moments, when we can see that there's a skilled craftsman behind the story. Just take a gander at this passage from Lawyer Daggett's letter to Mattie before she sets off into Indian Territory:
Your mother will make no decision without you, nor will she sign anything, not even common receipts; hence, nothing can move forward until you are here. You are her strong right arm now Mattie […]. (5.9)
Boom. Did you feel that Anvil of Foreshadowing drop? Lawyer Daggett inadvertently foreshadows both the amputation of Mattie's left arm and the fact that Mattie will spend the rest of her life being her mother's strong right arm. But here's our question: Is Mattie aware of what seems like a rather cruel coincidence, or is this just Portis's writerly side showing through?
Probably both. Later on, Mattie shows that she knows what foreshadowing is perfectly well. At bedtime on their first night on the trail, Rooster arranges a rope around where he's sleeping on the ground, a trick that's supposed to ward off snakes. LaBoeuf teases Rooster, saying, "That is a piece of foolishness. All snakes are asleep this time of year" (6.61). Nuh-uh, says Rooster: "They have been known to wake up" (6.62). Of course, all this talk of snakes makes Mattie want a rope too, but Rooster says, "A snake would not bother with you. […] You are too little and bony" (6.63).
Boom. There's that anvil again: it turns out that Mattie is just right for rattlesnakes, and she's well aware of both the irony and the foreshadowing. After rattlesnakes bite the now-dead body of Tom Chaney, but before one bites her, Mattie thinks, "Those scoundrels can bite in December and right there is the proof of it!" (7.284).
Sure, True Grit sounds like a serious book—a fourteen year old girl sets out to avenge the murder of her father in a world full of hangings, shoot-outs, and mutilations.
But come on. It's also hilarious. Sometimes the humor leads us right into a moment of intense (though understated) emotion. Check out this scene from Mattie's first night at the Monarch boarding house, where her Papa was murdered. Since all the rooms are full, due to people in for the triple hanging, Mattie is forced to share a bed with Grandma Turner:
Grandma Turner turned out to be more active in her slumber than I had been led to expect. When I got in bed I found she had all the quilts on her side. I pulled them over […] and went to sleep. I woke to find that Grandma Turner had done the trick again. I was bunched up in a knot and trembling with cold from the exposure. This happened once more later in the night and I got up and arranged Papa's blankets and slicker over me as makeshift covers. Then I slept all right. (2.70)
At first it's pretty funny, even though we know it's really cold. But when Mattie uses her Papa's blankets and coat to cover herself, we are reminded that she's a cold, lonely fourteen-year-old who has just lost a father and is coping through a combination of deadpan humor and intense toughness.
Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?
Cheer up, Indy. At least you don't lose your left arm over it. But Mattie does—which means that snakes are a good candidate for being a big, fat symbol. Let's take a look her encounter with the ball of snakes after falling in the pit during the novel's climactic scene:
[…] My eyes were attracted to something—movement?—within the cavity formed by the curving gray ribs. I leaned in for a closer look. Snakes! A ball of snakes! I flung myself back but there was no real retreat for me, imprisoned as I was in the mossy trap. (7.260)
During the late eighteen hundreds, British writers like Bram Stoker (Dracula) and American writers like Edgar Allan Poe were creating tales of horror featuring characters with diseases of the body and mind. (Check out "Genre" for more about the Gothic.) Gothic stories often feature small, secret or hidden spaces filled with bats, snakes, spiders, dead bodies—you know, standard nightmare stuff. And, obviously, they're usually heavy-handed symbols on the dark mindsets of their characters and of some of the larger themes of the particular story.
Here's one idea: maybe the snake-pit symbolizes Mattie's true state of mind at this time. Underneath the tough, wise-cracking, all-business image she relies on to survive, she's a girl grieving for her father, a young woman caught up in a quest for vengeance and justice in a stony world full of stings and bites, death and danger.
And here's another: maybe the snake-pit symbolizes some of author Charles Portis' darker feeling toward the America of 1875, and maybe even toward some of his characters. Writing in the 1960s, and having interviewed major civil rights leaders and covered major civil rights events as a newspaper man, Portis would have been intensely aware of civil rights issues. The snake-pit scene could be seen as Portis' vision of an America which for people of color and Native Americans (among others) might have felt a lot like a ball of snakes curled around the skeleton of a dead white guy.
Who needs crockpots and Pottery Barn registries when you've got gold pieces? We learn in the first chapter Mattie's maternal grandfather gave two gold pieces to Mattie's father as wedding present. Together they symbolize marriage, love, union, and social approval. Because Frank Ross carried them "concealed in his clothes" (1.11) during his travels, they symbolize the value he placed on his marriage, his wife, and his family. This little detail helps make him a sympathetic, innocent seeming character, and is just adorable.
When Frank dies, both coins disappear, symbolizing the sudden disappearance of what was a happy, whole family. They don't just disappear, but are presumably stolen by Tom Chaney after he shoots Frank, symbolizing his "stealing" Frank's life. But, one of the coins reappears. Rooster finds it in the pocket of the dead Emmett Quincy (one of Ned Pepper's gang). Now, it's a sign helping to lead Mattie to her Papa's killer. When Rooster finds the coin on Quincy, Mattie knows they are properly on Chaney's trail.
But then look what happens: "I kept [the gold piece] for years, until our house burned" (7.370), Mattie says. If Mattie's journey is a coming-of-age, then this might symbolize the moment when she's able to move past her father's death, or the moment when she truly comes of age. Just check out how casually she talks about it. Maybe writing this story has helped her come to terms with both her father's death and her own journey.
Of course, the second coin is never found. Just like Mattie's poor left arm, it's a casualty of that whole troubled time—and a reminder that true grit requires sacrifice.
True Grit is Mattie Ross's first person, written account of the events which will change her life forever: joining up with US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track her father's killer into Indian Territory and make him pay for his crimes with his life.
And all this before she even gets her driver's license.
In the final paragraph of the novel, we learn that Mattie is writing in about 1923 and looking back on 1875. Now, we don't know about you, but we have trouble even remembering what we ate for breakfast. So how does Mattie manage to tell us such a detailed, vivid story?
One narrative strategy she tries out is things like reproducing the transcript of Rooster testifying in court and the letter from Lawyer Daggett. These transcripts back up her story and give it credibility. She also gives us a ton of detail, like the "blazed face" of the chestnut mare that her father rides off to Fork Smith (1.10); these details dump us right into her world, or at least the world of 1875 as she remembers it.
See, we can't help wondering how she is able to remember word-for-word the speeches of the condemned men at the triple hanging. Maybe she kept detailed notes—or maybe accuracy isn't the point as much as the bragging, haggling, peace-making, bible quoting, bloody, rough and tumble ride. Is Mattie taking some artistic license and embellishing for entertainment purposes? Yeah, probably. Still, we're pretty sure that the feelings are real, even if the facts are slightly embellished.