Adventure; Coming-of-Age; Historical Fiction; Gothic Fiction; Quest; Satire and Parody; Western
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.
A Little Debate…
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:
(Not-So) New Sensation
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.