Study Guide

True Grit Writing Style

By Charles Portis

Writing Style

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 She's something of a writer, penning unpublished articles about history, and she even has a sense of her own style:  "Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I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.

The Anvil of Foreshadowing

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).

Humor

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.

Truly gritty.