Study Guide

True Grit Criminality

By Charles Portis


"His name is Chambers. He is now over in the Territory and we think he was in the party with Lucky Ned Pepper that robbed a hack Tuesday down on the Poteau River." (2.29)

No wonder Mattie doesn't trust the law: they don't even have Tom Chaney's name right. On the other hand, neither does Mattie. Chaney's real name is Theron Chelmsford, and lawman LaBoeuf is the only one who knows that.

He showed me a list of indicted outlaws that were then on the loose in Indian Territory and it looked like the delinquent tax list they run in the Arkansas Gazette in little type. (3.2)

We get the full range of criminality in True Grit, everything from train robberies to tax evasion to forgery. Petty theft? Got that too. Even Mattie's walking a thin line with her quest for vigilante justice.

"The lawbreakers are legion and they range over the vast country that offers many natural hiding places." (3.20)

Here, Colonel Stonehill describes Indian Territory as a haven for the lawless. It could almost sound like Robin Hood hiding out in Nottingham Forest—if it weren't that these lawbreakers are murderers and thieves rather than benevolent wealth-redistributors.

The men were all chained together like fish on a string. They were mostly white men nut there were also some Indians and half-breeds and N****es. It was awful to see but you must remember that these chained beasts were murders and robbers and train wreckers and bigamists and counterfeiters, some of the most wicked men in the world. (3.86)

Hm, talk about internal conflict. Mattie sees that these criminals are human beings in an inhumane condition, but she also sees their treatment as necessary to protect society. In the end, Mattie deals with this in her typical straightforward way: like Judge Parker, she may not like it, but it's the law.

The sheriff said, "I have no authority over in the Indian Nation. He is now the business of the U.S. marshals." (2.31)

What better place for a criminal to hide out.

"Yes, I have asked for a fugitive warrant and I expect there is a Federal John Doe warrant on him now for the mail robbery. I will inform the marshals as to the correct name." (2.35)

Because Chaney is involved in a federal crime, the federal marshals can legally get involved in tracking him.