Study Guide

True Grit Violence

By Charles Portis


"That is a description of Tom Chaney. […] He got that black mark in Louisiana when a man shot a pistol in his face and the powder got under the skin." (2.30)

Tom Chaney is only twenty-five years old, but he's already a marked man. In this nod to the black-and-white world of early Westerns, Portis lets us know that the mark on Chaney's face means this guy is bad, bad, bad. Add in some violence toward a fatherless fourteen-year-old girl, and Chaney himself comes to symbolize the brutality and cruelty of the lawless land he inhabits.

"I know him well. I shot him in the lip last August down in the Winding Stair Mountains." (3.282)

Here, Rooster is talking about Lucky Ned Pepper, another nasty character. Check out the casual way Rooster talks about shooting—almost as though he's saying, "I know him well. I had dinner with him last August down in the Winding Stair Mountains." In this world, violence is just a part of life.

"Wait, stop a minute." He said, "What is it?" I said, "There is something wrong with my hat." He stopped and turned around. "Your hat?" said he. I took it off and slapped him in the face with it two or three times and made him drop the reins. (5.308)

Even Mattie's got a violent streak. Sure, she's just whipping around a hat—but you get the feeling that she wouldn't mind hitting LaBoeuf with something harder.

Rooster cut the rope with his dirk knife and the mule breathed easy again. […] Rooster went up first and walked over to the two boys and kicked them into the mud with the flat of his boot. "Call that sport, do you?" said he. Those were two mighty surprised boys. (6.5)

Fighting violence with violence always works, right? Okay, sure, there's a chance the boys will be afraid of him and straighten up. There's also a chance that they will react to Rooster's humiliation with violence against either the mule or somebody else. Guess which one is more likely?

With that, Quincy brought the bowie knife down on Moon's cuffed hand and chopped off four fingers which flew up before my eyes like chips from a log. (6.165)

We're not sure which is more disturbing: the image of fingers flying up like chips from a log, or the casual way that Mattie witnesses this mutilation. Maybe it's a good thing she's not sensitive to blood—she's going to see worse before her little quest is over.

"It is hard to believe a man cannot remember where he served in the war. Do you not even remember your regiment?"

Rooster said, "It think it was called the bullet department. I was in it four years." (6.342)

Okay, Rooster totally has the best lines. Here, he's alluding to the U.S. Civil War, which ended about ten years before the major setting of the novel. This war was one of the most violent and bloody in American history—and Rooster is part of a generation that witnessed (and inflicted) terrible violence.

I reached into the bucket and brought out my dragoon revolver. I dropped the bucket and held the revolver in both hands. I said, "I am here to take you back to Fort Smith … If you refuse to go I will have to shoot you." (7.12, 8.18)

Mattie may be thirsty for vengeance, but she's still only going to fire her gun as a last resort. Is she less gritty than she seems—or is this a sign that she's one of the only good people in the entire novel?

He shook me like a terrier shaking a rat. "Tell me another lie and I will stove in your head!" Part of his upper lip was missing, a sort of gap on one side that caused him to make a whistling noise as he spoke. Three or four teeth were broken as well, yet he made himself clearly understood. (7.45)

Gee, nice guy. He picks up a fourteen-year-old girl and shakes her like a rat—while threatening to pound her head in. We don't approve of violence, but we're not sorry that Ned Pepper ends up dead—and we don't think anyone else is. It's a brutal world out in Indian Territory.

He flung me to the ground and put a boot on my neck to hold me while he reloaded his rifle from a cartridge belt. (7.47)

Ned Pepper just doesn't let up. In fact, of all the nasty, violent guys in the book (and yes, Rooster, we're counting you), Ned is probably the worst. To him, other people are literally just roadblocks and stepping stones.