Study Guide

True Grit Themes

  • Revenge

    Hamlet. Carrie. The Wrath of Khan. Mean Girls. The Avengers. Some of the greatest works of literature slash film are revenge narratives—just like True Grit. For Mattie Ross, revenge is a matter of honor and personal responsibility. Avenging her father's death personally is, for her, the only legitimate course of action—and unlike some other heroes (coughHamletcough), she doesn't spend a lot of time agonizing over it. The real agony comes later, when she loses her left arm—but even then, there's no sign that she regrets her choices. A girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Do you think Mattie is vengeful in other areas of her life? Or just when something is really serious?
    2. Is the desire for revenge healthy in general? Is it healthy for Mattie? Is there always some amount of self-sacrifice that goes along with revenge, or can somebody get revenge without hurting themselves in the process?
    3. Have you ever desired vengeance? Have you ever gotten it?
    4. If Mattie hadn't found Tom Chaney, would she have spent the rest of her life searching for him? How might not finding Chaney have altered her life path? Or would it have?
  • Violence

    Mattie Ross's arm, Rooster Cogburn's missing eye, Lucky Ned Pepper's lip (shot by Rooster), and LaBoeuf's busted skull—True Grit has more injuries than the trauma ward at your local hospital. Add to that the novel's shoot-outs, pistol whippings, thrashings, finger-choppings and snake bites, and it adds up to one big mess of violence. But we get the sense that violence is the price of doing business—and it can even be funny. If it takes violence to track down Frank Ross's killer—well, then, it takes violence. After all, this is the Wild West. You don't walk into the Territory expecting Band-Aids and Neosporin, do you?

    Questions About Violence

    1. Does True Grit glamorize violence? Is there a point to the violence in the story, or is it gratuitous?
    2. Why is violence so popular in popular culture? Do you think we live in violent times? Does Mattie? Which is more violent, and why?
    3. How did you feel about it when LaBoeuf whips Mattie, or when Rooster comes after her like he wants to attack her?
  • Mortality

    Murder sets True Grit in motion and murder closes it out. (Well, killing, at least—whether or not it's murder is up for debate.) Mattie Ross wants Tom Chaney dead, but the question is: will he die by the hangman's noose, or by her hand? If that's not enough moral ambiguity for you, there's always the question of the triple hanging: would be you Judge Parker, forcing yourself to watch a punishment you've assigned but don't approve of, because someone has to bear witness; or would you be in the crowd below, stoked to watch three men lose their lives? Tough questions.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do you believe in the death penalty? Would you have felt different in 1875? Do you think that the death penalty is appropriate in some times and places but not at others?
    2. What do you think is going on with Judge Parker, anyway? Why does he watch the hangings?
    3. How does the death of Mattie's father, Frank Ross, shape the rest of her life?
    4. Does Mattie show any remorse or sadness when Tom Chaney dies? Or does she simply see it as justice served?
  • Visions of America

    You can't get much more American than the Wild West. For generations of people, the west has symbolized America: the frontier, the wide open prairie, the lack of government oversight or rule of law, the senseless genocide of Native Americans …okay, we'll stop, but you get our point. True Grit associates the quality of its title—you know, grit—with the West. And that sense of individual responsibility, go-get-em stick-to-it-ive-ness, and good old fashioned ingenuity is as American as apple pie. Of course, Portis is a child of the Civil Rights Era, so he also gets in some exploration of America's treatment of minority cultures. In our view, that just makes the book all the more American.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. How does the America depicted in the novel compare and contrast with the America you experience?
    2. Do you think the novel presents a historically accurate vision of America? What views on race, politics, and religion might influence the way Mattie sees and describes America?
    3. Does this novel inspire you to explore American history, or are you more interested in the plot and action of the story?
    4. Is the setting of the novel necessary to its plot, or could the plot be picked up and transported to, say, 1960s Chile or 17th century France?
  • Gender

    True Grit may have a female narrator, but Mattie doesn't seem to find women very interesting, have any female role models, or be very interested in following a typical female path. (The novel gets a big fat "F" on the Bechdel test.) In fact, the whole novel is about men. Even after her quest is over, she remains a tough, single businesswoman throughout her life. But Mattie doesn't seem to spend much time moaning about the limited opportunities women faced at the end of the nineteenth century (like the inability to vote). Instead, she's interested in learning about men: she observes them, listens to them, and deals with them. So we have to ask: why did Portis make her a girl, anyway?

    Questions About Gender

    1. What is Mattie's idea of a real man? Does she seem to have any ideas about what counts as a "real" woman?
    2. When LaBoeuf is trying to have a conversation with Rooster about why Rooster doesn't respect him, Rooster says, "I don't like that kind of talk. It is like women talking" (6.347). What does he mean by this? How do men talk?
    3. Rooster makes lots of negative comments about women. Why do you think he has such a negative attitude?
    4. How does Mattie feel about Rooster's comments about women? Does she seem to identify with women as a group?
    5. Do Rooster, LaBoeuf, and Frank Ross present different models of masculinity? What are some of the similarities and differences between them?
  • Criminality

    There is a fine line between cops and robbers in True Grit. U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn isn't all that different from the men he hunts down and often kills. Oh, sure, he's robbed a bank and some government money, but that's not really stealing. Only stealing from individuals is real stealing, and he never does that. Being a marshal is just a way to pay the bills, and he leaves the job just as quickly as he came to it. There's no government in Indian Territory—and when there's no government, how do you know who's on the side of the law?

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Is Rooster a criminal? Should he be allowed to be a law enforcement officer? Why was he able to get the job?
    2. Is Rooster a good marshal? Is he doing a valuable public service by tracking down the most dangerous men around?
    3. Why are so many of the men in Ned Pepper's gang barely older than Mattie? What are some of the things that might have led these young men into criminal activity at such a young age?
    4. Is LaBoeuf really committed to the idea of the law, or is he another quasi-criminal just like Rooster?
  • Justice and Judgment

    For Mattie, justice is simple: you do the crime, you do the time. (Or you hang.) She judges criminals harshly, and only looks past Rooster's criminal tendencies because he'll make sure her justice is served. But there's a problem. Mattie's situation may seem pretty straightforward—Chaney killed her dad; she wants him dead—but justice is rarely that simple. If everyone just went around killing people who'd wronged them, the nation would be effectively lawless. In fact, it'd be no better than Indian Territory: a bunch of criminals and might-as-well-be criminals running around waving guns at each other.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. How do Mattie's religious views influence her judgments? Is she concerned with divine justice, or earthly justice?
    2. What's the relationship between justice and the kind of judgments that Mattie suffers from her neighbors?
    3. Do you think justice was done to Chaney? To Ned?
  • Drugs and Alcohol

    True Grit takes place at a time when there weren't laws prohibiting the use of drugs or alcohol in the U.S. Not so in 1923 when Mattie is actually writing her story, and we bet she's all about Prohibition. She's never liked alcohol, and Chaney even admits that the whole thing happened because he was drunk. But then she meets Rooster, who's a huge drunk, and Mattie just sort of accepts it as part of his essential Rooster-ness. Mattie plays it for comic effect, all Reno 911, but we do get a hint that drinking may keep Rooster from living the life he wants to leave. All we have to say is that we're glad Rooster takes a horse rather than a car—although he does carry a lot of guns.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Does Rooster's drinking seem to have any positive effects for him? Negative effects? How does it affect his job performance? (We ask in our managerial voice.)
    2. Why do you think Rooster drinks?
    3. What does Mattie think about drinking?
    4. Could Rooster's drinking have anything to do with the fact that he kills a lot of the men he goes after?
    5. How is Rooster able to drink all day and night and still get up early?
  • Religion

    Okay, true. Nobody's exactly going to church in True Grit, and they're not exactly spending a lot of time debating the theological implications of their actions. But, religion is an essential element of Mattie's life, and we think of her father's, too. Biblical quotes, discussions of different religions, and religious opinions are just part of her. One thing, though: Mattie's brand of religion seems to be more about the "eye for an eye" God of the Hebrew Bible than the "turn the other cheek" God of the Christian Bible. We're not experts, but we're pretty sure Jesus wouldn't approve of vigilante justice.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How would you describe Mattie's religious beliefs? Do you agree or disagree with any of them?
    2. Do Rooster or LaBoeuf strike you as religious people?
    3. Could the religious elements be removed from True Grit without harming the plot, or are they crucial to the story?
    4. Does Mattie believe she has a religious duty to avenge her father's death?