I love the two movie adaptations of Portis’ 1968 book, so I sat down with his lovely True Grit recently
and ate it up in 6 hours.

It is one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time: it was emotionally compelling, I laughed out-loud, the writing is fresh, and the scenes burst with vitality and realism.

So here is my analysis of Charles Portis’ “True Grit”


The Central Theme of Justice 

The book was published in 1968, arguably the height of the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive and one year after the Summer of Love.
The issues of justice, revenge, violence, righteousness, and Christianity’s continued value and importance in civic life were certainly all very much in the fore of the nation’s consciousness and are represented with humor and eloquence in “True Grit.”

The central theme of Justice lead to the supporting ideas in the book of Disillusionment, Loss, and Human Judgment versus Divine Judgment. Of course the character of Mattie and her narrative voice also reflect the central and supporting themes very well.

The introductory sentence of the book give the reader pause:
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day (p. 11).”

Is this the statement of a noble character? Is it shameful that such a task was undertaken or is it our culture’s loss that this type of vengeance is now considered so unusual? Should we applaud the efforts of Mattie or do shiver with a horror? Is she a hero or is she a vigilante acting out in a game of life and death her own balance book of vengeance?  The answers are not easy. And that is in part what makes True Grit so attractive.

Mattie’s Own Sense of Justice, Rightness, Morality

Mattie’s character is a woman of ledger books, maths, and accounting. This fits well with her character’s black and white worldview. As a child she was in charge of her father’s books and as an adult she “loves her church and her bank” the latter of which she is the head. It appears that aside from the adventure undertaken in the course of the story, she has had little or no ‘real world experience.’ Her ideas of morality and justice align with the way a checkbook should balance at the end of the month: action receives due action.
This is the law of retribution: ‘eye for an eye’ or Lex Talionis meaning a punishment identical to the offense.
We can only guess what Mattie would say to Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 5:38-9 that rather than “eye for an eye…turn the other cheek.”

I am very interested in the distinctions between justice and revenge and Mattie’s character and narration strike at these issues throughout.
From page 75 in a conversation with LaBoeuf concerning Chaney’s crimes:
 “I want Chaney to pay for killing my father and not some Texas bird dog.”
“It will not be for the dog, it will be for the senator, and your father too. He will be just as dead that way, you see, and pay for all his crimes at once.”
“No, I do not see. That is not the way I look at it.”

And from page 97 talking with Rooster,
I said, “This man wants to take Chaney back to Texas. That is not what I want. That was not our agreement.”
Rooster said, “We will be getting him all the same. What you want is to have him caught and punished. We still mean to do that.”
“I want him to know he is being punished for killing my father. It is nothing to me how many dogs and fat men he killed in Texas.” 

Mattie’s character is defined by her exacting ideas of right and wrong.
Her interactions with the horse trader, while certainly comedic, do reveal how her idea of fairness is unwavering.
And this character trait may be called ‘stubborn’, ‘headstrong’, or ‘bullheaded’ but it is also a trait that is highly valued in society under the names of ‘integrity’, ‘true’, ‘stalwart.’
How we approach Mattie in a way ‘judges’ us too. The strength of True Grit and Mattie is that we are given a playful mirror to hold before us. It is not a mean-spirited mirror but like a funhouse mirror allows us to try on different views of ourselves and the world around us to better plumb who we are and who we want to be.

A helpful scene to create comparison of Mattie’s character lies in the letter from J Noble Daggett sending Mattie word of her father’s funeral. From page 78:
Needless to say, the whole community is shocked and grieved. Frank was a rich man in friends.

In this short statement, Mattie is contrasted with her father: a woman with money savvy and a ‘plumb line view’ of justice
and her father who apparently “laid up his treasures in heaven” as it were.

The Cost of Mattie’s View of Justice
Mattie’s rigorous dedication to her pursuit of justice/revenge comes with enormous cost.

The most obvious loss is the connection she has with her family. She misses her father’s funeral and is unable to support her
mother, sister, and brother during their grief. More likely, she is adding to everyone’s hurt, fear, and anxiety by following her (selfish?) ambition.

Like the proverbial loss of “a pound of flesh,” Mattie loses her arm as a consequence of the snake bite.
Perhaps as a foreshadowing, Lawyer Daggett writes in his letter to Mattie that she is her mother’s “strong right arm now.”

Mattie’s horse Blackie is also lost, as well as LaBoeuf being badly injured and of course Chaney and a number of his criminal cohorts losing their lives.

Later in Mattie’s life she is shown to be relatively alone. She looks after her aged mother (p. 221) and has continued correspondence with her brother Little Frank and sister Victoria. But aside from those relationships, we have no report of close ties to Mattie. Even Rooster does not return her letters:
Twice I wrote the stockmen’s association in San Antonio. The letters were not returned but neither were they answered.
(p. 220)

All this loss is due to Mattie’s character, which is by definition a tragic character.
When people point out that Mattie does not change through out the story or that she does not follow a traditional dramatic arc of change and transformation it is because she fits in the category of a tragic anti-hero. When a character or story is tragic, we can in retrospect see how their character’s traits will lead them and others to ruin.

I am not saying that Mattie is a negative character or is reprehensible. No. I will not stand in judgment of her in such simplistic terms. I feel that the strength of Portis’ writing is that we feel tension when we face Mattie head-on. We sympathize for her situation and we can understand her choices in light of the worldview she exposes to us through narration.

The Theme of Disillusionment
Mattie’s idea of justice leads her on her quest to see Chaney killed. But we never really have any sight of Mattie becoming satisfied or happier due to his demise.
This helps establish Portis’ inspection of the value of justice via violence and the differences between justice and revenge.

This feeling of ‘disillusionment’ permeates the story:
1. The horse trader Stonehill says at two different times that Fort Smith had been said to be the “Pittsburgh” and the “Philadelphia” of the midwest. He is thoroughly disillusioned.
2. The Wild Wild West Show had a similar disappointing effect. From page 223:
People grumbled about it when it was over, saying James did nothing more than wave his hat to the crowd, and that Younger did even less, it being a condition of his parole that he not exhibit himself. Little Frank took his two boys to see it and they enjoyed the horses.
This is the commentary of Portis upon the West of the public’s imagination. It is a meta-commentary upon the genre in which the novel resides. It is always a ‘chasing after the wind,’ a simulacrum of bygone imaginations.
3. The criminal band of Lucky Ned Pepper including Chaney is a wink to the reader’s expectations and further plays upon imagination, expectation, and disillusionment. We as readers and perhaps Mattie herself would like to know the antagonists are cruel masterminds but instead are faced with a group of men whose cognitive powers are questionable. Rather than Lex Luthor we have developmentally delayed and cognitively challenged and emotionally disturbed individuals. Can we or Mattie gloat over their defeat and death?

The Judgment of God and Humans
We have a clear portrayal of Mattie’s understanding of the Christian maxim “Do Unto Others” on page 111 after Mattie is brutalized by LaBoeuf:
I said, “Listen here, I have thought of something. This ‘stunt’ that you two pulled has given me an idea. When we locate Chaney a good plan will be for us to jump him from the brush and hit him on the head with sticks and knock him insensible…”
With Mattie just recovered from the surprise attack by the Texas Ranger, she is already hatching a plan to do likewise.
Compassion and sympathy have been removed from the equation. Gone is grace, and left is unrelenting Lex Talionis.

Perhaps this is consistent with Mattie’s theology of God’s predestined punishment of unbelieving humanity.
From pages 114-5 describing the schism between the Cumberland and Presbyterian Church:
They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6″13 and II Timothy 1:9,10. Also I Peter 1:2,19,20 and Roman 11:7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too.
Is there any need to comment on how this longest and most detailed passage revealing Mattie’s theology is about God’s judgment of much of humanity to hell?

For all that is in this book that can lead to exciting conversation, it is also simply a great read. I loved it.
I invite comments, criticisms, and corrections!

 

Portis, Charles. True Grit (New York: The Overlook Press. 2010)

 

Here’s a video I enjoyed about Mattie and Feminism:

Advertisements