"You must pay for everything in this world one way or another": notes on genre and justice in True Grit
I'm about to attempt to teach True Grit, so some blog posts concerning my evolving thoughts on both the Charles Portis novel and the Coen brothers' movie version seem in order. While I very much admire the novel, the more recent and highly respectful 2010 movie version does take some odd liberties with the storyline. (Why does LaBoeuf have to bite his tongue?) Some opening notes:
1) How does one compartmentalize the novel? In his essay "Charles Portis: Study of a Cult Novelist," Joseph Parry finds that "Academics may have overlooked him [Portis] because of the regional humor in his novels and the difficulties in classifying his work into a neat genre." True Grit is mostly both a semi-parodic western adventure and a coming of age story. At times, when Mattie praises her pony Mattie, the novel can resemble some sort of young adult variation on Black Beauty.
2) How does True Grit reflect the political turbulence of the period in which it was written (1968)? At one point in the novel, LaBoeuf confronts Rooster over his involvement in William Clarke Quantrill's bloody border gang during the Civil War. As he says, "I heard they murdered women and children at Lawrence, Kansas. . . . Do you deny they shot down soldiers and civilians alike and burned the town" (158)? Did Portis mean for the reader to make a connection between Rooster's shady background and war-time atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam? (The My Lai massacre took place during the same year that the novel was published.)
3) What should one think about Mattie's Old Testament sense of judgment? The entire plot of True Grit is driven by her Hamlet-like determination to avenge her father's murder. As she says early on, "I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur [Tom Chaney] was roasting and screaming in hell" (24)! Later, when she chances upon some prisoners in transport, she claims that "They had ridden the `hoot-owl trail' and tasted the fruits of evil and now justice had caught up with them in demand payment. You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it" (40). In my 2010 post concerning the Coen brothers' previous film A Single Man, I explored how "how, even given the unknowability of fate, judgment can still be swift and deadly" in that movie. Does the Old Testament sense of morality in True Grit provide some tentative answers to the metaphysical ambiguities of A Single Man? The Presbyterian doctrine of Election has something to do with Mattie's convictions. In his editorial "Narrative and the Grace of God: The New True Grit," Stanley Fishdebates the question:
"The words the book and films share are these: `You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.' These two sentences suggest a world in which everything comes around, if not sooner then later. The accounting is strict; nothing is free, except the grace of God. But free can bear two readings — distributed freely, just come and pick it up; or distributed in a way that exhibits no discernible pattern. In one reading grace is given to anyone and everyone; in the other it is given only to those whom God chooses for reasons that remain mysterious.
A third sentence, left out of the film but implied by its dramaturgy, tells us that the latter reading is the right one: `You cannot earn that [grace] or deserve it.' In short, there is no relationship between the bestowing or withholding of grace and the actions of those to whom it is either accorded or denied. You can’t add up a person’s deeds — so many good one and so many bad ones — and on the basis of the column totals put him on the grace-receiving side (you can’t earn it); and you can’t reason from what happens to someone to how he stands in God’s eyes (you can’t deserve it).
What this means is that there are two registers of existence: the worldly one in which rewards and punishment are meted out on the basis of what people visibly do; and another one, inaccessible to mortal vision, in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously.
It is, says Mattie in a reflection that does not make it into either movie, a `hard doctrine running contrary to the earthly ideals of fair play' (that’s putting it mildly), and she glosses that hard doctrine — heavenly favor does not depend on anything we do — with a reference to II Timothy 1:9, which celebrates the power of the God 'Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.'"
4) Fish concludes with an appreciation for the Coen brothers' metaphysical sensibility: "The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up." One can claim, then, that Mattie's Presbyterian convictions supply one answer to the questions about the seeming arbitrariness of the film's and the novel's vision of justice.
I'll write more notes on Mattie's voice, her negotiating skills, the novel's use of the "innocent eye," and the differences between the novel and the Coen brothers' movie presently.