Exploration of Grit in True Grit by Charles Portis
The terms revenge and justice often get muddled. Revenge is centered around retaliation while justice is solely dealing with restoring a broken or uneven balance. The novel True Grit, by Charles Portis, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross who is intent on tracking down her father’s murderer, a man named Tom Chaney. Throughout the course of her story the central theme is justice, and Portis displays multiple contrasting rationale for obtaining said justice including revenge, duty, or just doing the right thing. No matter what the motivation is for requital and how it is accomplished, the novel demonstrates that there is a always a price to pay for those determined to seek justice or revenge.
Mattie Ross, the main protagonist, is distinguished by powerful moral convictions and the burning desire for justice to be brought to Tom Chaney. However, her desire for justice is unmistakably overridden by vengeance. She yearns for Chaney to be rightly punished for killing her father and is willing to go to extremes to see him hanged. She is so incredibly determined, even the idea of killing him herself is not considered abstract. She turns to Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a man she believes to have true grit. She hires him to help her find Chaney. When he asks her about the gun she kept with her she responds, “It belonged to my father. I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so” (Portis 60). This shows the depth of her impulsion to seek vengeance and the price of that impulsion, is the possibility of having to do something very crude to see that what she wants is done. Mattie is a fearless person who is willing to persist past limits for what she believes in. After she eventually does shoot Chaney and thinks she has killed him, she falls backward into a cavernous pit that becomes the infernal place where she begins to pay her price. Her horse, Blackie, is driven to death while transporting her and Rooster to find help for the snake bite she had sustained. Mattie describes that “Blackie fell to the ground and died, his brave heart burst and mine broken” (Portis 216). Not only did Mattie lose her noble horse, she eventually had to have her arm amputated. This would stand as a lifelong reminder of the price individual to her, that she would pay for seeking her vengeance.
In contrast to vengeance is the duty to seek justice. One of the two men whom Mattie encounters on her expedition for justice is a man named LaBoeuf. He is a Texas Ranger who has been tracking Chaney, or Chelmsford, as he is known in Texas for a long time, never getting closer than a couple hundred feet. LaBoeuf’s mission is to return Chaney to McLennan County, Texas alive. There he will be tried and prosecuted for murdering a Texas senator. LaBoeuf claims he will receive a $500 payment and a $1,500 reward from the senator’s family. He offers his assistance to Mattie in finding Chaney to reap the benefits for himself. However, her interest is diminished when he states his motivations and fails to understand hers. He explains, “It means a good deal of money to me. Would not a hanging in Texas serve you as well as a hanging in Arkansas?” (Portis 75). Later, LaBoeuf reveals that the help of Marshal Cogburn would be quite useful because he says that he needs, “…someone who knows the ground and can make an arrest out there that will stand up” (Portis 74). Although LaBoeuf is motivated by the money he desires to receive, he is willing to offer Rooster a portion of the reward to insure hunting Chaney is not a waste of his time. Bringing people to justice as an occupation has numerous costs such as being away from home for long extensions of time and risking not getting rewarded. However, the distance, time, and risk of no payment seem to be a price LaBoeuf is willing to pay for the chance to make a good living serving his duty.
There are men of the law like LaBoeuf who seek and view justice as their duty, and then there are are men of the law who are driven more by doing the right thing. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn is an excellent representation of this, determined to act outside the law if it means defending the community and helping those who have been wronged. When Mattie first hears of the Marshal, she goes to the courthouse, where he is being cross-examined as a witness in the murder trial of Odus Wharton. Rooster assures the jury and judge that killing the three Wharton brothers was the right thing to do when he says “Three murdering thieves might have got loose and gone to kill somebody else. But you are right that I might have been killed myself. It is mighty close at hand and it is no light matter to me” (Portis 55). Rooster is aware that the community is considerably more fortunate without those criminals freely roaming around. Therefor, he is willing to risk a less than respectable reputation. Another example of Rooster acting out of term was when he and Mattie came across two members of Ned Pepper’s gang. Rooster closely questioned them and Moon, a decent person who had merely gotten in with the wrong crowd, is willing to talk. Quincy, the other member of the gang, brutally cuts off Moon’s fingers and then proceeds to fatally stab him. Rooster hastily shoots and kills Quincy once the attack on Moon begins. Moon begs for Rooster’s help, but Rooster explains to him that, “I can do nothing for you, son. Your pard killed you and I have done for him” (Portis 134). Had it not been for Roosters stubbornness, two men died, who did not necessarily have to die. The hostile and reckless procedure Rooster used to do the right thing did not help him in the long run. Rooster led a treacherous life, he even endured the loss of one of his eyes. However, when he was finally forced to turn over his badge, he lost the career that had defined who he was. This was the most significant consequence he suffered from. He paid his price for doing what he thought was the right thing.
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