True Grit by Charles Portis

True Grit Closing Lecture

“Frank Ross was the gentlest, most honorable man who ever lived,” is how his daughter Mattie Ross the protagonist of True Grit describes him.  He died while trying to save a violent, drunken, employee; he may have died in place of those who were playing cards with Tom Chaney. The theme of True Grit matches its title: it is a slang term for the virtue of courage, bravery, or fortitude. Frank Ross sacrificed his life while helping someone undeserving; “No greater love has man than this, than that he give up his life for his friends.” One must, I think, believe strongly in an afterlife to sacrifice one’s life for another. Mattie shows true grit when she bargains with Stonehill: she needs courage to show the virtues of justice and prudence. She needs fortitude to show justice when she gives Tom Chaney a chance to surrender when she has the drop on him and when she refuses Rooster’s offer of whiskey, which shows her temperance.

It is Rooster Cogburn, however, who is described as having true grit, the words used for the title—It is the only place they show up in the whole book—who is the strange champion of courage and charity. One is almost tempted to judge him for his weight, his lack of prudence in his home life, slovenliness, one eye, and brusque manner. The hints of his hidden greatness are his taking on of Mattie’s case, preventing her from being whipped and sent home by La Bouef, and punishing the wicked boys for watching an animal suffer with cruel glee. His physical courage shines forth brilliantly when he puts his reigns between his teeth, draws his two pistols and charges Ned Pepper and his gang and wins. That LaBouef saves him, the man who mocked him, shows the Texas Ranger’s moral mettle, or quality, and skill. It is Rooster’s final acts, however, which shine on and obliterate his faults: he went into the pit to save Mattie, drew poison from her wound, rode Little Blackie to death to help her, and finally carried her in his arms to the doctor. We know the inner man through his actions. This book begins and ends with the self-sacrificial charity of a good man.


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