A Hard Doctrine: Calvinism, Grace, and Justice in Charles Portis’ True Grit

true grue[Charles Portis’ novel True Grit is an amazing little work. There are many things one could delve into when discussing the book’s merits and unanswered questions, but I’ve chosen to milk the text’s incorporation of Calvinism, sin, grace, death, judgment, and so on. This is where I’ve been spending most of my time these days. Hope this paper helps or provides food for thought. Soli Deo Gloria. -h.]

[p.s. You can download a free copy of the book here.]

You Must Pay for Everything in This World One Way or Another

In Charles Portis’ True Grit, as Stanley Fish notes, Mattie’s Scriptural quotations “don’t emerge from the story as a moral kernel emerges from a parable; they hang over the narrative (Mattie just sprays them), never quite touching its events and certainly not generated by them.”1 Mattie’s use of Scripture is, in other words, part and parcel of who she is, what she does, and what she is writing. The categories of justice and grace are not superimposed on the story she tells, they are the story she tells. “You must,” she says, “pay for everything in this world,” thereby showing her inflexible moral conviction that justice, while still ultimately an eschatological hope, is an earthly inevitability.

Interestingly, however, Mattie’s words “one way or another” leave open to the reader’s imagination the exact manner of inevitable retribution. Her tone seems to suggest that her hand, alone, is responsible for the death of Tom Chaney, but this is not the case. Justice is trailing closely behind the murderer of Mattie Ross’ father, and expresses itself in the formation of a trinity of judges, viz. Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn, and LeBoeuf. All three persons contribute to the death of Chaney, in other words, revealing that crimes and their punishments in this world, as Mattie notes, must come. Given her Presbyterian affiliation, Mattie’s words seem to reflect a belief in God’s determination of all things creaturely, the inevitability of justice, and the liberality of eternal, salvific grace. Mattie Ross is a calvinist whose worldview shapes the events she reports in her narrative, incarnating the “hard doctrine” informing her doctrines of justice and grace: the Sovereignty of God.

Divine Determinism & Human Determination

Given the title of Portis’ novel, then, is the reader faced with a contradiction? Is the necessary execution of crime and retributive justice due to a divinely determined plan (as Mattie’s theological convictions suggest) or true human determination to see justice served (i.e true grit)? Aaron Gilbreath summarizes this latter interpretation quite well in his essay A String of Maybes: Speculating the Elusive Charles Portis. He writes:

When Mattie Ross ventures into wild, dangerous Indian Territory to try to avenge her father’s murder, myriad forces interfere with her plans. Vast distances, foul weather, finances—everything works against her, but her greatest obstacle is peoples’ doubt.


As the title suggests, the obstacles that threaten to keep Mattie from achieving her goal also reveal the iron core of her dogged nature: she not only defines herself by her tenacity, but after she dies, and after readers finish the book, she will be remembered as one of a rare breed of people who refuse to fail.. . . Mattie didn’t come to Indian Territory to run. She came to do what she came to do. Indian Territory may be a treacherous place, but her journey through it reveals her essence.2

The contrast Gilbreath draws is between the randomness of the natural world and the determined plans of humans to accomplish their goals.

However, in True Grit it is the plans of humans that fall short of being realized, despite the sustained efforts of the planners. For instance, Tom Chaney and Frank Ross had “made plans to leave [Fort Smith] the next morning,” but in his drunken rage “Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot [Frank Ross] in the head, killing him instantly.”3 Both men planned on leaving with their newly acquired ponies, but only Chaney leaves the place alive. On a less somber occasion, Mattie’s plan to “buy some cheese and crackers for [her] daytime eats”4 is thwarted by Mrs. Floyd’s one option for guests at the Monarch. Likewise, Mattie suggests a plan to “jump [Chaney] from the brush and hit him with sticks and knock him insensible,”5 to Rooster and LeBoeuf, but this plan is never actualized. More significantly, although Mattie “intend[s] to kill Tom Chaney with [her father’s gun] if the law fails to do it,”6 she does not eventually kill Chaney with her father’s gun. “If I had killed him,” she later tells “Lucky” Ned Pepper, “I would not be in this fix. My revolver misfired twice,”7 thus laying blame of her failure to kill Tom Chaney on the inadequacy of her gun – i.e. a factor over which she had no control.

Yet, in spite of the “accidentally” aborted plans of these characters, justice is meted out. Chaney will die, but not by any one person’s direct action. This decentralization of agency necessarily leads the reader to ascribe the events leading up to Chaney’s death to either God or blind chance. Considering Mattie’s faith, it seems fairly obvious that God is to be understood as the one who has ordered these events to take place. It is He who has predestined the wicked Chaney to be killed for murdering Frank Ross. Rejecting this view, however, John Ditsky, in his essay True “Grit” and “True Grit” asks,

Where is justice to be found? Is it in the gold piece whose recovery leads Mattie to think herself close to moral victory? (p.130) Is it to be found in the interweaving of law and outlawry in the career, before and after Mattie’s arrival, of Rooster Cogburn? (pp. 134-41) Is it to be found in the replacement of Rooster’s concept of manhood with a gentler code, a slower justice, and a proliferation of lawyers? The novel has no answer…8

Ditsky is correct in his identification of the troubling conflict between historically specific forms of justice in the novel, but his interpretation neglects to take into consideration the “hard doctrine” of election, of which Mattie says “it was good enough for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you.”9

Addressing the Audience

Mattie is writing to the reader, not simply granting the reader access into her “private” thoughts. Jonathan Culler explains that “literature . . . is a speech act or textual event that elicits certain kinds of attention. It contrasts with other sorts of speech acts, such as imparting information, asking questions, or making promises.”10 This is precisely the kind of discriminating approach to writing that Mattie understands and respects throughout True Grit, and this further strengthens the case presently being made. She is aware of her audience, and she is a writer who can, if not masterfully then at least competently, utilize different writing forms.11 Her literary consciousness, in fact, is what causes her to say that

…the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and “discursive.” Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a “graphic” writing style combined with educational aims.12

Mattie tells the reader her own philosophy of writing: It must be true, interesting, graphic, and educational. Therefore, if this is her aim in telling her story, then what is she teaching the reader about? She tells us: “…how [she] avenged Frank Ross’ blood over the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.”13 And yet, it is not she who avenged her father’s blood, nor is it Rooster, nor is it LeBoeuf; rather, it is the combination of these three persons as they work in unison toward one goal, despite their varied motivations for so doing, and despite the obstacles they face. The seemingly random events comprising True Grit cannot be, from a calvinist’s perspective, the result of blind chance or the mechanical workings of a world created by the god of the deists. The events are brought about, therefore, by the God who, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith (i.e. the confession of Presbyterianism), “from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”14

Amazing Grace

Despite this fact, however, Kenneth Millard suggests that “the indiscriminate energies of speaking and writing are beyond the control of a first-person narrator [i.e. Mattie] who, therefore, experiences anguish and self-delusion at the failure of her Presbyterian ideology to match the nature of her narrative.”15 Millard’s contention, however, seems to be less rooted in Portis’ text than it is in poststructuralist presuppositions regarding the inadequacy of “a[ny] theory of the referential capacity of language that has its origin in the Bible and the Word, and which has authoritative expression in the patriarchal law of fathers.”16 Thus he also attempts to undermine her “corresponding ideas of ethical goodness and historical veracity that are, for her, beyond dispute.”17

As mentioned, however, the text does not support Millard’s contention, for Mattie is, at one and the same time, aware of the good and the evil Rooster has committed. Rather than becoming morally confused upon hearing that Rooster’s past includes stealing from crooks, Mattie openly condemns Rooster’s behavior.

They never did get you for stealing that money?”

I didn’t look on it as stealing.”

That was what it was. It didn’t belong to you.”

It never troubled me in that way. I sleep like a baby. Have for years.”


It is all stealing,” said I.18

Despite Rooster’s rationalization of his involvement in criminal behavior, and despite her affection for Rooster, Mattie openly sees and identifies his behavior as stealing.

She is, after all, a Presbyterian who is well-versed in theology and the Bible. This suggests that Mattie can simultaneously see the civic good an unconverted man like Rooster can perform, and deny that he is good, according to the moral code contained in the Bible. Therefore, her demand for moral justice is neither grounded in ignorance nor youthfully naive of the ways in which adults frequently swim in “the muddy waters of moral compromise.”19 Perhaps the clearest instance of Mattie’s capacity to simultaneously acknowledge earthly justice alongside divine pardon is observable in her report of the hanging of three criminals. Whereas the two white men try to excuse their criminal behavior, the Indian man openly calls his crimes “sins.”

The Indian . . . said, “I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my Savior. Now I must die like a man.”20

Mattie, the Presbyterian, and the Indian man who is now a Christian simultaneously affirm the necessity of “dying like a man” (i.e. earthly justice) and entering heaven by grace alone (i.e. Divine pardon). Thus, the contrast between the hymn “Amazing Grace” and the tough twine of nooses placed around the necks of these malefactors suggests precisely the opposite conclusion which Millard believes he is deriving from the text. Moral compromise is moral failure, and moral failure will be repaid by Justice, who chases all men down.

In Conclusion

At the end of True Grit, if Mattie was no longer a Presbyterian, then speculation concerning her inability to understand reality through the lenses of her Christian faith would have some merit. However, Mattie is still a Presbyterian at the conclusion of the book. Therefore, the decentralization of human agency does not signify some internal conflict she is facing as she juggles faith and radical skepticism about language’s capacity to refer to the “real world.” Rather, Mattie purposefully addresses the reader, informing him/her that election, a metonym for the Christian faith as expressed in the doctrines of Presbyterianism, is not only good for her but for you, the reader.

Ironically, the attempt to see the infinite deferral of justice in the failed plans and moral failings of True Grit’s trinity (i.e. Mattie, Rooster, LeBoeuf) reinscribes the solipsistically conceived Cartesian subject at the center of Portis’ novel, marginalizing a more biblically based understanding of the subject who is subject to the Sovereignty of God, the inevitability of nuanced earthy justice cognizant of etiological degrees of moral responsibility, and the freedom of divine pardon – as regards its cost and its distribution.21 Mattie’s calvinistic worldview informs the compatiblism found throughout True Grit. Divine determinism is not absent from the book; however, neither is human determination. Those who have true grit pursue their goal, despite the obstacles they face, knowing that “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”22

End Notes

1 “Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’”, The Opinionater (blog), December 27, 2010 (8:30 p.m.), http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/narrative-and-the-grace-of-god-the-new-true-grit/

2The Gettysburg Review (Summer, 2011), 323.

3 p.14.

4 pp.24-25.

5 p.107.

6 p.56.

7 p.178.

8Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 4, no. 3 (1973), 29.

9 p.109. (emphasis added)

10Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 27.

11 For instance, Mattie introduces Rooster via the insertion of her own transcription of his court hearing (pp.41-54).

12 p.39.

13 p.215

14 Chapter III, Article 1.

15 “History, Fiction, and Ethics: The Search for The True West in True Grit”, in Philological Quarterly 90.4 (Fall, 2011), 477.

16 Millard, “History, Fiction, and Ethics,” 476.

17 Millard, “History, Fiction, and Ethics,” 477.

18 pp.137-138.

19Millard, “History, Fiction, and Ethics,” 471.

20 p.18.

21 Fish, Stanley, “Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’”, The Opinionater (blog), December 27, 2010 (8:30 p.m.), http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/narrative-and-the-grace-of-god-the-new-true-grit/

22 p.37


Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press,


Ditsky, John. “True ‘Grit’ and ‘True Grit’”, in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 4,

no. 3 (1973), 18-31.

Fish, Stanley. “Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’”, The Opinionater (blog), December 27, 2010 (8:30 p.m.), http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/narrative-and-the-grace-of-god-the-new-true-grit/

Gilbreath, Aaron. “A String of Maybes: Speculating the Elusive Charles Portis”, in The Gettysburg Review (Summer, 2011), 315-328.

Millard, Kenneth. “History, Fiction, and Ethics: The Search for The True West in True Grit”, in Philological Quarterly 90.4 (Fall, 2011), 463-479.

Portis, Charles. True Grit (New York: The Overlook Press, 1968), Kindle Ed.

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