They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (novel)
name = They Shoot Horses, Don't They
language = English
Simon & Schuster
media_type = Print (
isbn = NA
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a
novelwritten by Horace McCoyand first published in 1935. The story mainly concerns a dance marathon during the Great Depression. It was adapted into a 1969 film by Sydney Pollackstarring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazinand Gig Young.
The story follows the narrator, Robert Syverten, a naive young man from Hollywood who dreams of being a film director.
The story begins with Robert's sentencing for murder. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn't "have a leg to stand on." He is advised to beg for mercy from the Court. The story of his relationship with the girl he killed, Gloria Beatty, is thereafter intercut after every few chapters with short excerpts from the judge's sentencing. The excerpts of the judge's words are written in larger and larger type face until the last page of the book concludes with the words written in small print: "And may God have mercy on your soul".
Robert meets Gloria on a morning when they have both failed to get parts as extras. She talks him into participating in a marathon dance contest. Like Robert, she is struggling to find work in Hollywood, and believes the contest may be a way to get noticed by studio producers or movie stars. Gloria and Robert enter the dance contest, which is held at a large amusement pier on the beach, somewhere near Hollywood.
The contests are long and grueling affairs, taking place over several weeks. Contestants dance for an hour and fifty minutes, then receive a ten minute break. One hundred and forty four couples start the contest. Robert and Gloria, like most of the contestants, are young, jobless, and drawn as much by the free food as by the $1,000 prize money.
From the start, Gloria tells Robert that she wishes she were dead, a point she repeats in most of their conversations. Her parents are dead. She ran away to Dallas from a farm in West Texas where her uncle always made passes at her. In Dallas, she tried to commit suicide, then ran away to Hollywood with dreams of being in movies, but is finding only rejection. Robert considers her plain-looking and unlikely to find work as an actress. She tells Robert frequently that she doesn't have the courage to kill herself.
The promoters of the contest try various schemes to increase attendance. They publicize the arrest of a contestant for murder. Every evening, they stage an elimination race, called a derby, in which the couples speed-walk around a track, the last-place couple being disqualified. The promoters stage a marriage of two contestants, who then lose a derby and should be eliminated. Instead, the promoters disqualify another couple.
As the dance goes on, into the second and third week, the crowds grow larger. Newspapers cover the contest. Some couples receive sponsorships from local businesses, usually in the form of clothes. Hollywood personalities arrive to watch and are announced by the promoters. Gloria goads Robert into speaking with a famous director he recognizes in the crowd. A woman named Mrs. Layden attends the contest regularly and tells Robert that he and Gloria are her favorite couple. She later gets Robert and Gloria a sponsorship.
As the contest grinds on, couples break down physically and drop out. Robert is consumed with claustrophobia and a desire to get outside into the sun. Gloria is tiring and having difficulty walking for the derby without Robert's help.
Gloria is revealed throughout as angry, bitter and outspoken. She curses another male contestant because he won't allow his pregnant partner to get an abortion. Robert learns indirectly that Gloria is having sex with one of the promoters, presumably to gain an advantage in the event the fix should be put in again. When Robert tells her of his suspicions, Gloria tells him she doesn't feel she is worthy of doing anything else. When two elderly women from the local morals society threaten the promoters with shutting down the dance, Gloria is asked to witness the meeting and curses the women as spoiled, interfering hypocrites.
After 879 hours of dancing and with 20 couples remaining, the contest is shut down when there is a murder at the dance hall's bar. A stray bullet from the shooting hits and kills Mrs. Layden. The promoters decide to give the remaining dancers $50 each for their efforts. Robert and Gloria go outside for the first time in five weeks and sit on the pier looking at the ocean. Gloria takes a pistol out of her bag and asks Robert to shoot her, which he does. He remembers when he was young, when his grandfather shot the beloved family horse, which had broken its leg. The police ask Robert why he shot Gloria, and he answers, because she asked me to. The policeman persists. Robert answers, "They shoot horses, don't they?"
The basic image is the dance contest as life for the poor and luckless in the Depression. It is draining, degrading, and fixed. They dance hour after hour to get enough to eat. They are barely human, like racehorses, sponsored and cheered on. They will almost all be losers. If they last long enough, they can hope for sponsorships from local business owners. They are profoundly desperate, but maintain dreams of steady jobs or, like Robert and Gloria, work in Hollywood, which is seemingly so close.
A basic theme is how hope is essential to life. Dreams give hope. Life becomes tenuous when dreams are broken and hope is lost. Gloria is trapped in every way, not just in the sunless dance hall, unable to leave. She has no parents, no family and nowhere else to go. Only her dream of Hollywood fame seems to have kept her going. When the contest is shut down and she hasn't gotten the break she was hoping for, she has nothing left to hope for, or to live for. In killing her, Robert thinks of her as a horse with a broken leg: non-functional, in severe pain, with death as a mercy.
McCoy's novel was received poorly in the
U.S.in the 1930s. However, the novel found refuge in the existentialist circles of France. Although, the novel had been distributed by underground literary groups during World War II, the novel's first French edition did not appear until 1946. [Richmond, Lee J. "A Time to Mourn and a Time to Dance: Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". "Twentieth Century Literature". 17.2 (1971): 91-100. p. 91]
*They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Film)
*"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye"
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