Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

Two cowboys in love with the same woman face the harsh realities of life on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1950s.


"Cities of the Plain" is a novel by Cormac McCarthy, published in 1998. It is the third installment in the Border Trilogy, preceded by "All the Pretty Horses" and "The Crossing." Set in the 1950s, the novel delves into themes of love, friendship, and the vanishing cowboy way of life in the American Southwest. McCarthy's vivid prose and profound storytelling make "Cities of the Plain" a compelling and thought-provoking read.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview

The novel is set in the borderlands of Texas and Mexico, where two cowboys, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, work at a ranch called the Tres Camarones. John Grady, a skilled horseman and a romantic at heart, falls in love with a young Mexican prostitute named Magdalena. As their relationship develops, they face numerous obstacles, including cultural differences and the disapproval of others.


The story unfolds against the backdrop of the vast and rugged landscapes of the American Southwest, with its sprawling ranches, small towns, and the borderlands with Mexico. McCarthy's vivid descriptions bring the setting to life, capturing the harsh beauty of the region and the challenges faced by those who call it home.

Main Characters

Here are the main characters in "Cities of the Plain" and brief descriptions of each:

John Grady ColeA young cowboy with a deep love for horses and a romantic spirit. He forms a deep connection with Magdalena.
Billy ParhamJohn Grady's friend and fellow cowboy, who shares his love for the land and the cowboy way of life.
MagdalenaA young Mexican prostitute with whom John Grady falls in love, despite the cultural and social barriers.
EduardoThe owner of the Tres Camarones ranch, where John Grady and Billy work. He becomes involved in their lives.

Summary of Different Story Points over Chapters

Chapters 1-5:

The novel introduces the reader to the daily lives of John Grady and Billy at the Tres Camarones ranch. John Grady becomes infatuated with Magdalena, and their relationship begins to unfold. Meanwhile, Billy forms a bond with the ranch owner, Eduardo, and becomes involved in his personal life.

Chapters 6-10:

John Grady and Magdalena's relationship faces challenges from cultural differences and societal expectations. The tension between the American and Mexican ways of life becomes increasingly apparent, leading to conflicts and difficult decisions for the characters.

Chapters 11-15:

The novel reaches a climax as the characters grapple with the consequences of their actions. John Grady and Billy's loyalty to each other and their principles are put to the test, with profound and life-altering results.

Chapters 16-20:

The story reaches its conclusion, bringing resolution to the fates of the characters and exploring the enduring impact of their choices. The novel's themes of love, friendship, and the fading cowboy lifestyle are poignantly portrayed in the final chapters.

Main Events

  • John Grady's infatuation with Magdalena and their blossoming romance.
  • Tensions and conflicts arising from cultural differences and societal expectations.
  • Loyalty and moral dilemmas faced by the characters, testing their values and principles.
  • The ultimate resolution of the characters' fates and the enduring impact of their choices.

Themes and Insights


  1. Love and Romance: The novel explores the complexities of love and romance, transcending cultural and societal barriers.
  2. Friendship and Loyalty: The deep bond between John Grady and Billy is tested as they navigate challenging circumstances, highlighting the enduring power of friendship.
  3. Cultural Divide: The clash between American and Mexican cultures underscores the challenges faced by the characters and the changing landscape of the Southwest.
  4. Vanishing Cowboy Lifestyle: McCarthy vividly portrays the fading cowboy way of life, emphasizing the loss of traditions and values in the modern world.


The novel offers profound insights into the human experience, highlighting the resilience of love and friendship in the face of adversity. McCarthy's evocative prose and rich character development provide a compelling exploration of the timeless themes of love, honor, and the struggle to hold onto one's way of life in a changing world.

Reader's Takeaway

"Cities of the Plain" is a poignant and evocative exploration of love, friendship, and the shifting landscapes of the American Southwest. Readers will be captivated by McCarthy's masterful storytelling and the vivid portrayal of the characters' struggles and triumphs. The novel's themes resonate on a deep and emotional level, leaving a lasting impression on those who embark on this literary journey.


In "Cities of the Plain," Cormac McCarthy delivers a powerful and timeless narrative that captures the essence of human connection and the vanishing cowboy way of life. Through rich character development and a vividly depicted setting, the novel immerses readers in a world where love, loyalty, and cultural divides intersect. McCarthy's prose and storytelling prowess make "Cities of the Plain" a compelling and thought-provoking addition to the Border Trilogy, leaving a lasting impact on those who embark on this literary journey.

Cities of the Plain FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'Cities of the Plain'?

    Cities of the Plain is a novel that falls under the genres of Western fiction and literary fiction.

  2. Is 'Cities of the Plain' part of a series?

    Yes, 'Cities of the Plain' is the third and final book in Cormac McCarthy's 'The Border Trilogy', following 'All the Pretty Horses' and 'The Crossing'.

  3. What is the setting of 'Cities of the Plain'?

    The novel is primarily set in the American Southwest, specifically in the border region between Texas and Mexico during the mid-20th century.

  4. What is the main theme of 'Cities of the Plain'?

    The novel explores themes of love, friendship, loyalty, and the impact of changing times on traditional ways of life.

  5. Is 'Cities of the Plain' suitable for young readers?

    The book contains mature themes and language, so it is more suitable for adult readers.