They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935)
By Horace McCoy
When your world falls down around you, when most of everything you believed true proves false, as happened to many in the Great Depression, then the entire idea of existence, of your existence can go from optimistic to hopeless, from rational (or at least somewhat rational) to completely absurd, in the sense of meaningless. With this in mind, you have a reasonable framework for understanding why Robert Syverten stands before a judge receiving his death sentence for the murder of Gloria Beatty. Here you have the bright eternal optimist, Robert, dancing with the ground-down pessimist, Gloria, both isolated in a ring of absurdity, the marathon dance ring (popular entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s).
Robert and Gloria meet by accident at a movie studio, where both have failed to land jobs as extras. Gloria persuades Robert, who is as down and out as she, to partner with her in a dance marathon down on a pier in Los Angeles. As the two get to know each other over the course of the five weeks they dance and walk together, readers learn about their lives.
Robert’s a farm boy who came to L.A. to become a director, a wildly optimistic pursuit as he has no training or film experience. However, he is stubbornly hopeful, always trying to look on the bright side of life.
Robert could not have found a more polar opposite to himself than Gloria if he had tried. She sees only the darkness in the world and openly and often tells him she wishes she were dead, that she would die, that once she had tried killing herself. Her parents are dead; she fled her relatives in West Texas, where her uncle attempted sexually abusing her. In addition, she is argumentative and pugnacious, calling for a married pregnant contestant to get an abortion, while herself having sex with one of the promoters to advance her chances of winning.
For five weeks, they live and dance in the confines of the dance hall. The audiences build and cheer them on, attracted by the promise of drama on the floor. Couples, pushed to and beyond their limits in derbies (extended periods of racing to avoid elimination), collapse, arguments and fights breakout, and, in the end, a fatal shooting (not Robert and Gloria’s) take place, ending the competition abruptly.
In other words, the pair, and the other contestants, exist in a pressure cooker of frustration, false hope, and fear of elimination and a return to an ever rougher, more unforgiving world. It’s enough to wear even an optimist like Robert to the nub, to the point where even the absurd seems reasonable. And the ultimate of that, Robert becoming the agent helping Gloria exit her dismal world of pain. Then accounting for his action with a remembrance of how his grandfather dispatched an injured horse they both loved, saying, “They shoot horses, don’t they?” By extension, why should suffering humans be treated any differently and allowed to linger and suffer?
Notable for transforming an otherwise inexplicable murder into an excursion into philosophical nihilism.
Adapted for the screen in 1969, starring Jane Fonda as Gloria and Michael Sarrazin as Robert. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, as well as numerous other awards. w/c