The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the NEA Big Read Reader Resources. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.
For their essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.
- Throughout the novel, Mattie declares her religious faith and cites biblical passages to reinforce her judgments. (Look up the passages she cites to see how well they support her interpretations of them.) How would you characterize her religious beliefs? Are they consistent with what you would understand to be a spiritual sensibility? Do you feel that Portis presents this side of her nature as something to be admired, or do you detect some subtle satire at work?
- True Grit can be broadly categorized as a Western, a genre whose conventions you may be familiar with through other works of fiction and countless Hollywood movies. How well does the novel fit within the conventions of the traditional Western? In what ways does it significantly depart from the tradition, and for what apparent reasons?
- Imagine that the book had been narrated by Rooster instead of Mattie. In what ways would it be different? What elements would still be fundamentally as they are now? What would be lost if it were narrated from a distanced third-person point of view?
- In the course of the novel, Mattie has dealings with an African American ranchhand, a Chinese storekeeper, a Mexican bandit, and several Indians. In her interactions with the people she encounters, does she respond to them—and treat them—as individuals, rather than as members of racial or ethnic groups? Back up your conclusions with examples from the book.
- What would you say are the three most important themes of the novel? What ideas do you sense the author is trying to point out—either directly or indirectly? Drawing on details from the text, explain the reasons for your choices. Which of these do you consider the single most important theme of the book, and why?
- In the last two paragraphs of the book, Mattie (perhaps somewhat defensively) addresses the fact that she has never married. What explanation does she give? Do you accept her explanation? If not, what other reason or reasons do you think there might be?