Life as a Marathon Dance in Horace McCoy ' s " They Shoot Horses, Don ' t They? "

In Horace McCoy's novella "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" the cycles and repetition of life are represented by the circular movements of marathon dancers suspended on a pier over the ocean's rolling waves. The marathon, and life by comparison, is a draining and degrading dance contest, and most likely the outcome is fixed. But underneath it all, the tides roll in and out and you can feel the rhythm of the waves beneath your feet, a rhythm which has been rolling forever.

We walked around the side of the building onto the pier. It stretched out over the ocean as far as I could see, rising and falling and groaning and creaking with the movements of the water.
"It's a wonder the waves don't wash this pier away," I said.
"You're hipped on the subject of waves," Gloria said.
"No, I'm not," I said.
"That's all you've been talking about for a month--"
"All right, stand still a minute and you'll see what I mean. You can feel it rising and falling--"
"I can feel it without standing still," she said, "but that's no reason to get yourself in a sweat. It's been going on for a million years."

The story's hero, Robert, stops to feel waves hitting against the dance hall's floorboards. He makes a conscious effort to understand the cyclical nature of life. The contest consists of periodical "derby races" where the dancers do laps around the dance floor and the couple with the fewest laps is eliminated. Robert develops a strategy of staying in the middle, not using too much energy but not being the slowest, but realizes winning the race depends on giving your maximum effort. On the other hand, Gloria is weaker and at times Robert has to drag her along. Her summation of the rise and fall of the waves, "It's been going on for a million years", shows her more fatalistic attitude. Not only is she trapped in the sunless dance hall, but she feels she has nowhere else to go.

The dancers in the marathon are barely human, and like race horses which are bet upon, whipped, and driven to exhaustion. They are profoundly desperate and have no purpose in life but to be exploited by the marathon's promoters. In the end, almost all of them will be losers.

Robert and Gloria hang on by a tenuous thread of hope; the feint hope of winning. But when the marathon dance is shut down their dreams are broken and hope is lost. Robert merely takes their treatment to a frighteningly logical next step by honoring Gloria's request to be "put down" much like a lame horse, stating with cynical insight, "They shoot horses, don't they?"