No Country for Old Men: Book Analysis & Themes

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English from Mississippi State University. She holds a Mississippi AA Educator License.

Cormac McCarthy's novel ''No Country for Old Men'' uses interior monologues to consider the nature of evil, one of the book's themes. The novel also examines the part fate plays in matters of life and death.


No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy focuses on the violence associated with the drug trade near the border of Texas and Mexico. The novel opens with Llewelyn Moss' discovery of a case full of drug money. Readers are introduced to Anton Chigurh, a murderous psychopath hired to pursue Moss and retrieve the money.

Much of the narrative consists of the cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, with Chigurh willing and pleased to kill anyone who attempts to thwart the job he has been hired to do. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell wants to protect Moss, a local welder, but he soon begins to believe he is facing true evil in the killer Chigurh.


The novel's title is an allusion, or reference, to W.B. Yeats' poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'; the notion that the Texas and Mexico border is ''no country for old men'' foreshadows or hints at Sheriff Bell's retirement at the novel's end.

Even though Chigurh's pursuit of Moss throughout the novel is a focal point, its structure actually shows that the protagonist, or main character, is Sheriff Bell. All of the novel's chapters open with his interior monologues. In these passages, Bell reveals his inner thoughts, wonders if is capable of dealing with increasing societal violence, and contemplates the nature of evil.

Bell's interior monologues are thematic statements that explicitly reveal what the novel is about. Therefore, the novel's structure--with its emphasis on Bell's thoughts--effectively points readers to some of its themes.

Evil As a Theme

One of the novel's primary concerns, or themes is the nature of evil. In his first interior monologue, Sheriff Bell introduces this theme as he relates the story of a young man who was sent to the gas chamber on the basis of Bell's arrest and testimony. When he goes to visit the man before his execution, Bell reveals his belief that humans are becoming more evil: ''What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul? Why would you say anything? I've thought about it a good deal. But he wasnt nothin compared to what was comin down the pike.''

Sheriff Bell sees drugs as contributing to the unrelenting change he sees in the world. ''I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did. I told that to somebody at breakfast the other mornin and they asked me if I believed in Satan,'' Bell says.

His views on evil have changed throughout the years, but Bell seems to believe in the Judeo-Christian portrayal represented by Satan. ''I said Well that aint the point. And they said I know but do you? I had to think about that. I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I'm startin to lean back the other way. He explains a lot of things that otherwise dont have no explanation.''

A sense of impending doom pervades Bell's monologues. ''I wake up sometimes way in the night and I know as certain as death that there aint nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.''

Life and Death

Anton Chigurh, a hired killer, is the kind of man who ''was comin down the pike.'' Chigurh is single-minded in his pursuit of Moss and the stolen drug money, and he nonchalantly kills anyone in the path of his intended prey. Chigurh represents the kind of killer Sheriff Bell fears.

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