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.
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.
Chigurh sees life and death as a simple matter of fate, another of the novel's themes. For example, he considers killing the owner of the Sheffield gas station, but instead he leaves the matter to chance. ''What's the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?'' Chigurh asks the man this question before he flips a coin to determine whether the man lives or dies.
Near the end of the novel, he locates Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn Moss' wife. As she asks him not to kill her, Chigurh again suggests the matter is controlled by fate or luck: ''He straightened out his leg and reached into his pocket and drew out a few coins and took one and held it up. He turned it. For her to see the justice of it. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and weighed it and then flipped it spinning in the air and caught it and slapped it down on his wrist. Call it, he said.''
Carla Jean, however, refuses to acknowledge fate as a factor. ''God would not want me to do it,'' she says. Carla Jean sees life as too precious to gamble, while Chigurh sees no value in life at all. Carla Jean eventually calls the coin toss and is wrong. Before Chigurh shoots her, Carla Jean attempts to make him admit the truth about himself--that he enjoys killing and fate actually plays no part in his decision to kill. ''The coin didnt have no say. It was just you,'' Carla Jean says.
As the novel closes, Sheriff Bell decides to retire. The kind of evil afoot is more than Bell wants to confront. ''I wont push my chips forward. . .'' he says.
In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell considers the nature of evil in society while he pursues the killer Anton Chigurh. Chigurh views life and death as a matter of chance. The novel's structure helps underscore this and other themes. At the end of the novel, which takes its title from a poem by W. B. Yeats, Sheriff Bell decides that he no longer wants to face the kind of evil that Chigurh represents, and he retires.
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