Cormac McCarthy and His Exposure of a Problematic Modern American Society

The 1990s and early 2000s were full of revolutionary changes in society, and heralded some of the changes in technology usage and social norms that still define our lives today. Cormac McCarthy is an accomplished, acclaimed, and rather dark American author who wrote mainly during this time period. His writing is especially different, including odd punctuation, debilitating violence, and a scarily detached tone. However, he succeeded in capturing certain unpleasant aspects of modern American society and exposing them to readers through his novels. Although McCarthy is a largely idiosyncratic writer in terms of his style, he does represent the quintessential zeitgeist of the time period.

The relationship between father and son is a large topic covered within Cormac McCarthy’s tenth book, The Road, which was published in 2006. In this novel, an unnamed father and son roam the roads of a gray, post-apocalyptic world with diminishing hope for survival. In desperation, the majority of the world’s survivors have reverted to cannibalism, and the father and son spend most of their time avoiding terrifying encounters with their gangs. Since the boy’s mother killed herself after losing faith in everything, the two are all that they have left in the world. During the late 1990s, “fatherlessness” was considered a very harmful trend that was “the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society” (Blankenhorn 1). It was often the scapegoat for crime, abuse, and domestic violence by adolescents. In a 1991 survey, the National Commission on Children described growing fatherlessness, saying father-son relationships “are frequently tenuous and all too often nonexistent” (12). In the early 2000s, this idea influenced many to strengthen father-to-son bonds in order to eliminate fatherlessness’ reparations in society. The essential American image of a son playing catch with his father, “like father like son”, was reinforced. According to the U.S. Department of State, as of 2001, “fathers in intact families [were] spending more time with their children than at any point in the past 100 years” (Coontz 13). McCarthy exemplifies this resurgence of fatherly love, and its importance. His young son John is his greatest love in the world; the book is even dedicated to him.

McCarthy’s story of the father and son in The Road oddly represents John and his relationship. He once said, “a lot of the lines that are in there are verbatim conversations my son John and I had…John said, ‘Papa, what would you do if I died?’ I said, ‘I’d want to die, too,’ and he said, ‘So you could be with me?’ I said, ‘Yes, so I could be with you’” (McCarthy “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy”). Though it is a very strange relationship, the bond between the father and son in this novel is known as one of the most moving relationships in literature. The first words spoken by the man in the book are about his son: “if he is not the word of God, God never spoke” (McCarthy The Road, 5). He later states that “the boy was all that stood between him and death” (29). The immense love that the father has for his son is the only thing that allows him to survive; for keeping the boy alive is his single remaining purpose. In the boy’s case, his father embodies his last shred of morality. The idea that they are the good guys, “carrying the fire”, is the one thing that keeps the boy from losing himself in his dismal surroundings (278). This relationship is a rare sanguine aspect discussed by McCarthy in the entire book. The love is tragic but never-ending. Being one of the only plot points one can call beautiful and positive within the story, it is greatly appreciated by readers. The “extraordinary tenderness” exhibited by the father and son in the midst of such a hellish world is inspiring to readers (Maslin). This single remaining sliver of humanity, is a much-needed counter to the bleakness of the story. It also is one of the only points within such an abstract plot that readers can connect to. In the midst of cannibalism, starvation, and constant raining ash, a beautiful and surprisingly normal filial relationship remains constant. Yet, McCarthy being the terrifying writer he is, includes the heart-wrenching death of the father at the end of the story, leaving the boy to fend for himself. In this way, McCarthy continues his trend of tragic and entirely unsatisfying endings. Nevertheless, this bond perfectly represents the growth of love between father and son represented both by McCarthy and John, and their time period.

Numbness to violence is a large issue addressed by McCarthy in The Road. The introduction of the internet and mass media occurred in the 1990s, and rapidly gained popularity during the early 2000s. As this popularity grew exponentially, information was spread faster and to an incredibly wide audience. Modern-day violence has grown to be portrayed so much in world culture, that people are now blind to its barbarity. The statistics of rising violence are appalling. As of 1993, 46% of children in a survey admitted to being beaten up. 51% had been threatened with a gun or another weapon. 17% of the children had been shot by a gun (“Growing Up Fast and Frightened”). As of 1994, children younger than 18 were 244% more likely to be killed by guns than they were in 1986. One out of every six youths between the ages of 10 and 17 saw or knew someone who had been shot. Most shocking, the average child watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school (Adler). By 1998, violent crime had increased 560% since 1960. The child (youths under 19) homicide rate had more than quadrupled since 1960. From 1990 to 1994, more than double the number of people who died in the Vietnam War (58,000 people total) were murdered in the United States (119,732 people) (Stetson). Because death was so prevalent in every day life by the time of The Road, people had built up an almost impenetrable tolerance to the despicable and gruesome. McCarthy noticed this issue that, it seemed, everyone was susceptible to. He tries to raise awareness of the numbness to violence in contemporary society throughout his novels, especially in The Road, by including many a grisly description. For instance, the father and son stumble upon a tractor-trailer on the road, and decide to look inside for provisions. The man opens the roof of the container with a jacknife, only to find, “human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotten clothes.” (McCarthy, The Road 48). He speaks often of “the dead impaled on spikes along the road”, illuminated harshly by daylight (53). In an especially harsh scene, the boy notices “a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit” left by a group of cannibals (167). These images, witnessed by the protagonist father and his painfully young son, force the reader to feel and to sympathize with the characters, as well as to reflect on the violence that occurs every day in the real world. McCarthy told of several different letters he had received from many different countries after his book came out, all stating the same thing: “They said, ‘I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them’” (McCarthy “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy”). McCarthy’s goal of urging readers to rethink their ideas of humanity within society is accomplished by describing the emotional scarring that the apocalypse has had on the pair, rather than detailing the violence itself. Because people are so unrelentingly exposed to violence on a daily basis, simply violent scenes would not have such an effect on the reader; what was truly necessary for McCarthy was to force readers to feel the trauma experienced by the father and son. The characters’ emotional reactions to the violence around them are somehow illustrated by McCarthy’s sparse writing. As a result, the reader cannot help but feel the fear and despair emanating from the man and his son. McCarthy gives us the opportunity, in this way, to “affirm [evil’s] inexplicable reality” by “jolting us out of complacency” (Cremean 57). Only after this was done would readers’ blindness to brutality be broken. However, some critics find McCarthy’s depictions of violence extremely unsettling, and even traumatizing. According his fanatics’ concept of “McCarthyism”, this disturbance is caused by deviating from the Just World Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that people must believe that the human world is a place where people receive whatever they deserve; that is, bad guys are punished, and good guys are rewarded.

However, McCarthy’s story in The Road explains that this is not the case. Both the father and son suffer unspeakable horrors, although they are inherently good people. The boy’s mother kills herself to escape the pain of the world, they see death everywhere they look, and their situation never brightens or becomes easier to bear. According to the hypothesis, if someone is dealt pain and grief, people must believe that they, in some way or another’ deserved it, or that it was at the fault of some divine being greater than themselves. However, in McCarthy’s novel, there is absolutely no explanation for the violence dealt to the characters. They are the “good guys” who deserve none of the suffering placed upon them. There is no God who can account for that suffering in their world, a world where everything, even ethics, have deteriorated. Because of this, people have cast off the violence as being unnecessary. Yet the violence does have a point, one that may very well account for McCarthy’s purpose as an author; the violence is included in order to force readers to reflect on their own society and to allow them to realize that this situation is not entirely impossible. Every day, real people are dealt undeserving troubles. The depictions by McCarthy define violence in its very real and very true essence. It serves, not to pummel readers with senseless brutality, but to contrast the bad with the good. This is how love, sacrifice, and, and bravery exhibited by the father-son duo are illuminated in the novel, thereby contrasting their importance and meaning in a world of constant and cruel violence. Although the book exhibits unjust punishments dealt upon the “good guys”, subsequently leaving the reader without resolution or a stereotypically happy ending, the violence McCarthy includes is essential to forcing a realization upon people; that they are numb to the fact that the human world has been, is and will continue to be, a very violent place. In this way, The Road effectively deals with the major issue of violence in McCarthy’s age.

Growing numbness regarding violence is also a prevalent issue in McCarthy’s ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, though in a different way. Though the book was published in 2005, it takes place in the Texas desert backcountry during 1980. The story begins with Llewelyn Moss finding a drug deal gone horribly wrong, and a briefcase left behind filled with over two million dollars. The money belongs to Anton Chigurgh, the leader of a drug ring and a terrifying psychopath who lacks the ability to comprehend normal human emotion. Chigurgh chases after Llewelyn, and finally succeeds in killing him and his wife, Carla Jean. The 1980s was a decade of escalating violence. In 1980, the homicide rate in the United States rose to 10.2 per 100,000 people from 9.7 in 1979. During the 1960s, it had only been 4.6 per 100,000 (Cooper). This increased violence led to a general numbness towards brutality in America. McCarthy exposes this to his readers by including many harsh acts of violence. For instance, Wells, a hitman trying to find Chigurgh, finds an elderly, insignificant woman who was shot by Chigurgh: “she’d been shot through the forehead and had tilted forward leaving part of the back of her skull and a good bit of dried brain matter stuck to the slat of the rocker behind her” (McCarthy No Country for Old Men, 147). Additionally, McCarthy subtly exhibits the overall violence of the time by including a great deal of minutiae about the guns used by his characters. These descriptions include, “a nickel-plated government .45 automatic, a nine millimeter parabellum, a pistol with a hairspray-can silencer, a stun gun (for unlocking doors), an Uzi, a stainless steel .357 revolver”, and the list continues on. These details “greatly add to the deadly miasma” of the story, causing every description of death to become increasingly tragic (Proulx). The clinical, detached way that McCarthy describes these weapons emulates the way that people saw violence from the 1980s up to the early 2000s. He writes without a hint of ethos or pathos; no ethical or moral wrongness is tied to his descriptions of death. While this may seem scarily uncaring of McCarthy to the reader, he is only describing violence just as all people did during that era, and still do: with a nearly impenetrable numbness. From finding several rotting corpses in a desert, shot to pieces over drug money, to intense gun battles in the streets, Llewelyn Moss’ story is told as if by a machine. Most readers find this disturbing and entirely abnormal. People dislike how McCarthy enumerates every act of bloodshed “as though violence were a dry industrial process” (Kirn). Others criticize the sheer amount of deaths included by McCarthy in the novel, saying “murder leads to murder, the innocent pulled in along with the more than guilty and many in between” (Cheuse). However, both of these aspects are intrinsic to moral of McCarthy’s story. As difficult as it may be to read, the detached way he describes multitudinous deaths emulates the treatment of violence by Americans in the 1980s.

The struggle with spirituality exhibited by McCarthy’s characters in No Country for Old Men correlates with the loss of faith during the early 2000s. Though the percentage of people that did not ally themselves with any faith in particular dropped slightly in 1980, it gradually increased and continued to do so throughout the time that McCarthy was writing the book. In 1950, the “nones”, or non-affiliates, comprised a mere 2% of Americans. In 1980, it reached 6.5%. In 2005, it was nearly at 11%. The spike after these years resulted in one third of Americans under 30 years of age identifying as a “none”. The adolescents and young adults surveyed had been “coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics” (“Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the Nones”). Therefore, this shift of religious beliefs in the American youth was most likely linked to the growing conservatism in the 80s. McCarthy himself is not affiliated with any particular beliefs. He once explained, “I have a great sympathy for the spiritual view of life, and I think that it’s meaningful. But am I a spiritual person? I would like to be” (McCarthy “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy”). He writes about his struggle with spirituality by infusing it into his characters. He talks often of “that God that lives in silence who has scoured the land with salt and ash” (McCarthy No Country for Old Men, 45). He describes God as an abstract figure who, if He exists, has never moved to help anyone. Subsequently, almost all of the main characters in many of McCarthy’s novels experience immense hardships, with no apparent help from any divine being. Carla Jean says, “you’ve suffered a loss of faith. I’ve suffered a loss of everything I ever had” when talking to Chigurgh (256). Sheriff Ed Tom reflects upon religion several times: “I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me he does” (267). McCarthy’s message was eye opening for some, and agitating for others. Some felt it further added to the constant depression of the characters’ situation: “satan exists, the world is getting worse, and God is too busy with other matters to care. He’s written us off and moved on to fresh creations” (Kirn). Critics see religion as just another thing lost from the inherently good characters of the story. However, the addition of loss of faith by McCarthy had a very important part in his purpose of writing the novel. The pure evil that is seen in No Country for Old Men surreptitiously demands a realization from readers: that if divinities are all-knowing, trustworthy, and superior, they would not allow innocents to encounter tragedy. Yet, in McCarthy’s novels, they do; just like in the real world. Innocent citizens in this novel die violently at the hands of evil, represented by Chigurgh. A police officer is strangled to death by Chigurgh’s handcuffs. Llewelyn experiences immense violence and fear before being ruthlessly killed. Even the most guiltless character, Carla Jean, has everything taken away from her, including her own life, by the end of the book. McCarthy’s hope is merely to explain the painful truth that was illuminated in the 1980s: that there is no religion that can save people from seeing evil and death in every day life. It is a fallacy to think that belief in God saves one from these experiences. This realization caused people to lose faith. McCarthy writes poignantly about religion being a presence in people’s lives, but not a solution to the pain and suffering of the world.

One of the biggest issues of the 1980s, by which No Country for Old Men is largely influenced, was the war on drugs. McCarthy had lived in El Paso, Texas, a city bordering Mexico, for years. El Paso’s neighboring city in Mexico is Ciudad Juárez, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world because of its location on the biggest drug route into North America. The slogan of the city is, “‘if Juárez is a city of God, that is because the devil is scared to come here’” (Cremean 78). Drug trafficking in Mexico began with its role as a heroine funnel into the United States for Columbian cartels. Soon, the drugs that were pouring into the country grew to be the top issue in America. The number of citizens who saw drug abuse as America’s most worrying problem increased from 2-6% in 1985 to 64% in 1989 (“A Brief History of the Drug War”). The government’s response was the Just Say No campaign, led mainly by First Lady Nancy Reagan. All throughout the 1980s, the campaign hired popular celebrities to back their ideology of zero tolerance for drug use in order to sway the mass public from encouraging cross-border drug trafficking. Though this had little effect on smuggling drugs into the country, it called attention to one of the greatest continuing issues of the last century. The drug war of the 80s is alluded to by McCarthy throughout Llewelyn’s journey. The central plot point occurs when Llewelyn stumbles upon a heroine deal between cartels that ended in a violent massacre. Pablo Acosta Villarreal, the most powerful drug lord of the Mexican-American borderlands during the 1980s, is referenced by McCarthy when some of the men chasing after Llewelyn are referred to as “Pablo’s men” (McCarthy No Country for Old Men, 141). McCarthy’s descriptions of gun battles in motels and in the streets of Mexico, with “dead bodies in the street. Citizens’ businesses all shot up”, sound like events from a fictional action movie (134). However, they were very real, and very likely occurrences of the 1980s borderlands. This particular topic may not be one subject to much criticism, because McCarthy portrayed it so accurately. That being said, it is a topic that many readers are loathe to revisit or learn about because it brings up the feeling of panic caused by drugs in America during the 80s.

Though Cormac McCarthy represents the zeitgeist of the early 2000s in his novels The Road and No Country for Old Men, he is an incredibly unique author. His writing style is often cited as being “Faulkner-esque”. William Faulkner is known for his blatant, methodical, and systematic descriptions that often shock readers by differing from common, sugar-coated literature. McCarthy follows this trend, allowing his uncomfortable topics to resonate at a deeper level in readers. He is also known for using little to no punctuation. He uses periods, capitals, and the occasional apostrophe or comma; there are no quotation marks included in any of his writings. McCarthy believes, “there’s no reason to blot the page with weird little marks” (McCarthy “Cormac McCarthy on James Joyce and Punctuation”). These things have often subjected McCarthy to criticism. Nevertheless, his depictions of the human condition, however uncomfortable and painful, precisely represent the early 2000s. Growing rates of violence, loss of faith, drug sales, and other societal issues have thus far characterized the new millennium. Though The Road and No Country for Old Men may have been arraigned by some, they accomplish McCarthy’s purpose of exposing the ugly, yet important, aspects of 21st century society to readers.

Works Cited

Adler, Jerry. “Kids Growing up Scared.” Newsweek. Newsweek, 9 Jan. 1994. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Blankethorn, David. Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.

“A Brief History of the Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance. Drug Policy Alliance, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Cheuse, Alan, prod. “McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.'” All Things Considered. NPR, 28 July 2005. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Coontz, Stephanie. “The American Family: Where We Are Today.” U.S. Society and Values 6.1 (2001): 13-16. PDF file.

Cooper, Alexia, and Erica L. Smith. Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008. Research rept. no. NCJ 236018. Bureau of Justice Statistics. N.p., Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.

Cremean, David N., ed. Cormac McCarthy. Ipswich: Salem, 2012. Print.

“Growing up Fast and Frightened.” Newsweek. Newsweek, 21 Nov. 1993. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Kirn, Walter. “‘No Country for Old Men’: Texas Noir.” New York Times. New York Times, 24 July 2005. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

“Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the ‘Nones.'” NPR. NPR, 13 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Maslin, Janet. “The Road through Hell, Paved with Desperation.” Rev. of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. New York Times [New York] 25 Sept. 2006, Books of the Times: n. pag. New York Times. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

McCarthy, Cormac. Cormac McCarthy on James Joyce and Punctuation. Interview by Oprah Winfrey. OPRAH.com. Harpo, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

– – -. “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy.” Interview by John Jurgensen. Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones, 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

– – -. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.

– – -. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.

Proulx, Annie. “Gunning for Trouble.” Rev. of No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. The Gaurdian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Oct. 2005. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Stetson, Brad. Human Dignity and Contemporary Liberalism. N.p.: Praeger, 1998. Google Books. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Works Consulted

Adler, Jerry. “Kids Growing up Scared.” Newsweek. Newsweek, 9 Jan. 1994. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Blankethorn, David. Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.

“A Brief History of the Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance. Drug Policy Alliance, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Cheuse, Alan, prod. “McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.'” All Things Considered. NPR, 28 July 2005. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

“The Columbian Cartels.” PBS. FRONTLINE, Entropy, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Congress. Congressional Research Service. Mexico’s Drug Cartels. By Colleen W. Cook. N.p.: n.p., 2007. PDF file.

Coontz, Stephanie. “The American Family: Where We Are Today.” U.S. Society and Values 6.1 (2001): 13-16. PDF file.

Cooper, Alexia, and Erica L. Smith. Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008. Research rept. no. NCJ 236018. Bureau of Justice Statistics. N.p., Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.

Cortazar, Maximiliano, et al. “Announcement on the Joint Operation Michoacan.” Mexico City. 11 Dec. 2006. Presidencia de la República. Sistema Internet de la Presidencia, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2016

Cremean, David N., ed. Cormac McCarthy. Ipswich: Salem, 2012. Print.

Goldman, Linda. “Facts about Children and Violence.” Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Helping Children with Complicated Grief – Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence and Abuse. 2nd ed. N.p.: Taylor and Francis, 2001. 62-64. Google Books. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Gootenberg, Paul. “Blowback: The Mexican Drug Crisis.” NACLA. NACLA, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

“Growing up Fast and Frightened.” Newsweek. Newsweek, 21 Nov. 1993. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

“Just Say No Campaign.” The Eighties in America. Ed. Milton Berman. Vol. 2. Hackensack: Salem, 2008. Print.

Kirn, Walter. “‘No Country for Old Men’: Texas Noir.” New York Times. New York Times, 24 July 2005. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

“Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the ‘Nones.'” NPR. NPR, 13 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Mallory, Stephen L. “Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations.” Understanding Organized Crime. 2nd ed. Sadbury: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2011. 68-85. Criminal Justice Illuminated. Google Books. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.

Marshall, Claire. “Gang Wars Plague Mexican Drugs Hub.” BBC News. N.p., 14 Aug. 2005. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.

Maslin, Janet. “The Road through Hell, Paved with Desperation.” Rev. of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. New York Times [New York] 25 Sept. 2006, Books of the Times: n. pag. New York Times. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

McCarthy, Cormac. Cormac McCarthy on James Joyce and Punctuation. Interview by Oprah Winfrey. OPRAH.com. Harpo, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

– – -. “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy.” Interview by John Jurgensen. Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones, 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. .

– – -. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.

– – -. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.

The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market. Washington DC: Violence Policy Center, 2011. PDF file.

Proulx, Annie. “Gunning for Trouble.” Rev. of No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. The Gaurdian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Oct. 2005. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

“Religion.” Gallup. Gallup, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Stetson, Brad. Human Dignity and Contemporary Liberalism. N.p.: Praeger, 1998. Google Books. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Winchell, Mark Royden. “Inner Dark: Or, the Place of Cormac McCarthy.” Southern Review Apr. 1990: n. pag. Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

The Significance of Violence in No Country for Old Men

The Significance of Violence in No Country for Old Men As is true with most of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, No Country for Old Men is replete with scenes of violence. This novel, which is set in the chaotic and lawless borderland between Texas and Mexico, opens with the murder of a police officer by a psychopath criminal named Anton Chigurh. A bloody and failed drug deal immediately follows. Although McCarthy’s descriptions of violence are numerous, the violence is not gratuitous. Rather, the scenes of violence serve literary purposes. Violence is used to create the menacing mood and dark setting of the novel, portray conflict between the novel’s characters, and represent a changing world where evil threatens to destroy mankind’s virtue and goodness.

Cormac McCarthy creates the novel’s ominous mood and setting through his frequent use of violence. Texas, where the novel takes place, is historically known as the Wild West. Before Texas became a state, justice was administered by cowboys rather than courts. Similarly, the contemporary setting in which the novel takes place is also one of lawlessness but in a more modern sense. Drug dealers roam and the violence that often comes with illegal drug trading is always threatening. There is a hopeless, primitive feeling of a vast, barren land where men hunt each other. Early in the novel, the character of Llewellyn Moss is hunting deer when he stumbles upon a horrific scene of carnage where a drug deal had clearly been thwarted. Men and dogs are shot dead, cars are bullet ridden and there is blood everywhere. Moss finds a suitcase of money which he takes. The next day, drug dealers hunt him down. After a fiery gun battle and chase scene, Moss escapes. McCarthy’s early descriptions of the empty landscape contribute to a sinister mood and foreshadow violence: “Where he crested out the country lay dead flat, stretching away to the south and to the east. Red dirt and creosote. Mountains in the far and middle distance. Nothing out there. Heatshimmer.” (pg. 26-27) This vast and ominously barren landscape provides the perfect stage upon which violence will erupt. There are no boundaries and there are no rules.

Other acts of violence are described early on by Sherriff Ed Tom Bell, which contribute to a mood and setting of a violent community. Sheriff Bell’s first person narration, which precedes each chapter, reflects on the increase and nature of violent crime and describes acts directed at him. Just one example of Bell’s concern about escalating violence is demonstrated in his statement that “ the old boy opened up on me twice more and shot all the glass out of one side of the cruiser…point being you don’t know what all you’re stopping when you do stop somebody… you don’t know what you’re liable to find.”(pg.39) This is a country where the rules are not clearly defined and violence, as well as the threat of violence, are ever present. Violence propels the story forward and brings the main characters into conflict with each other. The novel is essentially a terrifying series of violent acts in which Anton Chigurh hunts and kills, at times for no clear purpose. The pivotal hunt of the novel is for Chigurh to retrieve the money Moss took and to also exact revenge “just for having inconvenienced him.” (pg.150) Chigurh would never be satisfied with only the money’s return. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell foreshadows Chigurh’s capacity for violence when he states early on, “somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him.” (pg.4) This description of Chigurh makes clear that his violence towards others will be unrelenting. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell escapes that dangerous and deadly confrontation with Chigurh but sadly, Moss does not. Another character whose murder advances the final showdown between Chigurh and Moss is Carson Wells. Knowing that Chigurh is about to kill him, Wells states “just do it. You goddamned psychopath. Do it and goddam you to hell… Everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him.” (pg.178) Because Chigurh has killed Wells, he is now one step closer to his primary objective of killing Moss. This violent showdown to come between the two main characters, Moss and Chigurh, represents the novel’s exploration of good versus evil.

McCarthy intends conflict between characters to mirror the struggle of good versus evil in mankind and the changing world. The older traditional world and the goodness of mankind are represented in Sheriff Bell. In fact, Sheriff Bell is arguably one of the “Old Men” referred to in the novel’s title. He is also the narrator for ongoing reflections about the evil nature of man and how both man’s nature and morality are changing for the worse. Sheriff Bell is preoccupied with acts of violence that he feels are corrupting society. His concern is evident in his statement that “because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m getting old…Nobody that can’t tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got.” (pg. 196) The sheriff uses an act of violence such as rape and murder and compares it to something as harmless as chewing gum. He does not do this to imply that he believes they are equally as bad, but to convey that crimes such as rape and murder are becoming in a sense accepted or normal. The sheriff also reflects back on articles he has read in the newspaper to express his thoughts on how society has changed: “ It keeps getting harder… here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor… my wife won’t read the papers no more.” (pg. 40) It is clear that Sheriff Bell is disturbed and unable to process these changing times.

McCarthy’s reliance on violence in No Country for Old Men creates an unforgettable morality tale. Although the horrific violence appears excessive and unnecessary at times, its frequent use advances the novel’s plot and is central to its themes of good versus evil and the rapidly changing world. Man’s progression towards evil and the changing world and values which seem confusing and inevitable to the old guard are underscored by the many violent events throughout the novel.

A Transactional Analysis of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

Every text represents an experience that both the author and the reader jointly construct; the author writes the details, drawing from empirical influence, and the reader filters those details through his or her own experience. When the reader is the intended reader, the author’s most manipulative ability apropos of writing can greatly shape the reader’s perception, though. McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, features his prowess in maintaining control of the reader’s perception and guiding it toward a particular, dismal comprehension of the reality of American civilization.

In order to adequately position my assessment of this novel, especially for reader-response criticism, it is incumbent upon me to concede that I watched the film adaptation of the novel several times before reading the text itself. The film, therefore, played a significant role in shaping my perception of events in the book, especially because many scenes in the film are almost direct adaptations of their corresponding scenes in the book. Part of my argument involves the notion that the book itself—its narration, its imagery, its description, the pacing of its plot—strikes me as being very cinematic. As such, it is important to note that some measure of that perception is indubitably resultant of having viewed the film prior to reading the novel.

That said, the text operates on a balance that privileges show over tell, giving the reader a walkthrough of the plot that is cinematic even in comparison to many other contemporary works in American literature. The syntax occupies what I may have simply dubbed a southern vernacular were it not for the contextual specificity I gleaned from the film, but with very little time at all, the book does establish (after strongly suggesting) that the story is a work of border fiction, a subgenre often attributed to multiple different genres including modernism and postmodernism due to their contemporariness.

The text both provides the requisite materials and establishes the necessary boundaries to create the reading, (i.e. the experience), and in so doing, “It creates for itself an implied reader and uses certain structures to predispose the actual reader, who brings his own unique set of experiences to the act of reading the text, to respond as the implied one” (Dobie 140). In other words, there is a type of reader for whom the work is intended, and that reader is familiar with the drug trafficking that occurs between the United States of America and the United Mexican States. Many North Americans are quite cognizant of the fact that the southern border of the United States is fraught with drug trafficking, drug wars, and even guerilla warfare; all of which sustains a drug economy for which neither country officially accounts. The relevance of the text’s cinematic read stems from the fact that the aforementioned materials it provides and boundaries it establishes come to fruition by way of this cinematic narration. The scenes move quickly, and the narration is thorough in its descriptions despite only describing select things. The story expects that the reader is one who can extrapolate with minimal prompt and only the bare essentials certain key concepts that trigger understandings of what is occurring. For example, when Llewelyn Moss happens upon what remains of a drug deal gone wrong, very little is said. Dialogue is sparse, and every observation Llewelyn makes is important for the reader to understand what is being seen.

McCarthy manipulates the reader in a variety of subtle ways, playing on the empirical knowledge he expects of the reader, which he knows will lend the reader to make certain assumptions that drive the plot themselves. When Llewelyn reaches the site of the botched drug deal, he finds holes in all the cars, several dead Mexicans, and two dead dogs. The surface details are important, and the reader is expected to recognize that a shootout occurred. Analyzing more closely, though, one Mexican is still alive, and this leads the reader to surmise prior to seeing any drugs that the conflict is fresh. The narration also never enters characters’ minds, so the reader is responsible for understanding what characters are thinking based on their words, actions, and behaviors only. Llewelyn finds the drugs and inquires about an “última hombre,” a survivor whom he knows must have taken the money. It is from the question and Llewelyn’s subsequent actions that the reader is to surmise that he intends to find the money, which marks a critically tragic decision on Llewelyn’s part.

The antagonist, Anton Chigurh, is an excellent character to observe for the analysis of how McCarthy manipulates the reader into understanding what he is trying to convey. Chigurh is a complex character with a code of ethics that one might say borders on insanity, and his sociopathic nature is much harder to communicate to the reader implicitly than explicitly. It would be easier for the writer to simply compose discursive paragraphs dedicated to the in-depth analysis of the character so that the reader can understand the character properly, but McCarthy elects only to show the character through exchanges with others and interactions with the world around him.

The implied reader is not just someone familiar with problematic, North American drug policies but also with the grim perspective that North American society is rife with sociopaths and generally senseless violence, making it no country for old men. Chigurh is first seen strangling a police officer to death after having been arrested and booked. He takes the police cruiser, pulls someone else over, kills him, and takes a new car. These are crimes that can be rationalized, but Chigurh is subsequently seen throughout several scenes in the book as being completely irrational, which challenges the idea of what constitutes rationality in the first place—a challenge literary modernism often makes.

One scene depicts a conversation between Chigurh and a gas station manager. Chigurh is hostile toward him in ways that do not advance any particular agenda, and he deliberately takes an argumentative response to everything the manager says. Finally, he tosses a coin and forces the manager to call heads or tails. He never explicitly threatens the man’s life, yet the reader is expected to understand that the man’s life is at stake. Though Chigurh does tell him that he stands to win everything and that he has been putting it up all his life without knowing it, it is worth considering that American culture may simply be so susceptible to the idea of losing everything on a coin toss that McCarthy could simply let these lines speak for themselves and allow the reader to draw the right conclusions from there. Capitalism, after all, engenders the attitude that privileges boldness and the ability to take risks because of its promises of the potential for upward mobility and the so-called pursuit of happiness, so it makes sense to an American that risks be taken, that every opportunity be seized, and that there is always an omnipresent possibility that one might lose everything as a result. In tandem with pop culture’s many depictions of coin tosses making very serious decisions (e.g. DC Comic’s villain, Two Face), it is likely that the implied reader is highly susceptible to this manipulation.

Later in the novel, Carson Wells tells Chigurh that he is crazy, and Chigurh asks for clarification, thinking that Carson means that the conversation is crazy. At the end of the novel when Chigurh prepares to kill Carla Jean, she refuses to call heads or tails for her coin toss, explaining that the coin is not the authority and that, rather, Chigurh is making the decisions, which she asserts on the basis that only a rational creature (i.e. a human-being, not a coin) can even attempt to exact fate. Chigurh responds, though, that he reached her the same way the coin did, a point that implies a status for self that is equivalent to that of an inanimate object. The reader is constantly given one opportunity after another to observe Chigurh as being the kind of criminal of which one cannot make heads or tails; all of which makes it easy for the reader to consider society as being unpredictably, senselessly dismal and savage.

A broader element that McCarthy uses to manipulate the reader is the separation of the story into pieces. The frame of the story is much different from what is considered conventional in American literature prior to the emergence of literary modernism. Three strands of the narration center on Sheriff Bell, Chigurh, and Llewelyn, respectively. Each can truly be argued to be a protagonist of sorts, even Chigurh. The fragmentation of the narration creates these pieces that are not independently coherent but interdependently form a cohesive work by commenting on one another. This is why the three characters follow a train of experiences in series. For instance, Llewelyn sees the crime scene first and makes a pivotal decision based on what he observes; thereafter, Chigurh sees the same scene and decides to pursue Llewelyn. Finally, Sheriff Bell also observes the scene. In parallel, the same can be said of Llewelyn’s couch in his trailer where each of them sits. When Bell sits there, Wendel asks him if he thinks Llewelyn has any idea what’s coming for him—alluding to his fate. Bell answers, “He ought to. He seen the same things I seen and it made a impression on me” (McCarthy 115). Several complex ideas coalesce in this statement, but one is that, on one hand, there is nothing new under the sun; however, people commonly say, “you learn something new every day.” The paradox is that one never sees fate coming for oneself despite knowing and even recognizing it for others as a universal truth—the fact that death befalls all.

Ultimately, McCarthy uses exceptional narrative techniques to manipulate the implied reader into understanding what occurs, but more deeply, he uses them to manipulate the reader into accepting a very dismal perception of reality. This perception is neither without merit nor without precedent as literary realism, a common attribute of modernism, often lends itself toward these notions; moreover, the unresolved ending is a modernistic means to bolster those same points.

Works Cited

Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2015. Print. McCarthy, Cormack. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Ebook.

Where Money Falls Short: “No Country for Old Men”

Money is arguably one of the oldest social conventions still utilized in the world, constantly expanding its influence on mankind. Money once bought forgiveness and respect; today, one can purchase influence in government and even extend life with the right amount of money. Although seemingly evil, money—like any technology—is not inherently morally wrong. In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy uses the motif of money to elucidate the problems common to all human inventions and, in a sense, responds to John Paul II’s questioning of mankind’s fear of its own work. McCarthy asserts that money—along with all other technology—separates man from the direct results of his actions and shields him from emotional involvement in situations, allowing him to enter into morally compromising positions without being fully conscious of doing so. Man fears this of money unknown consequence and its implications above all else.

In No Country for Old Men, money serves as a justification of wrongdoing in, as money—whether received or given—distances characters from the results of their actions. Llewelyn Moss continually pays people off—taxi drivers, innocent bystanders, motel owners—in order to protect himself. Though this strategy stems from a desire to survive, the people’s acceptance of the money has a more subtle meaning. In almost every instance, the recipients of the money initially refuse to get involved (McCarthy, 48). Although they recognize that Moss is asking them to do something wrong, their greed eventually overtakes them. This pattern of behavior demonstrates cognitive dissonance: the people know that they are abetting Moss, yet they still go along with what Moss says. Money, in this case, enables the characters to clear their consciences. They convince themselves of their ignorance and only do the jobs Moss pays them to do. McCarthy presents Carson Wells in a similar manner. Wells is an amiable character, one who probably considers himself a man with both good and bad attributes. Although he kills people for a living, he tries to help Moss and stop Chigurh. He seems to separate his identity from his line of work, and the reason he kills appears to be solely that clients pay him to do so. This manner of thinking allows Wells and the other characters to detach themselves from the situation: they did not cause dire events, but simply allowed such violence to happen. Such an approach also, however, entangles them in the situation without their realizing it, often leading to their demise.

Apathy consequently follows this detachment from reality. As seen in Moss’ coldness when the Mexican is dying of thirst, the group of boys’ indifferent acceptance of Moss’ blood-soaked money, and the teenager’s lack of remorse when Chigurh gets away, money draws attention away from the humanity of situations. Technology, then, lowers the expectations humans have for each other. Just as a farmer is not expected to manually plow his land if he has a tractor to do so, Moss does not expect anyone to freely offer help unless he has money to pay for it. In fact, when a bleeding and helpless Moss (in a position that theoretically would evoke some level of sympathy) asks a Mexican man to help him get to the hospital, the man does not agree until he is paid. Though difficult to admit, compassion for strangers has seemingly faded away, replaced with an apathetic sense of entitlement. That technology elicits this negative behavior is seldom discussed, however. Acknowledging that technology is imperfect admits man’s flaws and vulnerability, thus placing man in a position of weakness. Moss refuses to accept that the repercussions of taking the money are more than he can handle, and this denial ultimately causes not only his own death but also the death of the hitchhiker he helps and of his wife as well (90). Mankind, by nature, aims to minimize weakness, as it puts control into the hands of others. Man fears what he cannot control, but in this case, what he cannot control is a consequence of what he himself has made.

McCarthy uses the setting of a drug war to highlight aspects of mankind that appear in everyone, including the fear of man’s own creation. Oddly, none of the characters who assist Moss are given considerable physical descriptions. These faceless characters represent the common man, and they do what anyone would do under similar circumstances: they mind their business and do what they were told. The technology used in the book, namely money, should make it easier for man to act, but instead it enables the “tendencies of his own will” to remain passive (Redemptor Hominis, 15). Man’s fear of his creations stems from the fact that one can know the right thing to do but still not act, or even more troubling, know the correct action but not care enough to perform it. This internal conflict creates a moral dilemma rampant in society. Because of this, McCarthy invents a blatantly terrible situation to shed light on a more insidious threat to our culture: our own inventions.