Themes in “Child of God” by Cormac McCarthy Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Aug 17th, 2020


Cormac McCarthy is one of the most talented and outstanding writers of the present times. While he is known as a commercial success and canonical literary figure, some of his books did not generate financial benefit (Frye 175). Child of God is one of such works, although it was complemented by critics. The third McCarthy’s novel was published in 1973. The author addresses a wide range of topics with a pinpoint accuracy: he does not hide or soften the appalling events and exposes interest in the utmost circumstances that influence a person and gradually make them what they are.

The purpose of the present paper is to analyze the novel from several points of view. After a short summary, the main themes represented in the novel from different angles are described, namely cruelty, isolation, and victimization. Later on, the linguistic and stylistic techniques that help the author convey his conception are examined. Finally, the conclusion is made.

Plot Overview

The plot is based on a real murder case in Tennessee (Frye 63). The author describes the story of Lester Ballard in three sections in which the protagonist descends from a man deprived of his family farm to a dehumanized murderer and necrophile. In the first part of the book, Lester’s property is auctioned off: his attempts to stop it fail, and he receives a severe blow that probably worsens his mental state. Since that time, he has to live in an abandoned cabin and survive by means of hunting or theft. He roams around the neighborhood and awkwardly seeks human warmth. Sometimes, the plot is interrupted by community people’s voices. From their words, a reader learns Lester’s past: his mother abandoned her family, and father hanged himself. After that, the boy “never was right” (McCarthy 21). Ballard is wrongfully accused of raping a whore he met one morning. As the story progresses, he becomes more and more frustrated and mad.

The second section depicts the event that triggers the protagonist’s insanity: Lester finds a dead couple on Frog Mountain and takes the girl’s body to his dwelling. However, he loses his “first love” when his efforts to get warm and thaw the body accidentally cause a fire. He has to become a cave-dweller: this transfer is not only the consequence of the fire but also the symbol of the main character’s moral deterioration and blindness. Lester’s rage embodies in his intention to kill Greer, the person who purchased his land. Another Ballard’s occupation is to murder couples to provide himself with fresh bodies. It is the second section where Lester’s moral degradation is pictured most strikingly.

The third part of the book deals with the investigation of the murders. Sheriff Fate Turner collects evidence. Obviously, Lester’s crimes are to be detected. Despite occasional moments of sanity, he has lost himself. He tries and fails to kill Greer who, in his turn, injures Ballad. The protagonist wakes up in a hospital with his arm amputated. A mob makes him show where the dead bodies are hidden, but Ballad fraudulently takes them to the cave and escapes. He wanders for five days and finally comes to the hospital. Lester dies in incarceration, and students dissect his body.

Main themes

The core themes of the novel are intertwined with the author’s reflection on the relationship between a person and the surrounding society. Cruelty, isolation, and victimization form the framework on which more topics – mercy, love, crime, punishment, responsibility – are raised.


In general, McCarthy’s fiction contains many forms of cruelty and deviation from more common examples to the most extravagant ones (Frye 79). Child of God is not an exception. The theme of cruelty is primarily expressed through the extended comparison of two concepts: innocence and cruelty.

Defining the American ideal, one may state that one of the biggest problems is its ambiguity. In general terms, it is possible to regard innocence as the inability to accept evil, such as murder. However, the existence may bring the opposite results: vigorous fighters might commit crimes in the name of innocence. Naturally, the community people wish to protect themselves and avoid Lester. They do not accept violence, but at the same time turn to it when they treat Ballad the way they do. The protagonist suffers from everyone’s cruelty and immediately reacts to it with the relapsing violence.

As for Lester’s innocence and cruelty, they are the dire consequence of the society’s duality. The character is a picture of savagery and primitivism. In this context, the comparison with Adam is illustrative: “I’ll say one thing about Lester though. You can trace em back to Adam if you want and goddamn if he didn’t outstrip em all” (McCarthy 81). In other words, Lester personifies the innocence coupled with wildness similar to the innocence of the prehistoric times.

Actually, neither mercy nor true love is connected with the types of innocence pictured by the author. In this environment, there is no place for mercifulness. As it is shown, cruelty is the inevitable product of innocence.


It is Lester’s isolation that becomes the root of all evil. It began early in his childhood when they boy saw his father’s body and suffered from psychological trauma. There was nobody to help Lester. Due to this, he did not develop traits common for ordinary people and remained an innocent child of nature who follows instincts.

McCarthy portraits two types of isolation: firstly, Lester is excluded from the society but remains with it, and then, he is insulated physically and mentally. At the beginning of the novel, Lester lives next to people but does not seem to belong to them. He is simply rejected by everyone even in church where miserable souls are supposed to receive peace and love. Nevertheless, he needs attention and connection just as any person. Under the circumstances, this need is perverted when Lester starts living in a cabin.

The natural desire to make bonds with people is encapsulated in the distorted form of contacts with dead bodies. It may be assumed that Lester who did not feel motherly love yearns for women’s acknowledgment only to compensate his loneliness but does it in a twisted way because of his mental illness. No woman ever showed Lester that he was significant. Even the meeting with a whore, when Lester demonstrates a sort of compassion asking if she is cold, ends up in the police station. As a result, he is afraid of rejection and deals with dead people with whom he allegedly gains control: he can dress the girl’s body, talk to it, or rape. When Lester lies next to the body under the same blanket, he wants to be intimate with a woman.

To summarize, isolation causes the inability to distinguish between right and wrong. Being alone, Lester has no moral guideline and blindly obeys natural impulses.


Being a victim and committing crimes against innocent persons become two sides of the same coin in the novel. As the natural inclination to cruelty is backed with the circumstances, such as isolation and impossibility to come into contact with people, one may turn into a victim who victimizes other individuals. That is what happens to Lester Ballad.

While the dysfunctional family is the matter out of control, community people’s rejection becomes the key form of victimizing. It is the turning point in Ballad’s life. The combination of objective and subjective factors is pressing for him. It is not surprising that he breaks down mentally and starts committing crimes. Taking into account all pain and torments he went through in his childhood and adolescence, one can see that the protagonist is a victim.

Lester’s status of a victim should not, however, prevent a reader from condemning the aggressive actions. It is the actions that should be disapproved. The person who did something without realizing is not to be hated. Apparently, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Lester murders a number of people, even though the first victim was Ballad himself. In fact, he only mimics the behavior of people he watches. At the fair, he sees a grown man who childishly cheats in a simple game. He is a mirror in which the world and its immoral actions, minor and major, are reflected.

What the protagonist deserves in this situation is to be put into prison. However, he should receive appropriate mental help. Without the external assistance, one cannot improve one’s mental state. He does not know there is something wrong with him. He may be considered a dangerous child who has no idea what his actions are. Thus, the community that took no notice of Ballad and let this turn of events happen should care about him.

Language and Style

McCarthy combines different narrative voices that constitute a complexity and at the same time create the polyphonic effect. He skips from a distant third-person narrator to intrusive narration: descriptive style is followed by the direct address to readers, for instance, the presumption that Lester is “a child of God much like yourself perhaps” (McCarthy 4).

What arrests attention is the nonuse of literary standards: for example, quotation marks are not present. Overall, the language contains colloquial and poetic elements. It is spare yet amazingly expressive. Blue and black colors prevail: they create a gloomy atmosphere close to what fills Lester’s mind and help reflect the real events: “In the black smokehole overhead the remote and lidless stars of the Pleiades burned cold and absolute” (McCarthy 133). A reader can understand that stars symbolize Ballad’s victims.


To sum up, Child of God is McCarthy’s masterpiece that sheds light on the darkest side of human souls. The author explores the most complicated processes that take place if a mentally exhausted person is abandoned and pays attention to what extent society influences such people. Cruelty, isolation, and victimization become the most significant themes of the novel. By means of the poetic and simultaneously laconic language, the author creates a devastating and striking book.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

Frye, Steven. The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy. Bakersfield: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

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