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.
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