No Country for Old Men | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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No Country for Old Men | Chapter 1 | Summary

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McCarthy divided 12 of the novel's 13 chapters into unnumbered sections, usually two or three per chapter. The first section is always Bell's first-person, present-tense narration; it is set apart because its perspective on time is different. Bell is looking back at the events after they are over. The chapter summaries use numbers to refer to these sections.

Summary

Section 1

As in the other chapters, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell narrates the first section in the first person present tense, following the events of the novel. He reflects on his career as the sheriff of Terrell County, in southwest Texas on the border with Mexico. He recalls an emotionless young man he once arrested, who received the death penalty. The man's lack of remorse puzzled Bell. He has decided to retire, but not because of that young man or others like him. He says he encountered someone worse, "a true and living prophet of destruction." He would rather quit than cross paths with that man again. To face down an ordinary criminal, a man has to risk his life, says Bell; to face this other type, "a man would have to put his soul at hazard."

Section 2

Deputy Haskins in Sonora, Texas, has Anton Chigurh in custody in the sheriff's office. (This is not Bell's sheriff's office, which is in Sanderson.) The deputy says on the phone that he picked up Chigurh wearing an air tank to power "one of them stunguns like they use in slaughterhouses." Chigurh's hands are cuffed behind him, but he uses a practiced move to get his hands in front. He throttles the deputy and escapes in a patrol car. He stops a driver on the highway; he shoots the driver with his bolt pistol and steals his car.

Section 3

On a Saturday, Llewelyn Moss hunts antelope in the Texas desert. A wounded dog trots past him. Through binoculars, Moss sees three trucks parked a mile away. He hikes there, where he finds four dead men and a dead dog, all shot. In one truck, he finds a wounded man. There is heroin in the truck. In Spanish, the man pleads for water; Moss tells him he has none. The man then asks Moss to close the door, saying there are wolves out there. Moss closes the door for him. He then searches the wider area, convinced he will find "the last man standing." He finds instead a dead man and a briefcase full of money. He takes the briefcase and a machinepistol. He hikes back to his truck and drives home.

At home in his trailer Moss does not say much to his wife, Carla Jean, about where he has been, but he tells her the briefcase is full of money. In a back bedroom he opens the briefcase; he calculates it contains 2.4 million dollars. Moss and Carla Jean go to sleep, but Moss wakes up at 1 a.m. and dresses to leave again. He tells Carla Jean he might not return. He drives back to the desert to bring water to the wounded man.

Moss discovers the wounded man has been executed. He recalls what the man had said about "wolves." Moss looks back and sees someone standing next to his own parked truck. Moss flees on foot; he is wounded with buckshot in his arm and leg. He reaches the river and escapes. He begins walking to Langtry, Texas, 30 miles away. He estimates it will take him 10 or 12 hours.

Analysis

In this chapter the story is approached from three perspectives. Bell narrates in the present tense, looking back on the whole story after its conclusion. The narrative then switches to third person and past tense, focusing initially on Chigurh's escape from police custody. Then, the past-tense narrative focuses on Moss finding and stealing the drug money. Each character is depicted as his most characteristic self: Bell, rueful and contemplative; Chigurh, relentless and cold-blooded; Moss, impulsive to the point of self-destructiveness. This chapter also shows how they function in the story. Bell has an overview, as witness to the violence; Chigurh does not just react to Moss but has his own plans; and Moss foresees trouble, but he yields to his impulses anyway.

Although Bell will continue to complain about worsening crime in later chapters, his real reason for retiring is Chigurh, the "prophet of destruction." Chigurh is different from other criminals Bell has seen—not just worse, but radically evil. If he is a "prophet," that means he has a message about the future. Thus there will be worse to come after Chigurh.

The first time readers see Chigurh, he is escaping arrest. Often the dramatic tension in a thriller comes from wondering when the culprit be caught. This chapter demonstrates capturing Chigurh won't stop him. He is determined: he escapes although the handcuffs bite into his wrists. And he is ruthless: he doesn't just strangle the deputy, he severs an artery in the deputy's neck with his handcuffs.

With Bill Wyrick, he uses his signature execution method, the bolt pistol or "stun gun." This type of pistol is also known as a "captive bolt pistol," because the bolt that hammers into the object is retained in the gun, rather than ejected like a bullet. It is used on cattle, so the bolt pistol emphasizes Chigurh's difference from other humans. There is a gap between him and ordinary men and women, like the gap between humans and animals. The bolt pistol also emphasizes Chigurh's role as a prophet. When he shoots the man in the forehead, the narrator compares the gesture to a faith healer's. The bolt pistol does not mean humans are animals; the bolt pistol highlights Chigurh's belief that most people understand their fates as little as cows in a chute at the slaughterhouse. In reality, Chigurh hunts his victims down, but in Chigurh's mind they come to him, like cows to the killing floor.

The third-person narration in No Country for Old Men is the kind sometimes called "close third person" or "limited third person": the narrator notices what Moss notices. Moss pays a lot of attention to his hunting equipment. Thus the narrator notes Moss carries "a heavybarreled .270 on a '98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut." In Chapter 11, readers learn Moss was a sniper in Vietnam. Clearly he is a good shot and has brought good equipment to the hunt. But something goes wrong; chance intervenes. Moss shoots at an antelope nearly a mile away and only wounds it. Hiking in search of the wounded antelope, Moss comes upon the wounded dog, first sign of the desert shoot-out Moss will stumble on.

Moss's relationship with Carla Jean is affectionate but hardly equal. He won't answer many of her questions; when she asks where he got the pistol, he answers, "at the getting place." His evasiveness might be designed to protect her, but his choice of stealing the money has already endangered Carla Jean.

Although chance plays a role, Moss also makes several fateful choices. He steals the money, knowing full well its owner will pursue him. And he returns to the scene of the shoot-out, supposedly to give the wounded man a drink. The wounded man had feared wolves; for some readers the wolf may call to mind the Latin proverb "homo homini lupus," man is a wolf to man. The saying is deeply pessimistic; it means humans treat each other like prey, dealing out violent death. Like Chigurh, Moss is also attuned to destruction.

Why does Moss leave the safety of his trailer and his wife, and return to the scene of the shoot-out? No doubt Moss's decision ratchets up the tension, as in a slasher film in which the young woman, feeling afraid, goes upstairs in the creepy house. It is important for Moss to willingly call down trouble on his own head, to show how chance and will are knotted together in fate. But another reason may be that the shoot-out situation reminds Moss of Vietnam. When Moss is studying how to flee the scene, the narrator says, "He'd had this feeling before. In another country. He never thought he'd have it again." Perhaps just as for Chigurh, the risk of violent death brings Moss's wager into clear focus. He can see what he is betting his life on.

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