No Country for Old Men | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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No Country for Old Men | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

Bell wonders whether law enforcement is more dangerous now. He recalls being shot at in his patrol car. The shooter was never caught. Bell says he reads the papers every morning. He then considers compulsive killers and wonders how rare they are.

Section 2

A deputy named Torbert calls Bell—he has found the abandoned patrol car. Bell advises Torbert to look in the trunk, where he finds a dead man in it. Bell and his deputy, Wendell, go to meet Torbert. The dead man is the driver Chigurh had pulled over; later he is identified as Bill Wyrick. He has a hole in his forehead from the bolt pistol. Bell and Wendell drive back to the courthouse. Lamar, the sheriff whose deputy was strangled, confers with Bell. The killer must be "a damned lunatic," says Lamar. He wants to quit law enforcement, but Bell counsels him to stay.

Section 3

A bus drops Moss off near his trailer in Sanderson, Texas. It is Sunday night. His wife, Carla Jean, asks about his injuries, but he says little. He tells her they must pack and leave immediately. She is to go to her mother in Odessa, Texas, and wait for him to call. Carla resists but eventually gives in.

Section 4

Out on the highway, Chigurh menaces a gas station owner. He forces the man to bet on a coin toss, without telling him what the stakes are. The man wins; Chigurh does not shoot him with the bolt pistol. In the town of Dryden, Chigurh meets with two co-conspirators. They examine Moss's truck; its plates are gone and its tires are slashed. They remove the car's inspection tag so they can identify Moss on Monday. Together they drive to the murder scene in the desert. Without warning Chigurh executes them using a pistol rather than the stun gun. He drives away.

Analysis

Bell sometimes says things are getting worse and people now commit crimes they did not used to. In this chapter, he hesitates to state those things as a certainty. He notes people used to sometimes challenge him to a fistfight, and later he was shot at, but he is reluctant to make a sweeping statement that people are devolving morally. Nonetheless, some conduct baffles him, such as the pair of serial killers he reads about, or a case of infanticide.

Bell is intelligent; this shows in his advice to Torbert on the phone. Bell can deduce the killer's moves, and he can predict Torbert would be witless enough to leave the trunk open so passersby might see the body. From looking at the scene in Sonora, Bell suspects how evil Chigurh is; he tells Lamar he has a feeling "we're lookin at something we really aint never even seen before." So he tries to get Lamar to stay: "I think we're going to need all of you we can get."

The spelling of aint without an apostrophe gives Bell's dialog the flavor of a Texas accent. There is no difference in the pronunciation of ain't and aint, but the nonstandard spelling suggests a plain, country way of talking. Phonetic spellings would be a clumsy way to represent Texas speech; if the pronoun "I" had to spelled "Ah" every time, the page would soon look unreadable. Instead McCarthy drops some apostrophes, and he relies on the style of the character's sentences to suggest their accent.

Looking at the corpse of Wyrick, Torbert remarks, "I might be one myself someday." He doesn't mean he might be murdered, although that is a logical possibility. He means he will surely die someday, but he phrases the idea comically as the thought he "might" die, as though he could have any other fate than death. In part, this is another example of McCarthy's way of representing Texan speech; the characters have a flair for comic understatement. (To understate means to present something as lesser than it really is, sometimes for comic effect.) Torbert's understatement is also an example of verbal irony; he says one thing (he might die someday) in order to mean another (he will surely die someday). Torbert's remark also foreshadows the gas station owner's encounter with Chigurh and the fateful coin toss.

Chigurh is usually practical; he kills Wyrick in a manner that avoids getting blood on the car, for example. However, he toys with the gas station owner, like a cat with a mouse. This encounter gives readers the chance to learn about Chigurh's philosophy.

When Chigurh flips the coin, he believes he acts as an agent of fate. Fate, Chigurh believes, has set the victim in his path. All Chigurh does is follow through, like fate's servant. "I cant call it for you," Chigurh tells the man; "It wouldnt be fair," he adds, suggesting his proceedings are otherwise fair. Fatalism is the philosophy that people are not free to do just anything at all; they can do only what they are fated to do. In some versions of fatalism, neurochemistry, genealogy, and other material forces determine people's actions. In other versions of fatalism, the existence of an all-knowing God means everything is plotted out in advance.

Chigurh's own philosophy emphasizes his victims' free will, up to a point. They make choices, and the consequences of those choices lead them to Chigurh; at that point they are like cattle in the chute at the slaughterhouse. His victims are free right up until they're not. By the time their life hangs upon a coin toss, their choices have shrunk to almost nothing, in Chigurh's view. They are pawns of a fate Chigurh administers.

Chigurh tells the gas station owner the coin has been traveling 22 years to reach him. In saying this, Chigurh implies the man has been traveling 22 years to meet Chigurh, as if the encounter were fated. This is true only retroactively, after a brush with lethal violence; looking back, fate can appear to have pulled all the strings. While people live, they are free. But at their deaths, their freedom is over and everything about them is known. They have done all they were ever going to do (on this earth, at least). From the perspective of a completed life story, fate appears to have held all the cards. In No Country for Old Men, lethal violence brings fate into focus.

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