Course Hero. "No Country for Old Men Study Guide." Course Hero. 24 May 2017. Web. 21 Jan. 2019. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/No-Country-for-Old-Men/>.
Course Hero. (2017, May 24). No Country for Old Men Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved January 21, 2019, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/No-Country-for-Old-Men/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "No Country for Old Men Study Guide." May 24, 2017. Accessed January 21, 2019. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/No-Country-for-Old-Men/.
Course Hero, "No Country for Old Men Study Guide," May 24, 2017, accessed January 21, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/No-Country-for-Old-Men/.
Fate is the notion that everything happens according to a plan. Chance is the opposite of fate: things just happen. Those who believe in luck recognize chance operates in the world, but they believe something can sway chance in the direction of good luck or bad luck. If fate is in charge, things could not happen otherwise. If chance rules the world, there is no telling what will happen. If chance is viewed as good luck or bad luck, then something or someone is in control of chance, handing out good and bad luck. With the themes of fate, chance, and luck, No Country for Old Men shows how difficult it is for people to know what controls their destiny, if anything.
When the sheriff of Eagle Pass investigates the shoot-out at the Hotel Eagle, he makes a witty and profound remark about luck. Looking at a dead night clerk, he says the man has had "About as bad a piece of luck as you could have ... Caught a stray round." When Ed Tom Bell asks where the stray bullet hit the night clerk, the other sheriff says, "Right between the eyes." From one perspective, being shot square in the forehead has nothing to do with chance (or bad luck); Anton Chigurh took careful aim and he meant to kill the night clerk. From another perspective, getting killed that night was a matter of chance; the night clerk was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The idea of luck is the least coherent of the three. Fate means events all unfold according to plan; chance means there is no plan. A belief in luck tries to split the difference, as though some higher plan were assigning fortunate chances (good luck) to those who are owed something, and unfortunate chances to those who've been bad. Llewelyn Moss recognizes this belief in luck can be a kind of self-deception. When the hitchhiking girl says she is due for some good luck, Moss gives her a harsh answer: "[O]ne thing ... you dont look like it's a bunch of good luck walking around." She is right to tell Moss his remark is "hateful," but Moss is not wrong; a hitchhiking minor is not set up to have good things happen. When Moss hides the briefcase of money under the bed in his trailer, he scolds himself: "You have to take this seriously ... You cant treat it like luck." To treat the money like luck would mean to pretend it has no consequences and Moss had no part in its arrival at the trailer. If he treats it seriously, Moss will recognize the theft as something he did on purpose, something with consequences for himself and his wife, Carla Jean.
In No Country for Old Men, the theme of justice is explored as something missing from the world. Lives take an unjust course; people are not compensated for the misfortunes that befall them, and those who do evil escape justice. Ed Tom Bell's relative Harold did not live to see 18, and the woman who raised him, his Aunt Carolyn, did not receive his pension or a Gold Star medal, because she was not his mother. When justice is served in No Country for Old Men, it looks strangely unjust. The first words in the book are Bell's, about his part in bringing a murderer to justice: "I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville." He knows the young man was guilty of murder, but later Bell expresses puzzlement about the death penalty. "The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it," Bell says, adding, "I believe that." He recalls a death row chaplain telling of the execution of a man named Pickett, clearly a man incapable of comprehending what was happening. He saved his dessert from his last meal, telling the chaplain he would eat it "when he come back." In No Country for Old Men, the truly guilty elude the criminal justice system, and an understanding of justice eludes those punished by the law.
Anton Chigurh sees himself as delivering a kind of justice. When he comes to kill Carla Jean, after arguing with her about why he must do it, he partly relents. He will let her have a coin toss. Of course the idea of a coin toss for one's life is monstrous. (As Wells asks Chigurh in another scene, "Do you have any notion of how goddamned crazy you are?") When Chigurh takes out a coin for Carla Jean, the narrator says, "He turned [the coin]. For her to see the justice of it." The narration in this passage is close to Chigurh's thoughts, seeing the scene as Chigurh sees it: although "to see the justice of it" is not what Chigurh says, it seems to be close to what he thinks. On one level, Chigurh is just showing Carla Jean the coin is not a trick; "the justice of it" is that the coin has two sides, heads and tails. On another level, Chigurh is exhibiting his "goddamn crazy" belief that his peculiar idea of fate is self-evident. To Chigurh it is as obvious as the face of a coin that the only justice is in the handing out of fates.
If justice is missing from the world, it may be the task of people to nonetheless try to create it. This is not Chigurh's view, but it is Bell's and Torbert's. Torbert likes to say that "we dedicate ourselves anew daily" to truth and justice. Only half-joking, Bell considers dedicating himself "twice daily," and he adds, "It may come to three fore it's over." Bell speaks humorously, but his idea is similar to that of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant showed that people cannot have any knowledge of God, freedom, or immortality—these are things beyond human senses and human reason. But in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant argued that precisely what we cannot know must be the basis of moral philosophy. The moral law cannot be felt with the senses or reasoned out by the intellect, but for just that reason, Kant argued, we must give the moral law to ourselves. Likewise, Torbert's philosophy is that because justice is missing from the world, he and Bell and others like them must dedicate themselves to it again and again.
In his first-person sections in No Country for Old Men, Ed Tom Bell recounts his experiences with the general immorality of this world. That immorality focuses on corruption, the process by which things or people grow worse. Money is a force of corruption in No Country for Old Men, as is the falling-away of polite customs. In Chapter 1, Bell speaks of something else that is "comin down the pike," something worse than corruption, and "another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it with." The something else Bell senses coming is evil, and the other view of the world is Anton Chigurh's. Bell sees the world as in decline and believes "only the second comin of Christ can slow that train." Chigurh sees the world as "squandered," that is, a waste from start to finish. No Country for Old Men explores the themes of evil and corruption by having Bell struggle with these two views of the world: gradually getting worse so only God can save it, or so bad from the start nothing and no one can save it.
Chigurh does not talk much about what he believes, unlike Bell. But he likes to look in his victims' eyes as they die, and what he sees there gives a clue about his beliefs. In Eagle Pass a wounded man begs Chigurh to help him. Chigurh forces the man to look at him and then shoots him in the forehead. Then Chigurh looks in the man's eyes; he sees the "capillaries break up" and the "light reced[e]," and in the dying eyes he sees "his own image degrade in that squandered world." Chigurh is the one who squandered the dying man's world; he wasted the man. This would be Carla Jean's very reasonable view: "You're the one" who kills people, she tells Chigurh, not the coin or fate. But Chigurh acts like a man who considers the world a botched creation, and Bell recognizes this in him. Bell refuses to "put his soul at hazard" by ever putting himself in Chigurh's way again.
No Country for Old Men is not a debate between Chigurh and Bell; they never really meet. So the themes of corruption and evil play out as a struggle within Bell. On the one hand, Bell seems to believe corruption can be stemmed by people dedicating themselves to justice or by the intervention of Christ. On the other hand, Bell announces Chigurh is "the true and living prophet of destruction," which means a radical, impossible-to-repair evil is on the way. Evil has long been a problem for theology. (Theology is philosophical speculation on religious ideas and philosophical defense of religion.) As theologians and philosophers have asked, why does God permit evil? If God does not permit evil, and yet evil is loose in the world, then something must be happening beyond God's power. How could a God who lacks power over some things even be God? If God could stop evil but chooses not to, then he is malevolent, a word that means "one who wills evil." Such was the reasoning of skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume. Theologians have found many answers to Hume's skepticism; the history of those debates is long, and No Country for Old Men is a novel, not a theological treatise. What matters is that No Country for Old Men is alive to the profundity of the problem of evil. McCarthy keeps the debate between corruption and evil unsolved.
Through the theme of aging, No Country for Old Men explores how the world changes over the course of a human lifetime. Ed Tom Bell realizes people often outlive the world they were born into; in the course of a lifetime, the world changes so that a person no longer recognizes it. Bell is 57 and does not yet consider himself old; he still refers to others as "the old people." But he is old enough for the process to have begun. When he became a sheriff at age 25, confronting lawbreakers often involved a fistfight. Now being a lawman means putting his life at risk.
Sometimes Bell's concerns about age seem trivial or comical, such as his remarks about young people with "green hair and nosebones." But Bell sees something deeper behind the fashions; he says, "Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way." The phrase "signs and wonders" appears in the Bible several times, but Bell may be thinking of Matthew 24:24: "For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect." Insofar as Chigurh perceives himself to be a prophet of death, then Chigurh's seemingly miraculous murders are perhaps harbingers of what is to come for the next generation.
The deeper truth behind the way fashions outpace aging is that the world eventually outlives people. Bell thinks about a water trough he saw outside the house in France where his squad sheltered. The trough was carved of stone; it outlasted the house it stood next to, and it would last another "ten thousand years." Bell thinks the man who carved it must have known the world would change. What let that man believe in making a promise to the future, Bell wonders. Bell's question about aging is partly resolved in the dreams about his father riding ahead and lighting a fire. People can be reconciled with aging and dying, if they can hand on a legacy to the future.