No Country for Old Men: Choice, Chance, and Being
In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the first allusion to the character Anton Chigurh comes when Sheriff Ed Bell describes “a true and living prophet.” Upon considering the ways in which Chigurh seems otherworldly and quite a bit different than the people we know, perhaps this description serves as a primer for a more complex archetypal evaluation — a deeper lens through which we can view and interpret both the character and the novel. One such suitable archetype is that of the most famous “true and living prophet” in human mythos, Jesus Christ. Explored as a character, Jesus occupies the middle of an entitative trichotomy. On one end of this trichotomy is the human being; on the other end is a divine omnipotent entity. The central position, exemplified by Jesus, is the divine omnipotent force manifested in the human form, drawing attributes from each of the other two entities and demanding its own categorization. In the case of Jesus, the divine omnipotent force is the Christian notion of God; for Chigurh, it might be called Chance. This system of classification highlights the philosophical undertones of No Country and adds to the work’s significance.
The Distinction Between Jesus and Chigurh
As an important disclaimer, this analysis does not implicate Chigurh as a “Christ-like” figure in any absolute terms. The comparison is primarily metaconceptual — the similarities are found in structural attribution and not necessarily in the particular content within. In fact, the two characters (Chigurh and Jesus) prove to be incompatible, as we will see later.
The key premises of Jesus’ philosophical infrastructure derive from God and consist of things like love, faith, and reciprocity — what one might call quintessential ethical-spiritual inclinations. Chigurh’s disposition derives from a divine conception of Chance, as exhibited by his interactions throughout the novel. In order to define his disposition, we have to take a look at these interactions.
From his conversation with the gas station proprietor:
Yes you did [put something up]. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what the date is on this coin? … It’s nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been travelling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it … You stand to win everything … Anything can be an instrument. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice … You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of another moment. (56-57)
Here we acquire crucial insights into Chigurhian doctrine. Human choices, as we would call them, are euphemistic constructs; a choice is nothing more than a probabilistic outcome. Regardless of your notion of free will (more on this later), actions are effectively driven by Chance — you’ve been wagering “your whole life” even if you’ve never thought about it in those terms. Our human limitations prevent us from perceiving Chance in the absence of artifacts like coins, from separating “the act from the thing.” The coin is the thing, but the act is the expression of Chance and the intrinsic dynamic of life. This principle allows Chigurh to reflect on the uniformity of every “moment of history” because the same underlying laws of Chance are at work at all times in all places.
From Chigurh’s confrontation with Carla Jean at the end of the novel:
Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. (259)
This is a reiteration that Chance is omnipresent, and we can extract another principle — that each “turning” we endure affects what comes after it (ultimately and eventually, death). Our probabilistic choices and actions mold our trajectories, and this is the governing creed of the universe.
The flipping of the coin in both cases (the gas station cashier and Carla Jean) serves as an overtly conspicuous representation of the probability that is interwoven into human life, but exhibits no fundamental difference from you choosing to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt. The rule of Chance applies inescapably and universally.
With a basic understanding of Jesus’ and Chigurh’s respective embodied truths, let’s move on to an analysis of the structural features found in their common archetypal framework.
Structural Element #1: Divine Acts
The middle entity (the manifestation of the divine force) must utilize concentrated demonstrations of said divine force in order to display it to humans, which we have already alluded to. For Jesus, this means employing extreme miracles to represent God — healing a sick man instantly rather than allowing him to heal over time, for example. Those with detailed knowledge of the New Testament will have no trouble finding instances in which Jesus utilizes such robust acts as symbols of God’s will, power, or disposition.
Chigurh applies this principle with his coin tosses, which are simply condensed and heavily-weighted versions of the choices people make every day that eventually lead to their deaths. He forces the subject (such as the man at the gas station) to call heads or tails in order to emphasize the essential truth that choice is inescapably intertwined with Chance. This type of salient interaction is necessary because of human imperfection; the gas station proprietor doesn’t understand what he is wagering or why — “I didn’t put nothin up.” Such concentrated and potent demonstrations are the only way to convey the constitution of the divine force in a tangible or comprehensible manner. Otherwise, the underlying divine concepts remain too abstract or subtle for humans to grasp.
Structural Element #2: Origin and Impetus
The existence of the entity incarnate (at the center of the trichotomy) has its impetus in a divergence between human activity and the essence of the divine force. Jesus arrives on Earth embodying the word of God because humanity has drifted away from what God intended, religiously speaking. In a sense, the appearance of Jesus serves as a means of rectification and clarification for people to utilize.
Similarly, Chigurh emerges at a time when people attempt to circumvent probability. The theme of a changing age persists throughout the novel and is obviously of titular significance. No Country heavily concerns itself with Bell’s inability or unwillingness to adapt to the morphing zeitgeist. Applied to Chigurh’s impetus, this extends to the general trend of vital healthcare advancements in the 20th-century United States, which ultimately aim to decrease the probability of death (which is the only truly certain thing from a broad human perspective). The trajectory of this trend is toward immortality and thus toward a separation from the guiding laws of Chance.
The clearest single instance of this divergence is actually communicated in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation, during a scene in which Bell speaks with Carla Jean. Bell tells the story of a man who shot a steer and had the bullet ricochet back, injuring him. He proceeds to make the point that “even in the contest between man and steer the issue is not certain,” and describes how ranchers now use air guns (fittingly, Chigurh’s weapon of choice) to make the kill a surer thing. Again, this change represents a push toward the elimination of Chance and, hence, a corruption of the divine law that justifies Chigurh’s existence as Chance incarnate. Both Jesus and Chigurh have the same basic function — to re-align humanity with a divine force after it has gone astray.
Consequently, perhaps, both characters surface quite suddenly and unexpectedly. While the story of the Immaculate Conception has a considerable amount of detail from biblical texts, this is offset by the notable lack of detail about Jesus’ early life before he began his work. The birth in itself is also surprising, in the seeming absence of physical conception. The mystery shrouding Jesus’ emergence may be a necessary structural component.
Likewise, Chigurh’s entrance into the world of No Country is equal parts sudden and unexpected. The character carries no significant history, or at least none that the reader can surely discern. Carson Wells, in a few words, provides some of the only elaboration on Chigurh’s past. Wells offers the information that he last saw Chigurh on “November twenty-eighth of last year” and describes the mysterious figure as “bad enough that you called me. He’s a psychopathic killer, but so what? There’s plenty of them around.”
Wells’ arrogance and underestimation of Chigurh seem foolish, especially when considering the comparison drawn between Chigurh and “the bubonic plague” during the exchange. Significance can be found in such a comparison – the bubonic plague exists, like Chigurh, as a reckoning force of nature that is definitely not human. The miscategorization of Chigurh as an ordinary murderer, which is also echoed in Bell’s inital and inaccurate description of the object of Chigurh’s prophecy – “death and destruction” – remains understandable in the face of the sudden emergence of the nearly incomprehensible Chigurh. Recall that Jesus, our juxtaposed example of the divine manifestation archetype, also finds himself mislabeled and consistently misunderstood; human beings cannot be expected to appreciate the divine manifestation, especially to its full extent.
Structural Element #3: Incarnate Attributes
The entity incarnate possesses characteristics of both the boundless capacity of the divine force and the carnal-temporal frailty of the human being. This means a divine entity manifested in a human body is at once omnipotent and vulnerable, pure and corrupted, and constantly battling with human emotions and desires. Even though Jesus is a symbol of the divine and sinless God, he must actively endeavor to remain sinless and he cannot avoid the physical anguish (on the cross) that accompanies the human condition.
In that vein, Chigurh must also overcome human weakness in order to fulfill his existence as Chance incarnate. He must deal with physical afflictions, most notably in the car accident that severely injures him. His ongoing battle with human emotion becomes clear in the final conversation with Carla Jean. Chigurh seems to offer Carla Jean the coin toss to console her and give her some form of hope or calm, even with a sense of pity attached. He reassures her that “none of this was [her] fault” and “it was bad luck,” before offering the coin toss and conceding that “this is the best [he] can do.” Even though the coin flip would be “to small purpose,” Chigurh allows Carla Jean the option as a human appeal — “a final glimpse of hope into the world to lift [her] heart.”
Just as Jesus sinning or succumbing to carnal desires would nullify the principles of the divine God that he embodies, Chigurh allowing his temporal human influences to stop him from realizing Carla Jean’s trajectory would invalidate the divine force of Chance. This is why Chigurh must remain steadfast in his duty and does not fundamentally compromise with Carla Jean — “You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases.”
Even through these decidedly human struggles, the manifested entity maintains a level of divine capacity. Jesus exhibits such capacity in his propensity for omniscience, his ability to perform miraculous acts, and his eventual transcendence back to God after his mortal death. For Chigurh, divine capacity comes in the form of a seemingly omnipotent ability to see and understand people’s trajectories. He instantly knows and automatically analyzes Carla Jean’s trajectory, which is evidenced by his insight:
The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding … A person’s path in the world seldom changes … And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning … I could have told you how all of this would end. (259)
Here, he speaks with an absolute authority of truth (mirroring Jesus) and erases any lingering doubt that his existence is beyond human. It makes sense for Chigurh to have this supernatural capacity because the force that sourced him is one of divinity and universal governance. Chance inherently lies at the foundation of human choice and thus becomes intertwined with the past, present, and future in ways only an entity like Chigurh could delineate.
Relevance and Greater Significance
Why does this analysis actually matter? Well, on one level, this framework of insights satisfies the reader’s inclination that Chigurh is not — at least not completely — human. That notion alone may be enough to justify evaluating it as a device that adds meaning and coherence to No Country. Perhaps further, we can infer that its importance resides in the fact that viewing Chigurh in this way increases the thematic and philosophical power of the work’s most intrinsic lessons.
Consider the exploration of the concept of free will. Under a more surface-level assessment, No Country may be understood as nihilistic; truly free choice can exist or not exist, but ultimately this holds no meaning. Calling a coin toss correctly or incorrectly does not matter when we view the universe subjectively. This involves a false premise of personal significance that is perhaps increasingly prevalent in our disembodied and secular postmodernist world. Contemporary free will doctrines frame humans as individual entities pursuing self-interest — rafts floating separately in a vast sea of the unknown or undefined. Which way the rafts may turn bears no real weight without greater context. What constitutes the sea? What are its boundaries? What is responsible for its currents?
One widespread solution to this issue of conceiving a broader context is, coincidentally, the religious creed that Jesus represents. However, it remains abundantly clear in No Country that a disposition based on faith or moralism is wholly inapplicable — thus religion cannot be a sufficient answer. When Chigurh kills Carla Jean despite acknowledging her innocence — “None of this was your fault… You didn’t do anything” — such insufficiency becomes salient.
The paradigms of isolated free will, ethical philosophy, and religious God all crumble in Chigurh’s presence, as further revealed in three fragments of dialogue. The first comes when Chigurh brings up God and Carla Jean responds by calling Chigurh a “blasphemer,” the second comes with Chigurh’s dismissal of any implications concerning the fact that he may be viewed as “a bad person,” and the third comes with Carla Jean’s futile attempt to appeal to some faculty of free will — “The coin didn’t have no say. It was just you… You don’t have to. You don’t.” Indeed, Chigurh does have to kill Carla Jean. The universe is banking on it.
The solution is not God, as it were, but Chance. The sea of human existence consists of choices past, present, and future; its boundaries are the certainties of birth and death; probability is its current. Without the higher levels of perception and consideration afforded to one who recognizes and delineates the entitative trichotomy, it becomes easy to fall into false or nihilistic perspectives. In the absence of a larger framework, our individualistic senses of self within the universe cannot be strongly justified. When such a framework is added, however, we can find meaning in the fact that (if nothing else) an applicable divine force is at work.
What we end up with is a fine middle ground between decoupled free will and strict determinism. In fact, a world in which Chigurh exists as Chance incarnate offers humans a very definable purpose. This purpose is to involve ourselves with Chance and continue along our respective paths. The human trajectory, then, plays out as a function of incremental and cumulative probability, and the goal is to follow it as we approach the culmination — the absolute certainty of death. One does not choose whether or to be born or not; one does not choose whether to die or not. Chance dictates the beginning and end of all human journeys while subtly weaving its way into everything that happens in between.
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