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.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Chigurh is a servant to his victims’ freewill as God is a servant to ours’.
Chigurh, to me, is the inequity of human beings. He completely stands on his own terms. He doesnt care about the perception of others, only the way he sees things. One thing that struck me was the end, when he is in the car crash. It was as if fate turned agianst him. When he is sitting there he looks vulnerable. Like he was turned over on his head. Mabye the reason he is so interesting and mysterious is because he doesnt even really know who he is. He knows what he stands for. He sees himself as a force of nature, and a messenger of fate, like he is almost metaphysical. All he is, is what he stands for. And that really makes you wonder about what really makes him tick.
Your take on how Chigurh “completely stands on his own terms” reminds me of what Malkina, another sociopathic villain Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor, has to say about a true predator:
“The hunter has grace, beauty, and purity of heart to be found nowhere else. You can make no distinction between what they are and what they do. And what they do is kill.”
Doesn’t that sound eerily familiar to your point about how all Chigurh is “is what he stands for”?
He is a manifestation of Shiva the Destroyer. Why does a lion kill? That’s what it’s built to do. If one is compelled to understand its motives: probably for food and territory mostly, and perhaps very occasionally for sport.
Except for the fact that Shiva is slightly more than the anthropomorphic personification of Destruction. He is merely the flip side of Creation, as symbolized by Brahma, and balance, as symbolized by Vishnu.
Chigurh, on the other hand, merely destroys. I mean, the only time he’s actually happy is when he strangles that deputy. You can’t get more blunt than that.
I believe the overall message of the author, based on my limited experience of both The Road and No Country, is that there is
1) No God,
2) No Hope,
3) and that good normal people are essentially doomed, but that
4) there is some sort of honor in that.
I could go into vast details and explanation, but these movies (haven’t read the books) are getting old, and I just happened to catch some of it on TV, so I will let sleeping dogs lie.
I just read “Blood Meridian” and I think I would agree with you. Astute observation!
Very fascinating take. The fact that anything relating to evolution or atheism isn’t relevant to the happenings in the book is insane. The principal themes are that of, Chance and Fate.
Thank you. Religious thinking definitely plays a significant role in the novel. It just so happens that Chance constitutes a new and abnormal sort of religious thinking.
I believe Chigurh is the equivlent of anyone who has shelved their morals to succeed.
Shelved morals, yes. But to what end? Depends on how you’re defining success. It seems most likely to me that morality is a human contrivance which has no relevance to universal law, and that includes the universal law Chigurh embodies.
Wells calls Chigurh a “psychopathic killer.” Does Wells know best? It is known in psychology that every psychopath is a Narcissist (though not every Narcissist is a psychopath). But what is Narcissism and does Chigurh fit the criteria?
The image of Narcissus singularly focused on his reflection in the pond can be misleading. The Narcissist is not simply in love with himself. In fact he is not in love with himself at all. He is in love with his reflection. The difference is that the reflection is not real. It is false. But falsehood has its benefits.
The Narcissist, in retaliation against some childhood abuse or injury, creates a false self which he admires and becomes obsessed with. The true self is subconsciously rejected and buried so that the false self, because it is not real and thus not subject to human limitations, can balloon out of proportion. It can be all-knowing and all-powerful, and everywhere at all times – like God. Thus the wounded person can confront his environment with a sense of power and superiority. A certain amount of Narcissism is normal. We need to love ourselves, and love of one’s true self does not constitute a psychological disorder. The problems arise when a person can only love his reflected or false self. Here the person depends on the existence and availability of the reflection to produce the emotion of self-love. His love is directed only at other people’s impressions of him. A person who loves only impressions is incapable of loving people, himself included. This is when Narcissism becomes pathological (criminal), and the results can be extremely dangerous.
The pathological Narcissist, knowing subconsciously that his ‘self’ is fake, suffers from extreme insecurity. He requires constant recognition from his human environment. He needs attention and approval for the amazingness and uniqueness of his false self. The narcissist’s eyes are glued open. He is always looking around for Narcissistic Supply—approval or admiration (positive or negative) from others. If he does not receive the attention he expects, if he does not elicit the reaction he feels he deserves, he lashes out disproportionately. This seems to be true of Chigurh. As Wells remarks to Moss, “There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead”. He kills the man from the restaurant because he says “something that was hard to ignore.” What did the man say? It doesn’t matter. It was a challenge to Chigurh’s superiority, and thus was met with the ultimate punishment. The paradox of the Narcissist is that though he believes so strongly in his own superiority, he is also tremendously insecure:
“The narcissist lives in a world of all or nothing, of a constant “to be or not be”. Every discussion that he holds, every glance of every passer-by reaffirms his existence or casts it in doubt. This is why the reactions of the narcissist seem so disproportionate: he reacts to what he perceives to be a danger to the very cohesion of his self. Thus, every minor disagreement with a Source of Narcissistic Supply – another person – is interpreted as a threat to the narcissist’s very self-worth” (Vaknin, “The Mind of the Narcissist”).
We see this at work in Chigurh’s encounter with the gas station clerk. What does the attendant do wrong? He shows no fear. The man is not affirming Chigurh’s superiority. He treats Chigurh as if he’s just like everybody else. Doesn’t he know who Chigurh is? The man’s fear should be splayed across his face like a roadside billboard. But it’s not, and Chigurh gets mad. But it is only a slight offense, so Chigurh will let the coin decide. Though the man is lucky and calls the toss correctly, do not forget that Chigurh is absolutely ready to murder him, simply because he does not display the requisite fear in the presence of The Great Chigurh.
Other readings are correct in seeing Chigurh’s coin toss as a way of shifting blame, but they do not explain it in terms of psychological dysfunction:
“The narcissist blames others for his behaviour, accuses them of provoking him into his temper tantrums and believes firmly that ‘they’ should be punished for their ‘misbehaviour'” (Vaknin).
Vaknin is describing a non-pathological narcissist, but we need only insert ‘murders’ for ‘temper tantrums’ to make the connection. We can see in this the root of what Wells refers to as Chigurh’s “principles.” He is perfect and nothing is ever his fault. Whatever he does to you, you brought it upon yourself.
Chigurh shows a total lack of empathy, another hallmark of someone whose Narcissism has become pathological. This is emphasized by the Coens in their film adaptation, in a scene which does not appear in McCarthy’s novel – the roadside scene with the chicken rancher helping Chigurh with his car. We cannot imagine a more genuine, helpful, good-hearted, “common as dirt” Texan. He is Bell’s ideal man—respectful, honest, non-threatening. We are not shown the murder, but we know what happened. Chigurh killed him, and only a person with no empathy could pull the trigger on such an innocent Good Samaritan. The same is true of the murder of poor Carla, as well as the hotel receptionists. He can kill them because he is superior to them, and because he feels no emotional connection with other human beings.
Chigurh is constantly seeking credit for his uniqueness. Twice he vocalizes to the dead the secrets behind his methods. “I didn’t want to get blood on the car,” he says to the man he pulls over, after crushing a hole in his skull with the cattlegun. “The reason I used the birdshot was that I didn’t want to break the glass,” he says to the dying executive, blood spitting out of his carotid artery. Why is he explaining himself to the dead, responding to questions which have not been asked?
Believing he is superior to everyone else, he has withdrawn into a solitary mode of existence and has only his murder victims to commune with. He is starving for Narcissistic Supply and seeks it wherever he can, even if from the dead. When the circumstances don’t permit a pre-death sermon (as with Wells and Carla Jean), he has to brag afterwards, even if his audience can’t respond. He brags to Wells of killing the man in the restaurant parking lot as if by a stroke of magic, casting a pall of paralyzing confusion over the man’s friends, who think he has merely fallen asleep. Chigurh boasts of allowing himself to be caught by the police only to give himself the opportunity of enacting a daring, magician-like escape. This is how the Narcissist feeds his false self. He needs Wells’ approval, and for Chigurh approval comes in the form of fear. The fear of others feeds his Narcissism.
Gripped by delusions of grandeur, Chigurh seats himself upon the throne of life. The money “will be brought to [him] and placed at [his] feet.” He is a king. While Wells must stumble around in the weeds, Chigurh need only wait for the world to acquiesce to his will. But Chigurh overestimates his power. The money is not brought to him. Chigurh, like all Narcissists, is living in a fantasy world.
In Chigurh’s mysterious final scene, he is returning the money to an unknown executive. Leaving, he compliments the executive on a painting he has hanging on the wall. When the man explains that it is a fake, that the real one is locked in a vault, Chigurh expresses admiration for the first time in the book – “Excellent.” Why does he admire this? Because Chigurh sees himself reflected in that idea, keeping the real hidden away, and the false proudly on display.
And narcissists surround themselves with admirers of the narcissist’s false self.
Brilliant remarks. I once watched a narcissist whose egotism was challenged. Not pretty.
He represents the future of the human existence without a belief in God and without the desire to believe in a just and fair God.
I don’t believe McCarthy is talking about the existence of God, but there was something in the urge to believe in God that made human beings more human.
I would say that the urge to believe in God doesn’t necessarily make us more human. It is the urge to wonder, not to believe, that defines us.
What makes us human is what Christ said: “Anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar,” and “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Concerning “No Country for Old Men,” I have not read the book and have seen the movie only once. Even though the story followed the young man and the old sheriff, the ‘hero’ seemed instead to be the killer. He was committed to his ‘rules’ and criticized others for the failure of their rules. In the end, he alone both lived and was victorious (though marked by the randomness of fate). The philosophical issues here are less atheistic or darwinian, which are simply taken for granted, but Nietzschean. He is the ‘superman’ who ‘transvalues all values’ and, in the end, everyone confessed it (either by their death or their retreat to dream of death).
It also appeared to me that the movie had to lie about the young man in order to make this point. He was painted initially as more than competent enough to win, but this was only to give the audience a false hope. He then did uncharacteristically stupid things to allow the Nietzschean superman to win. So also did the old sheriff suddenly lose his courage in the end, simply so he could make the defeatist speech which gives final vindication to the stories true ‘hero’.
The sole truth in the story was the ease with which such a human shark can swim through the waters of soft, civilized humanity. It makes me cringe when the liberals that applauded its essential deception then speak of gun-control.
The tone of the story reflects the secular, wayward direction of society (hey, I am no believer) but tells a tale bigger than religion or lack there of.
I think that Anton was indeed an atheist. He is clearly not a survivalist, otherwise he would not have killed all those people. However, I believe that he is an atheist in the fact that he does not believe in anything. I am not stereotyping atheists, pagans, etc.. I am simply saying that Chigurh had no beliefs. He held no morals, no sense in a higher above, no codes. In fact, Chigurh was in a very real sense an atheist, who’s sole function was to kill…
Hmm, interesting. It seems pretty clear to me that Chigurh answers to a higher power, but that power is not God.
Uh he had a very strict moral code and set of rules. But nice try.
Chigurh uses the coin for those people who think they are destined to live a certain way, perhaps in some sort of luxury compared to others (maybe there’s even a comparison in his mind to the past era, though we don’t see that as much as with Bell in the movie). It’s not about religion at all. His language toward these people can give us the wrong impression if we don’t think about it.
He’s actually ALWAYS being condescending when he references fate during conversations with these people. THEIR lives must be decided by a coin flip as punishment. On the other hand, we know for a fact that he doesn’t use a coin flip for some people. He treats anyone who desires to make a difference in their own lives (control their fate) like a human being. He tells the young office assistant who wonders if he’s the next to die something like “That depends. Do you see me right now?” What happens to the guy doesn’t really matter. Chigurh is simply asking him what he believes, because he cares what people believe. A lot.
He represents the idea of fate.
I feel like McCarthy has a type of warped religion throughout most of his works, and I agree with what Jeremy said, about good, decent people being doomed in a inherently bad world. And there is honor in it, the good striving to be good in a world that is not made to be good. But this raises an interesting point, and I feel a more realistic one. The world is not good or bad, and without a divine ruler, chance does and can rule.
In reading your article (well-written, by the way), another piece of No Country shifted into place for me: it seems to me that Chigurh is Bell’s personal reckoning with his own fate, as he becomes an old man in retirement. The final scene in which he shares his dream eludes most directly to him joining his father in death. Bell seems to be struggling not only with his own lower-case “d” death, but with Death Proper, Death of the decency and simplicity of his glory years, when he served on the force with his father. In some ways, the entire Chigurh plot could be a dream of Bell’s which represents his own struggle to grapple with the forces of time, chance, and ultimate fate. Interested to hear your take.
This is a fantastic article and many of the comments are just as illuminating. I too am struck by Bell’s preoccupation with death, both his own and of his perceived society. One of the pivotal scenes occurs late in the film, when Bell is basically told that his fears are no different from those of generations previous. This fear that society has finally run amok is one that every generation grapples with. The final scene, where Bell describes his dreams, took me some time to appreciate but it grows more powerful with each viewing. I’ve entered middle-agedom and I do find that the inevitable is something I think about more now.
As for Chigurh, I’m undecided as to what I feel he represents. He’s certainly a fascinating creation. Rob Ager, in his Collative Learning website, presents an excellent analysis that revolves around the question of whether Chigurh is a supernatural being. I don’t know that I agree with that, but I certainly see the echoes of Death in Chigurh’s philosophy.
If, in the last paragraph, our “purpose is to involve ourselves with Chance and continue along our respective paths,” what are we to make of Sheriff Bell, who adamantly refuses to involve himself with Chigurh? In fact, Sheriff Bell retires because he does not want to become what he would have to become if he did attempt to go after Chigurh. As Bell puts it in the opening, it’s not a matter of being willing to die, it’s “more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that maybe I never would.” (p. 4) It seems that Sheriff Bell sidesteps the element of chance, if Chigurh does indeed represent chance.
Maybe it’s about as we get older we actually get more deluded that we won’t die. All Chigurh is really is Death/Fate. We all meet that. Bell has risked death all his life by being a Cop (actually you risk death the second you are born, it’s just a matter of Chance when it happens). Now he’s old and wants to avoid Death by retiring. But Death is coming. You can’t avoid it. His retirement is just choosing a side of a coin for today. Maybe he’ll fall at home when he would normally be on duty if he didn’t retire, break a hip, and die weeks later from it. Maybe he would have been killed the next day on duty by Chigurh and retirement kept him alive – for today. Every day we make Choices (flips of the coin), and we have no idea why some of those choices lead to Death. It’s just how Fate works.
I think he’d rather take his chances in retirement (Occam’s razor).
Excellent analysis. Chance seems rather superficial in No Country’s context though, considering the machinations of background characters (e.g. the cartel catching up to Moss on their own) and its power is only significant to Chigurh. Chance is less potent as a universal construct without Chigurh, so he only exists as an instrument to reintroduce chance into the world, rather as Christ was an instrument for God’s principles.
Incredibly interesting read and very eloquently expressed.
Based not only on the presence of Chigurh but also on Llewelyn’s untimely, rather random and undignified end, I totally agree that ‘No Country’, in a nihilistic way, focuses on the presence of Chance in life as a determining, if not ‘the’ determiniing, factor that carries us from birth to death.
I also feel the Christ analogy was particularly fitting, although perhaps slightly remiss in a novel that I consider wholly secular (with regards to Judeo-Christian religions).
That was a really good read and it does a lot of work in making it easier to let go of my desire to see Anton as a sort of Evil embodied in replacement of something far more incomprehensible and therefore more terrifying. I really enjoy the fact that I’ll find it more difficult to hold his character in a delineated box.
I’ve been intrigued by this book for a long time, and your analysis may just be the push I need to read it. Thanks for writing! Excellent piece!
What give’s us the ability to make choice’s and thereby activating chance? Your saying that it’s up to choice and driving a wedge between belief and the outcome.Jesus told us all along there was a choice.Long before the author or the character in his book. Where does chance or “choice” take you when you pass on…….does the character tell you or the author? One is a story the other is simply the truth.Where will you go when you die?Your soul? See if it says that in “No Country for Old Men”. I doubt you will reply but think about it and i hope you find the answer.
But you can’t prove your hypothesis any more than he can. That’s why it’s called faith.
Josh McDowell wrote a Christian apologetics classic called, “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” not “Proof that Christ is God,” since that denies the faith that the Bible says that God demands. Study to show thyself approved.
I’ve found your article really fun to read, but it seems like you where over-analyzing it. I just saw the movie, so i would have to read the book to make a counter argument of any of this, but i think characters like Anton are so enigmatic on purpose because we’re not really meant to fully understand them.
I’m currently writing my dissertation on the free-will theodicy (the justification of evil in a world overseen by a benevolent power) and moral ambiguity in three of Cormac McCarthy’s novels: this one, ‘Blood Meridian’ and ‘The Road’. I have to say, I found your article really interesting, but I agree with a commenter above who suggested you’re over-analysing the novel. I especially disagree with some of the things you say when you parallel ‘No Country For Old Men’ with ‘Blood Meridian’.
In the latter text McCarthy explores the idea of free-will, depicting a harsh and brutal world which is constantly referred to as a symbol of human corruption. That is, the choices that humans have made through history – and through our inherently violent characters – have shaped the world, NOT chance or fate or any ‘survival of the fittest’ concept. This is also apparent throughout ‘The Road’, which was published after ‘No Country’.
Your point about Chigurh being a manifestation of chance is definitely one that McCarthy toys with in the novel, but I don’t think it completely holds true. A similar figure in ‘Blood Meridian’, Judge Holden, is likewise inhuman, but notably more so than Chigurh. Holden is never affected by chance, fate or the elements, and in fact wholly disregards his expriest cohort’s religious wafflings. On the other hand, as you point out in the piece, Chigurh IS affected by fate and chance. His vulnerability to injury diminishes his inhuman traits more considerably than you let on, and I think, moreover, Carla Jean’s saying ‘the coin has no say…it’s just you’ is McCarthy’s own definitive statement on the theme; the chance created by Chigurh’s coin is just that – created. It is his own construct, one that not only is not always evident in human choice, but limits the victims to the false dichotomy of heads and tails. How many choices in your life can be cut down to only two options?
Nevertheless, an enlightening read which has piqued my studies. So thank you!
I’d love to read your dissertation if you would consider sharing it; I’ve read ‘No Country’ and came to the same conclusion as you and am very interested in how this theme holds true in his other works.
I’d love to read your dissertation if you would consider sharing it; I’ve read ‘No Country’ and came to the same conclusion as you and am very interested in how this theme holds true in his other works.
I love that you touched on the film’s reoccurring motifs of choice and chance. That is, after all, how all the characters interact with one another in the film. Moss happens to stumble upon a drug deal gone wrong and chance and choice takes over from there. I find your comparison of Jesus and Chigurh very interesting and insightful. It is difficult to compare the ‘Son of the World’ to his counterpart, but I love how you found similarities of what they stood for. Both campaigned that choice is a vital instrument that humans have. Jesus did so with grace and love, while Chigurh inflicted pain and horror.
A common mistake is to confuse the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (don’t blush, even many Catholics make the same mistake). The Immaculate Conception refers only to the conception of Mary in the womb of Anna. It has nothing to do with the virgin birth of Christ. The theology behind if deals with the idea that nothing perfect/divine comes from something imperfect/stained with sin.
Would this be a great final Jeopardy question of what???
This is a fantastic article, in my opinion; and, having read the book once a few years back, I’m resolved to read it again through this lens, but the concept of Chigurh as the divine entity of Chance holds true, or at least a valid line of thought. One particular phrasing stuck in my mind through the rest of the article, one that had me looking for something to answer the question it inspired, but I’m still left wondering. The phrase was: “a choice is nothing more than a probabilistic outcome”; the question: free will ultimately requires more deliberation than a coin toss–the choice between a red or blue shirt comes with a train of thought and reasons behind the result, some of them having to do with things as specific as personality, or as broad as basic psychology (blue if you’re feeling calm that day, red if it’s for a date, etc.)–so, considering this, what are the parameters of choice’s involvement with chance? It can’t be as simple as a random selection of a set of outcomes, but rather, chance provides that set of possible outcomes and the circumstances that may lead the chooser to any of them. Chance is both a force and provider, but more provider while choice is more of a force. Alternatively, we can look at choice and chance as cyclical, each perpetuating another in somewhat equal measure, at least in the long run, even if at certain times one is more a driving force than the other.
I think framing choice in the context of chance works on both physical and a metaphysical levels. Choices are decidedly not independent phenomena, they are outcomes subject to a variety of constraints, as you alluded to. However, my further claim is that not only do we not “choose” those constraints, but that those constraints are driven by and based on chance. Through this meta-structural lens, the act of choosing and the act of flipping a coin are analogous, much in the same way that Chigurh and Jesus share a meta-structural bond. You could say the coin (or, more accurately, the coin flipper) “chose” heads in the same way that you chose to wear a red shirt, looking at the processes from a most constitutional perspective.
NOTE: I think it’s helpful to distinguish chance from randomness. I use chance as a broader term, such that randomness is a subconcept within the framework of chance. In other words, something does not have to be strictly random in order to be based on chance. When you said “it can’t be as simple as a random selection of a set of outcomes, but rather, chance provides that set of possible outcomes and the circumstances that may lead the chooser to any of them,” I thought you described things perfectly. Things are not necessarily random, but chance is interwoven into the outcomes and the ways in which those outcomes can be realized, which makes those outcomes inherently chance-driven.
Additional layers of my claim deal with free will, as well as the nature of the universe. Without delving TOO deeply, I believe there is substantial evidence that probability is indeed the a fundamental underlying force in the universe, from a physical, metaphysical, and quantum perspective. We can consider this in a number of ways, on an individual human level and on a universal level:
1. The conditions into which you are born into existence (family, era, climate, social structure, etc.) have direct circumstantial effect on you but are not governed by anything other than chance. This extends all the way to the physical process of conception, which is almost entirely probabilistic. Even if we are totally autonomous, willful beings, any actions you take are automatically compounded on the outcomes of chance-based events, which make them chance-based as well at some level. Your “choices” depend on previous choices, which in turn depend on further previous choices, which in turn ultimately depend on your birth and your very existence. This is a core concept in No Country, in which one’s “trajectory” is a cumulative set of outcomes and thus simply an instance of serial probability.
2. We know human “decisions” are heavily influenced by neural patterns and pathways which we begin to develop before we can even form memories; we also know that decisions are significantly driven by external bio-social-physical pressures which we do not have much (if any) control over; further, we know that a great deal of decision-inducing neuronal activity occurs in the brain prior to our conscious perception of said decision, and that such activity is based in part on the aforementioned pressures. Can we attribute these dynamics to anything other than chance, at the most fundamental level? If so, I would be interested to hear your take on what that attribution might look like.
3. The very positioning of electrons within atoms – which governs the properties of much of the physical world we inhabit – is inherently probabilistic, as are certain aspect of the process of human evolution.
In short, if we frame one’s choice to wear a red shirt instead of a blue shirt in broader context, it is nearly impossible to consider it a “choice” at all. There are too many other factors working in background that are based on outcomes, that are based on probability, that are based on other outcomes, that are based on other elements of probability, that are based on other outcomes, ad nauseam back to the dawn of the universe. I believe using this context is the optimal way to view human activity, because it accounts for our reality most accurately.
For all we know, the Big Bang itself could have been a coin flip.
You DO choose to die if you commit suicide. Paradoxically, suicide – the attempt to destroy one’s existence – is, in a Chigurhian universe, the ultimate manifestation of one’s existential power and complete free will… unless one believes the act of pulling the trigger was predetermined… but if that were the case, then the results of all those coin tosses would have to be predetermined too wouldn’t they? In other words, even minute instances of free will would cease to exist.
What about Chigurh’s irritability and apparent pathological narcissism? He seems to need to engender subservient fear in all those around him. He initially got irritated at the store clerk because the clerk treated him like any other joe and not as the Universal Lord. Then he got even more irritated when he found out the guy lucked into his gas station through marriage. If he’s basically a robotic representation of chance, why would he show such emotion, unless it’s just for villainous theatrical effect to sell more tickets/books.
And what is the meaning at the end of the story when Chigurh finally shows respect to someone (his employer) after he can’t tell that the painting is fake. He says, admiringly, “Excellent.”
Finally, why does he then get hit by the car? Is that simply to show that he, himself, as chance incarnate (i.e. with human imperfection) is not above chance as an abstract principle?
NIce writing and analysis. Thanks.
You can call me out on this- existential angst.
You Chigurh crack slightly when the clerk questions the coin flip- the same with Carla. It’s as if he’s confused as to why you wouldn’t just make the call upon demand. Then- annoyed in a very condescending way. But, it’s that slight confusion that stuck out to me.
Also- when he asked the elderly lady where Llewelyn worked and she very matter of factly refused to tell him. He didn’t know what to do. After asking a few more times and was still met with the same albeit more vocal response- he gave up. She had no fear of him- she didn’t know she was supposed to be. A few of the other innocent victims had no idea either- but anyone else showing such defiance met a a different fate. Why not her?
You can call me out on this- existential angst.
You see Chigurh crack slightly when the clerk questions the coin flip- the same with Carla. It’s as if he’s confused as to why you wouldn’t just make the call upon demand. Then- annoyed in a very condescending way. But, it’s that slight confusion that stuck out to me.
Also- when he asked the elderly lady where Llewelyn worked and she very matter of factly refused to tell him. He didn’t know what to do. After asking a few more times and was still met with the same albeit more vocal response- he gave up. She had no fear of him- she didn’t know she was supposed to be fearful. A few of the other innocent victims had no idea either- but anyone else showing such defiance met a different fate. Why not her?