Visible Violence and Questionable Morality in No Country for Old Men
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, McCarthy has written his characters in such a way that the idea of violence is almost cyclic. McCarthy often relates the violence that is currently occurring with the main protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, and antagonist, Anton Chigurh, with wars that have occurred in the past. Moss was a Vietnam veteran, who had just stumbled upon a gruesome scene, a scene in which everyone that was involved had died. In taking the case filled with the money, Moss had doomed himself to repeat the violence that was associated with all of human history. In this essay, I will demonstrate that violence in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, is often portrayed as a cycle and that the characters’ morality will be the reason as to why violence is a constant, as seen in the beginning with Moss taking the money from the deceased drug dealers, and then at the end where Chigurh gets into an automobile accident that seemingly came out of nowhere which had led to the death of three, young men. I will also analyze McCarthy’s somewhat nihilistic view of justice and morality, which pertains to the fact that the law enforcement in this novel, are incapable of stopping violence and the death of the main character. Therefore, the effects of the rest of the justice system is useless, contributes nothing in regard to actually bringing justice to those that have been wronged, and only continues the cycle of violence that has happened and will happen in the future.
Llewelyn Moss was a Vietnam veteran, who happened to be hunting on the day that he found the case full of money. Moss had to make a choice, and he chose the most relatable and most predictable choice that many would have made. He decided to take the money, no matter the fact that he met with a gruesome scene. In this moment, Moss had sealed his fate, and had begun the cycle again. “Even when they crave what they perceive to be just and good, McCarthy’s characters…. are precluded from certainty that their pursuits are rightly oriented” (Mangrum, Democracy, Justice, and Tragedy in No Country for Old Men). Moss was only thinking of the fact that he had found millions of dollars. However, he later went back to the scene of the drug fight to attempt to give another a chance at life, only to be shot at by the rival drug dealers. Moss’s decision to take the money from the dead drug dealers led to his futile effort to avoid the likes of Chigurh. Even when Moss was ten steps ahead, Chigurh was right behind him. That was due to the fact that the briefcase contained a tracker that Chigurh had stashed in a stack of the money. Moss was then hunted down like an animal, and it didn’t matter to Chigurh how Moss died, just the fact that he did die was enough to sate Chigurh. The morality of McCarthy’s characters always seems to be the cause for the continuation of violence. Even when the characters have a black and white view of the world, they will follow this to the point of continuing the violence.
Anton Chigurh is considered to be the main antagonist of McCarthy’s novel, with the way that he views violence as the means to the end, as something that is so prevalent to the world that he knows that there is no ultimate way of stopping violence. Chigurh is often portrayed as a heartless, sociopath who views other people’s opinions as either yes or no, because “I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is” (No Country for Old Men. Pp 55). To Chigurh, he takes away the choice of his victims, his victims who he views the way one would view cattle. His favorite weapon of choice is a cattle gun; in which he had attached to an air-tank. In a way, Chigurh attributes the cycle of violence to that of irony; as he makes it seem that human beings are no better than those animals that they kill on a daily basis. Justice is not known in the animal kingdom, and Chigurh portrays this idea that his concept of justice is known as non-existent, “if a fact is a reason for someone to do something, then it is necessarily also a motive for him to do it, …he knows that this fact constitutes a reason for him to do something, it motivates him to do it” (Serba. Morality and Self Interest). For Chigurh and Moss, it was the game of cat and mouse, a man with a nihilistic view on morality, against a man whose has more of a black and white view of the law. Whereas sheriff Bell is the opposite of Chigurh, in the way that he represents the meaning of justice, simply because he is head of the law enforcement agency.
Sheriff Bell is the direct opposite of Anton Chigurh, he is a man of the law, yet he is constantly doubting his purpose in the idea of justice, unlike Chigurh, who constantly views the world in black and white, Bells’ morality has more of a grayish tint. McCarthy has written the character of Sheriff Bell to be a foil to the likes of Anton Chigurh, and I could say that McCarthy loosely based the character of Sheriff Bell on Juvenal, a Roman poet who was the author of a collection of works known as the Satires. Bell, like Juvenal was “an observer and a critic: he was also a thinking man. And every thoughtful man has a structure of moral, and metaphysical, and religious ideas on which the rest of his judgements are built upon” (Highet, The Theory of Juvenal). Bell was often reminiscent of the old ways that he once dealt with violence. He would often judge others and himself, on the concept of how the situation was handled, often saying that the “there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it…. It has brought me to a place in my life I would not thought I’d come to” (McCarthy, pp 4). That place sitting on the porch of some house questioning the meaning of justice, if he couldn’t save the people he had sworn to protect, what was the reason for being an officer of the law?
Violence in No Country for Old Men often occurs repeatedly, and McCarthy often attributes the violence that occurs between the characters of the novel, to the violence that occurs at the US- Mexican borderlands. Why, then is violence known to be so easy to repeat between these two cultures that share land? One answer might be because “violence between rival cultures was not necessarily an indication of intolerance but could be the systemic component of the relationship between wary neighbors… the desire to exact revenge on those that had harmed loved ones” (Galgano. Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands). This can be seen when Moss promises to kill Chigurh if anything were to happen to his wife, and to a lesser extent when Sheriff Bell promised to protect Moss if he found him. Like the US-Mexican borderlands, the relationship between Moss, Chigurh, Bell is filled with the promise of violence, but they all have some sort of relationship that allows them to often have the same connection. Moss and Bell were both veterans of the war, and Chigurh promises to kill Moss, while Bell promises to protect him. Should Moss have not taken the money, he would have lived, but the financial implications of such a large amount of money was too good to pass up, for the morally gray Llewelyn Moss.
The thought of money is often attributed to greed, which in turn results in the use of violence. Moss had assumed that since the drug dealers that he had taken the brief case of money from were dead, that he wouldn’t be chased. He was wrong, dead wrong. Money or the lack of it, can lead lower class citizens, particularly those that live in third world country, to participate in illicit affairs. “For culturally diverse, low-wealth communities, the recession erased family assets acquired with hard work that took years, if not generations, to accumulate” (Robles. Economic Inclusion and Financial Education in Culturally Diverse Communities). This is important to know because studies have shown that as soon that there is not enough money to sustain a family, there is an increase in robberies, larceny, and theft. These kinds of crimes can lead to the increase of violence, and sometimes depending on the person that is stolen from, death. This is especially true for migrant workers who are not given equal opportunity for employment in the US, and are twice as likely to be fired from their job. “Mexican migrants have been locked in an international capitalist economy that has exploited their labor for more than 100 years” (Camacho, Robles. Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the US-Mexican Borderlands). With such unfair opportunities that are being foisted upon the less fortunate, is it any wonder that violence is more prevalent in the borderlands, than anywhere else in America? Moss had the misfortune of taking the one thing that would bring harm to the person who had dared to take it. What was also unfortunate was the fact that the so called law enforcement of that time had failed to protect him. Thus, Moss is another victim of McCarthy and his nihilistic view of morality and justice.
Justice is the result of violence, a person often commits violence in order to see justice done, as the characters in No Country for Old Men, appear to have “feared the untimely nature of the truth to a modernity whose end had only just begun” (Skrimshire. “There is No God and we are his Prophets: Deconstructing Redemption in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Sheriff Bell can be seen as somewhat nihilistic in his view of justice as he reminisces about the old days when those on the side of the law would always solve the problem at hand. Yet he felt that “somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him” (McCarthy). If sheriff Bell does not confront his foes, he would have only contributed to the violence by doing nothing. If this was a moral choice, then Bell would have knowingly quit, leaving those that he had sworn to protect at the mercy of Anton Chigurh. If it was a logical choice, would that make Bell less moral than what we think he should be? Logic is a cold, hard facts, and numbers, people who are more logical tend to deal with personal losses with little to no feelings. But that is not the case with Bell, as he wants to see justice done, yet at the same time he refuses to make the move to ensure that it does happen, and he attributes it to old age. I would not pretend to understand why Bell decided to take this stance on justice, maybe it was the culmination on all his experiences while he was the sheriff, or maybe it was because of his age. His trust on his own view of justice has run out and he decided to quit, before the violence became too much for him to stand. Just like the relationship of the US-Mexico borderlands, which, unfortunately, the trust of each other’s viewpoints has run out, and now the violence has increased as the amount of drug smuggling increases.
The main cause for the violence that occurred in No Country for Old Men, is because Moss had taken what wasn’t his, that amount of money should have been the tip-off that says not to take it. Sounds familiar, because the same thing had happened when the Spaniards had invaded Mexico, and killed the Aztecs, and then happened again with the US Mexico war. The point is that violence tends to happen when one country, or person makes a morally dubious choice to covet that which is not his. Trust between two countries is essential in making the relationship work. “The allocation of trust and risk proves to be interestingly complex, revealing several major processes operating simultaneously, class inequality, racial inequality, and the enactment of the territorial nation state” (McConnell. Trust, Privilege, and Discretion in the Governance of the US-Mexican Borderlands). This is specifically in regard to the deceased drug dealers that Moss had stumbled upon. In order to successfully complete their mission, the drug dealers had to implicitly trust the group that they were going with. They had to run the risk that they would die when they were trying to smuggle the drugs across the border. Most likely, the group consisted of those that were on the lower end of the totem pole, because it isn’t likely the leader of the group would be the one to run the drugs. McCarthy did the most realistic job of portraying the consequences of smuggling drugs into the US. In his typical way, McCarthy served justice by killing off these drug dealers, in order to portray the moral decision that Moss was forced to make.
Moss and Chigurh, were the two main characters in No Country for Old Men, they both made morally dubious decisions (Moss) and had no morals (Chigurh) at some point and time in the novel. For contrasting their different views in morality, I shall make the comparison between them and Guyau, and Bergson. “For Guyau the reign of the absolute is over in the domain of ethics, so whatever comes within the order of facts is not universal” (Ansell-Pearson. Morality and Philosophy of life in Guyau and Bergson). Chigurh has demonstrated that he would give the choice of his victims the chance of living or dying by flipping a coin, and holding true to his word, “Yes. But my word is not dead. Nothing can change that.” (pp 255). In Chigurh’s mind, the only thing that matters is that he keeps his word most of the time. “Bergson notes…. ‘The human nature from which we then turn away from is the human nature we have discovered in the depths of our own being” (Ansell-Pearson). “Well darlin we’re eye on eye on that cause I don’t want to go neither. I’ll be back. Don’t wait on me” (pp 25). Moss was feeling discontent with himself because he didn’t help the injured man in the vehicle, and so he was “pleasantly” surprised to find that the man was then killed, as soon as he went back to the scene of the fight. Morally dubious, Moss had felt that he needed to help the man that he had previously abandoned, and thus invited the cycle of violence to occur. Incapable of feeling anything for the people that he has killed, Chigurh thinks nothing of killing on principle alone. He didn’t even feel anything about the kids that got killed while driving into him. Granted it was the young people’s fault because they were doing drugs, but Chigurh didn’t even attempt to hide the fact that he just up and left after being in a serious automobile accident.
Law enforcement officials, such as Wendell and Bell have their work cut out for them, the requirements for the use of violence can be taken too far and is often overlooked in the heat of the moment. For police officers, how can one not stop the cycle of violence when the use of violence is a must for them to do their job? McCarthy is implying that the purpose of having any sort of law agency is a double negative, in order to stop the violence, officers must utilize the force of peaceful negotiations, and violence. That is not to say that any sort of law enforcement is not necessary, because it is, but to write a book where the bad guy actually wins is rare. Usually the cops get their man, and the main protagonist of the story gets the girl and lives. That is what makes McCarthy’s novels, and characters so relatable, because like the rest of us they can make dubious morality choices and then have to deal with the consequences.
Morality and the cycle violence often can be seen as a related concept. Justice can be seen as unnecessary, and it doesn’t always solve the problem that violence brings. McCarthy proves that with his characters the consequences of one’s actions often leads to deadly reactions, and that it is somewhat fine to fail. Moss was a man who had taken the millions of dollars that belonged to drug lords, and in consequence had paid with more than that. He had a gray view on morality, meaning that he would absolutely take the money, but then would come back to try and save the man that he had left for dead. Chigurh, while he had a black and white view on morality (mostly black), he had his set of ethics that he followed that he only deviated from twice. Sheriff Bell was the only one of McCarthy’s characters that had been made to have his nihilistic views on justice. Bell would constantly look back at his past cases and wonder how and why justice stayed the same, while violence and crime had changed. I’m going to throw in a famous Fallout quote that says that “War…war never changes.” And in truth, it doesn’t, the way that people kill each other evolves over time, but the basic concept of war never does. Just like the cycle of violence, because there will always be violence between cultures, and people who don’t understand each other.