The Agent of Fate in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy’s prose has been described by many as poetic and lyrical. This is due to his frequent use of vivid figurative language to describe nature, as well as to progress the narrative in each of his respective works. I have read a number of McCarthy’s novels over the last three or four years. During this time I have realized that his protagonists tend to have a lot of license to behave as they wish. For example, in his novel All the Pretty Horses McCarthy’s sixteen year old protagonist John Grady prematurely flies the coup and roams the Northern plains of Mexico. A similar free-will theme as well as plot is seen in McCarthy’s novel The Crossing. In this novel the protagonist is a young man named Billy Parham. He travels deep into Mexico in search of a home for an injured wolf. Billy traipses the Mexican landscape in search of a home for the wolf and a more transparent understanding of the human condition. 

Where No Country for Old Men differs from the previously named novels is in the lack of free-will given to its protagonist. Some readers consider Sheriff Bell to be the protagonist due to his many profound philosophical takes on mortality and morality. Some believe Chigurh to be the protagonist. However, in my opinion Llewelyn Moss fills that role in the novel because Chigurh is presented by McCarthy as such a clear antagonist. Chigurh neutralizes Llewelyn’s freedom of movement throughout the novel; as he spends his time attempting to murder Llewelyn and retrieve money which has mistakenly fallen into the hands of Llwelyn. Therefore, Llewelyn’s character is without the free-will seen in McCarthy’s other protagonists. McCarthy describes Chigurh in little physical detail to encourage the reader to believe that this man is almost not real, and that Chigurh’s philosophy outweighs his physical person and actions. Chigurh’s actions are dictated by his deterministic mindset which leads to him committing a number of unjustified homicides.

Fig. 1. Still of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men

Chigurh believes that life is dictated by a series of random events. He sees himself as an agent of fate living outside the realms of morality. The people who Chigurh decides to murder do have a chance to live. However, this chance at life is determined by a coin toss, which fits his deterministic ideology like a glove. For instance, during his search for Llewelyn Chigurh stops at a petrol station and threatens its proprietor. After a tense discourse between the two, Chigurh decides that he wants to kill the man despite him doing nothing to Chigurh to deserve death. Chigurh puts the life of the petrol station owner in the hand of fate, forcing the man to engage in a coin toss. The store owner objects to the coin toss saying that he “didn’t put nothin up.” (McCarthy 56). Chigurh responds to this objection saying “Yes you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it.” (McCarthy 56). The man wins the coin toss and Chigurh spares his life. Unfortunately Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean would not be as lucky later on in the novel, as she loses the coin toss and is murdered by Chigurh.  Chigurh’s retort sums up his narcissistic and chaotic mindset; a mindset in which he is the center of the world and can determine people’s destinies. McCarthy’s novels do contain a number of antagonists with psychopathic tendencies; Lester Ballard in Child of God being a good example. The nonchalant nature of Chigurh as well as his doctrine are in my opinion what sets him apart from McCarthy’s other antagonists. This extra layer of character depth is what drew me to writing this blog post. 

Works Cited 

McCarthy, Cormac. No Country For Old Men. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

No country For Old Men. Directed by Joel Daniel Coen and Ethan Jesse Coen, 2007