Early on in life, people are introduced to the ideas of right and wrong, two of the seemingly most basic concepts that human beings come to understand. However, it is important to consider the logic behind simply defining the morality of situations by one extreme distinction or another. Indeed, some acknowledge the existence of an intermediate zone, a type of “gray area”, where the true ethical nature of an event is disputed and unclear, but nevertheless this still seems too vague. Oftentimes, it can be nearly impossible to label any instance with regards to its principles due to the variety of factors that come into play, blurring the line between right and wrong and forcing the observer to consider an alternative perspective. Famed American writer Cormac McCarthy must have been conscious of this dilemma, as his famed work No Country For Old Men heavily deals with morally-inexplicable situations in which the true heroes and villains are undefined. In the novel, Cormac McCarthy connects Llewellyn Moss, Anton Chigurh, and Ed Tom Bell by their ethical predicaments in order to emphasize the ambiguity of morals.
Initially, McCarthy introduces the plight of Llewellyn Moss in order to establish the idea of moral uncertainty that defines the book. Moss appears as a sort of antihero in the story, one whose positive intentions are undercut by his fatal personal flaws, and his first major contribution to the novel involves stealing a case of money from a drug deal gone wrong. At surface level, one could quickly choose to brand his actions as defensible, albeit self-serving. After all, such a hefty sum, nearing “Two point four million” (McCarthy 23), would bring about an incredible amount of positive change for his family. It is obvious that Moss grasps this fact, telling himself, “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead” (18). However, regardless of his motives, he did commit a seemingly immoral act by stealing. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the victim of the theft was a group of criminals, certainly people with less-than-upstanding morals. Therefore, McCarthy brings the reader to a sort of ethical crossroads, a point at which the perceptions of right and wrong are not enough to describe the situation at hand. This is intentional, as the convoluted nature of the ethics of Llewellyn’s actions emphasizes the absurdity of trying to define morality in general. It might be simple to label the portions individually; helping your family, stealing, and committing crime against criminals are definitely not overly difficult to try to define from a moral standpoint. Still, the truth is that these factors are all concurrent and therefore must be considered from a holistic stance, making the evaluation infinitely more complicated. Thus, by becoming acquainted with the many sides to the tale of Llewellyn Moss, the reader is introduced to McCarthy’s assertion that morals are ambiguous.
In a similar way, Anton Chigurh is used to further develop the idea of ethical inexplicability. Although his character seems to be more representative of the struggle between fate and chance, it is also possible to notice the presence of morality as a thematic concept in some of his actions. No action of his is more relevant to the ethical dilemma behind this book as his constant coin-flipping to determine whether he kills someone or not. He cryptically orders his victims to “Call it” (55) as he leaves the matter of their life to what amounts to a random game. However, it may not be just a game to Chigurh. Writer Lydia R. Cooper posits that Chigurh is simply an “inexplicable evil” (Cooper 37), but his various philosophical musings seem to suggest that he is more complex than his violent actions may convey. Indeed, just before coercing the store owner into calling the coin flip, he seems to reveal a belief in some sort of moral code, declaring, “I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right” (56). Chigurh admits that he cannot be the one to call it, noting his inability to judge the morality of someone else’s situation. Thus, he leaves it to the uncertainty of the coin flip because even though he has the victim guess, it truly does not matter what either one of them says since the method of flipping the coin guarantees a random, unclear outcome, a fitting conclusion considering the ambiguity of morality itself. To be brief, Chigurh’s character expands on the inexplicability of morals as introduced by Llewellyn Moss through the symbolism of the random coin flip.
To confirm the idea of moral ambiguity in the novel, McCarthy spotlights the life of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. It becomes quite clear that there is one specific ethical dilemma that basically defines Bell’s life, and it is this event that cements the idea that morals are inexplicable. While talking with Uncle Ellis, Bell reveals the most shameful moment of his life, admitting he “cut and run” (276) on the field of battle instead of staying back to help his wounded fellow soldiers. Again, not unlike the predicament of Llewellyn Moss, McCarthy presents the reader with a multifaceted ethical quandary. Now, it is fair for Bell to have been looking out for his own self-interest when choosing to abandon the battlezone, but on the other hand, it can easily be considered immoral to leave behind those he swore to protect. However, Bell goes on to assert that any attempt to save them would have been a lost cause, noting, “They’d of come up in the dark and lobbed grenades in on me. Or maybe gone back up in the woods and called in another round” (276). Thus, yet another perspective is added, one in which the reader must consider if Bell was justified in abandoning a doomed situation, regardless of the promises he made. Once more, McCarthy extricates the reader in a confusing web of right and wrong, questioning whether it is even possible to judge such a situation from a moral standpoint when the underlying factors are so complicated. Obviously, Bell feels regretful about the whole situation, noting, “…they give me the Bronze Star… I didnt want it” (275). However, the previously mentioned factors such as any possible rescue being fruitless suggest that he may be justified in feeling otherwise. All in all, the shame of Ed Tom Bell cements McCarthy’s view that morality is ambiguous.
In summary, Cormac McCarthy connects the novel’s three main characters through the ethical issues they confront in order to ultimately convey the inexplicable nature of morals. Although morality has traditionally been defined by the simple system of right or wrong, the truth is that these terms are much too vague to describe the intricate situations that Bell, Chigurh, and Moss find themselves in, as well as those we confront in the real world today. Perhaps Lydia R. Cooper is right, and the novel “may merely underscore the pointlessness of any discussion of morality” (Cooper 37). Truly, it must be concluded that the only sure thing about morality is its complete uncertainty, and it is important to acknowledge the various aspects of an event before simply branding it with an antiquated distinction like right or wrong.
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