No Country for Old Men

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No Country for Old Men Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy was born as one of six children, and he grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father worked as a lawyer. McCarthy pursued creative writing at the University of Tennessee, but he never graduated. He has been married three times, to Lee Holleman, Annie DeLisle, and Jennifer Winkley, and has two children. He moved to Santa Fe with Winkley to raise his young son John Francis. McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Overall he has written ten novels and is now one of the best-known contemporary American writers, but McCarthy remains a reclusive figure. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, the National Book Award in 1992, and the Pulitzer Prize (for The Road) in 2006. Several of his books have been made into feature films, including No Country For Old Men. McCarthy still lives and writes in Santa Fe.
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Historical Context of No Country for Old Men
The events and characters of No Country for Old Men are cast in the shadow of several wars, and looking toward a future that will include several more. Several of the novel’s characters, including Bell, Moss, and Wells, are veterans of foreign wars. The novel explores the impact of these experiences on these characters, and also on the nation. The novel is also set just prior to Ronald Reagan’s declaration of “the war on drugs.” The novel deals directly with the impacts of the drug trade on the U.S./Mexico Border. During the 1980’s the U.S. saw a major increase of drug activity in this area. Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Drug Cartel, and the drug smuggler Pablo Acosta Villarreal, who is mentioned briefly in the text, were two notorious drug lords with operations along the border during the time of the novel. The novel also makes subtle references to the oil industry, which looks forward to the American military campaigns in the Middle East after 2001.
Other Books Related to No Country for Old Men
Though McCarthy’s work is undoubtedly literary in its style and intent, he is known to blend genres in his work, including science fiction, southern gothic, western, and thriller. His earlier work stems from the southern gothic tradition, and was heavily influenced by William Faulkner, the author of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, has also been cited as an influence on McCarthy’s work. Like several of McCarthy’s other novels, No Country for Old Men includes all of the elements of the traditional western genre, including goodhearted sheriffs, ruthless outlaws, tragic heroes and dames, and gunfights. These elements place No Country for Old Men within a broad tradition of westerns including works such as Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, and True Grit, by Charles Portis. No Country for Old Men, however, adds modern elements to the traditional western genre, and adds new shades of complexity to the age-old battle between good and evil. The novel is also deeply philosophical in its exploration of morality, ethics, and human nature, drawing on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Emanuel Kant.
Key Facts about No Country for Old Men
  • Full Title: No Country for Old Men
  • When Written: 1998-2005
  • Where Written: Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • When Published: July 19th, 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American Literature
  • Genre: Blend of literary, thriller, western
  • Setting: West Texas, along the U.S./Mexico border
  • Climax: Moss’s death at the motel in Van Horn, followed by Bell’s near miss with Chigurh
  • Antagonist: Anton Chigurh
  • Point of View: 3rd person, omniscient
Extra Credit for No Country for Old Men

Poetic Inspiration. The novel’s title, No Country for Old Men, is the opening line from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing for Byzantium.” The novel and the poem share several themes, primarily the theme of aging and the idea of confronting a changing world.

From Book to Film. McCarthy’s novel was adapted for the silver screen by Joel and Ethan Coen in 2007. The film stars several noteworthy actors, including Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin. The film is deeply faithful to the narrative as it appears in the novel, and is almost completely devoid of music, which was intended to mimic the novel’s minimalist style and add to the sinister and empty quality of the West Texas landscape. The film has done incredibly well, receiving several academy awards, including, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Javier Bardem also won an academy award for Best Supporting Actor.