No Country for Old Men

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No Country for Old Men Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrative moves back to Bell’s monologue in the present tense. He contemplates whether working in law enforcement is more dangerous now than it was in the past. When he first became sheriff, he’d break up fistfights, and sometimes he had to defend himself, but now, he sees worse. One night, he found a truck with Coahuila plates parked on a back road. Two men sat in the bed. He hit the lights, and someone handed a shotgun through the back window to one of the men in the bed. Bell slammed on his brakes and went off the road. The man started firing. Bell fired back, but the criminals escaped. Bell realizes that the he is dealing with very serious people.
During his time as sheriff, Bell has seen societal changes, mostly regarding the effects of the drug trade on the U.S./Mexico border. The suspected drug dealers’ willingness to shoot at a police officer shows that they completely disregard the law, and forces Bell to confront the evolving danger of the job. Their escape causes a feeling of powerlessness in Bell, and forces him to question whether the law can bring justice to these dangerous men.
Themes
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After the shoot out, Bell drove to a café in Sanderson, Texas. People came out to see the bullet holes in the cruiser. He was criticized for escaping unharmed, and people say he is just showing off. He read the papers, trying to figure out what danger might be heading his way. He states that it is getting harder to keep order in his community. He tells a story about two men, one from California and one from Florida, who went on a killing spree. The men had never met, but they came together randomly and started killing. He guesses it was just chance and that there can’t be many people like that out there, but he doesn’t know. He even read about a woman who put her baby in a trash compactor. He wonders who would ever do such a thing.
The people in the community expect Bell to protect them, and criticize him for letting the criminals escape, but their expectations are unrealistic: the law can only do so much to protect people from danger and criminals. The story about the two murderers demonstrates the way chance can bring together two people who then exercise their free will to do evil. Bell’s struggle to understand why a woman would murder her child shows his strong sense of morality. Crimes like this make him worry that society is falling into chaos and immorality.
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The narrative then moves back to the past. Bell goes to his office and gets a call from a deputy named Torbert telling him they have a body in the trunk of an abandoned police cruiser on the side of the highway. They don’t know it yet, but this is the man Chigurh killed before taking the man’s car, leaving the police cruiser he took after escaping custody. He tells the deputy to keep his lights on and the trunk closed—he will be there in fifty minutes. When Bell arrives with another officer, Wendell, they look at the body in the trunk. Bell says it’s just dumb luck; the man was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bell’s direction to keep the man hidden in the trunk shows desire to protect the public from having to witness the violence occurring in the community, and to keep people from asking too many questions. Without knowing the whole story, Bell blames the situation on luck. In part this is true—the man was in the wrong place at the wrong time—but Bell does not take fate and free will into account.
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Bell states that the wound in the man’s head looks as if it came from a .45. They don’t know about Chigurh’s bolt gun yet. They talk about the next move. Bell tells Torbert to take the police cruiser to Austin with the body in the trunk and they will pick him up there. Torbert asks what information they have on the perpetrator and Bell tells him they have nothing. He says he hopes the murderer is all the way in California by now, though he doubts that is the case. He tells Torbert to fill out the report, but leave the man’s name off of it since he might have family, and if he gets stopped on the way to Austin, to play dumb about the body. Torbert jokes that if he gets caught they will have to get him off of death row. Wendell says if they can’t get him out, they will join him there. Bell tells them not to joke about the dead that way. Wendell agrees, stating he might be a dead man himself one day.
As an experienced lawman, Bell begins to examine the crime scene, but he does not yet know that Chigurh is a killer who operates outside of traditional frameworks of morality and justice. The comment about the police report can be read in two ways. In one sense, Bell wants to protect the man’s family from hearing about the murder before someone has the chance to talk to them. In another sense, Bell is hiding information to protect himself and his department until they have more information, which reveals that Bell runs his department without a strict allegiance to the law. Bell’s comment about death shows his reverence for the departed, and Wendell’s follow up comment reaffirms that in their line of work, death can come at any moment.
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Back on Highway 90, Bell comes across a big red-tailed hawk, dead in the road. He picks it up and lays it in the grass on the edge of the highway. The hawks sit on the power lines and hunt for unsuspecting small animals that cross the highway. He looks across the desert, and beyond to the stone arroyos, and notes that there are tracks from dragons out in the desert. He notes that God, who has scoured the following land with salt and ash, lives in silence. Then he leaves.
Even though the hawk is a predator, Bell has compassion for it and a respect for life. The mention of the dragons hearkens back to a historical period in which violence and predation were the norm. The presence of the tracks suggests that these elements of the past continue to exist in the present. The comment about God shows the shifting nature of Bell’s religious beliefs in the face of the violence he just encountered. He is beginning to waiver in his faith in God and God’s care for humanity.
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Bell heads to the sheriffs office in Sonora, and finds the building surrounded by yellow police tape. People ask him what happened, but he tells them he doesn’t know, he just got there. Bell finds Lamar inside, at the scene where Chigurh killed the deputy. They walk outside, and Lamar notes that as a child he used to play games in the spot where they now stand. He notes that the youngsters today wouldn’t even about the games he played. Lamar says if he finds the murderer, he will kill him before he gets his day in court. Lamar tells Bell that the deputy was 23 years old, married, and straight as a die. They are dealing with a lunatic, he says. After realizing he has to tell the deputy’s young wife he is dead, he tells Bell he is going to quit. Bell says he has a feeling they are dealing with a type of killer that have never seen before. He tells Lamar he hopes he doesn’t quit. They are going to need all of the officers they can get.
As a sheriff, Bell embodies the idea of the law, and the community turns to him to provide answers and deliver justice. Bell expects the same from himself, and struggles to confront the limits of his power in the face of a changing society. Like Bell, Lamar is coming to terms with the changing society, as shown through his mention of the games. His desire to kill Chigurh is an expression of his frustration with the criminal justice system. He does not believe justice will be served by operating within the boundaries of the law. Both men struggle to understand Chigurh’s complete absence of morality. In their view of the world, terrible things like this should not happen to good men, but Chigurh does not share this world view. Bell still has hope that they will bring Chigurh to justice and encourages Lamar to continue his work, but Bell will later begin to fight this same battle, and eventually quit the police force.
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The narrative moves to Moss who is taking a bus home after escaping from the Mexicans. When he walks in to the trailer, Carla Jean rushes off of the couch, and hugs him, telling him she thought he was dead. He tells her he isn’t dead, so she shouldn’t cry. She makes him some eggs and bacon, while he showers. As he eats, she asks him about the wound on the back of his arm and his leg. Carla Jean says she wants the truth, but quickly notes she knows he will not tell her.
Here we get some insight into Moss and Carla Jean’s relationship. Carla Jean is a loving and concerned wife. She understands that her husband will not tell her the full truth. In this moment, Moss feels it is right for him to remain calm and protect Carla Jean in order to ensure a future together.
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Moss tells Carla Jean she needs to pack her things. Whatever she doesn’t take, he says, she will never see again. He tells her to go to her grandmother’s house in Odessa and wait for him there. She doesn’t believe him at first, and asks what is in the briefcase. He tells her it contains money, and says she doesn’t have a choice about leaving—she needs to get on a bus and go to her grandmother’s house. She asks where the truck is, and he tells her that it’s gone the way of all flesh, noting that nothing lasts forever. She tries again to care for his wounded arm, and Moss mockingly says he thinks there is some buckshot salve in the cabinet. She is worried by the fact that he was shot. He tells her he was just saying it to get her stirred up, and she needs to get moving.
Moss knows that their future will now be dictated by his decision to take the money. His comment about the truck implies that he accepts this fate, and views it as a natural part of life. He continues to make light of the situation, which suggests two things. First, that he is trying to remain calm for Carla Jean, but also that he does fully understand the depth of the trouble he will face when he meets Chigurh and the other parties seeking the money.
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The narrative cuts to Chigurh as he pulls into a filling station. He makes a phone call, fills his tank, and goes inside to pay. The proprietor asks about the weather in Dallas, noticing the license plate on Chigurh’s car. Chigurh asks him if it is any of his business. The proprietor says he didn’t mean anything by it. Chigurh buys a bag of cashews. The man places his change on the counter the way a dealer in a casino places chips. Chigurh stares the proprietor down, eating his cashews. The proprietor, growing worried, tells Chigurh he needs to close the store. Chigurh begins asking the proprietor personal questions: what time he goes to bed, whether he lives in the house behind the store, and how long he has lived there. The man answers hesitantly, and his concern grows.
The proprietor’s comment about the weather and Chigurh’s reaction shows how the smallest actions can have unpredictable consequences. Again, there is a gambling reference in the coins being placed like casino chips, alluding to the presence of chance in every action. Chigurh tends to ignore societal norms, as shown by the personal questions he asks the man. This exchange also shows Chigurh’s menacing power. The man begins to sense that something is wrong, which becomes a trope in the story: Chigurh’s very presence instills feelings of terror.
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Chigurh asks the proprietor about the most he’s ever lost in a coin toss. The man says people don’t generally bet on coin tosses, but use them to settle things. Chigurh flips the coin and slaps it onto the back of his arm with his fingers over it. He tells the proprietor to call it. The proprietor says he wants to know what he stands to win or lose. Chigurh says knowing wouldn’t change anything. Chigurh tells the man he needs to call it since it wouldn’t be fair for Chigurh to call it for him.
Chigurh uses the coin to demonstrate the function of chance and free will in determining fate. The proprietor does not understand that Chigurh is out to settle whether he lives or dies, which connects to the idea of fate in a larger sense—we are gambling for our lives with each and every decision we make, whether we realize it or not. Chigurh’s allowing the man to call the coin toss gives the illusion of free will: whatever side he calls, he’s still playing by Chigurh’s rules and will almost certainly lose.
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The proprietor resists, saying he hasn’t put anything up for bet. Chigurh tells him he has been putting it up his entire life. He tells the man the date on the coin is 1958, meaning the coin has been traveling twenty-two years to get there. Now it is there, and so is Chigurh. The coin has been flipped, and now the man needs to call it. Again, the man says he doesn’t know what he stands to win. Chigurh says he stands to win everything. The man calls heads, and gets it right.
Chigurh believes that each and every action a person takes is a gamble that leads us closer to our ultimate fate, which is death. The suggestion that the coin has been traveling toward the man for twenty-two years suggests that fate is inevitable, even if it seems random and changeable. This idea complicates the idea of free will. If one’s fate has been determined, then free will becomes a myth. In Chigurh’s view, the only way to avoid fate is by chance, and in this moment, the man’s life is spared by the luck of a coin flip.
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Chigurh tells the proprietor well done and hands him the coin, telling him it’s his lucky coin. The man moves to put the coin in his pocket, but Chigurh stops him. He says that if the coin goes into his pocket he won’t know which one it is anymore. Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh says, even things you wouldn’t notice. He continues: Things pass between people, but nobody pays attention, until one day there is an accounting. The problem is that people don’t separate the act from the thing, thinking that some moment in history might be interchangeable with some other moment. How could that be? Chigurh asks. He says the coin is just a coin, then immediately asks whether it is or not. The Proprietor watches Chigurh leave, then puts both hands on the counter and stands there with his head bowed.
Chigurh has a code that dictates his actions. He does not decide a person’s fate, the person brings the fate upon himself through his actions, and Chigurh delivers. Chigurh does not kill the proprietor because, in his view, chance has spared the man. Chigurh makes his philosophy clear when he tells the man that each and every choice in the past, no matter how small, has consequences in the future. Something as small as a coin toss can bring a person to their fate. Chigurh leaves the man with the question of whether it is just a coin or whether it is something more, allowing the man to choose whether or not he will abide by this philosophy.
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Chigurh drives down Highway 90 before turning off onto a ranch road. He pulls up in front of a Dodge Ramcharger and shuts the engine down. Chigurh gets into the truck with two other men. They drive out to where Moss’s truck is parked. Chigurh pries the aluminum inspection plate from the inside of the door. They go down to the scene of the failed drug deal, and Chigurh asks about the dead dog. Chigurh asks the men for a tracking device, designed to track the money that Moss has stolen. Chigurh then pulls out his gun and shoots both of the men in their heads. He takes their guns, before getting back into the truck and driving away.
In Chigurh’s mind, there is no difference between a dead dog and a dead human, which is shown by his commenting on the dog and ignoring the dead men. By murdering his two associates, it becomes clear that Chigurh does not show allegiance to anyone. He is a free agent out for himself. At this point, Chigurh begins his pursuit of Moss. The impending pursuit will metaphorically demonstrate the inescapable nature of fate. Though Moss thinks he can overcome Chigurh, his choices, starting with the decision to take the money, will all play a key role in determining his fate.
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