No Country for Old Men

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Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Theme Icon
Fate, Chance, and Free Will Theme Icon
Justice and Higher Law Theme Icon
Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Theme Icon
Corruption, Greed, and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in No Country for Old Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Theme Icon

The title of No Country for Old Men speaks directly to the theme of changing times. Throughout the novel, Bell continually considers the distinction between the old ways and the new. He holds to a nostalgic view of the past, reminiscing about a time where order and justice reigned. He talks about a time in America where police officers didn’t need to carry guns and knew the people of their communities. Children were safe at school and striving to become good citizens. The senseless violence he encounters, however, leads him to believe that this nation is heading toward chaos. He states that he is seeing “a new type,” a kind of person who has “another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it…” Chigurh is the definition of this new type, as shown through his complete disregard for law, God, and the value of human life. His disregard of the value of human life is embodied in his use of the bolt gun, a tool used in the slaughter of cattle, to kill people. Chigurh does not operate in the world with the same orientation as the old type. Bell begins to feel that men with his moral leaning can no longer compete with the changing face of society, which leads to his longing for the past and his fear of the future. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that this “new type” is not an individual, but a new framework and set of values that have taken hold in American society. Bell realizes that in order for the drug trade to flourish as it does, the market must exist, and that market is comprised of everyday citizens. He laments the young people he sees who live their lives outside of his understanding of societal norms.

Moss holds a different position to the world, one between Bell and the young people Bell refers to. While Bell fought in WWII, a war with clarity around the moral objectives in its resistance against Nazi Germany, Moss is a veteran of the Vietnam War, in which moral clarity was hazy at best. Unlike Bell, who ultimately submits to the fact that he can no longer compete with the new ways and resigns, Moss attempts to compete, but fails. While Moss doesn’t quite fit the category of a “new type”, he feels able to compete in a way that Bell doesn’t.

At the same time, the novel continually challenges Bell’s nostalgia for a “morally clear” past. During his visit with Uncle Ellis, a retired Sheriff and representative of the generation that Bell romanticizes, we begin to see the unreliability in Bell’s memory. Ellis did not become sheriff out of a sense of duty, but because it paid well, and he didn’t see any other options. He explains that he was too young for WWI and too old for WWII, so policing became his outlet. He believes in God, but doesn’t think God cares or has any control over human affairs. Ellis recognizes the way in which this country is hard on people, and sees the absurdity in the way people still love it. He still loves it, but recognizes his ignorance. This alternate view of the past knocks off kilter Bell's romanticization of the past and the older generation. Through Ellis’s commentary, it becomes clear that the old generation is not as steadfast in their values, love of God, and love of country as Bell thinks. Through the conversation, it becomes clear that violence, greed, and the struggle for power has always been a fundamental part of American society. While the characteristics and limits of this violence, greed, and power seeking may have changed (or may not have), they are not in any way new to our society, and will likely carry on into the future.

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Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future appears in each chapter of No Country for Old Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Quotes in No Country for Old Men

Below you will find the important quotes in No Country for Old Men related to the theme of Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He sat there looking at [the money] and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down. His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.

Related Characters: Llewellyn Moss (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Llewellyn Moss discovers a mysterious briefcase full of money. As Moss opens the briefcase, he sees millions of dollars, and feels that his "whole life" is sitting there.

What does Moss mean by "whole life?" One could say that Moss is excited by the prospect of never having to work again--with the money in the briefcase, Moss could have an easy, leisurely life, totally unlike the one he has now. More sinisterly, though, Moss's thoughts seem to foreshadow his own death. By choosing to live and die over a briefcase of money, Moss makes the choice that will eventually lead to his execution. In short, the passage suggests the duality of Moss's apparent good fortune. The briefcase has the potential to be a blessing, but in reality it is cursed.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there is an accounting. And after that nothing is the same…you see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anton Chigurh, the novel's main antagonist, challenges a man to bet on the outcome of a coin toss. Chigurh spares the man's life, it's strongly implied, because the man correctly guesses the result of the toss. Chigurh gives the man a flavor of his life philosophy: as he sees it, major events can be determined by the tiniest of events. Here, for example, a man's life has been spared due to something as minor as a coin flip. Chigurh leaves the man to puzzle over his own fate: was it destiny that led him to correctly predict the toss, sparing his own life? Or was it just random chance?

The themes Chigurh raises in this passage are crucial to the plot of the novel. Chigurh seems like the embodiment of evil, and yet he also seems to abide by a strict moral code that respects the basic uncertainty of the universe. Instead of choosing to kill his victim, Chigurh honors the results of the coin toss. Even if he's dangerous, Chigurh himself is just a cog in the "machine" of life--as we'll come to see, he has no real control over his own fate.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I used to say they were the same ones we’ve always had to deal with. Same ones my granddaddy had to deal with…but I dont know as that’s true no more. I’m like you. I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they’d have to build an annex on to hell.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Torbert and Wendell
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bell surveys a crime scene: a man has been murdered with a bolt gun (which belonged to the depraved killer Anton Chigurh). Bell has never seen anything that can compare with the crime scene. In a literal sense, the murder weapon in question is unlike any murder weapon he's seen before (he doesn't yet know that it was a bolt gun, a tool for slaughtering cattle efficiently). More abstractly, though, Bell can't remember a time when people killed each other with so little remorse or guilt.

Bell conveys the decay of social values by contrasting his experiences as a sheriff with those of his grandfather. Bell seems to be dealing with a greater evil than his ancestors ever had to confront--an evil that's utterly free of guilt or meaning. Bell concludes that very structure of the (Christian) universe (the layers of hell) is unprepared for this new, savage evil.

Chapter 4 Quotes

[Moss] thought about a lot of things but the thing that stayed with him was that at some point he was going to have to quit running on luck.

Related Characters: Llewellyn Moss (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Llewellyn Moss discovers that there's a tracking device in the briefcase of money that he's been carrying with him. The entire time, the owners of the briefcase have been able to track Moss's movements very precisely. Therefore, the only reason Moss isn't already dead is sheer dumb luck.

Moss seems to sense--if only on a deep, gut level--that he's running out of luck, and out of time. Put another way, he seems to realize that his possession of the briefcase is going to lead to his own death. And yet Moss doesn't surrender the briefcase--his desire to assert his own independence and free will has become greater than his desire for wealth.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I know they’s a lot of things in a family history that just plain aint so. Any family. The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over…which I reckon some would take as meaning that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Bell acknowledges that his family history is full of fictions--tall tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. In spite of the prevalence of fiction in his "family lore," Bell insists that truth wins out in the end. Truth--with a capital "T"--will always last longer than fiction.

Bell's comments could be interpreted as a confirmation of his faith in moral values--the timeless truths of human society. Rules like "do unto others ..." and "love thy neighbor" don't fade away with time, at least according to Bell--rather, they're true both now and forever. Bell sees evil and immorality all around him, And yet rather than accept that the world is a dark, meaningless place, he continues to feel a profound faith in the rightness of moral truths. Whether this kind of rigid morality is admirable or just naive, however, is up to the reader to judge.

Chapter 6 Quotes

You’ve been giving up things for years to get here. I dont think I even understood that. How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life? We’re in the same line of work. Up to a point. Did you hold me in such contempt? Why would you do that? How did you let yourself get in this situation?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carson Wells
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complex scene, Anton Chigurh continues to talk to Carson Wells before murdering him. Chigurh makes a complicated, contradictory point, simultaneously distinguishing himself from Carson and identifying with him.

Chigurh criticizes Wells for living his life according to other people's rules. Wells obeys his bosses, and--crucially--he "worships" money. Chigurh, by contrast, seems not to care about money or authority--he's "his own boss," and can't be bought or paid off. In the end, Chigurh claims, Wells's love for money has been utterly futile--his love hasn't led to wealth or prosperity; it's led to his death at Chigurh's hands.

And yet Chigurh insists that he and Wells are alike, "up to a point." Both Chigurh and Wells would be considered criminals by society's standards. But according to Chigurh, Wells doesn't go far enough in rejecting conventional law and order. Wells breaks the law all the time, but he's allowed himself to be controlled by money--the ultimate symbol of society. Chigurh, by contrast, is totally amoral and totally nihilistic. He doesn't let anyone or anything control what he does--even himself. Instead, he submits to random chance.

Chapter 8 Quotes

That aint half of it. [The drug dealers] dont even think about the law. It dont seem to even concern em. Of course here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge. I guess he concerned em. Add to that that there’s peace officers along this border getting rich off narcotics. That’s a painful thing to know. Or it is for me. I dont believe that was true even ten years ago. A crooked peace officer is just a damn abomination.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to Chapter 8, Bell continues to lament the decay of law and order. Even a decade ago, he claims, there were no corrupt peace officers--nowadays, however, the prevalence of drugs has led to police officers who secretly sell drugs and profit at every turn.

Bell's point is that criminals no longer try to kill police officers--unless the officers are corrupt, and need to be taken "out of the picture." Police officers have become so ineffectual that criminals have no practical need to murder them. In short, Bell is humiliated and embarrassed by the incompetence and corruption of his peers, and, as usual, he nostalgically looks back to an idealized past to contrast to the current state of affairs.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no believe in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A Person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carla Jean Moss
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

In this disturbing scene, Anton Chigurh tracks down Carla Jean and prepares to murder her, claiming that Llewellyn Moss has doomed her by refusing to part with his money. He gives her the chance to save her life by flipping a coin--when Carla Jean makes the wrong call, Chigurh prepares to shoot her. Before dying, Carla Jean asks Chigurh how he can choose whether or not to kill someone based on a simple coin toss.

Chigurh offers Carla Jean a long, contradictory explanation for his own behavior. As Chigurh sees it, humans go through life with free will--they exercise their freedom thousands of times. And yet all these free choices can't save a human being from the inevitable act of dying, which no one can choose to escape. Chigurh sees himself as an executor of fate, neither good nor evil. Paradoxically, he describes Carl Jean's death as both fated and a product of her free will: she "made a choice" that led her here, and yet cannot escape her predetermined fate ("visible from the beginning") in the present moment.

Chigurh's philosophy, in short, is contradictory and baffling. What makes Chigurh so maddening is that Chigurh himself refuses to exercise any free will: he just lives out his dark philosophy, obeying his own word and the "law of the coin toss."

How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothing, but that dont mean much…This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?

Related Characters: Uncle Ellis (speaker), Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Sheriff Bell talks to an old relative, Uncle Ellis. Ellis challenges Bell's nostalgia for the past, pointing out that the nation of America has always been violent and dangerous, killing its own citizens. Ellis is old enough to remember some of the wars Americans have fought in long ago. Moreover, he's critical of the people who continue to trust their country long after their country proves itself to be corrupt.

In short, Uncle Ellis's words challenge everything Sheriff Bell has been telling us. Bell naively believes that things were better a time long ago in America--a belief that Ellis angrily disputes. Bell continues to feel a deep faith in American law enforcement and government, even if he doesn't like specific law enforcers and governors. Ellis tells Bell that he should throw aside his own love for his country and for the past: life has always been and will always be savage.

Chapter 10 Quotes

I thought about my family and about [Ellis] out there in his wheelchair in the old house and it just seemed to me that this country has got a strange kind of history and a damned bloody one too.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Uncle Ellis
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bell thinks about his recent conversation with Uncle Ellis--a conversation that ended with Ellis angrily telling Bell that America has always been a violent, amoral country. Bell has always had a lot of faith in the idyllic past: he sincerely believes that things used to be good in the U.S., and now they're bad.

Now that he's spoken with Uncle Ellis, Bell starts to question his own naive faith in America's past. America has always been dangerous, Bell realizes--therefore, he was wrong to celebrate American history as a model for honor and morality.It would seem that Bell is finally losing his moral faith. After 200 pages of acting as the "moral center" of the novel, Bell is finally surrendering to the darkness and nihilism of life. This is, as the novel's title says, "no country for [loyal, moral] old men."

Chapter 13 Quotes

This man had set down with a hammer and a chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasn’t that nothing would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a great deal…And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell recalls a stone trough that he saw long ago. The trough makes a great impression on him: it strikes him as a symbol of everything that humans, and human civilization, are capable of. The stone trough will still be there in thousands of years, exactly the same as it is now. When Bell tries to understand why anyone would carve such a trough, he concludes that the sculptor must have been trying to honor "a promise."

What does Bell mean by "a promise?" Perhaps Bell is suggesting that it takes faith to build something like the stone trough: faith in the correctness and usefulness of one's own profession. The sculptor carves the trough because he's confident that his work will bring help and comfort to people for many years. It could also be something vaguer and more individual, like a sense of hope or optimism. Sheriff Bell obviously admires the sculptor deeply: Bell struggles to bring the same commitment and optimism to his own work as a law enforcement officer, but by now he can't help but feel that his work is useless. He'll never be able to reduce crime or fight people like Chigurh. In part, Bell's poignant admiration for the sculptor's work explains why Bell chose to retire: he knew he could never create anything as useful and long-lasting.