No Country for Old Men

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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.
Corruption, Greed, and Power Theme Icon

The issues of corruption, greed, and power are at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. The entire world of the story is tainted with these vices, and the characters fight to overcome and reconcile their effects. To understand McCarthy’s novel, one must understand the larger context in which the narrative takes place. Corruption, greed, and the struggle for power provide a backdrop for the novels events and shape the personalities of the novel’s characters. The novel is set in the shadow of several wars. Bell, Moss, and Wells, along with several minor characters, are military veterans, and the novel is set near the American/Mexican border just prior to Reagan’s declaration of “the war on drugs.” There is mention throughout the novel of the corrosive forces of war, and the struggle for power inherent in military operations. The inciting incident of the novel—Moss’s discovery of the briefcase full of drug money—depicts the gruesome effects of a business founded on corruption, greed, and the search for power, and the events that follow are backed by these ideas. We later discover that the owner of the money is not some kind of outlaw on the streets, but a high power executive from the Matacumbe Petroleum Group in Houston. This suggests that the corruption and greed are not simply taking place on the streets and in Mexico, but involve American men at the top with wealth and power.

On the level of character, both Bell and Moss’s narratives explore the individual struggles against corruption, greed, and power. Through the course of the novel, we begin to understand that Bell’s entire career is casted in the shadow of dishonesty. The bronze star he earned in WWII was, in his estimation, unearned. He tried to turn down the honor, but was told he had to accept it because it would make the American effort in Europe look like it was worth something. Moss has also been disillusioned by his experience fighting in Vietnam, which becomes a major element in his character and decision-making. While greed certainly plays a roll in his decision to take the drug money and run, his decision to hold onto the money is more complicated. This is shown once Wells enters the story. He offers to give Moss some of the money if he turns it over, but by this point it is not about the money for Moss, but who controls the money. A similar idea backs his refusal to give the money to Chigurh. In this way, Moss is struggling for power and autonomy.

Chigurh provides a counterpoint to the corruption, greed, and struggle for power in the story. As Wells suggests, “[Chigurh] is a peculiar man. You could say he has principals. Principals that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.” As the representative of fate, Chigurh arrives in the story to demonstrate the futility of greed and power. In the end, he puts an end to both Moss and Bell’s narratives—Moss ends up dead, and Bell ends up resigning from his position and living in the shadow of his guilt and shame. Ultimately, the novel depicts the way in which corruption, greed, and the search for power only bring suffering, and in the end, those who engage in these vices must bear the consequences.

Corruption, Greed, and Power ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Corruption, Greed, and Power 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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Corruption, Greed, and Power 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 Corruption, Greed, and Power.
Chapter 1 Quotes

But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that where this is going…Somewhere there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell, an agent of law and order, is frightened by the state of modern society. There is tremendous evil in the human soul--indeed, Bell has met the very embodiment of evil; the "prophet of destruction." Though we haven't met him yet, Bell is probably referring to Anton Chigurh, the nihilistic killer around whom much of the book revolves. As Bell admits, he has no desire to confront such a frightening person ever again.

Bell's description of Chigurh makes him sound like a force of nature more than a human being. In the clash between good and evil, Bell seems to acknowledge that evil has the "edge." Bell can't do anything to remove evil from the face of the Earth; all he can do is hope that Chigurh chooses to stay far away from the rest of humanity.


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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.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it. You remember certain things about [an execution]. People didnt know what to wear. There was one or two that come dressed in black, which I suppose was all right...Still they seemed to know what to do and that surprised me. Most of em I know had never been to a execution before. When it was over they pulled this curtain back around the gas chamber with him in there settin slumped over and people just got up and filed out. Like out of church or somthin.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell comments on the decay of law and order, and connects it to the broader decay of society. Bell notes that the people who really deserve to die never actually make it to death row--sometimes, they go free, since they're smart enough to escape the police. On the other hand, many people who are executed for their crimes don't really deserve to die, at least according to Bell. Bell describes a grisly execution, and then compares it to a church gathering. Bell's comparison between the execution and  church seems to suggest that death and execution have replaced love and mercy as "events" for common people. All of society seems to follow a twisted religion, in which a man's death is a cause for a community gathering.

Clearly, Bell has some strong opinions about modern society, and a nostalgic view of a more "just" past. By the same token, he himself has a strong moral code--a code grounded in his own experiences as a police officer and former soldier, and in his religious faith. One of the most important conflicts of the novel is between Bell's philosophy of justice, higher power, and moral absolutes, the chaos and nihilism of Chigurh, and the independence and self-actualization of Moss.

It’s a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say it is…it takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell is insecure about the current state of society, and he's equally insecure about the current state of law enforcement. Despite working as a sheriff for many years, Bell notes that anyone can be a cop, no matter how immoral they are. Bell recognizes the absurdity of the situation: anyone can apply to be a police officer and be given "the same authority as God."

Bell's comments reinforce the decay of civilization as he sees it. Law enforcement--an institution that's supposed to protect good people and punish bad people--has become hopelessly corrupt, to the point where the law enforcers themselves are often the real villains. In the end, Bell repeats, justice has disappeared and the most evil people always go free--Chigurh is just one example.

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 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.

I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never knew nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didnt change.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Carla Jean Moss
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bell pays a visit to Carla Jean Moss, the wife of Llewellyn Moss. Carla Jean knows that Moss has run off with a lot of money, but she's confident that her husband will remain the same man--in other words, his personality and values won't change at all. Bell, who's more experienced and more realistic about human nature (on this subject, at least), insists that money changes everyone.

We've already seen plentiful evidence that Bell is right about Moss. Even after Moss senses that possessing the briefcase full of money is endangering his life, he continues to hang onto it. The love of money, so the saying goes, is the root of all evil. But the novel makes a subtler point about the briefcase--that Llewellyn keeps it even after he knows his peril not because he hopes to get rich (he seems to know that he would never have the freedom and safety to actually enjoy the money), but because he wants to assert his own survival and independence in the face of a seemingly-unstoppable murderer like Chigurh.

You can’t make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principals. Principals that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.

Related Characters: Carson Wells (speaker), Llewellyn Moss
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Carson Wells--a criminal and negotiator--tries to tell Llewellyn the truth about his situation. Wells knows that Moss is even now being hunted by Anton Chigurh, and he tells Moss that there's nothing he can do to escape Chigurh's vengeance. Moss cockily claims that he can "cut a deal" with Chigurh, but Moss disagrees: Chigurh doesn't bargain with his enemies--he tracks them down and kills them.

The passage helps us understand what kind of man Chigurh is. Moss--who trusts that money can buy anything--thinks that he can always pay off Chigurh in return for protection. But Chigurh isn't a regular human being--he doesn't let his short-term need for money distract him. Once Chigurh has decided to kill a man, nothing can distract him from his goal--not even the offer of millions of dollars.

The irony of Wells's speech is that Chigurh comes off as being much more "principled" than either Wells or Moss. Where Moss trusts that money is the ultimate source of power, Chigurh appeals to a higher set of rules. What, exactly, these rules are is unclear. And yet, peculiarly, Chigurh's refusal to be "bought" is what makes him stand out from the rest of society.

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 7 Quotes

Chigurh thought it an odd oversight but he knew that fear of an enemy can often blind men to other hazards, not least the shape which they themselves make in the world.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anton Chigurh hunts down the man who sent Carson Wells to kill him. Chigurh sneaks into the man's building and waits for his victim to arrive. When Chigurh's victim enters, the man's own shadow lets Chigurh know that his victim is there. Chigurh finds it bizarre that his victim could have given away his presence so clumsily. Counterintuitively, fear makes his victim less cautious and more likely to die.

As the passage suggests, human beings sometimes become clumsy and careless when they're blinded by fear of another person. More to the point, people forget "the shapes they make in the world." Literally, the passage is referring to the shape of a man's shadow, but the passage could also be interpreted more symbolically. People forget how easy it is for others to follow them--Llewelynn Moss, for example, forgets how easy it is for Chigurh to track him down and kill him. Thus, the passage foreshadows the ugly fate that's coming to Moss.

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

Not everyone is suited to this line of work. The prospect of outsized profits leads people to exaggerate their own capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Anton Chigurh returns the drug money to its "rightful" owner, a quiet man who works in an office. As he leaves, Chigurh warns the man not to believe that he controls his own destiny--no one does. Chigurh even suggests that the belief that one controls destiny is a sign of weakness--an invitation for failure and defeat.

The passage is arguably Chigurh's most coherent explanation of his own philosophy. Chigurh believes that fate (or random chance) is the ultimate authority in the universe--nobody can control it or master it, Chigurh included. Even powerful drug lords, who control millions of dollars, have no real control over their own destinies--at any given time, they could lose their money or be killed. The only source of power, paradoxically, is accepting one's own powerlessness. Chigurh has long since accepted that randomness governs his own life--and ironically, his acceptance is what makes him such a dangerous enemy for Moss and the other characters (for example, he refuses money and bribery, and can't be bought or pleaded with).

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 11 Quotes

I told him that a lawyer one time told me that in law school they try and teach you not to worry about right and wrong but just to follow the law and I said I wasnt so sure about that. He thought about that and he nodded and he said that he pretty much had to agree…if you dont follow the law right and wrong wont save you.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell crosses paths with a young lawyer, with whom Bell discusses law in the United States. The prosecutor confirms Bell's worst suspicions: he claims that the purpose of the legal system of the United States is to maintain law, not to "do the right thing."

In short, the institutions of law and order--the very thing that Bell continues to trust after all these years--are no more "right" than organized crime. Courts and juries aren't really designed to dole out justice to people; they're designed to preserve the law itself, whether the law is morally correct or not. In general, the passage further challenges Bell's faith in morality. There is no institution, it would seem, that's genuinely concerned with good, moral behavior. Bell's only benchmark for right and wrong, then, is his own instinct.

Chapter 12 Quotes

She was tryin to be a reporter. She said: Sheriff how come you to let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: It reaches into every strata. You’ve heard about that aint you?...I told her that you cant have a dope business without dopers. A lot of em are well dressed and holdin down goodpayin jobs too.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell offers his own theory for the decay of society. Bell, when asked by a reporter why crime is so bad in the U.S., claims that crime begins with the decay of manners. When people don't say Sir and Ma'am, "the end is pretty much in sight."

Bell seems to believe in a kind of "broken window hypothesis" of crime: i.e., he believes that small crimes and misdemeanors gradually give rise to big crimes like murder and theft. It's difficult to tell if Bell is being totally sincere in this passage, though. Bell's explanation may explain some crimes, but it can't do justice to a figure like Anton Chigurh. (Chigurh, we can be pretty sure, didn't become a criminal simply because he didn't say "please" as a child.)